Beirut, Lebanon — Burj al Barajneh is a tough part of town. Entering this southern neighborhood of Beirut is like entering another world — the city's many well-heeled, cosmopolitan dwellers are replaced by women in traditional Islamic cover and families in densely packed apartments. The poverty is palpable, and it's so hot and crowded that just breathing is difficult. Burj al Barajneh is, by every indicator, an urban slum.
It's also a war-torn slum. Burj al Barajneh is considered a Hezbollah stronghold, and last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah devastated the neighborhood — killing civilians, destroying homes and public facilities, and knocking out critical transportation infrastructure. Rebuilding has progressed rapidly, but the shells of bombed-out apartment houses and bridges are still easy to find.
The grind of life in Burj al Barajneh is most difficult on children. Looking out on the crowded, dusty streets, I couldn't imagine where kids would play or find any sense of relief. Then I saw the Mercy Corps Center for Excellence, which just opened in May. From the outside, the building looks new, clean and orderly — in sharp contrast with the rest of the neighborhood. But it's what goes on inside that is truly exciting.
The Center for Excellence serves a number of roles: technology training hub, educational facility and small business incubator. It is meant to be a place where the community, particularly young people, can come together and learn, work, connect with the outside world and gain access to technology tools they wouldn't otherwise have. Additional Centers for Excellence are planned in Lebanon; the one in Burj al Barajneh is the first.
The Center's manager Lina Harakeh greeted us warmly before returning to a computer tutorial with her student, a 30-something man in a wheelchair. We passed rooms of high-school students studying for exams and young girls meticulously coloring depictions of "Dora the Explorer." In the main computer room, approximately 20 stations were occupied by children and adolescents concentrating on everything from IM chats to homework to the basics of PowerPoint.
The Center's social worker Sherine and the IT instructor Hussein told us that the already-full space is usually more crowded but many high school students were in exams. "We're expecting heavy traffic this summer," explained Sherine. "The kids in this neighborhood don't have anywhere to go or anything to do." The high demand has caused the Center to put time limits on how long each child can use a computer.
I was amazed by a little boy masterfully manipulating PowerPoint. "The adults need more help than the kids," noted Hussein. "Some of them have never even turned on a computer before, so we sometimes need to personally sit and guide them. But the kids pick things up without any problem."
This was a common theme: Time and again in Lebanon I saw young people solving problems and driving progress in a way that many adults could not:
- Leadership groups for high school students in Burj al Barajneh and Bourj Hammoud, an underserved Armenian neighborhood of Beirut, told me about their plans to contribute positively to their communities and pursue higher education.
- At a lively retreat for young people training to be community mobilizers, I heard debates on topics ranging from the status of Lebanese women to the current security and political difficulties.
- In the eastern city of Baalbek, also hit hard by last summer's war, Mercy Corps' work with our local partner LOST is helping young people to undertake environmental cleanup campaigns, paint public murals and run a wildly popular basketball tournament.
During my three days touring these and other projects in Lebanon, I saw a country filled with equal measures of promise and doubt — a strong tradition of tolerance, openness and prosperity marred by repeated episodes of violence and political impasse. Mercy Corps understands that a peaceful Lebanon will be built on the foundation of young, motivated leaders. Like the little boy who so easily picked up PowerPoint, young people are naturals at building and spreading hope.