A Lebanese - Syrian recycling project: Cedar and Jasmine

Finally the truck arrives. It carries brand-new light blue and dark green garbage bins. Alaa talks to the driver and consults with his friends, then, the young men and women divide into groups. Some climb up into the truck, others get in private cars. The trip starts. The convoy turns left into the main road of Bar Elias, passing vegetable peddlers, phone shops and a pharmacy, then takes a right to the neighborhood Jazeera. It is the place where the garbage bins shall be distributed to 53 Lebanese and Syrian families.

Bar Elias is a small town in the Beqaa Valley, in the east of Lebanon. It is bordering the road to Syria. It is 12 km to the border. On the horizon, one can see the snow-covered peaks of the Anti-Lebanon Mountain. At the entrance of the town, a blue sign informs the visitor: total population: 50,000. Only the Lebanese are meant by it. Since 2011, at least the same number of Syrians joined them. Due to its vicinity to Syria, the Beqaa is the main settlement zone for refugees from the neighboring country. According to the UNHCR, almost 35% of the more than one million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon live in this region.

Alaa Alzaibak has been living in Bar Elias already for three years. The 29-year-old is actually an IT specialist. Prior to his flight from Syria, he worked in banks and several companies. Now he is active in the organisation Basmeh and Zeitooneh: “The work in an NGO is new for me. I’m working here for only a year, but I’m very enthusiastic. I learned so much during this little time.” The non-governmental organization was founded mostly by Syrians. The organisation is active in humanitarian aid, but also supports refugees and the hosting communities in the areas of education, social affairs and culture.

Together with their partner forumZFD, they created a community project; called Future Together Now carried out jointly with the Lebanese organisation LOST (Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training) in the Beqaa Valley. Alaa is standing in the office of Basmeh and Zeitooneh and points to the various flipchart-papers hanging on the wall. Colored cards with keywords in English and Arabic are stuck on it, linked by arrows and numbers. One can follow on it how the project of the garbage bins was developed, the many steps it underwent – from the idea to the preparations to the realisation: “Our goal is to relieve tensions between Syrian and Lebanese in Bar Elias and to get the two groups together.” He adds that this shall be achieved by a project, developed according to the needs of Syrians and Lebanese on the ground, in which both are participating and from which both are benefiting.

A project on recycling

The project that just started is about the question of recycling of plastic and metal in the neighborhood Jazeera. Syrian and Lebanese separate their garbage. From the sale of plastic and metal a project, planned by the inhabitants of the neighborhood will be financed. Wafa Haddad (name changed) and Medyen Al-Ahmad – both from Syria – are also participating. Wafa has been living in Bar Elias for three and a half years. The joyful and agile woman in her mid-twenties had just completed her law studies when she had to leave her home. “For me it is important to overcome mutual prejudices. A lot of people here think that Syrians are poor and incapable. It is true for sure that a lot of refugees live in difficult situations, but many of them are well educated, willing to work and to give.” On the other hand, she says, “Syrians think often that Lebanese are arrogant and don’t want to have any contact to the refugees”.

Medyen is in his late 30s. He lives in a refugee camp close to Bar Elias for four years now. He often observes how problems between locals and the refugees arise: “Garbage from the camps ends up on the neighboring properties of Lebanese. Locals complain about the smell of sewage in the camps close to them. Or Syrian children play on the field of a Lebanese farmer. And this is when trouble starts.” The tensions that emerge in daily life have a deeper cause. Already before 2011, before the arrival of the refugees from the neighboring country, the Beqaa valley was considered to be poor and backward. The people lived off agriculture and the border trade with Syria. The fast population growth in the last years fueled the competition for resources.

Fayez Okasha comes from Bar Elias. The Lebanese, who participate in the recycling project, say that the job opportunities, which had already been limited, and the desolate infrastructure did not adapt to the growth. “This uncertain situation lets a lot of Lebanese think about the Syrians as a burden. And they see that the attention of the international organisations concentrates primarily on the new arrivals. This causes discontent.”

After about two kilometers, the truck and the cars reach their destination. On the right and the left of the street, buildings plastered in ochre and brown stand side by side. Women sit on the courtyards and chat. Children are playing. Fruit trees blossom in the gardens. In this part of Jazeera live mostly Lebanese. The garbage bins are unloaded and piled on the big parking lot in front of the houses. The volunteers of Basmeh and Zeitooneh start to stick the badges with the label plastic on the light blue bins and the label metal on the dark green bins. Then they split up in two groups. Wafa takes care of the left side of the road, Alaa the right side. With a list of the families in their hands, they knock on the doors and hand in respectively one green and one blue bin. Medyen explains: “Pepsi cans for example have to get into this bin. The empty bottles of dish soap or shampoo in the other. The rest goes to the normal bin.” And he continues to the next family. By now, the news got spread around that the staff of Basmeh and Zeitooneh arrived. The residents look curiously out of their flats. A group of elderly men puts plastic chairs on the parking lot. One of the residents brings a pot with Turkish coffee. Medyen pours the black liquid in small white cups.

Community Activists

Alaa, Wafa and Medyen are trained as Community Activists by the forumZFD. They learn how to analyse conflicts, plan projects and to carry out needs assessments. In every phase of the planning of their project, they look to contact the decision makers in Bar Elias in order to build confidence. They meet religious dignitaries, local politicians and influential persons in the town. The community activists developed questionnaires in which they sample the needs of the Lebanese and Syrians.

The survey showed, that the needs of the Syrians and Lebanese in Bar Elias are similar, Wafa says. The wish for job opportunities and the improvement of the infrastructure is ranked first: “Of course we cannot create jobs. We planned a small project which lies within the frame of our possibilities.” They have 6,000 USD at their disposal for the realization of their plan. Several ideas were discussed, such as repairing the sidewalks, planting some trees in Bar Elias of the town, laying out a garden and the recycling project they finally agreed on. A working group that was established by the refugees and the locals gave a Syrian-Lebanese name to the recycling-project: “Cedar and Jasmine”.

The community activists transfer their knowledge from the forumZFD trainings to their fellow campaigners in the working group. Alaa emphasises: “The most important aspect of our project is that it will continue without us, that the people on the spot feel responsible for it. I won’t be here forever. Maybe I’ll go back to Syria one day. Then I’ll be able to do something there with the knowledge I acquired here.

After the short coffee break, the activists carry the remaining garbage bins to the other side of the street of Jazeera. Huts are built on the wasteland there – wooden scaffolding, covered with plastic sheets. 15 Syrian families who fled their villages close to Aleppo are living here. The principal of the camp, Mahmoud Junaid welcomes the activists, women and kids come running. Junaid thinks positively about the project: “The fact that our neighborhood can earn some money with the recycling project offers an incentive. It encourages us to participate.”

During the last weeks, the volunteers of Basmeh and Zeitooneh had doubts about the project. The idea of bringing Syrians and Lebanese together seemed illusory. “In the beginning, the decision makers in Bar Elias didn’t show any interest about the project. Only after a while, they realised that we were serious about it”, says Alaa. Wafa adds: “In the beginning, it was not easy to persuade Lebanese to answer to our questionnaires to determine their needs.” Only as a Lebanese joined the team, it became easier. Medyan points out that a lot of locals and refugees distrusted them, because they made bad experiences with other organizations: “Sometimes, employees of some organizations come here, carry out surveys, note them and say they would come back the following week. But they don’t come back. No wonder that the people become suspicious.”

Two weeks have passed since the distribution of the garbage bins. Alaa, Wafa and Medyen visit Jazeera regularly, together with the other volunteers of “Cedar and Jasmine”, talk to the residents and see if the recycling is working properly. Right now, they are setting up a committee of Lebanese and Syrians in the neighborhood to discuss what to do with the income from the collected plastic and metal. They have already some ideas: painting the school or to fix the public tap.

By Mona Najjar, translated by Mirjam Walter