The World Food Programme’s (WFP) Youth Ambassador Against Hunger Jessica Watson, the youngest person to sail the world, shares insights from her recent trip to Lebanon and Jordan where she sailed in the Mediterranean with a group of dynamic youth from Syria and Lebanon and visited refugee families living in camps.
Saturday 11 July
Arriving in Lebanon
As the plane touched down in Beirut the passengers burst into applause. Not because it had been a partially turbulent or long flight, but simple because “The Lebanese like to celebrate,” as the Lebanese-Australian lady next to me explained.
I hadn’t realised this about the Lebanese, but then again, up till this point I’m embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of the Lebanese was restricted to stories of war and memories of an old neighbour’s fantastic tabouli!
The amazing WFP staff members Joelle and Dina met me at the airport and let me rest for a few hours at my hotel before taking me out to dinner to experience the incredible local food. Let’s just say that the food was so good that I ate too much and slept very well that night nursing my full tummy!
Sunday 12 July
Sailing from Beirut
Although my stay in Beirut was short, I was thankful to have time in the mornings to see the city in my favourite way, walking and inevitably getting lost. There’s nothing like walking to get a feel for a place.
On the first morning after wandering the quiet streets (it was a Sunday morning) I found myself on the coast, the light sea breeze was refreshing after the hot humid streets. I enjoyed standing, taking in the movement of the water and watching locals fish with huge casting rods.
“In front of the sea happiness is a simple idea” (Jean-Claude Izzo, “Chourmo“)
A little later that day I was lucky enough to spend an amazing afternoon sailing and talking to a group of young Lebanese and, Syrian refugees. As only a few of these youths had been on boats before and with the Australian ambassador there to see us off, we left the dock with an air of excitement.
Clear of the harbour, we found that the conditions were perfect for inexperienced sailors, the sun was shining, the water was calm and the wind light but steady enough to push us along at a gentle pace.
After the sail, we all dined together where I enjoyed being able to ask the young crew a little more about their lives. They all had fascinating stories, but I was particularly struck by one girl’s story. Sixteen-year-old Mariam came from a town in northern Syria.
Her family made the incredibly difficult decision to flee to Lebanon and now live in a refugee camp in the south of the city. Her older sister is still in Syria and I can’t imagine how I would feel if my sister was living in such a hostile environment. I do know that I’d be a basket case of worries!
Mariam has passed three years in Lebanon and during this time she and her brother Hamza haven’t been able to attend school, something that clearly upsets her as she dreams of becoming a doctor. She doesn’t know if it will be possible to go to university anymore.
Her words made me think of all the young people in Australia (myself included!) who don’t realise how lucky we are. Wow, am I going to appreciate my next dull lecture when I go back to university!
Talking to the group made me wish young people’s voices were given more attention. Imagine if the world’s old and wise decision makers were as free of prejudice, unburdened by historical conflicts and as committed to unity and peace.
Monday 13 July
On the way out to the Bekaa Valley I shared a car with WFP’s head of the field office and the Australian ambassador who were full of insights about Lebanon and issues in the area.
“I am blown away by the generosity of the Lebanese who have welcomed about a fourth of their population in refugees”(J. Watson)
Coming from Australia where they take in only a few thousand refugees every year I am blown away by the generosity of the Lebanese who have welcomed about a fourth of their population in refugees.
I learnt quickly that fostering and building positive relationships between the Lebanese and Syrian refugees is incredibly important.
When we reached the camp itself I saw that it consisted of tents made from crude wooden frames covered with decaying plastic sheeting, held in place with rocks and rubble. Tiny gardens grew outside a few tents and the faces of small children peered out from the shadows of doorways.
The children slowly grew more confident, or maybe escaped their parents watchful eyes and followed us around the camp, giggling. The boys were cheeky, clearly stirring trouble and the girls followed me around just like they do at primary schools back home.
I heard how snow in the winter threatened to collapse the tents and the children, dressed in only a few light layers, had to help clear the snow.
One mother, Khadija, explained that after WFP had to cut back their food rations they weren’t able to eat chicken or meat anymore. She said that the hunger was making her depression worse.
Khadija’s eyes reminded me of my own mother’s eye and her story made me emotional. She told me that her only hope was for peace, something that I am so utterly incapable of changing. As much I wish for the peace, she so badly wishes her girls were at school and there is nothing I can do to help on this matter either.
The only thing that I can do is support WFP and hope that with enough funding WFP will be able to continue their food assistance and maybe even reinstate a slightly higher amount of support so that stop Khadija and her family from feeling quite so hungry.
Tuesday 14 July
Azraq Refugee Camp
It was great to hear that Malala Yousafzai was in Lebanon as well celebrating her 18th birthday by opening a school for girls. Her story is so inspiring and it’s great to see the positive impact she is having!
I started the day with a briefing from WFP’s Emergency Coordinator in Jordan, a very passionate English man named Jonathan. He was very generous with his time, giving me a detailed account of what’s going on in the region, very helpful with a map.
He explained that WFP doesn’t know where next month’s funding for Jordan will come from. Something that is clearly devastating to Jonathan and the other WFP staff members. He told me that if their food assistance stops, some refugees will continue trying to find any work they can, some have no idea and others say they will have to go back to Syria – even into regions that are controlled by ISIS, an absurdly terrifying idea, but they have no other option.
After that we headed out to Azraq refugee camp. As we left the city the landscape turned to rolling sandy hills then to harsh, bare rocky plains. My first impression of the camp was that it was bleak – rows upon rows of basic white tin huts. I’ve seen prisons in Australia that look more inviting.
Stopping at one of the identical huts we met a lady, Manal and her two daughters and her three identical eight-year-old triplet sons. Manal, one of the few family community leaders in the camp, had kindly offered to cook us dinner. So after showing us her hut we headed off to buy ingredients. The supermarket, basically just a huge shed, was packed and chaotic but we had fun finding the things we needed.
Manal was keen to start preparing the meal straight away, I tried to help but I’m sure I was really just in the way. The afternoon passed enjoyably A few women from neighbouring huts dropped in. The family and Manal relaxed more as time passed. I got to see photos of one of the girl’s recently held wedding and we listened to music on my phone.
I really enjoyed spending time with Manal’s oldest daughter Seedra – a feisty, loud and bossy 13-year-old. I just hope that Seedra stays feisty and strong through all the challenges that she’ll surely see in the next few years.
As the sun set we left the hut for a little while and headed up a small hill. The colours of the setting sun were stunning, even over the bleak setting. But we didn’t have long to quietly enjoy the sunset as a big group of kids soon joined us – yelling, laughing, and doing backflips.
With the light disappearing we shook off the kids and went back to the camp for an incredible dinner. I haven’t seen food appreciated like that in a long time, clearly it had been a while since they had eaten so well.
After dinner we headed outside to enjoy the light cool breeze and starry sky before reluctantly leaving at 21.00.
Since my voyage around the world, I have been called brave a lot, but in comparison to what these people have been though and are going though, having the courage to sail around the world is pathetic.
The day was certainly one of the most incredible days I’ve ever had.
Wednesday 15 July
Save the Children Centre and Australian Embassy
The day started with a visit to a big local Save the Children community centre with Kate, the Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy. The centre was an old tobacco factory converted into classes and meeting rooms.
We were shown around, visiting different class rooms, including one where mothers were taking a basic literacy and numeracy and computer science class. It felt like we were opening doors at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, every room revealed wonderful things – kids keenly learning and building connections between the Jordanian and Syrian communities.
I joined a group of older teenage girls who were sharing a little about themselves. It’s certainly distressing to hear that many of the careers that the girls dream of having will not be allowed by their parents. Although I was thrilled to hear one girl suggest that nothing is impossible!
I was also able to give a short presentation to them on my voyage. It’s difficult to present through a translator, but the girls were glued to the pictures and asked some great questions.
I was able to repeat the presentation to a group of staff and an English class. I haven’t enjoyed giving a presentation that much in a long time. One of the young male staff members asked if I cried during the voyage. I told him that I did a lot, but not as much as the guy whose record I broke, something that went down very well!
Driving back through the streets I was able to see just a little of the city before we arrived for lunch at the Embassy.
The Embassy was huge (although insignificant compared to the US Embassy!) and Australian’s working with non-governmental organisations were invited along to join us. There was very yummy Palestinian catering and we checked out the view of the city from the pool (yes pool!) terrace before I left for the airport.
Flying out of Jordan I didn’t really feel ready to leave.