Daily Star article on the Chabrouh Camps in Lebanon

Daily Star article on the Chabrouh Camps in Lebanon

Spend your summer in service of the disabled

Emily Holman| The Daily Star CHABROUH, Lebanon:

“The camp changed my life.” It is an overused expression that is quickly made meaningless. But when you have been repeating it consistently for three years, and when your life has visibly altered, the phrase has a power not to be underestimated. Saskia Adaimi, a student at the American University of Beirut, took part in her first Holiday Camp for the Disabled three years ago, when she was 17. She describes herself prior to the camp as bored and restless, with a claustrophobic sense that Lebanon had little to offer. Her father encouraged her to try something different, suggesting that she volunteer at a summer camp in the Kesrouan town of Chabrouh run by the Order of Malta for the mentally and physically disabled. Saskia took his advice.

Three years on, and 10 camps later, she is one of the camp managers, and is co-organizing the Christmas camp in which she will participate. Her experience is not unusual. Many volunteers refer to a similar sense of awakening during their time at the camp. “It’s because we’re with the guests all the time,” said Sorcha O’Sullivan, 22, an Irish-French first-time volunteer who stayed for three consecutive camps this summer. “You build a relationship,” O’Sullivan added. That relationship is what the camp is all about.

The Order of Malta is facilitating work with Lebanon’s disabled in a particularly unique way. Thanks initially to the imagination and vision of a young German member of the Order visiting Lebanon in the 1990s, the Order runs “holidays” for residents of disabled institutions across the country. These weeklong holidays, the product of collaboration between the Lebanese and German Associations of the Order, with other Associations such as the Dutch, British, French and Swiss now also taking part, have become a regular feature of the Lebanese association’s work, and it wants more people to be able to take part. To that end, the association has renovated the Al-Fadi Center in Chabrouh, where summer camps have been held since 1997. This summer marks the soft opening of the new center before its official opening in 2016. Renovations are impressive, including facilities for the disabled of an internationally high standard. Thanks to its new capacities, the center is able to host over 40 mentally and physically disabled individuals, termed “guests and 85 volunteers at any one time. Throughout this summer, 480 guests and an average of 600 volunteers, international and Lebanese, will spend part of their summer in the camp. While many organizations working with the disabled make particular efforts to provide individual attention and care, the Order’s holiday camp initiative has found a way to create a bond in an especially powerful way. Each guest is matched with a volunteer, and the pair spend their week together. Given that the guest is on holiday, it is the guest who decides how to spend their time. If s/he wants to run, the volunteer runs with them. They eat together, nap together, rest together and do the day’s activities together. The volunteer helps the guest with bathing, walking, dressing, eating – any of the daily functions.

The Order of Malta does not just want to make the difficult lives of the disabled a little easier for a week. It wants to kindle a change in their hearts. The emphasis on the one-to-one relationship serves such a goal. “Just holding hands with someone changes a life,” said Oumayma Farah Rizk, who manages the Lebanese Association’s communications, and the lives she has in mind are those of both guests and volunteers. The association has been asked why they offer these holidays, giving the disabled a week of joy and companionship in a beautiful setting; doesn’t this only make it harder for the residents to return to their normal lives? The question is representative of an ill in modern-day life, which seeks “the point” of things without looking at their intrinsic value, organizers maintained. “The holidays provide a freshness, for volunteers as well as guests, which no other experience can replicate,” Rizk said. “Such freshness does not become irrelevant after the holiday ends. The companionship the guests experience during the week makes a difference.” One of the guests, cradling a bundle of cloth she called her child, repeatedly put her hand on her volunteer’s arm while they sat together. These quiet gestures of an intimacy built up over days of solid contact are the hallmark of the camp. “It’s exhausting, but it’s incredible,” said John Schutzer-Weissmann, a doctor at the camp. “There’s nothing like it.” That is certainly a sentiment that resounds with volunteers, many of whom come back again and again, meeting new guests each year as well as having the joy of welcoming familiar guests on their return.

Antoine Bouqueau, a 21-year-old first-timer from France, was so captured by the experience that he decided to take a year out from his degree at the Sorbonne in order to do the Order’s “Caravan” course, whereby students spend 10 months in Lebanon learning about the region, faith and coexistence, while working daily with the disabled in institutes across the country. Currently the Order runs approximately 15 camps throughout the year, during the holiday periods of summer, Christmas and Easter. One of the purposes of the renovation, however, is to enable the center to provide holidays each week for approximately 10 months of the year, while the weather in Chabrouh remains comfortable. There is no shortage of disabled residents eager for a holiday, and the number of volunteers that the center receives is increasing annually. Its renovation responds to a need that is in Lebanese and international youth volunteers as much as in guests. The camp at Chabrouh, says President of the Lebanese Association of the Order of Malta Marwan Sehnaoui, is a school in which “one learns how to love.” A medical course trains the skills needed to be a doctor, he explained, but it does not offer the kind of self-involvement with patients that is a unique feature of working one-to-one with the disabled. “The point of the project is to give love.” To this end – loving one another in a way that attests to the dignity of every person – the Lebanese Association of the Order of Malta is encouraging university students to volunteer with a camp as part of their course, and not just during the holidays. The Order is collaborating with the country’s universities to organize a scheme whereby participation in a camp might be recognized as a kind of internship, particularly for students studying courses such as medicine, psychology, or social care. If the Order’s Center expands as planned, with holidays occurring throughout the year, Lebanon’s youth, along with their international counterparts, will be able to volunteer whenever they please. Summer camps continue until mid-September and more volunteers are needed. Visit the Camps section on www.orderofmaltalebanon.org or the Live Love Chabrouh Facebook page if you are interested. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 03, 2015, on page 4.

Community being served:

  • Disabled Children and Adults