Empowerment comes with Responsibility

Previously – ‘We need to open the window and let fresh air before we light our best-scented candles. Once we have done that, gratitude will enter our lives in a more natural flow, it will spark more vividly from our heart and it will certainly stop being just another practice for self-care, recovery or understanding. Only then it will be a conscious, self-aware practice that will elevate our spirit and heart.

If you were to think and answer honestly – when was the last time you said no to yourself? No to time – time to be with yourself, time to do something you enjoy or just time to be true to yourself (not the usual denying techniques that take your mind away and distract you)? To acknowledge what bothers you, what gathered there and piled up into a lot of rubbish that needs to be thrown away?

It will take time, work, cries and staying up late to get it over with and throughout the process you will change a lot. But what is most important is that you will get yourself back. With instruments such as meditation, writing or any kind of self-reflection in fact – even a walk in the park will do – you will get yourself back slowly, and you will learn to face what is uncomfortable, to see the bad and the ugly in the eye and deal with it. Day by day, you will change and not that you will become a completely another person – but you will learn to see when this other side of you takes over again – and will be able to handle it better, smoother this time.

This self-reflection will bring awareness and eventually, responsibility. Responsibility to deal with your own – to accept that maybe you have been misled in the past, maybe there were situations, people, habits that changed the course of your life or just distracted you from your course (all with a reason of course). But today, well, today you have the power. You took your power back because, with awareness, you learned to be more gentle with yourself. You learned to see how utterly humane you are – how weak, pitiful and miserable you are at times – just so you know, we all are. But that makes us beautiful. It will be easier to forgive yourself and to have more compassion next time you will make that smart remark on someone. We learn that every day. How we are all on. What you should be looking at is to progress, not to perfect.

Acceptance, self-forgiveness and responsibility are the major steps that will guide you towards empowerment. You don’t have to search for empowerment in others. Of course, role models and guides are always there for you as inspiration, with advice and stories that work for them! You should just see what works for you!

In the long run, you need to be your own coach. You need to set your standards high and compare with who you were yesterday. Empowerment is a job that requires your undivided attention on a day to day basis, with how you create your life, what your thoughts are and of course, your rituals. All these done by you only, my dear one.


(To be continued 🙂

Gratefulness and How to Begin Healing – an Intro to Freewriting

So much has been said about being grateful, as a way of therapy, of actually working at the root and bringing your attitude from a negative state to a positive one. of being happy with what you have in life and eventually work for better (accept that with the right effort you will attract more.)

Don’t get me wrong – I do think that gratitude helps when you find yourself unsatisfied, when you don’t have any motivation or feel that your lack of satisfaction is proportional with higher you get professionally, personally or emotionally – when still there is something missing and so you find yourself out of sorts, with nowhere to turn, probably getting into this well-known modern series called ‘oblivion’, losing touch with yourself. The Sunday morning syndrome, right? When you are finally off and still cannot find a reason to get out of bed.

So yes, being grateful does help you see the half-full glass – so you go get some gratitude journal prompts, gratitude affirmations and schemes that nowadays are almost a trend for a complete, thorough self-care routine, along with meditation, yoga and a healthy diet.

But wait a second. How about why you feel grey – why you feel out of energy – of motivation? Do you explore that part or you just slip it under the rug and clean the surface? Or even worse, are you among those that think that there is something wrong with you? Because I have to say a big no to that. You are not alone. We are there with you. We’ve been there at some point in our life. That point indicates that there is something you should change, that you should start doing different, maybe there is something you should work at. But first and foremost, understand that it is ok to feel the way you do – and sooner or later you will figure the way out of it.

It has been a while since I introduced in my morning writing routine 15- 20 minutes of freewriting. I have found that it helps a lot! It is more than my counsellor, it is free, it is always there, and it is definite support for me to open up. I honestly feel lighter and even my inner critic seems to have become quieter ever since. So, during these sessions, I have come to realise that I have so much unwanted, forgotten luggage that I keep inside. So many negativities, so many things I didn’t say, things I have accepted, stuff I said yes to although I just wanted to snap, and instead just screamed inside.

And it made me think – Weren’t there so many people in our lives, situations that made us be different, not ourselves, situations where we couldn’t identify? What about all these? Did we let them out, or we just left them there and covered them in dirt, hoping to forget them, ashamed or maybe afraid to admit to ourselves that we were weak, that we did not know? Are we going to let them build up in there without no sign of looking them straight in the eyes?

So, just to make things clear, we’ve all had people in our lives, whether they were our parents, our friends or loved ones that wanted ‘our best’ and in this doing, they kept telling us stories of who we should be or how we should behave to be better – for them, for this world – whatever that is – better here is not who WE might have wanted to be. So there we were, nodding while it was not polite to answer back, saying yes when we wanted to say no, changing, adjusting when internally, we felt so wrong. What about all these stuff?

I tell you what – now I write every time I remember something that disturbed me, and I give myself credit for who I wanted to be then, I accept myself while being aware that then I was not knowing what I do now. Then I was not who I am now – and yes, all these experiences helped me in becoming who I am today, of course, however, I strongly believe that these frustrations, disappointments, fears of not being enough, right or perfect have to be released. We have to come to agreement with our inner child, for letting ourselves down and not standing up at that time. (and I don’t know about you but my list is long)

We need to open the window and let fresh air before we light our best-scented candles. Once we have done that, gratitude will enter our lives in a more natural flow, it will spark more vividly from our heart and it will certainly stop being just another practice for self-care, recovery or understanding. Only then it will be a conscious, self-aware practice that will elevate our spirit and heart.

Hope it helps! will be back with more on the subject! 🙂

Finding Stillness through Vipassana

Hi everyone! Some time has passed since I last wrote in here – my daily routine does still include some short thoughts in my diary though. (I can say since this meditation retreat I have realized I am a bit addicted to it heheh)

Around two weeks ago, I have finished my forth Vipassana retreat. It was my second time as a server and I can say that my biggest intake this time was to progress in separating my mind from work – and consequently the ‘monkey mind’ which brought to surface fears of inadequacy, of rejection , of not beeing enough – and the meditation hall, where you have to find stillness, equanimity and acceptance. (in case you do not know, once you have done one seminar you are eligible and even encouraged to serve)

A Vipassana retreat creates an environment where you learn that true meditation is not something that you do at a particular time, in a particular way, in a particular posture and condition. Here you see that your body has to adjust to a continuous cycle of days in which al your physical and mental states appear in front of you – wide variety of personal experiences. 

There is a wide misconception that Vipassana is focused on the pain, the suffering, that it rejects the pleasure at the experiential level – sort of taken from the buddhist philosophy- however, it is not so. Vipassana doesn’t tell you what to think – it just tells you to observe. What you will observe is the adaptations and mal-adaptations of certain conditions. The key is not to identify with your observations – the key is to observe and let go. 

One more thing I have realized is that we are most of the time looking outside for music, where the music lies dormant inside of us. We expect others to switch it on – as we forgot where the switch is or maybe we forgot there is even one switch we can access. Giving will always have a positive outcome, and as Paul Fleischman beautifully puts it – 

‘ The only treasure we take with us is the compassion, wisdom and peace. Good life is life that produces in ourselves and in those around us a feeling of joy, peace and compassion so do what helps others and purify your heart.‘

All in all, Vipassana is the only model that actually suited my needs as someone that never meditated and considered it as an act of spiritualism. I was strong on my position that I was an active person and won’t need to sit to be aware. I was so wrong. We are like rivers. We are flowing and every moment reveals patterns, sequences, meanings, memories that we have put away, that we have negated and forgot they were there. 

In this respect and related to my experience I can only say that I have ever since walked this path and realized that real egolessness is indeed one’s ability to learn. I learned to deal with conflict by practicing the ‘pause’ technique – where instead of responding with angry speech, you learn to ‘act’ with the right one, which means you stop the vicious cycle of action-reaction. My search was done. I have finally arrived!

It is with great joy that I share my experience with you and hope that you will be able to take what suits you and drop what doesn’t. The bottom line here is that you will seek, be curious and try to change, to improve, to be more peaceful.  
Please feel free to go here to find out more!
https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index (needless to say, drop me a message in case you have further thoughts slash questions! Will love to hear from you!)

Until next time then! 🙂

Align, arise and rewake your inner fire


“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves…” Virginia Woolf

October is here and with it, seems like the trees are more beautiful than ever! I like to see autumn as a time of letting go what is out worn, faded and old. I see it as the best moment of the year to meditate on change and how to make life easier, better and more fulfilling.

After a sunny, warm and humid summer, filled with activities, September came and with it – change made its way as well. One chapter was done and of course, some time was needed to recollect and ground myself.

Being home of course is so delightful! Forgot how conforming it is to just be home and slow down. To continue simplifying, be present and do the things I wished doing with the loved ones. This only means so much to me- it is like feeding your soul.

Simplifying, staying present help you align your body with your mind and emotions become something we observe and separate from. Then, of course, focusing on the next step means going back to the question – what kind of life do I want to live? (when was the last time you’ve asked yourself this by the way?)

With more time passes, more I understand that the life I wish living is one that allows me explore my dreams (my writing, my yoga practice, being in nature and helping others – a bit like Tolstoy’s heheh) , one that I can prioritise my mental and physical health and slowly getting rid of everything that doesn’t feed my soul.

A life that allows my music come out in notes that have upper and lower tones as well, but that is mindful and creative, and with intention, helps me grow.

A life where I can practice gratefulness till becomes part of my moment to moment view of the world and helps me see through the little things and make a miracle out of every sunrise.

Observing the changing seasons is a perfect time to look inside and work at constructing unity ‘between the head, the heart and the hand’ – yoga.

Because happiness isn’t a moment in the future. Happiness is here and now. And remember! You are not your emotions, your thoughts, your ego. You are an infinite being, you are light and nothing can change that.

Till next time 🙏🌿🌼🌟

joining hands – reflection on being a human

Today I want to reflect a bit on what does the word human makes us think of? In this fast world that we are living in, it feels like the word has lost its meaning as from morning to evening  – the news abounds with inhuman acts – nothing new you would say. True. Nothing new, unfortunately. Indifference though, the fact that we have this impression that we cannot change the things which concern us because we are too small to do it – is the result of this globalised world.

However, when you see this in your day to day life and you end up accepting it…when you turn a blind eye to what’s around you, acknowledge, yet you do not stand against, you end up believe in it, you end up being indifferent and on top of that, justifying yourself. A person’s moral sense of what is right and wrong can change so much in time…

Is this all consumerist, capitalist, high-tech society makes us forget about what being human means? Because what is being human after all than just see yourself in the other? When the other has nothing and is on the brink of dying, would you just watch and point fingers at who’s fault is it, at who should deal with it or the reasons why you aren’t responsible for this? Or even worse, take all those people as you would take a ball of tennis and throw it over the fence- tell yourself it’s not your problem and forget all about the matter?

We are living historical times – whether aware or not – we are living times of a huge humanitarian catastrophe and collective failure.  Yes, I am talking again about the refugee crisis – as the Mediterranean sea is becoming a silent cemetery where the numbers of graves are rising and yet the real number is lost.

Yet there are still some human rights fighters, those that have silenced every voice that told them they can’t. I wanted to write about those that beyond all international declarations, laws and regulations, pacts and conventions that rule and promise REsolutions and variables – they do what is right according to their conscience, to what a human should do for another human.

I recently watched a documentary which startled me to the point that I said I have to write about this. I have to let it out.  ‘Iuventa’ is a documentary directed by Michele Cinque (which I definitely recommend you all to watch), which talks about a German NGO https://jugendrettet.org/en/–  who set up a high target and with crowdfunding managed to buy a ship and conducted several operations at sea in the rescue of migrants. They started in 2016 until August last year they managed to save more than 14000 people in 15 rescue missions!

Since they were already  starting to raise questions on why Europe does not do something in this respect ( their initiative was mostly to attract the attention of the EU and eventually recreate a second ‘Mare Nostrum’ but funded by Europe) their ship was confiscated and they were accused of human trafficking and violation of the Italian immigration law! So while Europe was trying to camouflage, push back the problem back to Africa, some idealistic youngsters were trying to overdo it and yet falsely accused for doing so! Till today the ship is still seized in the port of Trapani.

While the aim of the European Union is to close the humanitarian corridor, they criminalise and accuse those that want to bring a change. While the NGOs are trying to keep up with the incoming influx of refugees, Europe turns its back and gives in to massive human rights violations, disregarding the international law and allowing people to end up in detention camps with catastrophic conditions.

The same documentary mentions about Mediterranea-Saving Humans https://mediterranearescue.org/en/  –a platform that conjures different organizations that have joined forces with one single focus- to put the lives of the people above everything’s else.

While Europe refuses to see itself responsible for the death toll that keeps on rising, after Iuventa and many other NGOs saw a dead end in its aim to bring a change, Mediterranea is a project that can show to the world that yes, it is possible. While their main aim is to monitor and report what is happening, they also intervene when needed in saving people – and bring them to a safe harbour, according to the international laws. Now, of course, that following that, the refugees will be subject to the respective countries’and European laws.

Italy, as well as the majority of Europe, are following an enclosed strategy towards the refugees. Many nations are in moral decline and unfortunately, even if we believe ourselves to be good, giving, the truth is that when it comes to foreign, to other – we somehow become frightened, defensive and close our doors.

Because in the end, we should be more reflective. Isn’t the way we treat the refugees a direct mirror on how we, as citizens will be treated? Seeing how governments and the media treat the refugees is a direct reflection of a society that in the long run will lose humanity towards its own citizens. We have forgotten to see the morality in the matter and we tend to just scrupulously focus on the economic side. We forgot that caring only for your own tribe or group is still a ‘toxic residue of centuries of slavery and segregation’ . This is NOT a UNION as we so much like to call lit.

We should create a society that is to be first moral – inclusive, we should, at this point, be able to live in a humane, caring and wise society that cares for the human not for the capital ( and we don’t lack models here, although the countermodels stand massively ahead – see the UNITED States).

Storytelling – we need to talk to find dialogue, to stop simplifying a problem that is so complex. We should not refrain from talking about it, from doing our share. We, as individuals, can start just by changing something in our own heart first – then maybe we can expect a shift in conscience at the societal level. We should reflect more on what does being a human mean to us. We should stop taking things as they are served to us and question more. Remember that we, after all, are the creators of our own life where we are always the main actors!


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!
Now 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 chickpeas 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 rivalling 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. Lebanon’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 centre 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 a 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.
Today, 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 from 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 the early Christian faith.
But 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 – there are many complaints 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.

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.

Egypt – above and beyond!

With a month left to go and here I am sitting in my comfortable balcony, watching the sunset and thinking of the place I now call home – Egypt.
I don’t really know how these two months have passed and in between the school, trips around and friends I have settled for a life I know I will miss.
Well, let’s just say that working with kindergarden kids has proved a bit challenging yet inspiring and fun. In this learning process I have become a kid as well. It was the time to remind myself how easy things unravel and how we always look for problems instead of laughing at life. For as a great sage one said – ‘if it can be solved, there s no need of worry. If it can’t be solved, worry is of no use’.
Therefore, working in an environment where I am surrounded by women and children became something that I was looking forward to each morning. Still, the time will come when I shall leave and remember these days with great joy and happiness.
Exploring Egypt was a wonderful experience as well as I have been longing to see what it had to give – and yes! I have discovered that there are so many colorful streets in Cairo with simple people living in more than simple conditions yet still smile and greet and invite you to dance at their weddings.
I have walked through the streets of Alexandria, drank coffee and ate sweets while its breeze caressed my cheeks and know that I will one day be back for more.
Then, there are the pyramids which have been my uttermost dream to accomplish – and there they were, majestic and solemn, unmoved in their greatness.
Surely was worth the long trip (around 13 hours) to visit Dahab, see the most amazing sunrise from Mount Sinai and Catherine’s Church… What an exquisite place to be. What silence and what peace resides there in each and every rock you see, in each and every corner you could turn.
There have been moments when I wished for time to stop, to be more patient in it’s pass – for I wanted avidly to capture them better. To colour, to explain, to address myself for it was just such a miracle that I was there! Of course sometimes life takes you by surprise and by the time you know it you are just a moment away from what you ultimately desired for – belongingness and connection with it all….
Last but not least, the people that I have met so far have been graceful in their humble way of showing me how welcome I was and constantly questioning ‘why..why on earth did I choose to come here?’
This question always puts a smile on my face now. I still haven’t found a more ‘convincing’ answer than ‘because I always wanted to come to Egypt’. Satisfactory or not, this is the best I can say, however maybe in short time I would be more inventive.
For now I can only say I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to live this experience and am looking forward to this last month still to come, for more adventures, more beautiful souls and more shores await for me. =)