Offre Joie: Building peace, one smile at a time
Beirut - While men in Tripoli’s warring neighbourhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen were fighting in May 2008, their children were playing and laughing together, learning about tolerance, respect and forgiveness.
“Although they were enemies, both sides trusted us and felt that their children were in safe hands,” said Melhem Khalaf, co-founder and director of Farah al-Ataa — Arabic for “Joy of Giving” — which took children to a summer camp to distract them from the bloodshed.
The organisation, known in French as Offre Joie, has been working for more than a decade in underprivileged quarters of northern Lebanon’s largest city, rebuilding homes and restoring hope in an area where 40% of teenagers visited a rehabilitation facility at least once.
The non-governmental organisation’s (NGO) engagement in Tripoli started in 2002 when five volunteers visited the impoverished Baal al-Darawish on the green line between the two rival neighbourhoods and decided to change what they saw, said Khalaf, a law professor at St Joseph University in Beirut.
Since then, the association has helped reconstruct two villages in southern Lebanon, rehabilitated eight prisons in the country and renovated 14 schools to give children fresh spaces to learn.
Despite the nature of its activities, Farah al-Ataa is far from being a typical NGO. “It is rather a young citizen movement founded on the principle of solidarity” in which nobody, regardless of the size of their contributions, receives any payment in return for their services, Khalaf said.
Key decisions are made by five people who co-founded the organisation in 1985. All participants are volunteers with responsibilities determined according to their experience and capacity.
Some relief actions are undertaken “instantly”, even before funding is ensured, said Mohammad Diab, a volunteer who attended summer camps as a child and is now one of Farah al-Ataa’s most active members. Money comes afterward in form of contributions by individuals or companies.
This was the case when a car bomb killed police intelligence chief Brigadier-General Wissam al- Hassan in October 2012 and damaged three apartment buildings in Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighbourhood. More than 1,600 volunteers, sporting blue hats, repaired about 80 homes in three months.
The success of his NGO model encouraged Khalaf to look beyond Lebanon. Following the bombing that killed 52 worshippers at Baghdad’s Lady of Salvation Catholic church in 2010, he led a group of Farah al-Ataa volunteers to the Iraqi capital to show solidarity with families of the victims.
It developed into an occasion to recruit a number of young Iraqis, who after being trained in Lebanon, now run their own organisation, Farah al-Ataa-Iraq.
The group has expanded to the Kurdish cities of Erbil and Dohuk, where it established an educational institution in the latter, named “the coexistence school”, hosting 940 pupils.
In both Lebanon and Iraq, Farah al-Ataa’s defining characteristic has been its ability to work with a cross-sectarian volunteer base despite intense divisions. This inspired Farah al-Ataa’s mission to achieve “diversity within unity”, Khalaf said.
At the climax of Lebanon’s civil war, Khalaf and four friends gathered children from different religions in one place in a very divided Beirut. They were surprised to have 117 participants despite all the hatred and fear.
The sensitivity of hosting children from different backgrounds required special measures, which were eventually entrenched as rituals that organisers stick to in every activity.
Children gather for the national anthem in the morning, say a common prayer before every meal and another in the evening. More significantly, meat is not served on Fridays, to respect an old Christian tradition and, when served, it is halal in line with Muslim rules. Those who wish to visit a church on Sunday or a mosque on Friday are taken to their place of worship.
“We communicate these things to the kids because we want them to be aware of the other and experience what coexistence really means,” Khalaf said.
This manner of dealing with religious affiliation is often criticised by secularists as reinforcing sectarian identities.
After spending two-thirds of his life with his Farah al-Ataa “family”, as he calls it, Diab sees the matter differently.
“The good thing about it is that when we ask people to join, we don’t ask them to leave anything [their religious identity] outside,” Diab said. “What scares people most and pushes them out is the idea that you are here to take something from them, to extract a part of who they are.”
For those investing their time with Farah al-Ataa, the journey towards change is slow and it is about planting seeds and being patient.
“One drop of water will not pierce a stone,” Diab says. “It might take a thousand years, but drop after drop, a hole will be eventually carved.”