By Venetia Rainey
Lebanon Batroun, 18 April 2015 – Normally a quiet, green space at the entrance of Batroun, April 18 saw the Public Gardens of the northern coastal city turned into a raucous festival for children, giving Lebanese and Syrian youth a chance to learn and play together.
“There will be at least 2,500 children here over the course of the day,” explained David Dakkor, a volunteer with the Red Cross, who organized the day in collaboration with UNICEF.
“They are from cities all over north Lebanon: Batroun, Tripoli, Koura, Bsharri, Akkar, Zgharta,” he continued, raising his voice to be heard over the sound of dabkeh music and children chanting, “and half of them are Syrian and the other half Lebanese.”
The EU-funded festival saw around 200 Red Cross volunteers set up around 20 stalls covering a variety of everyday topics using games, videos and plays to teach attendees about everything from the dangers of drugs to ways to save water. Around the outside of the stalls was the garden itself, where kids scrambled over the playground equipment and older teens basked in the April sunshine as they chatted.
The event was part of a larger program aimed at equipping Lebanese and Syrian youth with the tools to take care of their own mental and physical wellbeing, and further, empower them to help peers in their community with similar issues. More than 18,000 children and teens all across Lebanon have been targeted by the program, with around 1,200 in each of the ten qadas trained as peer educators.
On April 18, the third group of 400 teens in the Batroun area graduated to this role, a key part of the Red Cross’ plan to train youth to be able to positively change behaviors and attitudes in their communities with regard to a range of everyday topics – foremost among which is tolerance and social cohesion in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis.
“We want to encourage social integration between Lebanese and Syrian refugees,” said Dakkor.
“This festival might well be the first time many Lebanese meet Syrian refugees in person, while others have met them before during activities we organize to promote integration.”
He paused and gestured to the stalls behind him, which were crammed with excited children of various ages: “Another aim is to teach them how to protect themselves from bad influences, for example we show them the bad effects of smoking and drugs.”
One of the volunteers, Joe Tabliyet, was working on the drug awareness stand, where kids watch a video about a boy who picks up a lollipop from the ground, eats it and then has to be taken to hospital. “It’s for all ages, we made the video so it works for younger and older children,” Tabliyet explained.
“Drugs are becoming really cheap and everyone can afford them, so they are starting to be everywhere. That is why it is important to confront this issue.”
At another stand, two volunteers were putting on a hilarious puppet show about saving water featuring Sleepy and Grumpy from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Next door, an enormous weighing scale with a sad face on one side and a smiley face on the other side was being used to let children express their reactions to various social scenarios by placing tennis balls on the relevant scale.
Tucked away in another corner was a stall with walls covered in pictures of environmental scenes – rubbish on the beach, someone planting a tree, a running tap, traffic jams, deforestation – which the kids rated with numbered stickers.
Also popular was a lemonade stand selling the slushy yellow stuff that Batroun is famous for, and a manousheh stall doling out warm zaatar-and-cheese flat breads.
For Lama Kawtharani, project coordinator for the Red Cross’ Youth Program, the festival was another milestone in more than a year of work on the group’s ABC project – Adolescents Benefiting Communities.
“It represents a specific target about fostering non-discrimination between Syrian and Lebanese youth,” she said with a proud smile. “The main target is those aged 12-18-years-old … but exceptionally this year we added younger children into the mix as well. We consider this a success because we are adding to our target beneficiaries.”
“The main objective is to provide three programs: the first is human values and principles, a core part of the Red Cross’s philosophy; the second one is about youth and health; the third one is about environment,” she said.
“Through these three programs we were doing three cycles, non-formal education cycles, we were targeting children and doing outreach in ten different localities all over Lebanon over the past year and a half.”
She looked around at the festival, taking in the excited kids weaving in and out of volunteers wearing aprons emblazoned with the signature red cross of the ICRC, the groups of teenagers chatting animatedly as they wandered from stall to stall.
“We have a Syrian crisis that we are all too aware of, and we are facing a lot of discrimination,” she said with a sigh. “This sort of thing is aimed at increasing the youth’s life skills in a non-formal way and educating them in order to help them benefit their communities and society.”
©UNICEF/Lebanon-2015/Ramzi Haidar /2015