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Lebanon: The Power Of Community

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Lebanese and Syrian farmers share their plans. Photo by John McKenzie

One day you are driving to work, living in the neighbourhood you’ve grown up in and been to school in, you’ve been to university, maybe are married, had a family, bought a house. You’re employed and have a wage. Then political unrest sweeps through the country and people start carrying guns and fighting starts. It’s unsafe to stay so you are forced to leave. You flee. How would you cope? How would your family cope? Where would you go? What conditions would you be prepared to live in, and for how long? What conditions would you expect your family to put up with?

Lebanon has an incredible lineage of cultures, in the midst of so much history. In Lebanon today, there are an estimated six and a half million people. There are four million Lebanese, half a million Palestinian refugees who’ve been in refugee camps for over 40 years, and around two million Syrians who have arrived in the past five years.

These last few years have been an incredible change for both the Syrians and the Lebanese. Many of the Syrians are people whom Australians can easily identify with—middle -class families, living urban lives. They’ve fled their homes and jobs. They left in their cars, or buses or taxis. Whatever it took at that critical moment when the decision to flee had to be made, when the threat of violence became too much. Many had little idea of what conditions they were heading towards.

Most of the two million Syrians are either renting or being billeted by Lebanese families. Lebanon, with its many decades of experience of the Palestinian refugee camps, has chosen not to set up more camps. They have instead allowed and encouraged the Syrians to find their way in the community, to find their way into life as best they can, to rent, to couch surf, to find jobs. There is a huge building boom with DIY housing, and many people billeting in houses half-built, sheds and spare rooms.

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Syrian refugee showing her food garden. Photo by John McKenzie

Permies often focus on ecosystem elements, such as food growing, water systems, forest restoration and waste management. But this Lebanon situation highlights the power of community and the goodwill that is far more powerful than economic incentives at holding a community together to get through a difficult time. The principle of fair share and use of surplus. ‘I don’t need that house this year’, the locals may think. ‘Next year my brother might get married and he may need that house, but until then, they can live there. That is no problem for us.’

I visited Lebanon in June to support an aid project in the rural north east. Previously I’d worked on projects with people in similar conditions in Sri Lanka; populations in dislocation and seeking resettlement (see story in Pip issue 1). That project had gone reasonably well and I was hoping to have useful suggestions and lessons learnt to pass on. My brief was to look at the issues of food security, water supply, land rehabilitation and micro-economic development, and the project response activities like household food gardens, earth-wall farm dams, windbreaks and community education. All important work, and areas that permaculture is often associated with.

As the visit proceeded and we were deep in the exchange of ideas about food gardens, farms and water management, I realised there was another new reality there that I had not anticipated: the community integration that was happening. The Syrians were living in the community. They were all around us, working and active in sorting out their lives and establishing themselves. They were living in many differing situations; billeted with friends or relatives, some renting rooms or houses, some were building their own places to stay in, some were in rough itinerant encampments.

The simple reality was the two million Syrians were well advanced in being absorbed into the Lebanese community. This had been achieved because the community was offering goodwill and collaboration. This achievement is far greater than governments and aid agencies could provide with their financial and organisational contributions. The currency is not financial or organisational power, it is based on the power of a humane attitude of care for others. In permaculture this is known as ‘People Care’. Witnessing this achievement of resettlement and the facilitating power of the people care ingredient was definitely the highlight of my trip.

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The Syrian families help their Lebanese hosts. Photo by John McKenzie

Our news media in Australia carries occasional stories of the Lebanese people being stressed and there being fracture lines between the Lebanese and the Syrians. Probably some problems do exist but the big story I found was the opposite. The real story is of a massive amount of collaboration and community cooperation. Of pitch in and help.

The narrative of fear and border control that we hear relentlessly in Australia as essential to national security was not supported by the success of what has been achieved in Lebanon in these past five years. They have accommodated two million new arrivals based primarily on the power of human consideration and community cooperation and on families caring for and helping each other.

John McKenzie was sent to Lebanon by aid agencies: Acted and Alam Santi.

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