The only way is up

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Today we met the children for the first time. I’ve taught plenty of worse classes in my time, but it certainly wasn’t easy. At one stage, I found myself dripping with sweat, and that had nothing to do with the temperature.

The main problem is communication. I speak one word of Arabic – thank you – and their functional English understanding seems to range from very little to none at all. Not being able to give them clear instructions, nor to give feedback on how to improve, is a real difficulty.  Fortunately, I was assisted by two volunteers from Dubai, Zaid and Luzan, here on a slightly different programme, and they were able to translate, but they are only here for one week.  After that…

Val and I are working in parallel, me doing drama, her music, with two groups and two classrooms, and then we switch and repeat. Each group has its own personality, and we agreed – actually it was quite clear – that one is far more focused than the other.

So far as I can tell, they are very uncertain about the whole concept of drama. Rehearsal, performance, repetition, focus are all having to be introduced from a low base level.  Still, as the song says, the only way is up.

Photo: (c) Jusoor 2016 Annual Report,


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The end of our first week and the volunteer group chose Baalbek (the ancient city of Heliopolis) for our weekend outing, to see the temples of Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. I am ashamed to say that until we were heading to Lebanon, I had never heard of Baalbek, or any of the other magnificent ancient sites here. We were not disappointed – it easily matched any site I have visited in Rome, Greece, Turkey or Egypt; regardless of the heat and a rather dispassionate guide, we were bowled over by the sheer size and scale of the place.

To a certain extent, evolution of the ancient site has mirrored the history of the country: the fertile and strategically positioned Bekaa valley has been subject to occupation over the millennia by Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim and Ottoman rulers. In addition to the odd earthquake, each invading new-comer stamped their own cultural, religious, economic and military mark on the place, including most recently plaques in the temple of Bacchus commemorating the visit of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany in 1898, who initiated an archaeological team to carry out restoration work. This century, the site is said to have received collateral damage from air strikes on the region during the 2006 Lebanon war (more on this later). Against the trend, it seems that only the French (who ruled Syria and Lebanon from the 1st World War until 1943) left the site to its own devices.

Thankfully (for the time being) Baalbek remains a fitting tribute to Lebanese culture.

Night fever

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Val and I are by some measure the oldest volunteers in the group, and up till now we have not joined in with any of the informal social activities. We do not, however, want to come across as anti-social, or, for that matter, old, so when the word went out that a small group was heading out for a beer, we tagged along.

Nine of us headed across town to the Coop D’etat, a lively rooftop bar, dominated by a set of huge steel girders holding up a skyline billboard for bottled water. The music was great, a mix of R & B and rock, and after a beer or two, (and then a margarita or two) we were all dancing. I know, I am too old for such behaviour, but I had a great time – we all did.

The following night, a meal was arranged at a local restaurant, and a slightly smaller group, including Val and me, headed out. It was a true banquet, with three courses, and delicious, but far too much, especially for people with our clear-your-plate upbringing.

There was also live traditional music, possibly even louder than the night before, provided by a six-piece band, and fronted by a lead singer (pictured with Chris below) who scarcely looked the part: he was small, middle-aged, dressed in a crumpled suit. However, he was also not only a magnificent singer, but also a hugely charismatic presence, rousing the young crowd to a shouting, stamping, yelling, dancing fever. The whole place rocked.

Hovsep, our organiser and co-ordinator, rates Lebanese night-life as very special – open, progressive, varied. I agree – Beirut at least is a city that knows how to party.


JJ & J

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Jusoor has two schools in the Bekaa valley. Jeb Jannine (JJ) has been our main base until now, and is the one which most resembles a standard school, with classrooms, a library, a play area, toilets… So it came as a bit of a shock to discover that it had originally been a paint factory, set in the middle of some lush green fields, acquired and converted by Jusoor.

It is pretty basic, with bare concrete floors, and (at least at this stage, waiting for a new school year to begin) without much in the way of decoration, beyond some rather charming paintings by the children, painted directly onto the walls. And the classrooms are equipped with standard schoolroom furniture – desks and chairs. Jusoor does receive some funding, and clearly spends those funds with care and discretion.

Today we also visited the other school, Jarrahieye (J), rather smaller, and situated on the edge of one of the six refugee camps in the area. Jusoor was able to rent a small plot, and built the school from scratch, initially housed in tents, progressing to more permanent structures with solid concrete floors, hardboard walls, proper doors and windows, electric lights and fans. It is clean and tidy, but terribly cramped – there is a tiny play area, the ground is dusty gravel, and crucially it has no shade or shelter, so is unusable for parts of the year (summer and winter).

We have yet to see JJ and J with that vital ingredient for any school – children – but from our experiences so far, the schools are clearly oases of security and learning.


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Today’s session was led by the enormously impressive Alexandra Chen, a clinical psychologist with vast experience of working with displaced people, who has been involved with Jusoor from the very beginning. She confounds expectations, as a Hong Kong Chinese who lives in the Middle East and is married to an Arab, who has a Harvard email address but has recently been working in Greece and Jordan.

She emphasised how privileged we were to be working at Jusoor (something Val and I are fully in accordance with), but tempered that by reminding us that this was not about us, that we were there to do what we could to help the school, the teachers, the children. It was very good sense, and did make Val and I reflect on our time last year in Johannesburg.

The hardest lesson for me to take on was the message that, for these children in particular, who have had so much taken from them, we are not here to breeze in, make an emotional contact, and then breeze out again. As a teacher, I have always wanted to make a difference, to provide memorable experiences, and to be remembered and valued for those things. Can I, on this occasion at least, manage the first two and leave out the third?

Games without frontiers

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Orientation day 2 – firstly, led by ‘Right to play’, an important and influential NGO in the region. As the name suggests, they stress the use of play in education – preaching to the converted in my case, of course.

We spent a fun hour or so playing some simple games, some adapted to give them a more focused educational function, but all of them lively and enjoyable.

Second part of the morning, we looked at classroom management, mostly about establishing rules and expectations. It ought to be meat and drink to me, but then I have never had to teach children who may or may not speak English, understand the concept of acting, be traumatised … Which makes next week, when we meet the children just a little bit daunting. But having recently been commended for my unflappability, I shall try to remember I know what I’m doing, and above all not flap.

Getting to know you

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Well here we are, settled into our accommodation in Beirut – our first day in Lebanon and the first day (well morning) at the Jusoor school in Jeb Jannine. We have a 7am start each day, the 28 or so of us volunteers travelling by bus to the school for a 9am start. It’s a long steep climb out of Beirut, against miles of traffic queuing the other way in morning rush hour. The views over the city are stunning and coming over the pass in the Lebanon Mountains, the Bekaa valley opens up with vineyards and orchards.

As you can see on the map Jeb (or Joub) Jannine is about half way between Beirut and Damascus and about 45 minutes from the Syrian border.There are various small ‘informal’ refugee camps in the area and about 700 Syrian children attend school here. About half of those will be attending the summer school, which starts next week. In the meantime, we (the volunteers, organisers and Syrian teachers) will be planning lessons and the theatre production and generally getting to know each other.


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Once again, the intention is to work towards a theatre production based upon traditional folk tales, but this time around expect there to be different challenges: the time-scale is shorter, the children are younger than those we worked with in South Africa, and most importantly there will be language issues (our understanding is that few if any of the children will speak English). As a result, I have kept the scripts simple and with greater reliance upon a narrator.

The four stories I chose all came from the same collection of Syrian folk tales. The Beggar Queen has a familiar theme: a young king falling in love with a kind and beautiful beggar girl. The Story of Luck and Fate tells of a man who places too much trust in the words of fortune tellers, so misses out on the opportunities that spread themselves before him. The Tale of the Spilt Molasses tells of a woman whose jealousy of her sister’s good fortune leads to her own fall. Finally, The Peddler’s Daughter tells of a girl whose cleverness persuades a foolish king to change his ways.

There is no title yet for either the project or the production (last year, “Kwasuka Sukela” served for both.) “Once upon a time” in Arabic would seem a good choice, but the Google Translate version does not easily slip off the tongue, and I was wary of choosing a title based on an algorithm.  We will just have to wait until our arrival, and the chance to discuss the matter with some Arabic speakers, before making a decision.


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Many of you who followed last year’s adventure will know that Val and I volunteered to live and work in a secondary school in Johannesburg, writing a daily blog. We recorded our life there, thoughts on aspects of South Africa, and most particularly the progress of the project we were undertaking: a theatre production based upon African folk tales, Kwasuka Sukela (“Once upon a time” in Zulu.)  That blog and other pages are still up and available via the Kwasuka Sukela menu, but, excitingly, we are about to set off on another adventure, and hope to record our experiences in much the same way.

Looking for another theatre and travel opportunity, our good friend Sue – who has both knowledge and experience of the voluntary sector – put us in touch with Jusoor International, an organisation which works with Syrian refugee children in Lebanon.  We were slightly nervous when the initial application form mentioned opportunities for young adults to volunteer – we have many qualities, but youth is not among them – but elsewhere the indication was that what we had to offer was suitable.  So we applied, and were accepted, so we fly to Beirut on July 15th, to spend five weeks in Lebanon.