No home, no warmth, no end in sight. Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

“There’s a lady here who has ten children aged under 18, and she’s widowed, and living in a tent,” we were told. The thought of that existence, in the cold of the Bekaa Valley winter, was difficult to fathom.

Having grown up in middle class England, and having had a very comfortable life there, and in Canada, I never had many challenges in life, until I began to explore the world. My eyes were truly opened first, when I began renting a ramshackle apartment in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Having taken for granted always having enough money, enough food, enough warmth,  and generally the ability to buy or do what I want, afford healthcare, and swan around the world without a second thought, I had never had any appreciation for how most of the world live. There’s a reason you rarely meet travelers of the backpacker variety from “developing” world countries. There’s too many barriers to do anything – both financial, and bureaucratic. Our world is locked down with tight controls, which mean the likes of myself can go anywhere, but for those less fortunate with their place of birth, being able to move anywhere in this world of ours is extremely difficult.

It’s sad but true. I can hold down a job doing practically anything in the UK or Canada, and know that in a few short months of thrifty living, I can afford to take months off at a time, to explore the world. The friends I’ve met from less fortunate backgrounds these past couple of years cannot.

And so, this really came to a head, when my life became intertwined with the ongoing Syrian civil war. This conflict has been called the worst humanitarian disaster since the Rwandan genocide, more than 130,000 people have been killed – a figure that is decidedly conservative, and more than five million people have been forced to flee their homes. If I had to leave my home I’d have plenty of options, and always somewhere warm, dry, and safe to sleep. For the majority of these five million people – that’s more than half of the population of the city of London by the way – they don’t have that luxury.

Eventually, I wanted to do something – anything – to help people who were suffering. It’s impossible for one English dude with a laptop and an SLR to change the world, or stop a war, but I at least wanted to do something to help some people in need, somewhere.

And so Blankets4Syrians was born. Coined by my university friend, Roshina, we set about raising funds for Syrian refugees living in the less-than-stellar conditions of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

So we did. Through a combination of friends, family, social media, and downright annoying harrying of people, we ended up raising $5,000, purely through donations. Two weeks ago, arranged by a Syrian friend who works with refugees in Lebanon, we made our trip to Bekaa.

It was both heartwarming, and extremely sad to visit the camp. In this expansive, spectacular valley that runs 120 kilometres through Lebanon, sandwiched between two mountain ranges, were camp after camp after camp. Inside those camps live families from all over Syria. Farmers, drivers, office workers. Mothers, daughters, sons. You name it, they were there. Drive up the main highway from Chtoura toward the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek, and look either side of the highway. There is the unmissable sight of thousands of hastily erected tents, draped with plastic sheeting, and with old car tyres hurled on top, to keep the ceilings in place. Homely, this is not.

At the camp we visited, we were greeted with smiles, handshakes, and strong Turkish coffee. We sat in the tent of the man who was leader of the camp, and talked about their experiences. Most people in that camp had been there between one and two years – some of them longer. And there was no sign of them being able to go back to their homes any time soon. One question that hung with me: would they still have homes to go back to?

We were shown around the camp, all the time being shadowed by crowds of children – most of them under the age of five, all smiles and laughter. It’s amazing how children seem to be able to cope with such situations. I guess, in some ways, life is all a game at that age. However, in quiet moments I saw the looks of anguish, the short tempers, and the signs of a difficult life etched upon the faces of some of the children. I’ve seen some horrific videos and images of the Syrian war. Things I will never forget. But I can barely imagine what some of these children have had to endure.

Our time at the camp was short and sweet. We distributed what we could to the families we had been put in contact with. We had some extra clothes, and blankets to go around. These were snapped up in an instant. It was shocking to see the conditions, the situations people were living in. Huge families, many mouths to feed, and little or nothing to do it with. I will never forget the thought of being a single mother with ten children to raise. In a tent. As the sun went down, we felt the temperature drop sharply. With the day almost done, some of the kids wanted to show me their play area – a huge hill rising sharply up from the flat valley, next to the tents.

We climbed the hill, twenty children in tow. From the top, we could see the whole camp, the Bekaa Valley bathed in the golden light of the final moments of sun light. We could see other camps, dotted around the landscape, as far as the eye could see. The sun had now set behind the mountains leading to Beirut, and the Mediterranean. On our left we could see the mountains to the east – behind which lay Syria. Home for all of these people. The children slid down a trench, scored into the hill. This was their playground. The trench was so well-defined, having been used for months – and years – before. I wondered for how many more years Syrian kids would slide down this hill, reducing the few clothes they had to wear to rags, before they could return home, and resume their lives.

 For more images of my visits to see those suffering from the Syrian war, and other images from my travels, visit my Flickr page.

A nargile store in Borj Hammoud

Smoking nargile is all the rage in Lebanon. In cafes, restaurants, down on the beach, or in the comfort of the place you call home – you’re never far away from a beautifully ornate waterpipe. I’m not a cigarette smoker, but the sweet taste of apple flavour tobacco, or mint, or even grape, is a relaxing sensation during an evening in a cafe with some mezze, or sitting down at Beirut’s waterfront. As well as that, they’re a stunning bit of kit, as this store in Lebanon’s “little Armenia” – Borj Hammoud,  will show you.

You can buy a nargile in a ready-to-go kit, or, for the waterpipe smoking connoisseur, you can put together your own, custom made contraption to meet both your artistic, and smoke inhalation, requirements.

Memories of Syria, five years ago

“Nowhere else on Earth have I so often been physically restrained from leaving the homes of complete strangers in order to stay for yet another meal or another night.” This was the response from Tom, my brother, when I asked him of his experiences cycling through Syria.

In 2009, from it’s northern frontier with Turkey, to the southerly reaches of the country and on into Jordan, Tom pedalled through one of the most ancient civilisations on our planet, on a bicycling journey lasting three and a half years. Syria was just a snippet of his voyage, but it was a memorable one. With the ongoing conflict in the country almost in its forth year, and the much maligned “Geneva II” piece talks beginning in earnest this week, I thought what better a time to share some of Tom’s stunning photography to showcase a beautiful land that is much more than the chaos that currently consumes it, and to hope that Syria will soon start to recover from three years of bitter struggle and more than 130,000 deaths.

Tom Allen set off from rural England on a heavily loaded bicycle in 2007. He came home a few years later with a second citizenship – and a wedding ring on his finger, having cycled across more than 30 countries on four continents. He runs a popular cycle touring website, tomsbiketrip.com, and is also co-producer of the award-winning documentary feature film of his story, Janapar.

Why I let a stranger take a laser to my face

Three weeks ago, I lay on an operating table, fully conscious, and let a doctor I’d met 20 minutes before take a high intensity laser to my eyes. For the three or so minutes I was lying there, I heard the sounds usually associated to insects being zapped in the summer, and the smell of my own burning eyeballs. The initial result was less than comfortable. For the next 48 hours I could barely focus on anything – looking at a huge, wall-mounted sushi menu, for instance, was met with endless tears. I had to walk around my darkened apartment whilst sporting a pair of sunglasses more akin to the set of Robocop, or Terminator, than Vancouver. I spent the best part of a week listening to audiobooks, and little else. Yes, it’s safe to say that laser eye surgery was a fairly memorable experience for me.

But, those three weeks have passed since I finally undertook the surgery I’ve wanted for many years. I have never had perfect eyesight. Hell, I realised I needed glasses (revelation alert, parents) when I first started secondary school back in 1997 and used to sit at the back of the class, squinting at the whiteboard, and copying notes off my peers. Come to think of it, I even remember one particular math lesson – where for some reason I sat at the front – getting all the questions right, and then going back and (for some strange reason) deliberately making some of them wrong, so my track record wasn’t suddenly infinitesimally improved. I have no idea why I did that (kids, eh?), but I’m certain I would have got better grades throughout school had I got glasses aged 12, rather than at 17 – when I knew I couldn’t drive without them. But hey, I still did well enough to do the degree I wanted to do, and did just fine in that – now with the added bonus of contact lenses. I had no classroom squinting issues during my university days.

But years have passed. I finished university, and set off on my travels. Screwing around with contact lenses, or having to look after a pair of glasses every day of my life has become part of my routine. I’ve never enjoyed having to deal with putting little plasticy lens thingies in my eyes every morning, or dealing with dirty glasses, or having the burden of remembering to bring a lens case and contact lens solution to somebody’s house every time I decided to crash there and want to avoid horribly dry eyes in the morning. It’s always been a drag, and I’ve always envied those who would wake up every morning, stretch out, and admire just how wonderfully sharp the curtains in their room looked in the morning light. Or rather they wouldn’t – that’s just how they looked to all those non-corrective-lens-wearing brutes I used to see walking around all the time. To me, first thing in the morning was always a negative-three blur. I wasn’t even that short sighted. But it was enough to affect my life.

But, I always knew there was another way. I still remember the first night I went out at university wearing my brand new contact lenses. I’d always been resentful of wearing glasses, and only wore them when absolutely necessary. Going out? Glasses? Never. I remember that first night out being able to see through my contact lenses… wow. I never knew the inside of a drinking establishment looked like this. Amazing. But contact lenses were still a bit of a drag. Eyes would get red and irritated easily. I’d always wear them for far longer than recommended, and they were also expensive. But, the other way was always there. There was always laser eye surgery.

But, the idea of letting someone take a laser to your beloved eyesight seemed scary. A laser… in the face? What if something went wrong? What if I looked the wrong way at the wrong time during the procedure? What if I moved my head accidently, in a disasterous moment of laser-induced panic. There could be problems. Blindless. Argh, it was scary.

But I got over that. Having spent a few months living in the lowered sanitation standards of Lebanon at the start of this year, and trying to maintain a handle on my contact lens wearing, I realised that it was no use. I got a couple of eye infections there – nothing too bad – sorted with some eye drops within a few days. But sensitive eyes, and infections were irritating. And I’d still wake up every morning with those forsaken blurry curtains. I wanted sharp, crystal clear curtains, damn it.

I realised that travel, living in random places, and having to deal with contact lenses was not an ideal situation. And glasses were – for me – still a chore. I wanted to be able to travel, to do sports, to swim, to do just about everything whilst being able to see, and not have to worry about getting dirt caught behind those little lenses, or accidently breaking my glasses. I wanted laser eye surgery. Scary scary laser eye surgery. And then the next time I boarded a plane somewhere, lay around on a stop over in (probably) Frankfurt airport, having not slept properly in what seemed like weeks, I’d be able to see – and wouldn’t have to find the nearest bathroom to wrench my dried out lenses from my long-suffering eyeballs. It was time for it to happen.

Fortunately, I remembered a recommendation I’d received from a colleague of a friend in Vancouver. “The way she described it is like going from standard definition, to high definition on the TV”, Thomas told me. Sounds wonderful. Having previously started watching the game one evening (with contact lenses) in standard-def, then realising I had the HD channel… Well, sport comparing the two definitions is like night and day. It’s amazing.

A couple of weeks later I went for a consultation. I was impressed by the incredibly thorough approach of the clinic I visited. All different weird and wonderful maps of my eyes were taken, the health of my eyes analysed. Brilliantly, neither the years of wearing contact lenses too long, nor the time I’d had internal bleeding in my eye from an impact injury from childhood (you don’t want this to happen to you, trust me) had damaged my eyes at all. I was good to go.

Another month passed, the day of my surgery dawned. I’d taken the ever-so necessary precaution of downloading some Podcasts, and the all important Harry Potter audiobook collection. I wasn’t expecting to be able to do much for a few days after. Surgery came and went. I smelled my own eyeballs shizzling away, I saw crazy green and red fireworks on the ceiling of the clinic operating room, I sat in the dark whilst my freshly traumatized and reshaped corneas screamed in stinging protest. I’d had PRK (Photo-refractive keratectomy) surgery. Similar to LASIK, but without a permanent scar from the corneal flap that is created with LASIK. The recovery time was mooted to be longer, but the results more ideal: no scar from the flap, no chance – albeit an unlikely one – of the flap becoming dislodged from a heavy impact.

The first couple of days were admittedly difficult. Having to go back to the clinic for my 24 hour check-up was painful. Sitting on Vancouver’s Seabus, eyes stinging and streaming with tears was not pleasant, but a few days in I started to be able to see exceptionally well, the pain subsided, and the eye drops needed lessened. Now, three weeks later, I can see amazingly well – those curtains in the morning are now pin sharp – and I know there’s still more improvement to come.

Now, when I board my flight to Lebanon next month I’ll not have to worry about taking my contact lenses out before I sleep, or the impending risk of in infections from having to stick my fingers in my eyes to put in contacts in less-than-hygienic conditions. Everything in the world already looks more beautiful. Hiking on the mountains of Vancouver’s north shore is truly spectacular. I hiked in the snow the other day and could see every snowflake in perfect detail, trees in all their glory – rather than steamed up, dirty glasses, or the irritation of my old contact lenses. I donated my old frames and lenses to a charity which will distribute them to some poor negative-three-sighted person who can’t afford their own pair. Now, I’m one of those people who can see! And it’s awesome. And by the way – the thought of the surgery is far far scarier than the surgery itself.

Blankets for Syrians

In a few weeks time, I will be packing my backpack and travelling once again to the country I called home for the first three months of this year – Lebanon. Whilst being back there, a few friends and I are going to be travelling around the countryside to provide Syrian refugees in the country with winter blankets, warm clothes, and anything else we can give them to help. It’s the least we can do at this time of terrible strife in Lebanon’s Levantine neighbour.

The winter in the Middle East is still in its infancy, but already people are dying from the biting cold, having been forced to flee their homes with whatever they can carry, and live in hastily erected shelters by the side of the road in a country that is not their own. The civil war back home in Syria to the east rages on with no signs of let-up. More than 120,000 people have died, and that number continues to rise, whilst the atrocities pile up.

Our team of awesome individuals has already managed to raise almost $800 thanks to Bishop Stopford School in Kettering (my old secondary school in the UK) purely from donations from people wanting to help. Now, we’re continuing to raise funds until we set forth to Lebanon. Every penny will be spent by us personally to buy supplies for people in need who are living in makeshift camps, and we will be hand delivering what we purchase to families who are without a place to call home, and with little hope on the horizon for peace in their country any time soon.

Our aim is to make a difference for those people living in unregistered refugee camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Flanked to the west by the mountain range that divides the valley from the coast, and to the east by the peaks that make up the Syrian border, the temperatures in the Bekaa regularly fall below freezing, leaving survival in basic camps a struggle in the extreme. People are losing their lives here, and being ‘unofficial’ refugees ensures many camps – including the one I visited near Zahlé, on the side of the Beirut-Damascus highway back in March, unsupported by many NGOs.

One day, the almost one million Syrian people currently living in Lebanon as refugees will hopefully be able to return to their homes and rebuild their lives. But for now they can’t, and they desperately need help. One member of the team, Roshina, is running a blog, which you can find through this link, to help us raise funds. Incorporated into that is a secure donation service via Paypal. If you can spare anything this Christmas, please take a moment to donate. Even $5 to will help, it all adds up, and it will make a difference to somebody’s life this winter season! Thank you.

Lebanon’s south – unspoilt beaches, rustic harbours, and smirking prostitutes

It was the moment we saw the prostitute strutting down the hallway with a triumphant look on her face that we first thought that something wasn’t quite right. From that moment on, the “hotel” we’d booked for the night away only went steadily downhill.

Victoria and I were in Sour (pronounced “Soor”) in southern Lebanon, one of the many ancient Phoenician cities that line the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon’s fourth largest city – also known as Tyr, was once the gem of a maritime empire spanning the length of the Mediterranean, and was an important sea port alongside other Phoenician cities such as Byblos – 30 kilometres north of Beirut, and Acre – a few miles further south in present day Israel.

Sour, a hour or so drive down the coast from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, is in stark contrast to its larger neighbour. It is tranquil and calm, slow paced, and far less developed. The tiny fishing port caters only for small and rustic fishing boats, and the beach – oh what a beach – is a good half mile long, expansive, and with soft, golden sand and warm, crystal clear water. It’s no surprise that Romans and Crusaders alike desired a conquest in this place, and the extensive Roman ruins that provide welcome open space in the town are painstakingly restored, and whilst not as spectacular as those of Baalbek in northern Lebanon, or Palmyra in neighboring Syria, do command a wonderful view of the sea. The Roman Hippodrome in the city is well preserved, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

But all of that paled into comparison with our lady-of-the-night incident in our chosen hotel – and the cockroaches in the bathroom, coupled menacingly with hair-ridden playboy bed sheets in the room made me realise that the guy who wrote the review online about the hotel being fine for a reasonably priced night may have been a bit desperate for rest and had run out of cash. Five minutes later we left.

Having laughed at the looks of surprise on the hotel proprietors faces, Victoria and I found our way to the other end of the accommodation spectrum – the utterly gorgeous setting of the Al-Fanar guesthouse. Al-Fanar – “the lighthouse” in Arabic, is centred around an old Arabic family home now lovingly restored to house a few double bedrooms, an outdoor restaurant cafe facing the sea, and it’s own private beach. It is perfection, and is located next to the lighthouse itself, right on the western tip of what was once the island of Tyr (Alexander the Great joined the island to the mainland via causeway back in 332BC in the midst of an epic siege). Our en-suite room overlooked the calm shores of the Mediterranean, was cockroach and playboy sheet free, and was just exactly what was needed.

The only downside with this perfect, perfect place, was when it came to leaving. We simply couldn’t. Over breakfast, the resident kittens trying their best to steal our zaatar and marmalade, the decision was made to stay an extra night. That meant we had the opportunity to check out the beach of Sour. Oh, what a beach.

If this place was located nearer to Beirut, it would be jam packed with drunken people, obnoxious, pumping bass, and general excess. Fortunately, there’s other places north of Beirut for that kind of thing, so Sour is left alone. The soft, golden sand stretches for a good half-mile around the gentle curve of the bay south of town, and played host to a a couple of cafes, some families paddling, some guys renting out kayaks and peddle boats, and us. On the distant headland, you could see the communication towers of Israel, and rich foliage, banana plantations, and date palms stretching all the way down to Lebanon’s neighbour. The water, warm like a bath, was shallow for a good hundred metres. It reminded me of a childhood vacation on an equally glorious sandy beach in Barbados. All I needed now was a fried flying fish sandwich, but fortunately I had shawarma and falafel to keep me satisfied.

Sour was a particular highlight in a trip back to Lebanon filled with spectacular highlights. Another gem in a country I thoroughly love, which is rich in history and culture, and somewhere less traveled, with it’s position in a volatile part of the world. To the south, there are sporadic firefights across the border fences, to the east, a civil war rages on, and in Lebanon itself, trouble is constantly seeming to brew. But that doesn’t stop the local people from living life to the full, enjoying the beauty of their country, and providing the warmest of welcomes to those outsiders who choose to land on its historic shores.

The Iran Garden – A little (and freaking bizarre) piece of Iran, overlooking Israel, from Lebanon

“It’s just so weird. It’s really not how I’d quite picture the Israel-Lebanon border”, explained Joanne. “I mean – there was a freaking play park there, and people were walking around eating ice cream and waving at the Israelis.” Indeed, calling an Iranian family picnic park with swings and climbing frames on a hill overlooking Iran’s biggest enemy weird is like calling the Himalayan mountains “pleasant looking” – the Iran Garden is the definition of weird. I had to go and see for myself.

The border between Lebanon and Israel – two countries still technically at war, and whose various militant organizations routinely take potshots at each other every so often, remains closed – and is unlikely to open at any point in the foreseeable future. Indeed, until 2000 Israel still occupied parts of southern Lebanon. Wildly differing ideologies, the ongoing Palestine situation, and plain old political hatred make this border one of the most patrolled areas in the world. UN cars, tanks, and blue helmet-clad peacekeeping forces were present in large numbers around the region. The conflict still continues sporadically, having begun in the year Israel was created, in 1948.

The beautiful hills of southern Lebanon felt about as far away from a conflict zone as you could have imagined. As we drove we were treated to views as far as the eye could see of terraced olive gardens straddling the slopes, old farm houses alongside, quaint villages, fruit stalls – and endless propaganda imagery of Lebanon’s Hezbollah – deemed a terrorist organization by many western nations, martyrs from various conflicts past, and also the green and red flags and banners marking the presence of an Iranian political party closely allied to the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Eventually, our rental car finished struggling its way up the steep slopes to a plateau on one gargantuan hill overlooking the surrounding area. There, we were met with the zenith of all the propaganda – a bloody great family garden, styled and donated by Iran. It has got to be one of the weird places I’ve ever visited on my travels.

Picture the scene: two countries that hate each other. One denies that the other even officially exists. The road signs leading up to Israel are marked “frontier of occupied Palestine” (in French) and there’s a Star of David on the ground of one of the viewpoints to step on, so what better activity to do on the hills overlooking enemy territory than to build a huge “fuck you” site to jeer and taunt your neighbour. It’s all very high school, very provocative – and all amazingly tranquil and family orientated at the same time.

The whole package is there: Restaurants, ice cream parlours, an AstroTurf football field, huge military-fashioned climbing frames all sit a couple of hundred meters from the border fence below, all to the soundtrack of nationalistic music, blaring out on loudspeakers, the sound waves bouncing off the Israeli hills on the other side.

Images of Iran’s Revolutionary leader – the late Ayatollah Khomeini, as well as current supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Hezbollah strongman Hassan Nasrallah, and a smattering of deceased martyrs for good measure plaster the scene, and the spectacular centre piece is a beautiful, Iranian style mosque, with Iranian flag flying proudly from the top of the dome. This really completes the image. Walking around here, amongst a huge majority of conservatively dressed Muslim families enjoying the sun and having barbecues, me – a big white guy with suspiciously Jewish looking hair and nose (for the record: I’m not Jewish) stuck out like a sore thumb. The whole place is one complete headfuck.

But at the same time it was extremely pleasant. There was no entrance fee, the restaurant was well priced, with a lovely view overlooking the manicured, agricultural land on the other side of the border, and families strolled along the paths together and enjoyed each others company. It was great, but extremely weird at the same time. A hilarious place.

I’d highly recommend a visit to the Iran Garden, if you ever happen to find yourself in Lebanon. If you can deal with the insanity that is Lebanese driving (think no rules, destruction derby style race track on crack and you’re getting close) then the site is just a couple of hours drive through truly wonderful countryside down to the Israeli border. I just hope one day I can visit the other side of the fence without screwing up my passport with Israeli visa stamps, then I can eat ice cream and wave at the Lebanese. Until then, I’ll have to be content with seeing the holy land from a picnic area whilst listening to noisy propaganda music.