Being back home over the holidays was an adjustment for Abbotsford native Doug Enns and his wife Naomi.
They’re not used to so much peace and quiet.
Since 2013, the couple has been serving as Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) co-representatives in Beirut, Lebanon, as part of its Syria Response Program.
Syria’s bloody civil war began in 2011. Since then more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions have fled to neighbouring countries. More than three million have crossed the border into Lebanon.
It’s meant a new daily normalcy for the Enns: chaotic streets, rolling blackouts sometimes lasting 12 hours, regular visits to refugee gatherings, and a looming military presence in the city — barbed wire, cement barricades and routine police checks in the streets.
“You don’t have the tension in the air here,” said Doug. “That is a big difference. You’re relaxed.”
Last summer in Beirut, in a span of five days, three suicide bombers struck.
“Fear is a relative word in that area. Do we fear? On occasion,” said Naomi. “Yes, we’ve been to places where the day after a bomb has gone off.”
And while the couple doesn’t return to Lebanon until early January, Naomi constantly checks her smart-phone for messages.
“You never know what will happen, right?”
Minutes earlier she received a message from a partner in Damascus, the capital of Syria, requesting assistance.
Sense of hope
MCC has had a presence in Lebanon since 1977, and in Syria since 1991.
In early 2012, in co-operation with more than 14 in-country partners, MCC responded to the Syrian crisis by providing humanitarian aid, including emergency food assistance, non-food item distribution, water, sanitation and hygiene, shelter support, education, peace-building and trauma healing.
Since then, MCC has provided $20 million (U.S.) in assistance to people in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
“Our work is dedicated to peace, development and relief – with relief being our primary focus over the past few years – for the Syrian IDPs (internally displaced persons) and communities inside Syria to remain sustainable,” said Naomi.
That includes cash allowances to IDPs and host families, distributing non-food-items — including school kits, blankets and hygiene items and clothing — and offering trauma awareness training.
Naomi said the cash allowances serve two purposes: “One, provide a sense of hope,” she said. “People knowing there is someone out there thinking of them goes a long way in resiliency. Secondly, to provide them with a small income that meets their basic, most prioritized needs.”
With funding from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), food assistance has been provided for 6,000 displaced families in Qalamoun, Syria and food vouchers for 3,125 Syrian and Palestinian refugee families in Beirut and southern Lebanon between 2012 to 2014. In collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, MCC has also provided $3.25 million in programs to displaced families inside Syria and Lebanon with urgent household needs and shelter.
About 9,000 people are on the move daily inside Syria.
“[We] hear their stories, where they came from, how their life is now, based on the impact of MCC’s work with them, what their challenges are and how we can make things better,” said Naomi.
Naomi acknowledges the work can be exhausting, but the couple feels a strong sense of hope because the Lebanese non-government agencies, Syrian volunteers and other partners are working diligently to aid those in crisis.
“I’m more encouraged than tired because of their tireless effort. And they could give up – they don’t have to be doing what they are doing.”
The Arabic phrase Inshallah — which means God willing — is real there, she said.
“Nobody really knows what is going to happen by the end of the day and I think we’ve really started to also incorporate that into our own days.
“For us that means not thinking as much about the future and more about the present.”
Still, as Doug explained, the couple is much safer than many of their beneficiaries and partners inside Syria.
Many of them say when they walk out the door in the morning they don’t know if they’ll see [their families] again. And that’s a daily occurrence.
“They don’t take goodbye very lightly anymore,” added Naomi.
Teaching the children
There are 500,000 school-aged refugees inside Lebanon and about 300,000 have no access to formal or informal education.
MCC is providing ongoing support in several schools in the region, including helping to start kindergarten classes for refugee kids in Lebanon. MCC also sends school kits that are packed in Canada and the U.S. for the young students.
“Kindergarten for Syrian refugees — that’s my most favourite project in Lebanon,” said Naomi.
“It’s providing something that’s future-looking. When I think about the education projects I get really excited. It gives a sense of normalcy.”
In Lebanon, preschools are privately run and parents must pay. Because students must pass a basic knowledge and English language test to get into the first grade, Palestinian and Syrian children are at a disadvantage.
But that is changing. Of the 23 kids who graduated from the initial MCC-sponsored kindergarten class, all passed their entrance exam to Grade 1.
“Our school has an educational component,” said Naomi, who proudly attended the first kindergarten graduation ceremony with Doug.
The most difficult part of the mission in Syria is having to say no to “many, many legitimate requests,” said Doug.
“It’s a protracted crisis, war is not sexy, [it] doesn’t attract a lot of dollars. Since March 2012, MCC has been able to do $20 million of programming, which is phenomenal, but the needs are only increasing. And the requests are coming and we’re not able to keep up with the demands,” he said.
“And you deal with all kinds challenges, road blocks along the way… and try and get things done.”
The small victories matter.
“That excitement of the tiny, little things that work, the human connections that occur, I think that’s what keeps us going,” added Naomi.
Standing in the cavernous warehouse inside MCC’s new centre on Gladys Avenue, Doug and Naomi are surrounded by stacks of colourful blankets knitted locally, and shelves are filled with packaged items that go into the hygienic and eduction kits that will eventually end up in places like Lebanon, Haiti and Zimbabwe.
The supplies for the kits are donated and then assembled in homes, schools and churches.
A hygiene kit costs about $6 and contains a hand towel, tooth brush, nail clippers and a bar of soap – essential items for those on the move.
When Naomi sees Dennis Vogt, material resource manager at MCCBC, inside the warehouse she gives him a heartfelt thank you for the role he and the rest of staff in Abbotsford play in making a difference a world away.
Doug explained they have often been present when the kits are distributed and have witnessed the joy on people’s faces.
Naomi asks for a picture, handing her phone to her husband.
“Our partners and refugees … like to see where the stuff is coming from and who’s actually connected. It’s part of the connecting – it comes from somewhere.”
MCC has put out an appeal for relief and hygiene kits, along with cash donations. To help, visit http://mcccanada.ca/stories/mcc-low-emergency-response-dollars.