Random musing

I think the term “young journalist” is weird. Do we have young bankers, young chemists and young astronauts? Why is our industry so bent on identifying “young journalists?” When does one stop being a young journalist? When we finally land a permanent job with a stable income after 8 years of paid internships because those are the only jobs around, or when we hit a certain age? What qualities is one promoting when self-identifying as a young journalist? Inexperienced, ambitious, something else? Curious to hear from others in the field.

A day in the life of a Syrian refugee camp (in pictures)

You got to see the profiles of children in Bekaa Valley’s Bar Elias refugee camps last week. Much has already been written and broadcast about the quality of life in these camps – the lack of access to proper nutrition, clean drinking water, education and much more. No need for me to replicate what’s already out there, but I wanted to share with you some pictures that look at the normal day-to-day life in these camps. 

The families living in each tent are generally large, about 8 to 12 members. The ones who have been there for a year or more have been able to expand their tents to create separate spaces for lounging, sleeping and cooking. The newer families make-do in a space that’s no bigger than an average bedroom. A far corner of the tent is usually reserved for a small camp stove and washing dishes. In the rest of the tent, mats are laid down on the concrete floor and everybody huddles together at night. They may or may not have enough blankets depending on when they arrived and what items have been donated to the camp. It’s not so bad at this time of year when the nights are still cool. But I imagine it will get incredibly uncomfortable as summer marches in. Hover over the images to see the captions or click on them to view as a slideshow.

I also mentioned Alphabet Alternative Education last time. They are a small group of Syrians living in Lebanon who deliver aid and educational materials to the camps. They also help build structures for classrooms, hold art workshops and get the kids engaged in physical activities such as running races. The children love learning and playing with the AAE volunteers everytime they visit. The people who teach on a daily basis in the classrooms are Syrian refugees living in the camps. Here are some pictures of the kids with the AAE volunteers:

I have a few other stories to share. I apologize that I haven’t been posting as frequently as I would like, but I’ve had to contend with severe power and internet outages this week. As always, stay tuned.

Wanted: Facebook friend requests

Hey all,

So, remember how I experimented with converting my Facebook personal profile to a Facebook page and how that turned into a complete disaster? All my friends got converted to likes and I ended up losing all my friends.

I have requested Facebook to reverse the profile-to-page conversion. It could be ages before they get back to me. So, I decided to just go ahead and create a new profile: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008180617822

Send those friend requests along!

Thanks!

Homesickness

It’s not a feeling I had anticipated. At all. It’s not the first time I’ve (successfully) made major changes in my life, moving across continents to start anew. I was buoyed by the opportunity for adventure, and I still am, but I miss Toronto like crazy. At some point in my life, it became home. 

I miss being able to speak in full sentences with the local grocer rather than in half-English, half-Arabic. I miss the cold. Yah, I know you think I’m crazy, but I’ve always liked the winter. 

And now, I’ve gone and converted my Facebook personal profile to a page, and I’ve lost all my friends in the process. I can’t search for anybody, and I don’t understand why people can’t find me or send me messages when my page is public. I feel more isolated than ever. Email still works: vidyakauri at gmail dot com.

These are the children of Bar Elias

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My Irish friend and photojournalist, Stephen Boyle, once posted on Facebook, and I paraphrase:

Whenever you enter any refugee camp, the children come running to you eager to have their photo taken. You cannot get any work done till you comply.

So true! I visited the Syrian refugee camps at Bar Elias in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley last weekend. Two lovely people let me hop in their car and shadow them as they delivered aid and educational materials to these camps. They are Syrians living in Lebanon, and organizers among a very small group of people (less than 10) called Alphabet Alternative Education. Concerned about the lack of education for children in these camps, they continually raise funds to build tents for classrooms, deliver exercise books and stationary, and spend time engaging the kids in sports and art activities.

As we went from one camp to the next, we were greeted the same way: Dozens of dusty-faced children running up to our car, waving and eager to see their visitors. Everywhere, they commanded, “Sourana” which is a really bad English transliteration for “Take our picture.” It felt great to comply and then hear them laugh and say “halwa” (pretty/nice) when I showed them the pictures on my camera.

The Bar Elias camps are in a very remote region with nothing but a highway on one side and the mountains on the other. There are no playgrounds, libraries, schools, shops or other amenities nearby. The refugee communities here are very isolated and left to their own devices. Ranim Ibrahim, an organizer with Alphabet Alternative Education, says she visits three or four times a week, and every time, there is no sign of any other NGO, charity or UN organization working in these camps to deliver aid on a regular, formal basis. “It’s as if they set up the tents and then they left,” she said.

It’s no wonder the kids get so excited when visitors come to play with them, make art with them and give them some sense of structure.

Logistics, boring logistics

This is a rant about the Lebanese bureaucracy. A foreign freelance journalist must get a letter of permission from the government to work here. To get the letter, one must show them a letter from at least one of the media organisations you’ll be working for.

Lucky for me, I had TWO such letters from two different media organizations – one in my email inbox and one in print. So, I printed out the electronic letter and showed them both to the guy at the ministry. No good. The one from my email had no signature on it. Why would it? It was an attachment in an email, and most places accept the from field in lieu of the signature. Not the Lebanese government though. For no reason whatsoever, he didn’t care about the other letter which did have a signature on it.

So, I asked the respective media company to fax the ministry a signed copy of the letter. Their fax machine was broken, but they kindly scanned a signed copy and emailed it to me. I forwarded the signed letter to the email address the ministry provided, which by the way is a hotmail address. I asked the guy in person if he got it and he said he doesn’t accept emails. Right.

So, I went back out, printed the damned letter, and oh shit, it’s 2 p.m. So, I better run because that’s when they close. Although the guy did tell me his assistant would arrive at 2:30 and help me. I missed the guy. His assistant finally arrived and told me to come back the next day. He didn’t look especially busy, but he couldn’t help me, he said. I had to see the guy. I protested. They guy told me the assistant would help.

The assistant reluctantly picks up the phone and calls somebody. The guy, I presume. When he hung up, he said he would give me the letter I needed. Then, he asked me for two passport-sized photos. Why the hell didn’t the guy tell me I needed this when I asked him what documentation I needed?

Back out I went, returned with the photos and got what I needed. Of course, nobody tells you if there are instances when that government letter is useless in this country especially when dealing with other levels of the government.

Today, I needed to get the army’s permission to enter a Palestinian refugee camp. As you may know, Lebanese authorities have no right of access inside the Palestinian camps according to the 1969 Cairo Agreement between the PLO and the Lebanese army. So, the army mans checkpoints at the camps’ entrances to monitor who goes in and out. Camp residents complain about being stopped and checked for their permission documentation every time they exit the camp and want to return home. Meanwhile it has been widely reported that wanted terrorists from various sectarian groups, some linked to Al-Qaeda, have managed to find a home in these camps away from the hands of arresting authorities.

Back to the point. I needed the army’s permission to get in. One soldier told me to go inside the office a few metres inside the barricades. I went in and showed a man in plainclothes the letter I painstakingly obtained from the ministry. He looked at it, said it was a “beautiful” letter, according to my translator, but it was no good. I needed yet another letter from a different ministry (defence). Also, if I was going to take pictures, I should hand over all my pictures to them on a CD. WTF?!

When I went back out, I told the soldier I needed to get a letter from the defence ministry. He said, “Oh yea, I knew that!” So, why didn’t he say so before he sent me to the office? He thought he would let me try to get in without it, he said. Just in case the officer inside decided to be nice. My translator didn’t want to go back in to see if a small bribe would get me in.

Also, the army gave me incorrect directions to the defence ministry. It’s actually not in Beirut like they said. And of course, they also close at 2.

Not to worry. I got my story. Can’t go inside the camp? Fine, I’ll get people on the inside to come meet me outside. But I would’ve liked to get some colour and visuals for my story.

Aargh!

p.s: I modified the 2nd para to say I had not one, but TWO letters.

The stories are coming soon

Image
The view from my bus on the way back to Beirut from Sidon.

I just penned 1,200 words in my journal, while basking in the sunshine of my balcony, of my experience to a Syrian high school in Lebanon’s Sidon district two days ago. Despite being uprooted, the kids are a happy bunch. Confident and optimistic; Determined to have strong futures in their adulthood.

Located on the second floor of an apartment building, the physical size of the school is small. There are few extra-curricular activities although some of the boys play football (soccer). The focus, for students and teachers alike, is academics. Every teenager in that school loves the math, physics, English and French classes offered. They want to excel in high school, go on to university and become civil engineers, teachers, bankers or pharmacists. Every one of them also wants to return home to Syria.

My trip led to a story idea revolving around personal safety and security that I was able to successfully pitch to a major news organization. Watch out for it in the next week or so. That’s all I’ll say for now about it. I have a lot of great story ideas too, but I need to make more connections before I feel ready to pitch them. I’m also just busy with the two assignments I have on the go.

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