I was invited to visit an NGO, SAWA for Development and Aid
Operating in Lebanon, BarElias (Bekaa valley) by the refugee camps, it had been active since the very beginning of the Syrian war. I agreed right away, excited to get an insider’s look at their operation, but I was apprehensive. I figured I’d be rubbing elbows with folks who had had their lives tragically interrupted and were trying their best to cope/survive and the visit would be depressing if not morbid. In reality, this experience took me completely by surprise, and I got back home feeling elated and charged-up. Here is why.
I was greeted by Marwa, a pretty and lithe brunette originally from Michigan, and taken on a tour of the building where, for the 7th consecutive year, Ramadan Iftar dinners were being cooked, packaged and distributed to 6,000 people on a daily basis; the meals were prepared from scratch, from fresh local veggies and meats (1 ton of meat/chicken daily stored in a walk-in cooler), by the refugees themselves, volunteers and the SAWA staff. The atmosphere was very friendly, easy-going and the emotional bond between everyone was palpable. I met a Syrian chef there who had been cheffing at the fanciest eateries in Syria during his 25-year long career; he told me he wanted to prepare the best and most authentic Syrian food for Iftar and was happy to donate his time, year after year, to help his fellow countrymen and women. I scrutinized everything and saw that restaurant-grade hygienic standards were applied at every turn, and quality and taste were also provided, with the use of Syrian spices such as dried lime (to cancel out the taste of chicken grease, apparently).
The meal included meat pies, with fresh dough and meat spiced just right, and baked in the industrial oven on-site. Three men and one French volunteer were busy rolling, filling and shaping the miniature pies (sfeeha) and someone turned on a boombox playing Arabic music and spontaneously everybody started dancing, mimicking belly dancers, laughing and just having a great time. I was thrilled to witness this! (I was not able to take pictures to protect their privacy)
From the communal kitchen we got in the car and drove out to the next building housing The Master Peace, a newer project in which experienced mentors teach marketable skills to interested candidates in the fields of ready-to-wear and woodwork producing sellable pieces ready for the local or international market. Marwa explained to me the mission of SAWA for Development and Aid(the word saw translates into to be together in Arabic): Giving refugees skills in order for each and every one of them to be self-sufficient and help their family, as well as practice teamwork and be respectful of one another, regardless of their individual creed, culture, or background. I loved the concept but was eager to see how it was being applied. The building housing the two workshops on different floors was outside of the camps; the clothing atelier was mainly staffed with women, while men were in the woodworking section.
The clothing workshop was manned by a talented young designer, Hazem Kais, his assistants and a formidable Syrian woman, Um Fawzi. Behind Kais desk, I saw that he had stapled prints of traditional Syrian garb for men and women from last century. His approach, which I loved, was to capitalize on the crochet and hand stitching skills these ladies were practicing, in order to design pieces inspired by these traditional Syrian clothes; kind of like meshing old and new and making beautiful clothing with a sense of the eternal past yet practical for contemporary living (one size-fits all). Um Fawzi was a Syrian refugee as well, a mature woman who had experienced the horrors of war, but who discovered that getting involved in The Master Peace program gave her a new beginning. She realized she had talents beyond her obvious skills at crochet and knitting and sewing; she was able to galvanize the women, both old and young, who joined the workshop, by, as she puts it, just loving them. Her talent as an exceptional coach jumped at me the minute I met her and observed her interactions with them. Her powerful yet calm and soothing bedside manners were the wind blowing the sails of that ship forward. A look at the pieces created convinced me that they would soon find success in the competitive world of fashion, including at the international level.
In conclusion, I wholeheartedly recommend SAWA for Development and Aid to anyone interested in contributing a small donation to, say, the Ramadan kitchen, volunteering or ordering an item of customized clothing. Any piece of furniture as well. The Master Peace will soon be holding their first exhibit in Beirut next month at Kamal Mouzawak’s venue. Here is the link to TheMaster Peace. The beautiful clothing could easily be found in Vogue or Harper’s or any of these fancy fashion magazines!
NOTE: Researching this NGO online, I found out its founder was a remarkable Syrian/Lebanese young woman, with a very impressive academic pedigree, and a long list of international awards. Unfortunately, I did not have time to explore more of the various efforts of her organization, such as the schools or tutoring centers set-up for the many Syrian refugee kids who are turned away from Lebanese public schools (due to their sheer number as the schools are not sufficiently funded to accommodate them). Planning another visit!
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