Intuition and the courage to love
In April Fred Donaldson, Ph.D. asked me to join him and other Original Play players on a trip to Lebanon that autumn, in order to play with (mostly Syrian) refugee children there. I immediately said “yes”. This “yes” was intuitive and spontaneous. Fred often reminds the participants of his workshops and seminars in Original Play to “use your intuition”. (More on Original Play at www.originalplay.eu and www.originalplay.at)
This year, for my birthday card, Zen Master Karl Obermayer chose the sign “KAN” for the calligraphy – a word which means intuition. That strengthened my resolve. After my trip, I can confirm that I was correct to follow my intuition.
Welcome to Beirut
The city of Beirut is very lively, modern and full of opposites. Besides decaying colonial-style villas, skyscrapers of glass and steel rear up. At the most popular beachside promenades we stumble into barbed wire fences and observation posts. The city thrives, but its center (Place de l’Étoile) is deadly quiet and heavily guarded by police, since this is where Parliament is located, and the city’s government is concerned about attacks. The people meet us with openness and kindness. “Welcome to Lebanon,” is a phrase we hear many times a day.
‘We’, that is the group of us who have decided to play with refugee children here in Lebanon. Original Play – the natural, ‘original’ playing – is no human artefact, but a “gift of creation to all life ” as Fred Donaldson describes the playing of children and wild animals alike, the patterns and principles of which he has studied and embodied for more than 43 years. He travels to Lebanon for the fourth time invited by the NGO Jasmin-Hilfe, to offer Original Play. Therefor he visited each time the camp Jarahieh, the trauma-centre in Tripoli and the orphanages described below.
The coordinator of the trip is Soumaya El-Azem, she is accompanied from Ingrid Töteberg. Both are members of the NGO Jasmin-Hilfe e.V., an association of humanitarian aid for Syrian children. The group is made up of Fred Donaldson (discoverer of Original Play, USA), Rawan Alhusseini (UAE), Noraini Mahmood (Bahrein), Sonja Mille (Austria), Uwe Reisenauer (Germany) and myself, that is Armin Knauthe (Austria).
Traffic-Flow and Horn-Concert
From our new base in Beirut, our first day of Original Play takes us north to the harbour town of Tripoli. “He who brakes, loses” seems to be the rule out here in the traffic of Lebanon. Our driver Valid has the knack of moving the bulky Rover along continuously despite constant traffic jams. “Honking your horn is its own language here,” Soumaya explains. The nuances of hooting horns can mean anything from “Careful!” to “Go past now!” to “Get lost!” and much more.
Slowly, Beirut peters out along the coastal route, until houses again begin to thicken into the suburbs of Tripoli. The slopes are built up in terraces. The view reminds me momentarily of slope urbanisation in Lausanne and Montreux at Lake Geneva, my second home of Switzerland. Maybe that’s why Lebanon has the moniker “The Switzerland of the Middle East.”
Future-Kids in Tripoli
In the centre of Tripoli, we are welcomed by the coordinator and the teachers of a Centre for Traumatized Syrian Refugee Children and Women. International Humanitarian Relief (IHS) is the responsible. Jasmin Hilfe supports it financially on a regular basis.
A classroom is quickly emptied and we put our playing mats down with a few of the children, until almost the whole classroom floor is covered with them. At first, it’s the turn of 25 of the younger children to take part in Original Play, girls and boys of the tender age of three to six years old. They remain sitting peacefully around the mats and focus on the game with much attention and open, laughing eyes when it’s not their turn. The second group consists of 15 children of school age. The girls initially refuse to come onto the play area together with the boys. Only at the very end do they join in.
After the play, two teenage girls from Syria who arrived at the centre with the new-born of their older sister, tell us of their traumatic experiences in their home country. Noraini Mahmood, one of our play participants from Bahrain, puts them in touch with a Sponsor who can support them for 150 Euros per month.
In the afternoon, we are greeted by laughing children shaking our hands with eye-contact at the orphanage in a suburb of Tripoli. The mats were already laid out in the hall for us, and we played in four groups with a total of about 40 children. A five-year old boy, wearing rimmed glasses who is blind on one eye, approaches me after the play and sits on my lap, and stays there during the entire break time. I follow his gentle rocking, until we both find a unified sway.
A short drive further on, and we reach a modern-classicist building akin to a villa, with a garden, terraces and a grand view over Tripoli, which has been fitted for half-orphans. Here the children await us at the gate and receive us with politeness. We play with children between 3 and 15 years, about 50 altogether. To mark the end of our visit, the girls have prepared a choreographed dance and the boys sing for us in a choir on the terrace under an already darkening evening sky. I am impressed by both these performances, and the self-confidence of the children. There is really no sign of ‘No-future kids’ here, in my opinion.
„Hi mister! I love you!“
Black signs with large arabic script are hung across the street. It’s the islamist words of the Hisbollah, which control this dense quarter of Beirut, we are told. Here is the Jusoor school in an old and elegant residential building. We play in the courtyard, which is also the break area, but which is overcrowded with the many children of all ages.
During the break time, there are several actual fights. I place myself physically between the fighting boys with the ‘play’ attitude. One of the boys dominates the others. His gaze is stern and he has no problem beating other kids. When he notices my intervention, the 12-year old draws himself up before me and threatens me with his fists. I take one of his fists into my hand gently, and kiss it and play with it; every time he uses them to threaten or hit, I repeat this, until his gaze softens. After a while I have the impression he understands what I am attempting to do.
Later, I notice how he is about to hit another child again. He looks to me, sees how I watch him gently as before, and stops. On the mats during Original Play he takes plays and tumbles like a little boy with me, with much energy, moving softly and rounded, and he laughs.
The manager of the Jusoor organisation paints the picture of the home situation of many of these children for us. Many live with their families in one room with little space, one boy even with 15 siblings (from 2 different mothers). Many execute child labour and experience domestic violence as part and parcel of their lives. One boy must sleep outside if he’s misbehaved. The four hours which these children attend school daily – there are two shifts, with a total of 200 students – is mainly a method to liberate them from the narrow walls of their home; but also here at school it’s too crowded for the children’s need for free movement and exploration, and this overcrowding also often leads to aggression.
A lebanese boy from the neighbouring house (about 13 years old) has watched the playing. “Hey mister, you make a great job” he calls to me during the lunch break. After leaving the school he sees me on the street. He throws air kisses at me and calls to me: “Hey mister! I love you.” I reply with his words.
Bekaa – suffering and dignity
What I see here is bare reality, not a photo, not a newspaper article or tv report: it’s three-dimensional, dusty, dirty, stinking and depressing. The refugee camp in Jarrahieh on the Bekaa plateau offers protection to 198 families. With an average of seven children per family, that’s about 1400 people, of which 800 are children. They are unregistered and so must rent the floor of their improvised shelters of wood, plastic, canvas and corrugated iron – called tents – for about 100 dollars per month.
Just recently, the Jusoor organisation erected a wooden building here to serve as a school for the camp. We place the mats on the dusty floor there and play with six groups of children between 14 and 16 years old. In the next door room, there is hammering. The youths are still in the process of building that room. Fred remains at the door, as more children are pushing to get in. This time, we also feel aggression from the children on the play area itself. Some boys strangle, one bites, a girl hits and pushes anyone wildly during play. Then you see behavioural patterns which are often exhibited during Original Play: one boy who hasn’t joined in the play, afterwards joins me on the mats and hugs me. A small boy in nappies sits on my lap and remains there. When one of the boys strangles me, I glance playfully into his left eye and pause calmly. He releases his grip and his arm relaxes. A girl desperately wants to play a second time, and scowls as I deny it. As we leave, she is back to laughing brightly.
At noon we get freshly baked pastries from the camp’s own bakery. We eat in the ambulance container which has been installed in autumn 2015 for about US $ 20,000. Both are – in planning, execution and financing – projects of Jasmin-Hilfe. The NGO also pays monthly salaries for a doctor, a nurse, the bakers, a guard, and a teacher.
We make short stops at several refugee camps, to get a picture of the situation. Most of them don’t even have the essentials: clean drinking water, gravel to avoid mud roads during rain and snow in winter, toilets, septic tanks, nappies. The people in these camps have been here longer, and show frustration at their situation. A large fire in the main camp has caused insecurity and fear amongst the children.
In a few camps there are flowers and gardens, and the people there are creating a peaceful environment in conjunction with the authorities there.
Despite the difficult circumstances, we are repeatedly welcomed with smiles and air kisses. In all this poverty and deprivation, I feel during these meetings a strength, something that takes the threat out of all this: human dignity.
„Don’t cry“ – some comfort
On the second day in camp Jarrahieh on the Bekaa Plain, the boys are not allowed to play. They had destroyed a water pipe on the previous day, and the camp-heads had forbidden them to enter the school building. So there are only girls playing, two groups, about 30 children, a few play a couple of times. Immediately after the play, a girl runs up to me and kisses me on the cheek. Generally this often happens to me after Original Play, but this time I’m so touched I tear up. Noraini stands behind me and also she weeps. “Don’t cry,” say the girls standing around her, and they touch her to cheer her up.
We hand out biscuits, nappies and clothing, visit the family of the camp’s teacher, whose children play oriental musical instruments for us, and we visit the family of a young man with cerebral palsy. He recognises Fred from a previous visit, and his face beams as Fred brushes his beard softly over his hands.
After the playing in another camp and a short visit to the surrounding smaller camps, we are invited to the family of our driver Valid for tea. His grandmother is particularly keen to see Fred again. About 20 family members welcome us, the women even shake the hands of the men in our group, and Valid’s grandmother kisses our cheeks. Her eyes are piercing, as if she could look directly into my soul, and as I sit on the sofa next to her she gives me the special honour of kissing the top of my head.
We return to Beirut on winding mountain roads, in the dark of night; we are exhausted and yet wrapped in love, and comforted.
We make our way to Camp Shatila in Beirut, past the warning “Beware electrical cable! Many people die of electrical shocks!” This camp was built for Palestinian refugees in 1949, and is a square kilometre in size, and houses about 22,000 refugees and their offspring today, amongst them now also new Syrian refugees. The five and seven floor steel and concrete blocks look like medieval structures, and reveal gully-like streets where a chaos of power cables and water tubing hang down almost to the ground, criss-crossing each other.
The leader of the kindergarten where we play reports of her own life in the camp as well as the massacre of 1982, and many other acts of violence, which traumatised the parents and even grand-parents of children living here today.
In fact, many of the 75 children are almost apathetic during the playing. One boy just lies on top of me and lets me rock him, remaining still and unmoving. Another girl does the same. The kindergarten is clean, friendly, and lovingly put together. The rooms use no natural light, however, on the roof terrace there is a large area for kids to play in the open.
During our guided tour through the labyrinth of streets of Shatila, given by a teacher, we stop briefly, as in front of us a group of young men are working on the power cables. I ask the coffee-bar owner standing next to me, whether he thinks this work is dangerous, and he replies “It’s very dangerous. The whole camp is garbage.” I ask myself how much money would be necessary in order to transform Shatila into a pretty and especially safe area of Beirut.
The courage to love
In all the places in Lebanon to which we were invited to play with children, there is much work still to be done, much to organize and improve. Despite all the difficult circumstances, the terrible experiences of danger, escape, loss and grief, the children have always met us with spontaneous love. It was as if they wished to ask me: “Do you have the courage, to love me back?”
I don’t know if I was able to give enough love back to every single one of them, but I know, that as long as there are children, there is hope for me that I will learn to do so.
Donations for the play with refugee-children:
Verein Original Play Österreich – von Herzen spielen
Donations for staple foods, baby food, medical Care as medical products and equipment, medicine and operations as well as housing and education:
IBAN: DE20 300 400 000 805 813 300
BIC: COBA DE FF XXX
Photos: ©Noraini Mahmood, Sonja Mille, Ingrid Töteberg, Armin Knauthe 2016