WanderMom

Inspiration for where to travel with children

Announcing Passports with Purpose 2014

Posted on | December 3, 2014 | No Comments

PWP-logo

It’s time for Passports with Purpose 2014 and today I have the pleasure of participating in the kick-off of this year’s fund-raising activities and offering you a chance to experience the very best of Seattle.

First, let’s do a little review of Passports with Purpose. This will be the seventh year that I’ve worked on this online fund-raiser as co-founder and board member. In previous years we’ve built a school in Cambodia, a village in India, libraries in Zambia, water wells in Haiti and in 2013, two schools in Mali.

This year we’re trying something a little different: our blogger supporters voted on a shortlist of charities and selected Sustainable Harvest International as our 2014 beneficiary. Every $5k raised will help one extended family in Honduras learn to farm sustainably for five years with lasting benefits for them and their community.

Sustainable-Harvest-children

My prize this year is a overnight stay at the Four Seasons hotel in Seattle. You can donate $10 and enter to win this prize on the Passports with Purpose Prize Catalog page. Your donation goes directly to the beneficiary charity, and you get the chance to win a neat prize.

Four Seasons Hotel Seattle

The Four Seasons in Seattle is a beautiful property. It is my go-to place for a pre-dinner drinks for date night or for a glass of prosecco with a girlfriend after an busy day shopping. It is steps from Pike Place Market and across the street from the Seattle Art Museum. The elegant, calming, tasteful decor includes some original art works from the Pacific Northwest School – artists of the last century who came to the region and were inspired by its landscape, native crafts and burgeoning art scene. This art-inspired theme is carried through in the Art Lounge and Art Restaurant which provide sumptuous dining experiences.

Prize Details
Want to experience the best of Seattle? Do so from your home-away-from-home with a one-night stay at Four Seasons Hotel Seattle and then relax with a 50-minute Swedish massage at The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Seattle. This Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel is located in downtown Seattle, just a block away from Seattle Art Museum, Pike Place Market, the Seattle Great Wheel and more. Take advantage of the hotel’s heated, outdoor infinity pool, and enjoy its resort-within-the-city vibe.

Blackout dates apply. Hotel and spa must be booked together. Expires December 31, 2015.

How to Donate (and enter the free sweepstakes drawing for this prize)
Just as in previous years, Passports with Purpose 2014 will operate as an online free drawing. This great prize is listed on the donation page. For each $10 donation that you make, you get a chance to enter a free drawing for this or any of the other prizes listed. It’s that simple. Go, check out the prizes, donate $10, $20, $50 or $100 and on December 17th 2014 we’ll announce the winner of each prize.

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A Sightseeing Day in New York – Replanned On The Fly

Posted on | April 15, 2014 | No Comments

TopOfTheRock

We turned up at Fort Clinton at a sprightly (for us) 11am, our pre-purchased CityPass tickets for the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island ferry in hand. And then we stopped. And stared. Holy cow! Where did all of these people come from? Just nearby and all over the world apparently judging by the accents. We turned tail (and made plans to come back again much, much earlier on another day).

The good part about having over-traveled children is that they just rolled with the Ellis Island change-of-plans. We hopped on a subway uptown with revised plans for the day.

For me, travel is about visiting new places, seeing new things, basically re-gaining joy and wonder – things that the daily work-school-housework will grind into oblivion. Joy and wonder, however, are exhaustingly difficult to elicit from my over-traveled children which is why I will treasure the looks on their faces when we walked into Times Square for a long time. The unexpected April sunshine made everything sparkle, and the crowds weren’t too bad (obviously everyone was standing around Battery Park instead!!). Times Square worked its’ magic on my teenage boys and I couldn’t stop grinning.

We touristed at the Rockefeller Center where my ultra-geek challenged himself to name all the flags (achievement unlocked). Bet you didn’t know that the flags of both North Korea and Somalia are flown outside this center of American capitalism!

We ended our sightseeing day with a quick stop “for a drink at the Rooftop cafe” in the Metropolitan Museum leading B to challenge “I see what you’re doing here, squeezing in culture and thinking we won’t notice!”. “What? Who? Me? Never!”

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New York City with (grumpy) Teens

Posted on | April 13, 2014 | No Comments

I don’t think I’ve ever live-blogged before – this is my first attempt. The gurus says “Don’t live-blog while you’re away from your home, people will know you’re away”. Thankfully someone already broke into our house and stole the only stuff worth stealing so hey, that frees me up to pretend I’m feckless and fancy-free again :)

NYC with Teens

The map above shows today’s self-guided walking “tour” (hah “tour”!).
High points: Pottering at the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market; People-watching at Washington Square Park; Really appreciating the differences in NYC neighborhoods (that’d be me – and maybe the Murphster – the children were more consumed with the ignominy of having to walk to far).

Low points: OMG! The need to line up at Empire State just to buy tickets!! And whew! I really like the Highline but To Be Avoided on a Sunday with Children. Seriously.

My children, believe it or not, hate traveling.
Their reaction to plans to visit NYC: “Hey, our phones will work! We’ll understand the language!”.
Yeah. Funny kids.

Today I remembered why:
1. Traveling with kids sucks (they complain continually).
2. I’m really, truly not meant to be a desk jockey: I felt better after walking ~8miles (add walking to Curry Hill and back to the map above) around New York than I have done in months.
3. Visiting anywhere pushes you to be a better person: either because your kids challenge your patience and tolerances OR because the mass of humanity around you makes you wish for a desert island OR because the people-watching prompts truly funny conversations OR because it takes a certain density of people to generate (or save) art and beauty and even if you can’t draw a straight line (like me) you appreciate the value of life, love and color.

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Announcing Passports with Purpose 2013

Posted on | November 26, 2013 | No Comments

PWP-logo

It’s time for Passports with Purpose 2013 and today I have the pleasure of participating in the kick-off of this year’s fund-raising activities and sharing a secret with you. A secret you say? Yes, indeedy, a secret: my secret, favorite weekend-away getaway location in Washington State.

First, let’s do a little review of Passports with Purpose. This will be the sixth year that I’ve worked on this online fund-raiser as co-founder and board member. In previous years we’ve built a school in Cambodia, a village in India, libraries in Zambia and water wells in Haiti.

This year we’ve set our fund-raising goal at $115,000 and we’re partnering with buildOn.org, an independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is “to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education”. With $115,000 we will be able to construct three schools and fund three adult literacy programs in the Sikasso region of southern Mali, Africa.

buildon-mali

That’s the why. Let’s move on to the What, as in “What’s that about a secret?” Have you ever spent a weekend in Walla Walla, Washington? It’s way over on the far eastern side of the state in the desert grasslands of the Palouse. No? well, I’m here to tell you why you should firstly, and secondly to help you get there – by participating in Passports with Purpose this year.

marcus-whitmanMy prize this year is a overnight stay at the Marcus Whitman hotel in Walla Walla. You can donate $10 and enter to win this prize on the Passports with Purpose Prize Catalog page.

I’m thrilled to announce this prize because I love Walla Walla. For the past couple of years (since my children have been old enough to leave home alone overnight), my husband and I have escaped to Walla Walla in October for a fun weekend of food and wine. We usually choose a weekend during the grape harvest (known as the “crush”) when the many wineries in the Walla Walla area are in full swing loading, delivering, crushing and fermenting wine. You get to see the wine-making business from the production end – and also taste the results from as many of the prior years as you like :)

We tend to bring our bikes with us and combine a little wine-tasting with a little (moderate) exercise – which, of course, limits the number of wineries we can visit in a day, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Prize Details
One Night Stay in an Executive Tower Suite at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center.

The Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center is a landmark and storied gathering place for the local community and visitors alike. Anchoring historic downtown Walla Walla, the property includes a luxury hotel, expansive modern conference center, six on-site wine tasting rooms (I told you, Walla Walla, it’s all about the wine!), art gallery, and a nationally recognized gourmet restaurant and wine lounge, all set to a sophisticated old-world backdrop.

Built in 1928 through a community labor of love, The Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center was fully renovated in 2001, and restored to its original grandeur, while adding modern updates to provide a truly luxurious experience for today’s traveler. With 127 beautifully appointed guestrooms and the addition of more than 13,000 square feet of event and conference space, the hotel is the perfect place to enjoy a romantic wine country getaway – guests can walk to more than 20 wine tasting rooms from the hotel and experience more than 100 wineries within 20 miles – establish a base for exploring the Walla Walla Valley, or to relax during business travel.

How to Donate (and enter the free sweepstakes drawing for this prize)
Just as in previous years, Passports with Purpose 2013 will operate as an online free drawing. This great prize is listed on the donation page. For each $10 donation that you make, you get a chance to enter a free drawing for this or any of the other prizes listed. It’s that simple. Go, check out the prizes, donate $10, $20, $50 or $100 and on December 16th 2013 we’ll announce the winner of each prize.

The Passports with Purpose 2013 sponsors are:
EXPEDIA, INC. LOGO

DK Eyewitness

Rough Guides

TBEX-Logo-with-BW-200x170 Collette Vacations_logo

EatingLondon_logo

HomeAway_together

hostelbookers_foot&strap-thumb-240x240-27

gowithoh

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Yazd Iran Street Scenes

Posted on | November 22, 2013 | No Comments

iran-yazd-old-town
Yazd, in South-Central Iran, is an ancient city on the edge of not one, but two deserts. On the roofs of these buildings in the old town you can see bagdirs or windcatchers, natural air-conditioning units. In order to get this great view, we had to climb up on an abandoned mosque…

iran-yazd-goofing
which gave my boys some excellent, if mom-heart-stopping photo-posing opportunities.

iran-yazd-door-knockers
Wandering through the back streets we also came across some doors like this one, with male and female door knockers. The knockers make different sounds allowing home-owners to know whether the person at the door is male or female and then decide whether or not to answer the door – just as you or I might screen our phone calls.

iran-yazd-town-center
It’s hot in Iran in July, particularly in the desert. Most people stay inside during the heat of the day and instead come out to run errands and shop in the late evening – and by late evening I mean after 10pm at night.

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The Corniche in Beirut

Posted on | November 4, 2013 | No Comments

Beirut

This is Beirut.
Beirut.
Soon after I left Belfast in 1991 I met a guy in a bar. Both avid travelers, we talked about where we wanted to go next.
“Beirut”, I said, “in Belfast I learned that people live lives and the media writes stories mainly to make money. The difference between those realities is fascinating”.
He shook his head, “You’re crazy, lady”.
“Not at all. I’ve done Belfast. I just need to visit Beirut and Belgrade and then I’ll be done. I want to know if we’re all being duped by newspaper headlines”.

Then I fell for him. We got married, had kids, traveled a fair bit but I never got to Beirut – until this year. My friend Karin was there interning with the UNHCR. We chatted, me at my desk in Google Seattle, her in her little hostel room in Beirut.
“Come over. It’s amazing. You’ll love it.”

The local, national and international news were full of reports of the war in Syria. Journalists filed stories about the war and tensions in neighboring countries including Lebanon and Jordan “from Antakya” or “from Beirut”.
“Is it safe?” I asked Karin, the words feeling like something someone else would say even as they came out of my mouth.
“Totally. It’ll be great.”
She had been there almost three months. Convinced that an opportunity like this doesn’t come every day I booked flights.
Days later the papers were full of bombings in Tripoli. Oh well, too late now.

I lined up at passport control at Beirut airport with a hastily completed visa form in hand betting on a lackadaisical border guard. The form was pretty specific: in return for generously providing visas on demand at ports of entry, the Lebanese government asked travelers to provide a local address and phone number. Not an outrageous demand by any stretch, simply complicated by me totally forgetting to ask Karin for her address – and my phone was dead so I couldn’t even call her.

The border guard wasn’t impressed. I was curtly and dismissively escorted into a small room populated by a bunch of equally stern and forbidding-looking (armed) guards. My escort deposited me and disappeared back to his post with no explanation.
Lovely. When in doubt, play the girl card…
“I’m so sorry. I’m such a ditz. My phone is dead…”
The officer in charge looked as me with about as much respect as if I’d crawled out from behind the dingy battered sofa in his drab, industrial, grey office.
“My friend, I’ll be staying with her but I don’t have her address…”
He held an old-style telephone receiver in hand. His stare bellowed “Lady, can’t you see I’m busy? You wait until I’m ready for you!!”.
I persisted in my friendliest voice “I just need to charge up my phone and then I can call my friend…”
Now he really couldn’t believe my impudence. He gestured to a junior guard who beckoned me out the door and pointed out a power socket on the wall – still on the wrong side of the border checkpoint.
I thanked him profusely and rummaged in my bag for socket converters and power cords.

Five minutes later my phone had a smidgen of charge, enough for me to open my email. I had to lean across the barrier marking “no-man’s-airport-land” and Lebanon to connect to the airport free wifi. There was no-one left at the border checkpoints except a couple of bored guards who stared at me as I leaned over the barrier shamelessly, an internet hussy. I smiled back.

Karin’s phone number in hand I marched back into the office waving my visa form out in front of me. The officer was possibly less happy to see me than the first time, now he had to actually deal with me. Thankfully, a couple of quick phone calls later the form was filled out to his satisfaction, my passport stamped and I was on my way – and I knew that Karin hadn’t given up on me and was waiting in arrivals.

corniche-beirut

Later that evening Karin took me on a walk along the Corniche in central Beirut. From her hostel in Ain el Mreisse just below the American University we walked along the water, past the upscale yacht club all the way to Martyr’s Square and then through the eerily remodeled souk area to Place de L’Etoile.

Corniche comes from the french word for ledge, usually used to describe a road on the side of a cliff or a mountain with the ground falling away from the road on one side and rising on the other. The lower part of the Corniche in Beirut, the part that we walked, felt much more like an Esplanade, a broad generous path full of Beirutis enjoying the summer evening.

“Color” is the single word that pops into my mind as I recall that walk. Maybe it was the summer evening sunshine or maybe it was the light reflecting on the Mediterranean. My first impressions of Beirut from that evening are peopled with groups of young men smiling and calling out to us cheerfully as we passed, young families, rambunctious children and girls wearing headscarves in every color but black.

On the streets of Tehran, the sea of black chadors felt to me like a surprise slap in the face. The absence of color hurt my eyes and my heart. Even though I know that Lebanon has a large Christian community, it is a predominantly Muslim country. Subconsciously I arrived in Beirut expecting Tehran. The riot of brightly-colored headscarves with matching shoes and bags or a headscarf complimenting a gaily patterned top made me practically giddy and lifted a weight I hadn’t realized I was carrying. The Corniche that evening was, for me, a rainbow of bright, strong colors and it made me want to laugh out loud.

The Corniche is also the Avenue de Paris and on the Avenue de Paris the true heart of Beirut calls in honking horns, drivers barely observing lane markings and treating traffic signals as nothing more than a suggestion. Vibrancy of an entirely different kind. It was traffic like I’ve never experienced before. It made Hanoi and Beijing with their schools of motorcycles seem positively pedestrian. Traffic in Lima or Rio can be navigated fairly successfully if the driver remembers to look only ahead and move quickly – at least there cars on the left drive left and cars on the right drive right. In Beirut such directional obeisance is noticeably absent. It’s chaotic and raucous but strangely, it works.

corniche-beirut-yachts

At the far end of the Corniche we nodded at security guards and passed into another world. Like a World Showcase in Disney’s Epcot the Zaitunay Bay area is the Middle East re-imagined. It could be Vegas or Sydney or the South of France. The restaurants are modern, the yachts new and extravagant, the ambiance exclusive. To walk into this area on the turn of a corner was bizarre and almost disappointing, “I thought I came to Beirut, where is this place?”. Thankfully the cacophony of car horns was still audible.

We walked through Zaitunay Bay and out the other side where the Corniche is no more and instead we needed to cross a four-lane highway on our way to up Martyr’s Square. For the second time that evening I felt the dissonance of Beirut’s post-war recovery acutely. Where the marina area is ultra-modern, Martyr’s Square is a historical landmark. The Martyr’s statue in the center of the square is bullet-riddled. Beirut yesterday, meet Beirut tomorrow.

beirut-planetarium

The shell of a planetarium stands, like a skeleton on one side of the square all rubble and bare concrete bones. The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, domes in glistening blue tile with a gentle twilight glow on the yellowed stones, in the background. Lebanon old and new? I wish I could say. Planetariums obviously, are like orthodontia, nice to have but nowhere near as necessary as a functioning place of worship.

By now I was flagging, feeling my jet-lag in every step. We passed the Roman Baths and I barely noticed (!!). We walked down the new pedestrianized streets toward Place de L’Etoile and the fruity smell of flavored hookah was overpowering and nauseating. My treat for the evening was a silver moon over the brilliant domes of the mosque visible behind St Georges Greek Orthodox Cathedral. OK so the current cathedral building is fairly new but the original church dates from 400 A.D. This, this layering of history and culture, this is the Beirut I’d come to experience and try, meagerly, to understand.

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The Moment Before Leaving

Posted on | October 31, 2013 | No Comments

Wajis4

Do you have a favorite restaurant? I have plenty of favorite restaurants. Typically my favorite restaurants are of the white-linen variety, notable only because my husband’s are of the food-in-your-hand variety. Given that you’ll be surprised to learn that this restaurant, Waji’s, a humble Japanese food stand on Concourse C in SeaTac airport is and will forever be a special place for me. These days I typically pass it when rushing, half-asleep with the rest of the early-bird (nerd bird) commuters to catch the 6am Seattle – San Jose flight. Every time, even if I’m power-napping as I walk, I find myself slowing down and standing, staring for just a moment at the green and red neon. Sometimes I stare through the closed grating. Always my heart races just a little.

On September 1st 2010 Murph and I shared a beer at Waji’s waiting for our flight to Miami and on to Quito, Ecuador.
We had packed up our life, packed in our jobs and boxed up our belongings.
Our children sat by the gate.
We all sat waiting.

At one point Murph and I clinked glasses.
“We’ve really done it now Murphy”.
He squeezed my knee and we kissed just as BigB came running back to tell us it was time to board.
We gathered our bags and boarded, the very first steps in a 365-day, 26-country journey.

The emotion of that moment, a flood of excitement and adrenalin. The warmth of love for my life-partner. The affection and energy of my reluctantly excited children.
All of this comes back to me every time I stand outside Waji’s. It’s like an echo over time and experiences but clear as a bell as if I’d just hollered “Hallo” across the canyon of now and then.
It warms my heart.
It reinvigorates me.
It helps me tolerate the humdrum of today with memories of what I did yesterday and the belief that I can do even more tomorrow.

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The Little Syrian Woman in Green

Posted on | August 31, 2013 | 1 Comment

syrian-lady-in-green

This is a crap picture. I wish it were better. I wish I were a better photographer. I wish I’d even stood up when taking the photo. But, even with it’s failings this is a photo I’ll treasure. The best I can do is share with you the story behind the image.

I said that my visit to a refugee camp made me feel like I’d walked through the looking glass. Here were people building homes with nothing, a million miles from a Home Depot and a world away from IKEA or Pottery Barn. Even with that, I know these people came from towns and cities where they had, like anyone else, at some stage in their lives, bought a new sofa from a furniture store or a new fridge from an appliance store. Now here they were making homes from grain bags and wooden poles.

Some of the tents had rugs and plastic flowers. Maybe their homes are close enough to the border that sometimes they steal across and collect things from their houses to make their tents more familiar or more comfortable? I can’t imagine choosing to take risks like that.

Between a row of tents someone had planted flowers and corn. Still trying to picture myself in this situation I found myself drawn to the plants. This I could understand. If I were forced into a similar situation I bet I’d go out of my way to plant something and tend it.

I tried to take some photos of the flowers but my camera was a magnet for the kids. They crowded up to me “saurini, saurini” (“take my photo, take my photo”), too close for me to take their picture and crowding out the plants. The little woman in the photo above came out of her tent and roundly chastised the kids. We shared a universal language of Moms’ eye-roll and laughed. She barely came to my shoulder. Her deeply tanned skin contrasting sharply with my pale freckled self. Comparing smile lines and scant crows feet on our respective faces, I suspect we may be of a similar age. She carried herself confidently, a vibrant personality tangible in her smile and her eyes. She beckoned me over to her tent, the gaggle of kids followed at a distance.

It’s amazing how much we humans can understand each other even without the luxury of language. She invited me for tea but I declined as politely as I could. Then she asked me to take a photo of a family elder. I hunkered down and obliged. When I turned the camera around to show the photo the kids squealed and both herself and the older man nodded approvingly and then she took me completely by surprise. She gestured for me to take her photo. I’ve traveled in enough Islamic countries that I’d assumed she would shy away from the camera. Not wanting to lose the opportunity I swiveled on my heels and snapped. While I adjusted the zoom she flat-out posed. She tilted her chin and barely perceptibly jutted her left hip. I nearly fell over.

I don’t know why I found this woman posing for the camera so arresting. Why wouldn’t she pose? Destitute and a refugee she’s still a person, with dignity, wishes and hopes. Maybe as you read this it will help you think of the people behind the current news headlines as people like you and me.

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At the Syrian Refugee Camps in Bekaa Lebanon

Posted on | August 30, 2013 | 1 Comment

Intellectually you and I both know that there are many thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Emotionally we each likely empathize with the plight of these people when, say, we hear a moving news story. Practically in our daily lives we are too far removed from this problem to really do anything to help.

I recently spent a morning with a volunteer medical team at a refugee camp in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. The social, political and economic problems presented by the current refugee crisis in this area are challenging to understand (which I find interesting) but my practical interest in choosing to spend my vacation time visiting this camp was to learn more about how the response to such refugee situations really works. It was a through-the-looking-glass experience where my house-car-work reality was replaced by a world of dirt and dust and tents made from packing bags.

Firstly, let me introduce you to the medical team who kindly shared their home, their meals and their day with me. The six folks I met came from Germany, U.S. and Belgium. One doctor, one physician’s assistant, two nurses and two public health coordination staff. The medical folks volunteer with Medical Teams International for three weeks mostly using their own vacation time or unpaid leave from their regular jobs. The admin folk stay longer and provide necessary coordination between this team and other organizations working in the area, like the UNHCR.

I’ve never heard a group of people talk about intestinal worms or head lice so much – both, apparently, commonly contracted by people working in refugee camps. At least one person in the group had picked up a tummy bug and wasn’t keeping food down, but she still worked a full day.

Accompanied by three local translators the team rolls into a camp in their minivan and has to negotiate with the residents for use of a tent for the morning. Once that’s sorted they quickly set up portable tables and put out plastic storage tubs as their mobile dispensary and then the “clinic” opens. From pregnant mothers to diabetic grandfathers to sick children to people just needing someone to talk to the patients just keep on coming. During my short visit I think practically every person at the camp came by for attention. I found it exhausting just watching.

It was well past lunchtime when the tent owner started to express his displeasure that his home was still occupied. He was pretty agitated. Patients had to be turned away but you could understand his frustration. Even if your home is a makeshift tent, it’s still your home. Walking back to the van the team was still assisting people and medications were handed out even through the van window before we drove away. These are committed volunteers who take their responsibilities in delivering primary medical care very, very seriously.

There are hundreds of camps like the one I visited. They range in size from 10s to 100s of people. THe UNHCR description is “informal tented settlement”. People arrive (from Syria), they negotiate with a farmer to put up a tent on his land. The women may work in the fields. They likely won’t have running water. Newer tents are cloth bags sewn together over tied wooden poles, sticks really. More established residents have plastic sheeting, metal supports and possibly concrete floors. The tents are typically square with room partitions creating spaces for sleeping, eating and food preparation. There is very little food and people have few belongings so no real need for storage spaces. Pit toilets are shared one for every three to five tents. Grey tanks show that water has been delivered – usually by a relief agency. New camps pop up daily and the team coordinators try to keep track of new settlements and do camp assessments at new camps evaluating population, state and need. The team I visited provides care to about 35 camps and tries to visit each camp at least once every two weeks.

There were about 30 kids at the camp I visited. As a stranger, not actively working in the clinic, the kids were fascinated by me. I took pictures and played around with them. They followed me like the Pied Piper. Most were school-age, full of energy with nothing to do and no access to any education or even books to read.

Some of the kids were neatly dressed looking like they’d just showered. One girl looked like her hair hadn’t seen a comb in a month and her clothes were dirty and ragged. Parents and some older kids watched from a distance and then melted away – maybe figuring that I wasn’t a threat. I couldn’t help wondering how I would cope with my kids if I were in this situation. Would my boys be neat like the kid who came to me with a notebook and pen and inhaled the English letters and words that I drew for him? Or practically feral like the little girl who pushed every other kid out of the way whenever I took out my camera?

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At the UNHCR offices in Beirut

Posted on | August 19, 2013 | No Comments

There are easily 200 Syrian refugees waiting in the yard opposite the UNHCR offices in Beirut. Maybe 300. Men, women, children, so many children. Old people, young people. Couples, extended family groups. Waiting to register. Waiting to ask about their registration, looking for information.

The space is maybe 80ft by 40ft. A building lot without a building, just a couple of temporary 2-person offices and a construction crew building a platform for another office. The offices are on the north and east sides of the space. The new office will be on the west side. People are waiting under tarp shelters or standing in lines waiting in the central area. There are mostly men in the lines, the women and children wait oh so patiently in the shade. There is not enough shade, not enough plastic lawn chairs, no food and no water.

My friend Karin is doing a survey of pregnant and nursing mothers. She has a translator with her. I’m just tagging along and taking pictures. The kids, like kids everywhere pose, giggle and playact for the camera. It doesn’t take long before people start asking me questions. I feel so useless as I repeatedly hold up my hands helplessly.
One man wants to know if I’m a journalist. Another asks if I can help him reach relatives in the U.S. and Germany. One, speaking English pretty fluently explains that he’s a deserted Syrian Army soldier who just wants to find work – but the Lebanese are no longer respecting his UN registration # as valid ID.

I can feel the frustration sin the people who approach me – the ones that I can understand. The waiting is difficult. It’s very, very hot. It’s noisy and dusty. Those are their wives ineffectually fanning themselves. Those are their children sitting in the dirt.

Karin discovers that none of the women she speaks to know anything about the UNHCR medical services. One woman who is near term doesn’t know where she will have her baby. They all cite cost as an issue for them – UNHCR covers 75% of delivery costs but the family must pay the rest.

There are over 600,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, swelling the population of this small country of 4 million. A few blocks from the UNHCR offices there’s a Palestinian refugee camp – complete with a Yassir Arafat mural. Lebanon, already host to over 20,000 Palestinian refugees, is dealing with Syrian refugees streaming across the border daily. Some are Palestinian Syrians, complicating an already complicated situation.

We lunch with Karin’s co-workers, a talented multi-ethnic bunch of healthcare professionals. They discuss Karin’s findings and some of the issues they’re dealing with coordinating with Lebanese hospitals. It’s all medical stuff to me. I’m trying to process what I observed outside and what I’ve learned – am learning – about relief work such as theirs.

Later we tourist, just by walking through different neighborhoods in Beirut. The scars of Lebanon’s recent wars visible everywhere as rubble on the sidewalks, bullet-holes in walls or shot up, bricked up buildings. The military presence reminds me of Belfast: patrolling amoured cars, soldiers in fatigues with loaded guns, fortified entrances to governmental buildings. We pass coils of razor wire on the street.
“What’s that for?” I ask Karin.
“So they can close off the streets”.

We keep walking. Now I notice the razor wire at every major intersection.
We pass through the Hamra neighborhood near the American University of Beirut, past Starbucks and H+M, past cafes and bookstores. The streets are busy with Lebanese going about their daily business. Frequently little kids hold out their hands to us, begging.
“Syrians”, Karin says, “they’re everywhere”.

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