Or more accurately, to the refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley, Ziknaf, and Khalaf! In June of 2018, Elena and her husband loaded up donated art materials, theater materials, robots, and a minor amount of clothes, and flew from the Denver to Zurich and then to Istanbul. On their layover in Istanbul, they toured the Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmed Mosque (popularly known as The Blue Mosque) at two in the morning. Because it was Ramadan, people were picnicking at that hour in the park near the Blue Mosque.
After that brief detour, they flew to Beirut, Lebanon and got picked up by a friend and translator who drove them to the hotel in Chtaura, a town in the western part of the Bekaa Valley. From there, it was 20 minutes to Al Marj, which is not quite a village, but is located near both Ziknaf and Khalaf, the camps where Elena and her family have been volunteering since 2016.
Elena and her family bring music, theater, art, computer equipment, and Finch robots to the children every year for a seven day workshop. The goal is to provide education, enrichment, and joy to children who have suffered trauma and have little to do in these refugee camps. The children have significant gaps in their education due to displacement, but in the workshop they learn computer programming and other skills that will give them something to work with when they leave the camps some day. It also will allow them to continue their education in Lebanon at some point.
The workshop takes place at a private home rented by the Butterfly Effect Center (BEC), an organization that provides supplementary education for children. In the space above a garage, teachers and children tolerate the heat and mosquitoes because it is better than remaining in the camps. The children go there four times a week to be taught reading, writing, and other basics by local BEC teachers; each day they also get supplemental food since there is not much food in the camps. Additionally, Elena teaches music classes by Skype every week from her Boulder, Colorado (USA) home to the BEC classroom.
What are the logistics of bringing these kinds of experiences to refugee children compared to your average vacation? $400 luggage fees, for one thing. In 2016, that’s what it cost to bring keyboards into Lebanon. There is a layover of at least 12 hours because there’s no good direct route to the camps so it’s tiring. The airline tickets are costly even when you choose the least expensive options, and they’re not at all convenient.
In 2017, when Elana was booking the hotel she found they could get a room for each night of the trip except for one. In fact, no rooms were available anywhere nearby because the Prime Minister of Lebanon was going there to speak. So after teaching on that day, they went clothes shopping for their students using the proceeds of a piano recital in Boulder. The owner of the shop made them Turkish coffee and food but he didn’t know of a place they could sleep. Luckily, a Lebanese woman who was a customer spoke up. She said she loved Americans and appreciated how good they were to her when she lived in Boston so she invited them to stay in her apartment. This was much better than sleeping in the classroom. The hostess prepared a homemade dinner, and then they slept on the floor. The next day, Elena got sick. In fact, Elena is sick for part of the time in Lebanon every year due to lack of sleep and being unused to the food. On the bright side, the hostess was lovely and there was a marvelous view from the balcony of the mountains and potato fields. They caught a ride back to the camps by a BEC teacher who said they were very lucky since they might have been kidnapped. It has to be said that transport from Beirut to Chtaura is by bus run by private drivers who are often unsmiling, operate small vans on the verge of mechanical breakdown, and smell of cigars. Additionally, kidnapping is a reality to be watched out for at all times.
Overall, in the three trips made to one of the sketchier parts of Lebanon, Elena and her family have never felt threatened, despite travel, walking around, dining out at little restaurants, and shopping. It has to be said that locals are not enthusiastic about travelers volunteering with refugees since they are sick of the refugees and they need help as well.
But these trips are overwhelmingly positive due to the children. Elena and her family have watched these children mature over time. At the beginning the kids were fairly wild, unable to focus for very long, and rather possessive and pushy. This is understandable since it had been years, if ever, since the children had been in school. They were used to scarcity, which meant that they needed to push forward and get it first before someone else did, even if it was just a pencil. Over time, these children have grown into curious, focused, motivated, and excited students. They come in cheerful and enjoy their studies. They are now envisioning a future with careers, like being nurses, computer engineers, and teachers.
The highlight of the workshop this year was the drama production of Princess and the Pea for the older group and The Enormous Turnip for the younger kids. There were costumes! Masks! And Backdrop! It was also fun buying clothes for the students and putting on an Iftar dinner for them. Iftar is the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan. Another highlight was the cultural enrichment program where the kids learned about and made art and costumes for Dutch, Russian, ancient Egyptian, French, and Italian culture.
As vacations go, Elena and her family have memorable and exciting ones and are looking forward to next year. They are, however, concerned about the funding of the BEC since they lost their main source of funding. Luckily, they are now part of a more secure set of non-profits, but they still need to raise their own funds. For more information, go to the Butterfly Effect Center Facebook page. If you’d like to donate to support BEC’s efforts, click on the below link.
The goal is to fund a year’s worth of schooling for the children of Syrian refugees.