Saturday, October 07, 2006

Youth labor builds a new Lebanon out of ideals

Youth labor builds a new Lebanon out of ideals
Nearly 150 volunteers work to repair structures destroyed by war
By Haro Chakmakjian, Agence France Presse (AFP)

AL-KAWZAH: Singing and dancing under the shade of olive trees, a group of university students takes a break from their efforts to build a new Lebanon with their labor and idealism. "We do everything together. As you can see, we are happy and smiling. This can change minds, it inspires," says Amal Haber, 22, part of a team of young men and women working to repair the war-damaged hamlet of Al-Kawzah near the Israeli border. In the face of the violence and confessionalism which have plagued Lebanon for decades, "You have to say 'no' through action," insists Melhem Khalaf, founder of their Offre Joie (Joy of Giving) association. "It's not just a dream bringing the young people together. It's an action," says the French-educated lawyer and teacher, whose group, like several other teams of young volunteers, has been active in the post-war reconstruction efforts for South Lebanon. "Of course we are idealists, but not utopians, and we turn these ideals into reality," says Khalaf, 43, who launched Offre Joie back in 1987 during the country's 1975-1990 Civil War. Thousands of young people have since passed through the ranks, coming from all over Lebanon and from its myriad of sects, according to Khalaf. "We got past all [religious differences] quickly. At the start there may have been some preconceived ideas but now we don't even think about it ... Religion is like the color of your hair," says 19-year-old Sandra Raad. Along the way, she has picked up some skills. "I never thought I would know how to mix cement and paint walls. I don't panic now, I know how to fix stuff," she says as her group admires their handiwork at a school being repaired in nearby Mays al-Jabal before war-delayed classes resume on October 9. Mohammed Khatoon, 22, nods in agreement when asked about the group's religious affiliations. "I am first of all a human being, then Lebanese, and the last detail is religion," Khatoon says. Wearing blue workers' dungarees and white T-shirts stamped with Lebanon's cedar tree inside a white dove, many of the students admit it's the first time they have ventured to South Lebanon. Almost 40 volunteers have been working since late August in Al-Kawzah, home to some 250 Christians, and in the Shiite villages of Mays al-Jabal and Houla, both of which had their schools damaged during Israel's July-August war which targeted Lebanon's infrastructure and civilian population. They have also been repairing the church in Al-Kawzah, which has a view of Aita Shaab on the border where Hizbullah's capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12 sparked the war that cost more than 1,200 lives in Lebanon alone. "We have a pool of 150 people to draw from and do rotations. It's a mobilization you can not imagine," says Khalaf, as he ferries groups along roads, past pick-ups salvaging the twisted metal leftovers of homes reduced to rubble. "I tell my youths: 'You don't have to be a president to change the world, at least a little bit for the better," he explains, passing under Hizbullah banners claiming victory "with our blood." The road twists and turns along rolling hills with abandoned tobacco fields littered with cars pulverized in Israeli air strikes. In a straw poll on the packed truck, the volunteers, architecture and agronomy students say they all plan to stay, unlike many other young educated Lebanese, and make their future in Lebanon. "We came to send out a message that this country has a future. We want to show we can stand together and send out a message of solidarity," says Khalaf. Outside the Mays al-Jabal school, in a region long a victim of government neglect, headmaster Hussein Hamadeh is full of praise. "We are not used to having such quick and efficient work done round here," he says. In peacetime, Offre Joie, which relies on donations for its funding, undertakes projects such as renovating prisons around Lebanon or restoring basic services to some of the country's poorest areas.

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