I was so excited. This was the day we were going to hand out backpacks. I gave the video camera to my mom and asked her to film their faces when they got their brand new backpacks.
After the usual morning routine of kids running up to me to give me drawings and flowers, the principal rang the bell and the kids lined up. This was the moment I had been waiting for.
"Today, we will be handing out backpacks," the principal announced. "Sama came here and bought you all backpacks and school supplies. She insisted on getting the good quality ones, so that you can keep them for the year after as well."
I didn't want him to say it was me who gave the backpacks. I just got to be the messenger. Lots of people donated money to make this project happen. The kids had to know it wasn't me.
"Sama wants to say something to all of you," he said.
I handed my mom the video camera and asked her to film this moment. I really wanted to see their faces when they heard what I had to say.
" Assalamu Alaikum" I said, beginning with the greeting of peace in our faith.
"Wa Alaikum Assalam Wa Rahmatu Llahu Wa Barakatu," they all said in unison.
" I have backpacks for you, but I need you to know that it is not me who bought you these backpacks." I said, carefully scanning their faces. A look of confusion hit their faces. If it wasn't me who got them, then who? You could almost hear their thoughts processing in their minds. " The people who live in America care about you. They think about you everyday. They just don't know what to do for you. Their thoughts are with you and they love you." I said. I could see their faces taking this information in. Their eyes looking down as if to process this thought that someone actually cares about them. " You are not alone. In all of your worries, in all of your fears. Know this. And know that kids ask me all the time how you are doing. They wonder about you. So when I said I was coming here, they donated money and they art supplies too. " One girl wiped her tears with her scarf. Another boy had his head in his arm. Like a chain reaction, the kids in the courtyard started comprehending these words and a third of the courtyard was crying.
"You are loved. Don't ever forget that." I said. My mom looked at me and nodded, Lina and I caught glances and nodded. Everything about this felt right. Every atom in my body was screaming for this moment. "Each of you will get a backpack. Take care of it. And everytime you hold it, remember that you are loved." I said.
With that, we started handing out the backpacks, class by class. The kids in line waiting their turn could barely handle waiting. They were so excited to get their very own backpack. It was so beautiful to watch. Even if for a moment, their joys washing out their sorrows. This brought peace to my heart.
These were honest conversations we were having. Visiting the classrooms gave me an idea which I would share with Mustafa later on in the evening.
ANSIH LINA, THE ENGLISH TEACHER
Her name is Lina Kurdi. I'll be honest with you. I was hesitant when she first said she wanted to come with me to Lebanon. I knew the amount of work that was before me and wanted to be sure that she absolutely knew that I meant work. She said she did, but today would put her to the test.
Well, she definitely passed the fashion test. My style too. Green cargo pants fitted into her boots, a black shirt and a long striped sweater. A smile radiated her essence and heads turned as she walked into the school. The kids were curious about her. Who was this fun looking person who did not dress like the other teachers? What? Our new English teacher? You could hear them excitedly talking.
While I was handing out backpacks, I could hear cheers coming from a class upstairs. It was the class Lina was in. Next thing I knew, during break, Lina came down the stairs with the largest grin on her face.
"Amazing, they are amazing Sama. I never want to leave this place. I see what you mean now."
Today was Lina's first day. She had spent the first few days visiting her relatives in Beirut. I had told her on Viber she was going to love it here. And love it she did. I was so glad she came. She truly is a hard worker and her spirit is something the school is in need of.
Mustafa had a conflict which affected me while I was there. The man who he was originally going to rent the school from down the hill was making threats to the school. Basically, he was angry that Mustafa chose the school up the hill instead. Mustafa had done so for many reasons. One, it was not occupied by Lebanese students during the day, so they could actually have a morning shift and possibly later on after they got more funding, create a second shift. IT was also because the donor who he found to pay the rent liked the school up the hill more. So Mustafa had been in the school for about a week and then decided on the other school. The man now wanted $5,000 USD. Mustafa did not have that kind of money.
"Well the girl from America showed up and all of a sudden you have money for a school." he had told him. Bad timing on paying rent on the school from the donor. I did not pay the rent. IT was not me.
Mustafa went to go speak with the guy. The threats he was making were not your normal threats. They were serious.
"If you don't pay me $5,000 by 10:30am tomorrow, I will shoot fire on the schoolbus as it makes its way through Tripoli. Don't underestimate my power." he had said.
TRASH OF THE MOUNTAINS
While Mustafa was meeting with him to try to talk some sense into the guy, I decided to go hiking up the mountain with his nieces and Lina. As we ascended up the mountain, the sound of the birds got louder and louder. So did the sound of gunshots. I had figured out by now that it was the military way up on top of the mountain. I couldn't stand the trash that littered the beautiful mountain of olive groves. We found a large trash bag and decided to pick up trash while we hiked. The red soil contrasted the piled gray rocks which terraced the hillside. Turning the corning of one of the bends, we saw a man with a large beard cutting down wood.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"We are picking up trash." I said.
"What? Why?" He said, absolutely confused at the concept.
"Because trash does not belong on the floor." I said.
"Where are you from?" he asked. He had a nice aura about him so I was comfortable in telling him that I was from America.
"America?" he said, absolutely shocked. "And you came to pick up our trash? How embarrassing for us that our own people don't care and you came from the end of the earth to pick up trash." Amani and Alaa were giggling at the conversation. We started talking and he invited us to his families house for tea sometime. A totally normal thing that strangers do to each other in this part of the world.
All of a sudden, the sound of the birds got louder. The birds in this area were so melodic and had actual songs to sing.
"What kind of birds are those?" I asked. The sound is so beautiful.
"Its a recording." The guy said.
"What? " That was the last thing on earth I had pictured in this rural village.
"The hunters are using the recording to lure birds- " just then, a bullet sound went off and 2 hunters rounded the corner.
He saw my face (which is unfortunately too descriptive) turn sour at the sight of those two men.
"Whats wrong?" he asked me.
"I don't like hunting, and I don't like those guys" I said.
"They are Syrian and are hunting for food." he said.
"Oh" I said. "Well, it was nice meeting you, we are going to continue our hike" I said.
"No. Not alone. I don't like the look of those guys. If you want to keep going up, I will accompany you ladies." he said.
Amani and Alaa were uncomfortable with this entire thing. "No Sama, lets just return." they said.
"Lets just go back," Lina said, tuning into how the younger girls were feeling.
"Okay," I said. "We are just going to turn around."
"Okay.. No problem. Seriously though, wait till I tell everyone that girls from America came to pick up our trash. Please, come over soon for tea. We just live down in that house over there." he said, pointing to a grey cement house off in the distance.
"Thank you," we said and made our way down. We all felt happy. We sang songs together and alone, each taking turns. The moment was glorious, the sky was pink, sunset was in motion.
Down by the house, Ali came up to find us. "Mustafa wants you in the house." he said.
As we were walking back, an old lady wearing a brown jalabiyah (one piece robe) fringed with gold thread limped over to the spring to go fill water. Ali, Alaa, and Amaani all ran up to her, greeting her.
Time paused for me as I watched this exchange carefully. These kids, 11, 13, and 14 had respect for the elderly.
"Can I fill those plastic bottles for you, Hajji?" Ali asked.
"Oh yes young man" the lady said. "May God grant you a long healthy life." She said, handing the plastic bottles to Ali. Ali grabbed them and jumped down by the spring to fill them up. While Ali was filling them, Alaa began conversation with her.
"Its been a while since you have come to our house for tea. Please, honor us with your visit soon." Alaa said. "We would love to have your company." she said gingerly, holding her hand out of respect.
I was in awe watching this. It was such a beautiful moment. These kids are rich in one thing: manners.
I questioned what true wealth was at that point. Was it better to raise an educated kid or a well-mannered kid? Imagine the combination of both.
Mustafa was relieved to see us back at the house. He reminded me of his concern for the threats he has been getting. "Please don't go alone next time. The threats and you are in my trust." he said.
It was house arrest at its finest, but house arrest wasn't so bad. The family was amazing, the food was delicious and the view was gorgeous.
Back in my room, I looked at the video footage of the day. I wanted to see the kids faces when they were moved by the gesture that kids from all over cared about them. Hit play. Okay, great, Mustafa talking, him announcing me. Okay here goes, I handed the camera to my mom. ZOOOOOMMMM... into my scarf. NOO!!! She filmed the thread count of my scarf. My heart sank. That was the most powerful moment of my trip so far. I would have to repeat that speech when I handed out cards and presents later on. Everyone had to see their faces. Everyone! I felt in a way it was my responsibility to include everyone who participated in the fundraising up until this moment to witness the effect they had made on these kids. Part of me was screaming and the other part of me found it so comical I could barely contain myself.
Mustafa and I talked about the day, talked about the crazy death threat guy, talked about the school. I shared with him the idea of people going into classrooms in America and talking to kids.
"Why not have each teacher invite a professional person to their class each month. This person can bring things with them. For example, if it is a doctor, they can bring a stethoscope with them, a doctor outfit, etc."
Mustafa liked this idea.
"We need to expose the kids to as many real world skills as possible. For some, all they know is tiling work cause their dad does that. For others, all that is in their heart is revenge, for all they have lived through. We need to give them other options." I said.
"Yes, I will add this to the meeting list for tomorrow." He said. Every night, we took a half sheet of paper and added announcements for the teachers, projects to get done, things we needed to buy, etc. "Oh and tomorrow, you also need to pay for the backpacks at the pharmacie."
"YES!" I said. We were having technical difficulties up until that point with the credit card due to the fact that Lebanon is a red listed country.