by Nate Scholz
As I was printing the photos I’d taken of the students, I saw Mervat coming toward me through the buzz of the students she’d gathered. “We’ve never done anything like this before,” she said. “We usually just ask them questions about their experiences. Visitors are coming to check it out because they’re interested to learn what’s going on.”
It was 10:00 AM on a Sunday morning. The Ezzeddine and Scholz families had already been preparing the riverside restaurant venue for an hour. Thirty students between the ages of 12 and 17 had just arrived on a bus, after being picked up from their homes. Mervat had personally selected each participant. Some were Syrian refugee kids, and the rest were underprivileged Lebanese.
Mervat is a Project Manager with SHEILD, a partner organization with the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR). Her normal job has her compiling demographic information for the UNHCR annual report on Lebanon from hundreds of interviews conducted every week by her team of 10. She arranged this project in her spare time. She was hosting it on her day off.
I’ve known the Ezzeddine family since I first moved to Lebanon in 1999. Mervat’s husband, Mohammed, gave me the Arabic name I would use over the 7 years I lived there: Hadi. We experienced milestone life events together, like my getting married and having kids. When my family was evacuated from Lebanon during the 33-Day War in 2006, Naomi was 2 years old, and Gideon was 1. Mervat’s son, Daoud, was 8. On this day in 2019, Naomi led the art project, and Daoud translated her directions. The second generations of these two family friends made us proud by demonstrating their leadership.
I could hear Naomi describing the steps of our plan for the morning as I sat by the portable printer that worked at printing the square, black and white portraits I had taken a few minutes earlier on my phone. That was the strangest part of the day, as the girls had been especially shy and giggly as I took their picture, one by one. The printouts were distributed after the students finished crafting their self-expressive poetry. They each chose two pastels and began to colorize their portraits. I watched Naomi circulate among the tables, charming the groups of girls clustered in fours. Their smiles connected them, despite the lack of common language. Gideon sat at the one table of guys, who laughed and joked with a couple of the adult helpers.
They tinted their photos, slid them into plastic sheet protectors, and wrote their poetry with black sharpies over the top. The project was finished in about an hour, and the kids left their work on the tables for me to photograph once again to prepare for uploading to Instagram (you can see them all by searching the hashtag #hellohowareyoufine).
For the next hour and a half, they played in the idyllic conifer garden next to the restaurant and shared a picnic meal of garlic marinated chicken sandwiches. Half-full plastic water bottles were pressed into service as soccer balls, and kicked between teams of girls on one side of the yard, and every boy for himself on the other side. The less energetic relaxed and sang Arabic folks songs while gazing over the panoramic view of the Litani River Valley. It was over all too soon, and the students migrated toward the bus that would take them home about the middle of the afternoon.
We may never know the impact of this Sunday morning outing in Lebanon. For sure, out of the million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, serving 30 kids seemed like a drop in the bucket of need. Did some of these students find space to reflect and get some emotional healing from the trauma in their refugee experiences? Did students from the Skagit Valley acquire greater empathy through their participation? Will this be an initial pilot program leading to a larger partnership for Voices of The Children in Lebanon?
For the Scholz family, the answers to these questions are still unclear. Was it worth the effort? I’ve learned to look for what is called a “15% solution,” from an activity found at liberatingstructures.com. It starts with a simple question: “What can you do today to help accomplish your big, hairy, audacious goal, that doesn’t require any more resources or authority than you currently have?” Just start by doing those seemingly small things and see where they lead. Sometimes the results will be more significant than expected.
After learning about what Voices of The Children has accomplished in the Za’tari Camp in Jordan, we felt inspired. We saw something that we could do about the global refugee crisis, and we did it. Recently, I heard a quote from John Maxwell: "The smallest action always surpasses the greatest intention." I’m a believer that if thousands of people will do what they can to show compassion, it will collectively change the world. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute some joy, and to share the experience with my daughter and son. To be able to reunite with the Ezzeddines and work together was truly special and memorable.
by Nate Scholz
I took the opportunity, less than a week before leaving for Lebanon, to interview Naomi and Gideon about their expectations. We’ll be there for 10 days visiting Lebanese friends, touring historical sites, and eating foods that are generally not available in America.
Our highlighted activity will be engaging with Lebanese and Syrian refugee students in the village of Bourj Rahal in South Lebanon. We’ll be directing a self-expressive art and poetry project, representing Voices of The Children, headquartered in Mount Vernon, Washington, and partnering with long-term friend in Lebanon who works with a UNHCR partner organization, called SHEILD.
Nate: “So, what are you hoping to learn on this trip?”
Gideon: “Probably how to interact with people from Lebanon and other places overseas.”
Nate: “Okay, so, getting some ability to talk with people from other cultures. Good!”
Naomi: “I would like to learn some valuable leadership skills, and also learn more about the place where I was born.”
Nate: “How do you hope the students in Lebanon will be impacted by our project?”
Gideon: “Well, hopefully, they’ll have some sort of epiphany while doing this, or at least feel better about what has happened to them.”
Nate: “Good, so encouragement through social engagement with people.”
Naomi: “I hope it can help them heal and think about themselves in a different light.”
Nate: “Do you think that is how our art project has been impacting the students we’ve already been working with here in the States?”
Gideon: “Definitely the ones in Youth Dynamics.”
Naomi: “What makes you think so, Gideon?”
Gideon: “Because they had decent responses to it.”
Naomi: “I haven’t really talked it over in depth with any of the people we’ve already done it with, so we don’t really know how it has impacted them. It may have had an impact, or it may have just been a fun art project. We don’t know.”
Nate: “That’s a good point.”
Naomi: “So, maybe in the future, if we ever do this again, we should have a follow up phase where we come back and discuss it.”
Nate: “…and we could still do that, I think. I was thinking about how we had this interesting problem come up, where people were using more than two colors, and we needed to deny them. We wanted them to do something that was self-expressive, but then we had limits. We put restrictions on how they expressed themselves. That might be a good topic to bring up. How do you have freedom to show who you are, and yet have some disciplined boundaries about how you do that. That’s kind of how life works in society, too.
So do you think people have at least been having fun, so far?”
Naomi: “Yeah! I think people enjoyed it.”
Nate: “What are you most excited about as we look forward into next week and are preparing to go?”
Gideon: “Definitely NOT the plane ride. Maybe just doing the art project with the kids.
Nate: “Yeah, so it looks like there will be 15 to 25 students that we’re going to get to work with, so that’s good. And its going to be held in a room at a restaurant that’s owned by a family member of our hosts. It should be fun!”
Naomi: “I’m looking forward to eating the food. Oh, man, the food. It’s so good! I can’t wait.”
Nate: “Well, I have to say I’m really excited about sharing all the cool places that I’ve loved in Lebanon, and the people that we got to know, and show off my children to them… how much you’ve grown. They haven’t seen you in person since you were toddlers, so that’s going to be pretty fun to brag about you and all the stuff that you’re doing.”
Naomi: “I hope you don’t brag too much.”
Nate: “What are you most nervous about? …Gideon, you said the plane ride?”
Gideon: “No. That’s not the nerve-wracking part. It’s just the uncomfortable part. I want to say that it will probably be the language barrier – just not knowing what anyone is saying.”
Nate: “Yeah. That’s kind of what I’m nervous about too… being able to communicate for all of us with my rusty Arabic that I haven’t really used at all over the last ten years.”
Naomi: “I think another thing I’m nervous about is meeting all these people who I don’t remember at all, and they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, Naomi! Naomi! We remember you.’ ...trying to talk to me. I won’t remember them, I won’t understand them, and we’re at the’re house for hours. I won’t know what to do with myself. I feel like that could be very uncomfortable.”
Nate: “Do you guys have any questions that you want to ask me?”
Gideon: “I don’t have any.”
Naomi: “How is this trip going to be similar or different from the trips that you’ve taken in the past to Lebanon?”
Nate: “The first time I went to Lebanon was in 1998. I went alone, so I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, so my memories are helping me to relate with how you guys must be feeling.
When I went to move there it was very different, because I was thinking about changing my whole way of life for a long time. This is more like, I’ve been there. I’m fairly comfortable with the place. I’m returning for a visit, so it feels kind of comfortable in a lot of ways. For me, it’s less of a trip to Lebanon, and more like a fun exploration and bonding experience with my kids, where we can go off and do something exciting together that we’ve never done together before.”
by Nate Scholz
It's a strange story how this whole plan materialized.
My artistic daughter, Naomi, started by voicing her desire to work cross-culturally with marginalized people. I'd like to think that I'm proactive about helping my kids realize their dreams, so I volunteered, "would you want to try it out and take a trip to Lebanon to do something with Syrian refugees?"
This isn't as out of the blue as you might initially think. My wife and I lived in Tyre, Lebanon for almost 7 years at the beginning of the century, before we were evacuated during the 33-Day War in 2006. Naomi and her brother, Gideon, were born there. We all experienced our own mild refugee experience when they were toddlers, but of course they have no recollection of it.
Naomi was eager and Gideon also wanted to go. They are so interested in experiencing their shared exotic birthplace. That started my mental wheels turning and I began to make plans.
"Hey, we should check with Aaron Wagner at Voices of the Children to see if they would want to work together on a project. They're already doing some really cool things in Jordan." I also started reconnecting with some of our Lebanese friends from back in the day. When I checked Mervat's Facebook page, I was surprised to learn that she was working with a relief agency partnering with the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR). Sure enough, both Aaron and Mervat were interested in putting a small-scale project together where Naomi and Gideon could test out their leadership skills.
We'll be doing an art project similar to one that Voices of The Children has already done in the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan. It will involve simple black and white portrait photography, oil pastel drawing, and poetry expressing personal identity superimposed over the top.
Naomi and Gideon will lead their classmates at the Skagit Academy in this creative project, and then we'll repeat it in Bourj Rahal, South Lebanon. Photographs of the completed artwork will be uploaded on to Instagram with the hashtag #hellohowareyoufine, which is a common phrase that most Arabic speakers know in English. As much of the poetry as possible will be copied in the comment and translated into both English and Arabic to provide students on both sides of the world to exchange viewpoints, culture, and personality.
So, now we're on a grand adventure to prepare for this trip and connect cultures. We hope you'll check back in on this blog to chart our progress and cheer us on. 🔹
The Scholz Family Team and some examples of the artwork and poetry they'll see exchanged between kids in Mount Vernon, WA USA and Bourj Rahal, South Lebanon.
Naomi Scholz is an artful American teenager who is passionate about multi-cultural people. She identifies herself as a xenophile. She also loves to write, so she will share her travel experience here with you.