Offre Joie: Building peace, one smile at a time

Friday 23/10/2015
Volunteers with Offre Joie on site at Ashrafieh neighbourhood in Beirut.

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.”