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Canadian Foodgrains Bank learning tour to Lebanon highlights impact of food assistance in building peace, building community and social cohesion

 Coordinator of diocesan Office of Migration reflects on recent learning tour to Lebanon with Canadian Foodgrains Bank

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski


While on a recent Canadian Foodgrains Bank learning tour to Lebanon, Christine Zyla saw first-hand how relationships, community and peace are being strengthened through food assistance.


“Sometimes food assistance can be very messy – we’ve seen that with television coverage of trucks bringing in food, showing a demeaning scrabble by desperate people. But it can also be very Eucharistic – becoming a source of community building and social cohesion,” says Zyla.


“Food assistance can bring deep community connection, relationship-building, peace-building. That is what I saw in Lebanon – food assistance that goes way beyond food assistance.”


Founded in 1983, Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of 15 churches and church agencies working together to end global hunger. Food assistance accounts for 62 per cent of the organization’s programs – last year Foodgrains provided $26 million in food assistance in 24 countries, as well as $14 million in agriculture and livelihood programs in 31 countries.


A member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank for some 10 years, Zyla also coordinates the Office of Migration in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, which assists parishes, organizations and small groups who are involved in refugee sponsorship. In addition to providing information about food assistance programs, the March 8-20, 2017 Foodgrains learning tour to Lebanon brought Zyla new insight and understanding into the refugee situation in that country.


Lebanon is host to some 1.5 million refugees from the surrounding region – many from Syria, but also refugees from Palestine, some displaced for decades. “One in four people in Lebanon is a refugee,” says Zyla. “The impact on the local community, the local population is huge – it is not even a question of whether they are welcoming or not. They are dealing with a tremendous number of needy people, and the community is trying to find ways to cope.”


Even before the most recent influx of refugees from the conflict in Syria, which is entering its seventh year, Lebanon was already a complex society with sectarian tensions. “It is astounding that things have remained relatively stable – the work of NGOs (non-government organizations like those working with Canadian Foodgrains Bank) is a big reason for that stability,” says Zyla.


When the Learning Tour 2017 group arrived in Beirut, a representative of the Near East School of Theology gave an in-depth introduction to Lebanon. “Lebanon is a mosaic – so many different groups have crossed this land and stayed there. Lebanon has many levels of history and complexity. Each piece is part of the story, but none of it is the whole story,” says Zyla.


Together the group reflected on the need for food security, which they determined exists “when all people have regular and dignified access to enough nutritious food to live healthy and active lives.”


The Mennonite Central Committee – one of the organizations making up the Canadian Foodgrains Bank – hosted the group on their arrival. “They have been working in Lebanon for a very long time. The work they invited us to see and the people they invited us to meet were Palestinian refugees who fled to Lebanon as refugees in 1948, and are now hosting refugees from Syria.”


“For MCC and other groups we met, food assistance is a means for peace building, community building and intercultural relationship-building,” says Zyla. “It is very Eucharistic.”


On one memorable day, the learning tour visited a cedar grove, experiencing the same famous cedars of Lebanon that the ancient Phoenicians used to build ships, and Solomon used to build the temple in Jerusalem. Strictly protected, the grove was an oasis of sacred peace, describes Zyla. High in altitude, with snow on the ground, it was reminiscent of the scripture reading for the day about the Transfiguration. “And then, we too had to come down the mountain, back into the realities,” she says.


The learning tour met with members of a group known as Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD), who are working to provide relief to those affected by the war in Syria – Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon, as well as displaced people still in Syria.


“The people from PARD are amazing, totally dedicated to the work they are doing with communities that have been displaced. They have been operating in crisis mode for going on seven years now,” says Zyla, whose heart was touched by their work and their struggles. “I am holding them in my prayers. The work is so hard, and yet they are continuing.”


Among the PARD representatives were farmers who were delighted to meet and talk with farmers from Alberta and Ontario who were part of the learning tour.


“We were speaking through interpreters, but the connection was so clear. Ed and Shannon showed photos of their farm in Alberta, and pictures of a fund-raising farming project that the community organized in support of Foodgrains: it was an amazing moment of farmer-to-farmer connection,” says Zyla. “That moment of connection was beyond anything I had experienced before. The Foodgrains Bank Board meetings are always interesting and engaging, but this farmer-to-farmer connection brought home what we are really all about.”


Sharing a meal with the members of PARD was another joyful moment of communion between people from different parts of the world, of different faiths and backgrounds, she related.


“We saw beautiful examples of Muslim and Christian people working together – the needs are so great, and people are pulling together, working together.”


The learning tour also visited the Sabra and Shatila Refugee Gathering (Lebanon often uses the word gathering rather than camp, since there are official and unofficial refugee camps), site of a notorious 1982 massacre of thousands, and heard a first-hand account of that event.


Today, the Sabra Gathering includes temporary structures and concrete buildings that are expanding upwards to make space for new refugees coming in, describes Zyla. “There is no attention to building codes; these are precarious structures that block more and more of the light. The children have no place to play, no green space,” she says.


“The living conditions were very harsh and noisy and crowded, but this was also a neighbourhood with friendly people who care about each other.”


The tour participants also witnessed the dignity provided through a food voucher system of assistance. “Rather than being given food directly, people receive a voucher so that they can go to the local shops and choose what to buy, thereby supporting the local merchants, helping the local economy,” says Zyla. A group of Syrian women described “how much they appreciate the food vouchers as a way to feel a little more normal.”


Food assistance is providing social cohesion in many settings, adds Zyla, describing stops at Sidon, and at a number of other refugee gatherings, including one in a rural area. When food assistance is available to all, it builds peace.


“Palestinian refugees have been living in gatherings for 70 years… they live precariously; legally they can’t own land, they are overcrowded, with the only schools available those set up by the United Nations. It is not an easy life,” she says. “PARD has realized that food assistance must be seen as being for all – for long-time Palestinian refuges as well, not only the most recently arrived Syrian refugees. That brings cohesion and builds community.”


While being hosted by The Lebanon Society for Education and Social Development, funded by the Baptist Church (another organization involved in the Foodgrains Bank), the group heard again from Syrians about their experiences and their concerns. With all of the challenges and hardships, the greatest heartache is the loss of people, says Zyla. They spoke about “the number leaving that won’t come back” leading them to ask the poignant question: “Who will rebuild when peace is restored?”


At one point the learning tour asked a group of Palestinian and Syrian refugees if they had any message for Canadians. One refugee said: “Keep your country, keep your peace, and thank God for it. You will not know what you have until you lose it.”


“One person spoke about how this was his second displacement – he had fled Palestine for Syria, and then had to flee Syria for Lebanon,” Zyla says, relaying his message: “I feel like a motherless child.”


Another simply said: “We are refugees, but we are good people.”

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