building bridges – the politics of innocence

almost three months have passed since I am in Italy and time certainly went by very fast. one of the main reasons why this is so could be the fact that life here is very frenzy – there are lots to do, as Genova is a very active city, culturally and socially speaking.

It has been a time fruitfully spent with the children at the centre where I am volunteering (with Ce.Sto, one of those organisations that every community should have for a better inclusion and social cohesion). Every day is different. Every day I engage more and I feel I create new knots and decipher new codes of their behaviour. Working with around forty children of different ages and backgrounds sounds challenging enough and in practice even more – but patiently and consistently I am encouraging myself and have to admit it – it is a very pleasant challenge.

some of these days I wanted to write about joy – how often do we find joy in our everyday life? – and when I say joy here I mean that utter feeling of happiness that runs all over your body and makes you want to jump, to smile and laugh of how amazing everything is just in this moment. I have to say that I feel this joy when I am surrounded by children. these past months I have started to construct these small bridges that help me better understand my child within with their help. it runs both ways though – I do that because I try to see the world through their eyes. and each of you should know very well how simple and easy the world is when you are a child!

I observe them and see that even if they come from different backgrounds, from North Africa, Asia, Central America or from Europe – at this moment in their life they created bonds that are unbreakable and they stand by each other regardless of race, colour or religion. all these social constructs mean nothing to them. at this stage, the important thing is – however innocent –  to discover the world together, to hold hands, sing and dance. they do fight sometimes, but that is because they are expansive, because they want to be heard and yes – because they need love and attention.

how far have we gone from that age of innocence? how far, we as humans, have we gone in the opposite direction? fear, greed and power have overruled love, abundance and humility. humanity at this stage is divided by class, race and colour – is divided by those that live in abundance and those that starve and die in search of a better life ( and are judged and criticised for doing so) *and how can you call ‘invading’ the people that look for a better life?*

we build fences instead of bridges nowadays! if we would at least bother to open a history book we would see that we too were once impoverished – we too needed a better life! what I mean by ‘we’ here are all those countries that colonised once virgin territories, the so-called abundant, capitalist and western countries.  it is the time to take responsibility for the plunders and for the abuse, exploitation and death we have caused- for the humanitarian crises around the world are the results of those.

however, with a far-right government that targets immigrants and aims at making Italy a ‘safer place’, the situation here is not a jolly one at all. In fact, Italy is facing a very devastating moment in terms of its politics of inclusion – and while we lose count of the people that sacrifice their lives for a better future, here, Europe, nowadays the ‘promised land’, the ultimate aim is to ‘have no refugees at all in Italy through the closure of seaports, criminalising migrant rescue NGOs and with the new decree, depriving them of any protection’.

yet, there is hope. a few weeks ago I have participated in a protest against the Salvini decree. on the beats of ‘Mama Africa’ and as we marched on the streets of the old city, people from all corners of the world gathered to share their story and their support to make a change, to open people’s eyes and to show that they care. Yes – mama Africa- because it is a wake-up call for us all – to return to what unites us, to understand we are all the same, a body and a spirit, to go back to the roots and our true nature.

fact is – where there is unity, where there are awareness and discipline through that unity, there is hope for a better tomorrow. we should leave out the hypocrisy of those that see the immigrants the cause of their problems – where they rest in a totally different universe, ignorant, that lacks empathy, humanity and drawn towards hate. we should instead focus on those that understand, on those that can trace this plunge in despair, in lack – where people risk their lives and see death a better outcome than the poverty, imprisonment and deprivation they have to put up with back in their countries.

who are we to draw lines? to build fences? to label people? to differentiate and put to balance? to address people’s lives as the sum of their misfortunes? these questions seem like a deja-vu. Should this be the outcome of our evolution so far?

when I look at these children I see there is hope, yes there is. investing for a better education of today’s children is fundamental in creating a better future. it is not the first time I am drawn to conclude on this line of thought. it is a bit extreme to link children with politics – however, we have a lot to learn from them – to hold hands, to see ourselves in the other and build a better future together.

last – I cannot help but attaching a short passage from one of the classics of political satires in American cinema – ‘The Great Dictator’. the history repeats itself – ironically – the actors have changed but the play remains the same.

So, are we going to learn to do better this time?

‘In this world, there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….”

 

by the rough shores

She walks on narrow streets

Roaming with people

Everything seems so empty

In this floating city…

Empty eyes, burned cheekbones

Wild looks and languages

That are strangled by expired words

Which are out of hope.

By the rough shores

The waves still speak though

They speak of unfamiliar poems

Dialects that were put to die and

Dreams that were not even born.

Rough and surreal

Untold stories are dancing in the abys

Waiting to be heard…

But one day, carried by the wind

They will rise and they will

Create a new sky

Filled with sunshine and blue…

A glowy sea

At the shores of a lighthouse

Called love.

The First Step is The Challenge – Discovering Vipassana

Sun is shining and while the thermometer shows 28 degrees (again – always!:)) I am sipping from my coffee and scrolling on my facebook page. In so doing I saw a quote from two years ago –  ‘Although the road is never ending, take a step and keep walking, do not look fearfully into the distance. on this path let the heart be your guide for your body is hesitant and full of fear.’ I immediately made the connection – I wrote it just before I went on to do the Vipassana retreat in Dehradun, India – the first time that I have been in a retreat and of course, the moment when I experienced this technique of meditation for the first time. And what a discovery it was. Two years ago I have found something more precious than any treasure – I have found myself, I have found peace within, I have found the way to go back there, to that place I long forgotten and the encounter was so, so dear to me.

Today I celebrate once more the opportunity I was given and I am so deeply grateful for it. I first read about a silence retreat in (be ready to be surprised) ‘Eat Pray Love’ – well for me being in silence for so long was such a blissful opportunity- then there was a friend from England that when he heard I will go to India he recommended to do a Vipassana retreat as well as an Introduction to  Buddhist Philosophy (they do not connect and the Vipassana technique is not practiced in the other). That was all I knew – I took note of it it is true but I was actually focused on a project with a so thought to be a friend that failed graciously and beside a good amount of money, I have lost a friend and with that my confidence in people was a bit shaken. I have found myself all alone, with no plans and kind of apathetic – then the idea of the retreat came to my mind. I was actually at that point – with the turn of events – that I was seeking a refuge. I needed some time to regain that trust, the values and the trust that I have lost. I also wanted to get a grip of what did just happen and where did I go wrong.

So I went – with my heart open and there was no moment when I wanted to leave or give up. I came out of it not completely changed – but for sure, something in me changed and I knew that nothing will be the same again. And I am not saying this for the sake of the beautiful, comforting words, but because I have understood that my life was under control now, that I have the tool to deal with it. There was a line or two from the movie that still resonate in my mind – ‘You will get your life back again – you will learn to value it!’ like a prophecy that came true. Because yes – once I was done, I was so joyous and extraordinarily THERE – to enjoy every moment, to stop seeking the future but to be in the moment, that it felt like the time moved slower. I was present and I was happy to enjoy every little small thing like a tuk tuk drive or a piece of freshly made paratha.

I even remember that when I arrived in Rishikesh, I was shocked to see the streets packed with announcements with different healing methods, courses, trainings when I came out of a place where my only distractions were sleeping, eating, meditating, walking and washing. At that time it seemed like a cry of despair. It felt like we have really lost touch with ourselves and keep on looking – as we have been for ages – to the outside in order to fix the inside. Well – the equanimity came in and help me with that too! I understood then again that finding your own truth will not dismiss someone else’s and although I was so happy and joyful to share it with everyone, not everyone was ready to listen – not everyone was ready to accept or to put it into practice. OR better said – not everyone had a butt to sit on and spend some time with him/herself.

Conclusion is – that in the end, we all walk our own path, carry our own burdens, and while we can always make our own choices there is still something we should all learn and practice – to be open. To learn from the richest as well as from the poorest, to listen and to give up to the judgements and preconceptions. To accept that we are not the same. To be more compassionate as we don’t know what hides behind this well carved mask called body. To do things differently because this will expand our mind.

Each has its own way indeed and while ones will take longer, others a little less, we should all reach there.

Wish you a LOVEly day!

A New Place to Call Home

After a well-deserved summer at home and of course, well-deserved vacation for that matter, I had to start moving in some direction or other. It is quite difficult once you’ve got the travel bug, you know? Even if I definitely did not get bored, I have been stalking friends that travel and wondered constantly where to go next. Then the answer came – and as they say, all roads go to Rome – for me they have actually gone to Genova – as this is my new home now.

So here I am, drinking my expresso (the third one today – I simply cannot refrain- the place is packed with small cafes) enjoying the breeze and the seagulls, the sound of the many scooters rumbling around, admiring the majestic architecture of the many palaces that stand as a proof of a legendary past.

The duration of my visit this time will be slightly longer – I could actually say that it is the most time that I have spent in a place – at a time. This is actually something that excites and scares me at the same time – as I am sure I will find my way out of it every now and then (heheh).

However, I must say that my motivation is high due to the reason why I am here – an European project with an local NGO that supports and works at building a sustainable inclusion and cohesion of migrants and minors in the society. Will basically work with children, adolescents and migrants – by doing workshops as well as cultural events for a better communication, integration and promoting activities for civic integration.

Besides the fact that it is famous for its focaccia and pesto, for its long stretches of coast, forests and picturesque cities, Liguria is a region that has something more particular than that. Genoa, after all, is a multicultural city on the move since for the past twenty five years has been receiving waves of migrants from places like Ecuador, Senegal, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Peru and China. This passage has not been a novelty as Genoa was and still remains one of the most important ports of Italy.

The situation is a bit distressing – the refugee and migrant mobility gets intensified along with an accelerated crisis of the European identity and borders as well as an increasing nationalist attitude. Here the situation seems more pervasive as Italy has become the central route into Europe for migrants and asylum seekers as they cross from North Africa. I will be able to have a better picture of the situation in the following months and get more immersed in the question.

6 Things You Should Know Before Going to Iran

 

At the beginning of this year I have backpacked with a friend around Iran for a month. Not many people I know have been here and the fact is that I was so astounded by the potential this country has. Therefore I have promised myself that I will share my experience with all of you. Unfortunately, it is a fact that due to media, many people think that Iran is a country strongly linked with war, nuclear armament and terrorism. Besides, lots of polls show that the West and even most of the Middle Eastern countries look poorly at Tehran’s rights record. While the truth is always somewhere in the middle, my distrust of the media made me visit this country and I can only say one thing – can’t wait to go back!

Culture and People

  1. The People

The people here are simply astonishing – they are so congenial and amicable- up to the point where you get a bit suspicious! Actually, I have come to realize that they really mean it when they ask ‘Where are you from’ and do want to know about your whereabouts because they have an authentic curiosity about other countries. I can wholeheartedly say that Iran is one of the best countries I have been where you will experience local life in an easy, spontaneous and fun way, and you will rarely be surprised by a comment such as ‘please come to visit my shop’ – following an inviting answer.

  1. The History

Now if you do a bit of a research before you go to Iran you will be aware of the fact that the inhabitants of Iran are not Arabs – but Persians. It is a mistake that will make you look poorly informed and will also be disappointing for the people you are talking to. After all, the Persian Empire is a prehistoric one and many take pride on their ancestry. Another aspect is the religious one. Just because it is called the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ does not mean that everyone is Muslim (after all, the country was named this way only after the revolution in 1979). Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheistic religion which was founded on the territory of ancient Iran. Other minority religions are the Baha’I Faith, Christianism and Judaism.

  1. The Customs

One of the most interesting cultural habits I have encountered in Iran is called – taarof (politeness) – which basically means that the local people will insist that you don’t have to pay or do something for them – therefore putting the other first. While it could be heavenly amazing to be invited for dinner always when you go out with a local, it is not always the case. So you will have to insist two or three times until they will accept your preposition/money. Another very important cultural aspect to keep in mind is shaking hands – while men shaking hands with men is perfectly fine – some (more conservative ones) prefer not to and they will place their hand on their heart to show respect and sincerity. A man will not shake hands with a woman unless she is the one that outstretches her hand first (it also depends on the company, situation, etc). My advice is that you simply bow and let the other person initiate a further handshake.

  1. The Dress code

I think it is not a secret that here the women have to cover anything than face, hands and feet (therefore the head too). I actually found that Iranian women use the scarf as a fashion statement (mainly in Tehran and big cities) therefore you will find it quite tempting to go shopping for some. The array of colors and designs is impressive and consequently you will find yourself wearing it with such pride! J In what is concerned the rest, it is generally acknowledged that the women should be wearing loose and long sleeved blouses & pants. However, while I was in Tehran I kept on being wondered on the fact that many women adopted much of the Western dress code and wear rather tight clothes. While this of course will change depending on the city and region – follow your common sense and pack more loose clothes (including lots of blazers and long sweaters) and avoid low-cut, see-through ones. Always remember it is better to look conservative. Men have nothing to be concerned of as short-sleeved shirts and t-shirts are acceptable. On the other hand, shorts and three-quarter length pants are only accepted on the beach.

Technicalities

  1. The Money

Well, continuing with the technicalities – the credit cards here do not work so my advice is to take enough cash with you. There is also the option of a travel card that you could order in advance and pick it up once you arrive in Tehran. This is mostly done through Facebook groups such as ‘See you in Iran’. When talking about money – the currency in Iran is a bit confusing. They have ‘toman’ – with one decimal less and ‘rial’ however they normally use tomans. For example when people say something like 18 – they actually mean 18000 tomans. It will take you a bit to get used to it and you will constantly have the impression that things are cheaper than you think!

  1. The Internet

Install VPN before you reach the country as here basically you will not be able to access YouTube, Facebook or even CouchSurfing without it. I was really worried before reaching the country as I wasn’t sure how was I to communicate with my friends and family. However, I soon found the solution – VPN it is. Also, keep in mind that in Iran Couchsurfing is illegal therefore in case you have a couch – do plan and make a fake hotel reservation for the officials will check it for your visa (the visa is on arrival – it cost me around $80 and lasts for a month). Other than that, you would want to buy a SIM card as the internet is much faster than the Wifi in the coffee shops.

Hope this helps and do not hesitate to message me in case you have questions or comments! Khodahafez 🙂

5 Must See Places in Alexandria, Egypt

 

There are few places that really make me want to come back to further explore and Alexandria and Egypt is one of them. I have completed a three month internship in Tanta and on this occasion have been travelling around. However, that wasn’t enough. Even if most of the weekends I would spend at the foot of the Mediterranean, Alexandria always made me want more. So- I had to come back! Ended up spending an extra month and a half and have to be honest – loved it that much that I had to tell the story…

Check out the rest of the article here:

5 Must See Places in Alexandria, Egypt

 

What is It that You Want?

‘If light is in your heart you will find your way home.’ (Rumi)

Every time I come back from a long vo-yage and I visit my grandma she always strikes me with the same question put into different words- ‘how am I not afraid to go to all these unknown places, conflictive and unsafe, where I will meet all these strangers – that could potentially harm me’ or God knows what else.

These questions have actually made me realize that every time I embarked on a new journey I have always left with faith in my heart that I would be back – I would even visualize myself – happy and with a bigger heart.

I envisioned this because I would feel with all my heart that the purpose of my traveling is aligned with my life purpose so there was nothing that could have stopped me from doing it.When you have that much passion and sense of purpose for what you do – yes, you feel like your heart grows. So there I was – I have actually done a ‘law of attraction’ practice – which is to visualize and have positive thoughts for a great outcome – without even actually knowing it or planning on it. And so this was for me the most practical way to understand faith and the power of my thoughts.

What is the law of attraction?

It might be that for some of us this concept is so overrated – we have probably heard it, used it and overused it to the point that we either feel we grasped it (and ideally we actually put it into practice) or we eventually left it somewhere in the past as maybe a small notion to consider (and eventually forgot about it). One thing is for sure – the law of attraction is a universal law that many might have put aside just because of its popularity – however it is a given that everything that surrounds us was first created in our thoughts.

We must then understand that our thoughts are gold in terms of how we rule our life and how we progress in our life. This is not a ‘learn to be positive’ self-help, spiritual article that tries to put you in a better state of mind. This is a wake-up call for those that want a change in their life. that change comes from your thoughts. You should start by having a different mindset – and deeply embrace the fact that you are the creator of your own life and set of beliefs.

What is happiness?

Many of us actually answer to the question of ‘What do you want’ – in the simplest form – ‘I want to be happy’. Although yes, while this is the universal aspect of what humans want in general– to love and be loved, to construct a harmonious life and be accepted for who you are – it is not enough to state it – you must describe it in the most minute detail – with more details you give, better it is. Doing this you will reach a point where you can vividly envision your perspective on happiness.

In this process, you must, first of all, learn to let go of your past experiences and patterns of thought. Coming to peace with the others and with yourself, ask for forgiveness as well as forgive – and lastly be thankful for the life you are living now.

We should find happiness in every small thing that we are doing. For example think about washing the dishes. It always seems to be a dreadful activity until you actually experience it mindfully. To be in the moment while you do an action helps you appreciate the smallest details – hence you will start to live in harmony with yourself.

Definitely happiness should not be understood in terms of – ‘if only I would have this/be this/get here- I would be happy’ – because in this way we will go on a misery carousel where we condition ourselves in terms of what we relate to – or what we wish for. Being happy is after all to understand deeply that failure and negative experiences are also part of the picture. We won’t know joy unless we know unhappiness. However, accepting it and converting it in life-lessons will help us get the drive for a new direction, a new beginning.

Personally, I think that happiness is that moment when we manage to turn our wounds, pain and suffering into wisdom. The one that laughs and has a joyous heart in the face of adversity will experience life at a totally different level compared to someone that always had whatever he/she pleased and whose world collapses at the slightest disappointment. It is very important what are we doing with this wisdom – to find our own truth and try to bring it to the world. Learn how to make it a more peaceful, joyful and loving one.

What is love?

– this is not a metaphysical monologue either, but what I see as a practical way to see love – in terms of my own experience. This is in fact an invitation to introspection – what is love for you? I have come to experience that when I do not love myself I cannot bring love to the world. It comes in the form of low energy, pessimism and a systematic auto-sabotage of who you are and what you want. You seem as if you have lost your compass and somehow you feel like you were just dropped here and can’t seem to understand what is the way forward?

In times of adversity and when we struggle to keep our heads above water we sometimes forget to look inside and give ourselves time. We need this time to ground and to find what it is that is not working or that is lacking. So once we find that we can change perspective and let things flow, try to find some humour in it and try to learn the lesson

For example, I have found it difficult at times to be constant with my wishes. I kept on wanting and wanting more … while I would realize I was still unfulfilled. It was like a vicious circle and I was trapped. It was then that I have remembered the most magical words ever – thank you. And so, at times when you find it difficult to give meaning to your life, gratitude will change the way you see things, and slowly will help eliminate your negative thoughts and pessimism.

I learned to be grateful systematically by keeping a gratitude journal. Expressing in details why I was grateful – in terms of body, mind, spirit, relationships and money really helped.  I was astounded as it was actually working – I started to see my life from an another perspective.

Knowing and having a better understanding- about what you want will boost your high esteem and you will attract more and more joyous and beautiful people. Once your high-esteem is at a healthy level, you should work though on staying awake, on being present and of course on finding the truest expression of yourself.

Remember – you are the captain of your soul – and once you deeply embody that in your belief system – nothing can take you down.

Lastly – you lead the way as in how people should treat you or how you should be loved. We sometimes end up in poor relationships only because this is what we think it suits us and we deserve to be treated as such. Therefore, understand that first you have to be whole – to accept yourself and be responsible for what you create.

Ask – Believe – Receive

Learn to discover through introspection what you really want. Be grateful for what you have, for this earth, for the sky, for the rain and for the sun, for the birds and for the trees, for the fact that you are breathing! These are some of the few things we take for granted. This way you will allow novelty and miracles to come into your life. Select your direction in life and believe in it with all your being. What you focus on expands and so learn to live with faith for it will always help to keep your sense of purpose. We need a sense of purpose, of meaning in life.

Once you believe you see that each day will be another chance to get better, to achieve what you longed for and to align your personality with the real reason why you are here. Then the outcome- what you receive- will be accordingly.

Further than that, your experiences, encounters with people and situations – they all speak to you. Learn to see them and to focus always on that which is constructive, which elevates your spirit. Learn to see toxic relationships, negative environments and strive to get surrounded more by positive people and generally people that you could learn from.

Life is an act of faith and the fruits of your actions whether they good or bad should teach you to see behind appearances. Your peace of mind and harmonious life depend on this – on being aware that everything is a phase, all is changing and everything is a projection of your mind.

Therefore, educate your mind, invest in a healthy mindset and embrace the harmony with gratitude and humbleness.

 

The Children of Hope

‘When you close your eyes and think of peace, what do you see?’


Following the seacoast, the drive from Beirut to Saida is around forty minutes and I still remember how disappointed I was when my plane landed it was late and dark so I missed my first impression of the place. Leaving the hustle and bustle of Beirut, one arrives to Saida and finds a small fishing town with a colorful souk, an imposing crusader castle and the beautiful seafront. It was here that I will spend my next two months as part of a teaching project that works with the Syrian refugees– so I embraced it and decided to discover it bit by bit.

However, that was the easy part. It was arriving to the Ouzai refugee settlement that left quite an impression on me. I never before saw a refugee camp. I did not expect – yet I was struck by the greyness of the concrete structure situated just at the entrance of the city. The missing windows would give a hollowness to the whole building, yet the colorful clothes and rugs hanging here and there gave a sense of liveliness, of stubbornness to resist this dump air surrounding the place. Once arrived in front of the entrance, smiling girls and boys would approach the car, saluting and playing in their reckless ways. It was all that I needed.

Once it was supposed to be a university campus, but since the project was abandoned, the building became the second SB Overseas centre for Learning and Empowerement and it was opened in 2017 ( Beirut, Saida, Arsal). With the headquarters in Belgium, Sb Overseas currently runs three centers in Lebanon, the one in Saida being the newest and largest project – housing 1500 Syrian refugees. Around 320 children are registered to attend school, accommodating their levels and ages as well as preparing them for public school –so crucial in their chances of success.

Children and youth in Saida are attending Arabic, English, math, science and general knowledge classes; awareness and wellness sessions led by SB’s psychologist; art and sport activities; and homework support sessions designed to help students catch up in their classes at public school. Besides this, there is also a Woman Empowerement Program which offers Arabic, English and fitness classes. There are also literacy programmes for younger and older refugee women – as a means to empower them and help them better integrate in the society. However the primary focus is to provide them with a marketable skill– courses such as sewing, embroidery, knitting, doll making, jewellery, and hairdressing – in actually being able to earn an income.

As the countries bordering Syria have seen a massive influx of refugees, nowadays, one in every three people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Despite the fact that it has crippled the Lebanese public system in many aspects, the refugees are in need of support as the children risk of being a lost generation. Displacement, trauma, poverty, abuse and loss of dignity – these are some of the critical aspects that the victims have to deal with in order to rebuild their lives and to prevent them from turning to bitterness, hatred and violence. Besides, the moral dignity of these people should be dealt with as they are constantly called under ‘refugees’- they have lost their sense of identity and now are considered just a number in statistics.

Due to the high numbers of refugee children, the Lebanese state has failed to place all these children in public school – therefore, many of the refugee children have poor access to schooling – or none at all, therefore it is imperative to set up non-formal schools and activities that will enable the kids to catch up and work their way to the public school and later on, a means to support their families.

According to a report from United Nations bodies, 17% of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon are run by women. Besides education and material needs, the women and girls living in refugee camps are suffering from trauma and bereavement. As many of them have lost their loved ones – husband, brother, father- they are now faced with the need of providing, they have become the breadwinners for their family. They have left from being a child to being an adult. Such a sharp switch. Yet, they need the time and space to grieve, so psychological support and counseling are particularly important.

But the question is how? They lack sufficient income to ensure food and shelter for them and their families. They are not permitted to work, they might not even have the competences and preparation necessary, therefore many women and girls are at an increased risk of facing sexual and gender-based violence.

Marriage – unfortunately – is seen as a solution – and although the girls are not prepared, although they are giving up their childhood and the possibility of being educated, their parents consider this as an immediate solution, as a way of escaping the harsh and overcrowded conditions. Besides, the lack of male family figures cause some females heads of household to worry for their security and reputations – marrying them seems a way of protecting them from exploitation or abuse. Yet, don’t think that the camp is a sanctuary for the women! As they have left their husbands, brothers and sons behind, now they are preyed by men roaming free in a lawless place such as a camp. While kidnapping and selling girls for prostitution is common, marriage has become the religious seal of approval for sex – regardless of age, girls become vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Child marriage, prostitution, domestic violence and child labor are the devils to escape from in these harsh conditions. But then, who to turn to? Who will listen or give a hand in a foreign country that does not acknowledge you and where you are considered a mere ‘refugee’? Raising awareness – of gender based violence, the rights and responsibilities of a woman, the fact that she is entitled to have a safe space where she can seek help or advice – where she could share her story of violence and abuse and see that she is not alone! This- although not only – could be helpful in healing and eventually building their confidence and self-esteem.

All in all, the children of yesterday became the adults we see today – and yes, I can say that I have never seen children as I have seen in Ouzai. Their jolliness, their dancing, their passion for music and laughing around are overshadowed by the load they carry – their lack of safety, their responsibilities, and overall their circumstances have left a deep imprint on their spirits. Their eyes seem vividly aware of this all chaos, this all mess we live in, and yet they cannot do anything. They are too small, yet they dream big. Their solutions are not more than mere jokes –but still – they know. They have a sense of dignity that I have never encountered at other children. Yet, most probably, ‘haneen’ is the word which best describe it – the longing for something you have lost.

Many times I would find myself stuck – in understanding either how can they do it? There are so many stories to tell, so many tears to still fall, yet – there they were – screaming and shouting and rebelling against each other with these bursts of energy only a child has. I would find myself stuck because it was still incredible to me, in explaining myself – in which world am I living? Why all these kids have grown up that early while others are left with no care in the world? Why these kids have a swamp for a playground? Why did they have to run away? From death? There are many kinds of death – and although physically alive, although apparently functional in the everyday activities, the heaviness of the memories, the loss of your loved ones, the harshness and cruelty, the hurt and despair – all these are just another way of saying that you are dead emotionally, as a child, as a lover, as a mother.

Yet – there remains the longing – there is still hope. I have met many children, mothers, fathers in this position – and yet – they do! They hope because this is the only thing they still have. Now it is on us if we encourage this hope, if we alleviate their needs and make a difference. I cannot say much of the difference I have made but one thing is sure – I will not stop – yet!

(For any questions please feel free to comment below and for more info about the volunteering opportunities, please check out the main page of SB – http://www.sboverseas.org)

Lebanon – the hidden jewel

I have travelled to Lebanon for a volunteering project – teaching Syrian refugees – for two months (will talk about it in a separate article). It was a perfect excuse to also come and visit the beautiful country of cedars and to immerse myself in all these contrasts that eventually make this country so unique. Lebanon and its ancient Christian monasteries and  mosques, its ski resorts and fancy clubs, its women in bikini at the beach versus veil wearing women, its twenty four hour nightclubs and its traditional coffeehouses, it is modern and yet traditional.
The birthplace of Khalil Gibran and Fayrouz –  and the most liberal country in the Middle East, Lebanon not only confirmed the fact that it is a country of contrasts but even surpassed my expectations and so I have come to discover that it might be one of the most complex countries that I was to discover. Often called ‘the Switzerland of the East’, it is one of the smallest countries in the Levant – and yet – even if you can do the tourist attractions in 10 days ( you can basically ski in the morning and swim in the evening), there is much more to it than that!bdrNow if you do not know much about Lebanon but have tasted the food – then you know it is true. Lebanese food is exquisite – a mix between the Middle Eastern and Western cuisine. My all time favourite is hummus – a dip made from chick peas with sesame paste, lemon juice, garlic, salt and olive oil. Then there is the falafel – a sesame sauce and veg, but more often in a rolled sandwich. You will definitely see manoushi fast food places quite often – a kind of pizza with different toppings. Last but not least, salads are quite popular here – also as part of meze – and tabboule – a parsley salad with mint, tomatoes, spring onions, bulghur (crushed wheat), olive oil and lemon juice as well as fattoush – a salad served with crunchy bread and pomegranate syrup. Lebanese cuisine is not famous in vain – it is truly delicious – and while you are here, you must not keep away from the desserts and definitely not the ice cream ( as it is actually rivaling the Italian one!). Also, keep in mind that Lebanon is one of the oldest sites of wine production in the world so wine-tasting must be on your list.btyLebanon’s diversity of people and religions should be traced back in time. Composed of different religious communities (18)- some Christian – mainly Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholic, others Islamic ( Sunnites, Shiites and Druze)-  apart from the Armenians, all the Lebanese communities- Christian and Muslim – have historically spoken Arabic and shared an ‘Arab way of life’.In antiquity, the Phoenicians, established a number of flourishing city-states along the stretch of the eastern Mediterranean (mostly today’s Lebanese territory).  Then there were the Persians, the Greeks and after the death of Alexander the Great, the territory of present day Lebanon became part of the Hellenistic Seleucid Kingdom. The Roman conquest followed and they ruled until the seventh century. It was during this time that, Lebanon, along with the rest of Syria and much of Anatolia became a major center of Christianity.In the late 4th century, a hermit named Maron established a monastic tradition which focused on the importance of monotheism and asceticism at Mount Lebanon. The monks that followed spread his teachings and so they came to be known as Maronites. They were living in the mountains to avoid persecution by the Romans, and as we will see later – the Byzantines as well as the Ottomans. When – of course- the Arabs came – and until 1918, Syria, including today’s Lebanon formed part of the territory of a succession of Islamic empires ruled by caliphs or by sultans – except for the period when they were under the Crusader domination (1098 -1291).With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the European victors proceeded to divide up much of the Levant between them, and  France was given the mandate to rule over Lebanon; its linguistic and architectural influence can still be discerned in the city today. French rule continued until 1943, when Lebanon finally gained full independence from France.  Discontent finally boiled over in 1975 and for the following 16 years the country was under civil war, resulting in massive loss of human life and property, while devastating the country’s economy. It is estimated that 150,000 people were killed and another 200,000 wounded.bdrToday, Lebanon is a confessional democracy – which means that every religious community is represented in the Government. Beirut has been rebuilt – seven times! and parts of it are as cosmopolitan as thirty years ago. There is a lot of healing and reconstruction that the country and its people are still going through – and despite this – it has managed to accommodate a million Syrian refugees (let alone the Palestinians beforehand). That is Lebanon, it works, even if you don’t quite understand how that is possible.The country is blessed with magnificent mountain vistas, long stretches of pristine beaches and impressive ancient ruins that you mustn’t miss. Hence, apart of the coastal cities, the Lebanese territory consists mostly of mountain and hill country.  Which cities? Coming down from the north, Tripoli (definitely the best city to go for authenticity, history and nightlife), Byblos, Jounieh, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre- are the main attractions of the country. Byblos was the first Phoenician city and now is still one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (5000BC). Then there is Baalbek which is a must for the ruins – one of the most well preserved Roman sites to this day. And for sure, the exquisite Qadisha Valley – home to the legendary Cedars of God, the most highly prized building materials of the ancient world. The valley is a UNESCO  World Heritage Site because it is the site of some of the earliest Christian monastic settlements in the world, and still represents an example of early Christian faith.btyBut what about its people? Lebanese people are warm-hearted and welcoming. They are easy going, opened people that still have their smiles on their face even against financial difficulties or political issues. Besides, it must be mentioned that Lebanon is the country with most refugees per capita in the world! Currently, there are 4 million Lebanese living in Lebanon and 1.3 million Syrian refugees as well as approx. 260.000 Palestinians.The next door conflict in Syria and the influx of refugees endangers the internal social balance in the country. The situation of the refugees though it is not that bright – many  complain that the system allows local governments to steal, divert or withhold aid. As long as they have minimal legal rights and live in such scarce conditions, it’s difficult to imagine these people living in camps and such conditions indefinitely, but at the moment there is no foreseeable solution.
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Iran-why not!?

Even if it might be difficult to admit it now, I must say that when I first thought about going to Iran I saw it more like a challenge than a ‘must do’. Of course everybody knows about the Persians – with their famous  rugs, cats and of course, Persepolis- the capital of the empire. However, due to the wrong image that the media portrays about Iran, many still think that Iran is an unsafe place to be, mainly because of political and strategic reasons (will not go into details) when actually it’s completely the opposite! I have felt safer in Iran than in many European countries and I assure you, the Iranian people are some of the most welcoming people I have ever encountered. But of course, you must get out there and see it yourself.

So I have decided to break some of the myths that are linked to this country – and how to do best than through interacting with its people. As I have come to understand, the generosity and their most welcoming attitude is something cultural – they will do their best to make you feel like home and not only. I have met people that really made me feel like I was part of the family.

Also, in case you are wondering, wearing a hijab for a month was not that bad as I got some pretty fancy scarfs and eventually it mostly became a fashion statement.

I was first impressed by its clean streets, where driving is not stressful even if there is so much traffic. The people are mostly calm and patient, they seem to have all the time in the world and whenever needed they will always offer their unconditional help ( and I must underline unconditional).

The youth in Iran has impressed me so much though. While media portrays this general aversion towards Western countries and especially the US, I have not encountered anyone that would have a negative or incriminatory attitude in this respect. With such a thirst to understand and to learn about other cultures, I got the feeling that they would most surely want to express themselves more ( needless to say that the ‘nightlife’ as its commonly understood is inexistent and probably the only activities that exclude doing sports are going to coffeeshops or some fancy restaurants) and this liberal attitude is strongly influencing the way they relate to foreigners. They still can have it their way  through organizing reunions with family & friends as for example dancing in public spaces is forbidden.

I have also got that there is a frustration that somehow stands out as to how people nowadays see Iran which by all means they want to change. ( one time I was stopped by this man in the centre of Yazd who after asking where I was from – told me that he would like to send me some pictures about Iran so that I could show my friends and this way prove that Iran is not as it is believed to be).

The older generations, although more conservative, still they retain this welcoming attitude and are sometimes visibly honored that you bothered to visit their country. I have also met old men in the bazaars that would start conversing and nostalgically tell you about their eventual trips to some Western country or their wish to do so – always accompanied by a whole-heartedly ‘welcome to Iran’.

Other than that – let me not get started to talk about the incredible food – I have ate ( oh yes!) the best chicken curry, best rice (made in a special rice-cooker), best yoghurts and rosewater scented sweets ever! The list could go on but the point here is that Iranians do know how to cook! Also, i would strongly recommend to try the ‘ash’ (some delicious soup) and the saffron ice-cream!

Well, in terms of sites to visit and jaw-dropping landscapes – Iran has been secretly hiding twenty-two UNESCO world heritage sites, as well as ski-resorts that are world-renowned and even if not many know – also if you are in search of more exotic shores- there are in total forty-three islands in the Persian Gulf only! (out of which nineteen are uninhabited).

Surprisingly, backpacking in Iran was never a challenge –  although I have even been a bit worried due to not being able to speak the language. Moreover, I fell in love with its music, colorful architecture, tasty food but mostly its people. That is why the small details – like the credit card situation ( Iran, as well as Cuba – is a cash country) or the internet difficulties *and so I discovered the VPN* as well as the hijab being compulsory do not stand the chance!

I will be back to Iran sooner or later and once again, I must repeat, it was the best decision I have ever made in terms of traveling. Grateful for all the beautiful experiences and hopefully the passing of time will keep the warmth and dedication of the people unchanged.