Chemistry class is under way in the village of Keyfoun. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
A bright future awaits these happy schoolchildren from Kamatiyeh. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Children in day care work on their coloring. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Homemade lace is much in demand for Lebanese dowries and weddings. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Two women from Kamatiyeh cut a pattern at a Pontifical Mission-supported program. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
A visit to a Lebanese home such as those in the villages of Kamatiyeh and Keyfoun always includes a cup of coffee.
How do you like your coffee?
Your choices are almost as numerous as those in a questionnaire: murr (bitter, no sugar), wasat (some sugar), sukkar aliil (very little sugar) or sukkar ziyyadeh (a lot of sugar). If you dont have a strong opinion or want to be diplomatic, you respond with aa zawak (according to your good taste).
Kamatiyeh and Keyfoun are Shiite Muslim enclaves surrounded by Christian villages near Beirut. Kamatiyehs closest neighbor is the Christian village of Bmkiin. Good relations between the two villages have stood the test of time and the troubles of civil war.
There is no way the one road shared by the two villages can divide them; it curves in and out of each village, connecting the two communities in life and death. From one village church bells announce a marriage or a death; from another, a mosques muezzin calls out prayers from the minaret. The two villages cemeteries lie next to each other; each community pays respects to its bereaved. On happier occasions, be it Christmas or Ramadan, village officials and religious leaders extend their salutations and share in the feasts.
These civilities are as old as the villages and the villages are as old as time. Village legend says the name Kamatiyeh, which means swaddling cloth, was given to the village when a Good Samaritan of the village gave a poor woman a swaddling cloth in which to wrap her baby.
A questionnaire was the reason for the visits to the villages of Kamatiyeh and Keyfoun by Marie-Gabrielle Corm and her team from the Beirut office of the Pontifical Mission, CNEWAs operating agency in the Middle East. To determine the needs of the village, a questionnaire was distributed. But few were returned.
The Pontifical Mission tried another approach: Create a village committee. Invitations went out to the mukhtaar, or mayor, to the teachers, who are held in great respect, to the old men who knew life long before the Lebanese civil war, to the heads of the farming co-ops and to the village women the power behind the plows.
To each his own. At first, each person voiced his or her own opinion and supported his or her own agenda. But with the help of Pontifical Mission staff, these individuals became a committee. And the committee learned the fine art of setting priorities. As possible projects were targeted, each had its own advocate, each its own devils advocate.
The Pontifical Mission was willing to help plan and finance the chosen project, but the project required an approval from the central government. The committee learned that sometimes the amount of red tape that had to be cut or untangled helped to set priorities.
In dealing with the Lebanese government for permits and licenses, committee members not only learned on which door to knock, but also how loud to knock and how many knocks were needed.
The committee learned that weather, too, was a factor. For the farmers and the co-op agricultural roads were a top priority, but road construction had to wait for the dry seasons late spring and summer.
The committee, in addition to learning how each member liked his or her coffee, learned how to be flexible and accommodating. A little bit of aa zawak came into play.
Once priorities were established, the work began. All that talk made everyone feel the next mans project was partly his or hers, in both credit and responsibility.
In Kamatiyeh school repairs surfaced at the top of the list. With the Pontifical Missions help, student lavatories were relocated further from the playground and plumbing was reinstalled so the restrooms would remain clean.
In nearby Keyfoun, a young chemistry teacher named Majdeh Abu-Zaki teaches in English from English textbooks. His students, 16-year-old boys and girls, put their heads together to share equipment and figure out experiments. Five classes 110 students in all ponder the procedures in this lab classroom on a daily basis. MIT it isnt, but you wouldnt know that from the students enthusiasm.
Chemical experiments, however, need chemicals and there are always shortages. The Pontifical Mission responded to another request and made a two-year commitment to provide the classroom with the necessary chemicals.
In both these villages, the correct treatment of sewage and potable water supply are major concerns. Neglect, war and the simple aging process have taken their toll on village infrastructure, putting village health at risk. Both communities recognize this problem and it, too, is a top priority.
Traditional water sources in Kamatiyeh and Keyfoun need to be replaced. They are too far away for efficient maintenance and are often overused due to the increase in population. Working together with the Lebanese government, UNICEF and World Vision, the Pontifical Mission will assist in reinstalling a potable water network.
Until very recently, sewage flowed through uncovered canals in Kamatiyeh. With Pontifical Missions help, 3,511 feet of canals were rehabilitated and covered. One self-appointed subcommittee bought planters and filled them with flowers. Some towns have their median strips; Kamatiyeh has flowering planters on its canal covers.
For many couples today, adding a second income to a family is a necessity. Working moms, many of whom are teachers, need day care for their children. Unfortunately, the days of grandma care are diminishing as society changes.
As many of them are teachers, the women see the advantage of having their children cared for in an academic and social environment. Another priority was addressed when the Pontifical Mission agreed to support Kamatiyehs day-care program.
In Lebanese culture dowries remain significant and many of the items are traditionally homemade. But many of todays younger women no longer know these skills and are happy to pay others to fill the cedar chest.
Recognizing this need, a training course was set up for a group of 60 young women who had the desire and aptitude for handwork. Now they meet at the sewing center as often as they can. Sewing machines provided by the Pontifical Mission whirl and scissors are rarely at rest in the rehabilitated workshop. Rent for the workshop is covered by local contributors. For these women, pattern cutting often leads to pattern design; it wont be long before some of these women can hang out a shingle that proudly reads Seamstress.
There is another womens workshop in the nearby village of Keyfoun. Finished items are laid out, bazaar-style, on long tables. The women watch the faces of visitors and smile as they wait on their customers. The tables are laden with items bearing neat embroidery and fancifully painted fabric.
Some items require close scrutiny before their origins can be deduced. Smiles broaden as we discern that a bunch of pretty grapes is made from Pepsi-Cola bottle caps. Containers of all sorts have been transformed into decorative items. Rather than waste, create has become the motto of this workshop.
It is obvious that these women have had some education beyond the village school system.
A round of handshakes and questions introduces us to Sireen, 23, who studied tourism at the Islamic University of Lebanon and speaks excellent English. We also meet Manal, who has worked as a dental assistant. Rania studied geography at Lebanese University and Afifeh teaches crafts in the Lebanese school system.
Kati is married to a Lebanese man whom she met in her home country of Bulgaria. Like many women in the craft workshop, she has contributed much from her cultural background to the workshop.
Back in the village hall, the talk is all about upgrading municipal services. These days, banter around the computer includes terms such as UPS, fax, Excel and Word. Budgets, fees and taxes are being entered into the new village computer system. Civil servants are being trained, thanks to a special program conducted by the State University of New York.
Taxes will be allocated for municipal services that include garbage collection, law enforcement, street cleaning, a notary public and a dispensary.
The enthusiasm with which the members of the Pontifical Mission are met wherever they go reflects its philosophy of giving: The difference is between a handout and a hand up. Dignity and pride are the by-products of the second. And those are priceless.
Marilyn Raschka is our Beirut correspondent.