Stories from Lebanon: Will Beckett's Diary
Will Beckett describes his visit to our programmes in Lebanon with business partner Huw Gott
Jun 22 2017
In April this year, two of our incredible and longstanding ambassadors, Will Beckett and Huw Gott, co-owners of Hawksmoor, visited our programmes in Lebanon with our executive director Jean-Michel Grand and Head of Food Related Fundraising Emma Cullingford. For Will and Huw, who have previously visited our projects in Liberia, this was their first visit to Lebanon.
“I’ve just come back from Lebanon, where my best friend and business partner Huw and I had a chance to see Action Against Hunger’s work with Syrian refugees. For me, the three days turned chilling stories and statistics that I couldn’t really understand into a much more personal view of what human tragedy looks like.” Will Beckett
Whilst in country they visited some of Action Against Hunger’s programmes focusing on water & sanitation, livelihoods, and mother & child nutrition, alongside meeting some of the individuals, children and communities that we are helping on a daily basis.
Huw Gott, Emma Cullingford and Will Beckett
"The basic story is easy: Action Against Hunger has been in the country since the Israeli military action in Lebanon in 2006, and decided to stay as the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
The result of those conflicts is a humanitarian crisis – well over 100,000 refugees from the Occupied Palestinian Territory and at least 1.5m refugees in a country with a population of 4 million.
It’s not hard to hear those numbers and guess at some of the problems: those refugees need access to food, water and shelter and need to be kept alive and safe and the Lebanese economy, government and infrastructure cannot cope without significant help.
Today we saw what some of that help looks like - Action Against Hunger has helped restore a water pumping facility that provides access to free water for over 100,000 people across 38 villages. They in turn have saved $45 per household per week – the cost of getting water from trucks – a vast sum to the poorest families. Crucial work; but still it gets you no closer to glimpsing the hardships of those families up close. Action Against Hunger also work in sustainable job creation, providing work for Lebanese and refugee communities. We visited a waste disposal programme where people were being paid to clear polluted parks so the local population could start using them again, a programme which will scale up to work on the huge increase in refuse.
These are the kind of problems and numbers we can all understand intellectually, but they don’t have much resonance emotionally. None of it really gets you near enough to the problem. But the next day was the day we really saw, smelt, heard and felt it."
"It’s hard to describe the camps we visited today. For starters they’re not officially camps, they’re temporary settlements where groups of 50 to 500 live together in tents or cramped temporary houses like a workman’s hut. Women sit on the steps outside the houses while young children run around in the dirt. Actually, running around in the dirt is the best scenario – others played around barbed wire, raw sewage, huge rubbish tips that accumulated everything from household rubbish to dead animals from a nearby farm in various states of decomposition. The only people who talk to you directly at first are the men, many of whom cannot work for lack of documentation or because they can’t get through military checkpoints.
Will and Huw with a resident of one of the camps
The smell at all the camps is awful, from the worst one sandwiched between a lake that has become a polluted pool of sewage and refuse and the rubbish tip I mentioned above; to the best where the tents are in neat rows and the area is kept relatively tidy. But the smell is the least of people's problems. We met a father from a family of 12 who cannot work, but whose 14 year-old daughter can, so she travels four hours a day for agricultural work in the south to help pay back the loans her family is accumulating. We met a man who only came to Lebanon recently from Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold, who fled when ISIS came and told him to leave before he was killed. We met a 23 year-old father of two, who has been there for five years since his village near Damascus turned into a war zone and expects to be there for at least five more. He told us that his priorities and hopes were milk and nappies for his children and to return to his home one day in time to register his young children for school.
Seeing all that is sad, and it was impossible not to compare our children’s lives to theirs, our young adulthood to theirs, our hopes for our families to theirs.
That people have anything at all is entirely down to global organisations like UNICEF, aid agencies like Action Against Hunger or the goodwill of national and local governments. Action Against Hunger provides the communities we saw today with clean water and basic sanitation, something so entirely basic that it hardly registers as a need in London.
While the human stories give you a sense of the plight of refugees and the chaos visited on the Lebanese, it is still hard to get an idea of scale from talking and seeing numbers. What struck me was the 40-minute journey home where we saw camp after camp for mile after mile. That’s what the numbers mean – they mean men, women and (mostly) children living in abject poverty in temporary settlements that go on much further than the eye can see. They mean a host nation that cannot cope, and aid agencies and governments under constant strain to try to solve a humanitarian crisis. But no solution is imminent, the refugees cannot return to Syria and they cannot start to build a life in Lebanon where by law every aspect of their stay, from their homes and jobs to the healthcare, food and sanitation solutions must be temporary."
A resident of one of the camps with her child
"If the second day made me understand scale, the third personalised the whole experience around one boy. As we went to our first settlement I saw a young boy who looked like he had Downs Syndrome. My niece also has Downs Syndrome so I know the extent of support that those children need and the extra burden for the parents; but I also know what wonderfully happy children they can be given the right care and surroundings. I spoke to the woman with the boy who said his mother had left a few months earlier and now she cared for him; she received no extra help at all. While Action Against Hunger can’t help directly they’ll refer her to an aid agency that can, but I think it was the most heart-breaking thing I’ve seen.
In the midst of it all though there is great work being done, basic needs being met and moments of happiness. We met pregnant and lactating women with their beautiful children, learning about the basics of breastfeeding and nutrition; women shopping with an Oyster-like card that allows them to spend $47 a month on fruit, vegetables, eggs and dairy (families usually use their meagre income to buy the cheapest source of calories possible – staples like rice, bread and potatoes, but the limited diet results in stunted growth amongst their children); and a community on the verge of having an urban farm to produce their own vegetables. We saw children playing and laughing, even if there is nowhere to play except a mud pit and no toys whatsoever.
The moments that stand out most for me on the trip are the human ones – children standing by open sewage, the boy with Downs Syndrome being held by the woman who has adopted him, a man weeping as he remembers the 4-days on foot fleeing Syria only to find the border closed and using most of his savings to have his family smuggled into Lebanon.
However, I also remember holding Ahmed, a gorgeous little chubby baby, Huw taking loads of selfies with children and high-fiving refugees and the pride and hospitality that shines from so many of the people that we met.
Each story represents a tragedy, but also an opportunity to do something; there are millions of these people and stories in Lebanon and numerous countries like Lebanon where help is needed – to feed hungry children, to provide basic sanitation to families, to give people the opportunity to have sustainable access to food and water without help from charities; to take action against hunger. We could all do more to help, and Action Against Hunger is a great place to start."
Will and a child he met when visiting Action Against Hunger's programmes
By Will Beckett
Help save lives in Syria and around the world