Making Community Activities a Collective Achievement

Listening, support, sharing, and collective action fostering day-to-day solidarity between individuals and families with difficult lives: these are the main objectives of the Beitouna Center in Beirut (Lebanon). Spotlight in correspondents of the Permanent Form on Extreme Poverty in the World.

Our neighborhood, Nabaa, is located in the northern suburbs of Beirut. It’s a neighborhood largely made up of displaced people from different regions in the country who arrived in particular during the civil war, and who were experiencing great hardship; the majority of them remained poor. They come from the different Christian and Muslim confessions, and there are many Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis, and more and more people from various countries in Africa and in Asia, often here as illegal immigrants.

So daily life is quite difficult for most people here, and many of them have lost ties with their extended family; they have lost their roots. There are numerous social problems: prostitution, drugs, illiteracy, unemployment, etc. Unmarried couples and children without fathers and without identification are particularly vulnerable.

Beitouna is a very small center, set up through the initiative of a few people in the neighborhood, with the goal of providing a presence, a place for listening and for support to people living in difficult, but hidden, situations.

In addition to the proximity to people experiencing the most hardship, the center has also developed solidarity projects in which people who come to the center can participate. There have been family summer camps, activities and workshops, discussion groups, and the food co-operative.

The food co-op was set up following the war in the summer of 2006 and the ensuing food distributions that took place in the neighborhood, where many refugees had arrived. The families realized that the food distributions would not last forever and that they encouraged a habit of begging. In order to join forces and work collectively in that period of economic crisis, the families each contributed towards buying bulk food products, enabling them to obtain food goods at the lowest price. Some friends support the co-op a bit, and their support enables us to lower the prices a little more.

Our celebrations, for example the families’ Christmas, are also collective achievements.

Admittedly, life in Nabaa is full of worries. Because of the effort that residents must make to ensure the basics of daily life, what they often expect is to benefit from what more well-off people prepare for them.

But at the Beitouna Center, people are invited to carry out, themselves, an activity that they’ve chosen, and to discover the pride of a successful joint action. The families and the organizing committee ensure all aspects: choosing a date, finding a location, preparing a program, gathering the children to rehearse and to work with enthusiasm, practicing a dance, arriving ahead of time to set up the room and decorate it, getting the party going, and ensuring that each person feels happy and comfortable.

“In these experiences of facing the difficulties in life together, we discover the importance of cooperation and mutual support. When we mutually support each other, we are working against extreme poverty. At the same time, we are all together, people whose circumstances could lead us to attack one another, and here is friendship and trust among us. There are no differences between us; regardless of our religious confessions or nationalities, we have extreme poverty in common and we all have to support each other. If I disregard the weakest person among us, it’s as if I’m neglecting a part of my own body, and my whole body will suffer for it. If I abandon a person who is alone and impoverished, it will lead to problems, because we will have forgotten a part of society’s entity.” From participants in a “People’s University” on the theme, “Ending Extreme Poverty, a Road to Peace”. January 2007.

One of our friends, a 13 year old Iraqi child, used a knife during an argument in the street with another child his age, severely injuring his friend in the abdomen. Our friend ended up in prison, and his friend ended up in the hospital.

At the mothers meeting, we spoke about it and got all fired up. Some mothers were saying that certain parents encourage their children to carry a knife; others discovered that their child has been hiding one in the bottom of his school bag or under his winter clothes. Some insisted that we cannot live with people of another religious confession, that it leads to problems like these.

But at the second meeting, people started thinking about what we can do and a lot of ideas came up: try to raise the children’s awareness of violence, go to meet associations who could help us with this, visit the youth prison (where our friend was being held), speak to our children’s school directors, look for places where our children could participate in recreational activities.

In the weeks that followed, we went to visit and encourage our young friend in prison, as well as the other youth there with him. We managed to arrange two meetings of associations on the subject of violence, the second one with a representative from the municipality. The mothers made the various contacts that they had committed to, particularly with the school directors. They were, for the most part, welcomed warmly, and guidelines were established for the verification of the children’s school bags.

One mother saw her children return from school injured, her 13 year old son injured on his arm and her 16 year old daughter injured on their shoulder, both by sharp instruments. This mother, who was very shy but strengthened by the work the group had been doing for several weeks, went to see the school director to request prevention of these violences.

Each time that we invited the families to participate in sit-ins, marches, or other collective actions against violence and for peace, the families were happy and proud to be there alongside people of other backgrounds. They brought their children with them.

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