Sunday, May 26, 2013

After refugee encounter, young reporters count blessings

Note: For audio story, including the voices of those discussed below, see:

(Beirut, Lebanon)—We’ve all walked past the poor or the homeless asking for money, usually not giving them a second thought. I was about to do the same thing yesterday until the young journalists I was accompanying on a reporting assignment stopped an engaged one such middle-aged man, whom I’ll call Hakim, in conversation.

Believe me, Hakim doesn’t have your usual down-on-his-luck story. But then again, the same can probably be said for the other 463,000 Syrian refugees (UNHCR) who have made their way here into neighboring Lebanon.

As we approached Hakim, the first thing we noticed was the odor. It’s hard to guess, but it’s been many days, perhaps weeks, since Hakim has bathed. He was sitting on the sidewalk, splayed, ironically, in front of a fancy jewelry store on Hamra Street, in the center of Beirut’s upscale shopping district.

As the well-heeled shoppers robotically wheeled around us, we stooped to speak to Hakim.

He explained three times that he had never been in this position before, that he “never had to beg” to survive. Hakim said he was going to get bread for his family in Syria when a massive explosion killed his entire family and left Hakim’s foot injured. To dispel any doubts about this, and to elicit sympathy, his foot was prominently displayed, jutting out into the middle of the sidewalk. I could see that the foot was injured, but didn’t want to look too closely.

Hakim said that he smuggled himself in to Lebanon almost two years ago, right after the explosion. He crossed the border with nothing but his ID. He has been looking for relatives who live in Lebanon, but hasn’t located them yet.

Even as a self-described beggar, Hakim said that life on the streets of Beirut is “safer than the streets of Syria. If they see me in the streets of Syria, they would run me over.” In fact, he said that in comparison, life in Lebanon “is almost like a hotel.” But one minute later, Hakim did an about face, commenting, “I have no help. The situation is very bad.”

Hakim is one of 88,000 Syrian refugees living in Beirut, according to the UNHCR. This makes sense, since Beirut is only 55 miles from Damascus, Syria’s capital. Syrian refugees come from all walks of life, as I learned during our visit to Hamra Street. In fact, we met a group of four very well dressed and presumably wealthy Syrian women who were window shopping, a Syrian retail clerk who charmed my female companions with his intelligence and good looks, and four Syrian construction workers laying concrete blocks.

Their stories all differ, but unlike Hakim, all were reluctant to call themselves refugees or admit that they have been in some way victimized. My Lebanese companions insisted that this refusal to admit victimization was Arab pride. I told them that I believe that no one anywhere likes to admit that that they are vulnerable.

Our discussion with Hakim and the others was part of an assignment in my peace journalism workshop to produce stories about Syrian refugees. As the participants wrote stories about the Syrians the day after their reporting forays into the city, we all shared a “count your blessings” moment. The Lebanese student reporters said that they now have a better and more sympathetic understanding of the refugees who have crowded into their tiny country. I hope that, through their journalism, these students can help spread this enhanced empathy to their Lebanese neighbors.

Steven Youngblood is director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University. He is in Lebanon in May directing peace journalism workshops for students and for professional journalists. His project is sponsored by the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University, MasterPeace-Lebanon, and the Media Association for Peace-Lebanon.

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