Freedom Of Expression In Lebanon

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on March 9 2011

Amy Hall reports on the work of Mouvement Social in Lebanon and how they combine creative space with academic excellence and support for young people…

In education when too much emphasis is put on exams, league tables and grades, the opportunity for creativity can be neglected. But the arts can also be a great healer and outlet for frustration.

Mouvement Social, a Christian Aid partner in Lebanon, promotes the value of creativity, as well as access to a good academic education. They are a volunteer movement of young people who provide social services to Lebanon’s poorest and most marginalised communities, including making sure children who have been excluded from school get a good education.

Christian Aid Communications Officer Tabitha Ross visited Lebanon and spoke to young people who had been to Mouvement Social schools. Children traumatised by conflict can be disruptive in school which often leads to exclusions. Widespread poverty means many parents can’t afford to send their children to school if there are no free ones locally. Also, some children are excluded from Lebanon’s school system on grounds of nationality,  such as the children of Syrians or Kurds working in the country.

Ali Al Afee, who is 14 years old, is a pupil at one of Mouvement Social’s schools. He was expelled from his last school after a cycle of violence: “I got angry whenever someone spoke to me. I also used to hit teachers – and the teachers used to hit me too, with a big stick.”

Ali lived through the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 during which his neighbour was killed after a bomb fell on his house. Now he dreams of being a film director: “I like the arts. The theatre helps people to express themselves and talk about the important things in life.”

16 year old Hanan Madyak’s parents had been too poor to send her and her sister to school before she found out about Mouvement Social alternative education centres, which are free. After training in photography she is now an intern at a studio that has offered her a job when she finishes her education.

“Mouvement Social created a 180° turnaround in my life,” she says. “If I’d not come here, I’d have stayed at home, learning nothing. There’s many girls in this situation.”

Hossam Houhou is now aged 17 and says his life has also turned around. He went to extra classes and a summer school provided by Mouvement Social and now helps run the issues based theatre workshops on things like domestic violence, drug abuse and the differences between people.

Mouvement Social also puts great importance on achievement in the more academic areas of school as Ali explains: “The rules here are strict.  There’s an evaluation system and you get penalties for violence… I think it’s a good system.”

Mouvement Social’s combination of creative freedom and high standards of academic teaching are made stronger by its commitment to Citizenship, defined by Hossam as: “How to accept the other.”

“The solution is to work on yourself and accept others, and then society will change.”

Dust From A Distant Sun: Community Spirit And An Explosive Past

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on December 20 2010

Boengsangke Village was abandoned until 1998 when 55 year old Voonthouk, the self described village ‘pioneer’, recreated a forward-thinking version of the village he had grown up in.

Accessible down a very rough road, the village is home to people implicated in all sides of Cambodia’s long and complicated conflict. With his one remaining eye full of pride, Voonthouk, a former government soldier, told us how he had gone in search of landless people dispersed around the countryside after the conflict, and taken them back to Boengsangke.

The village set-up is admired by surrounding villagers, who often ask for advice. Community Empowerment Facilitators from the organisation Life With Dignity (LWD) advise and inspire people into organising and helping fund projects such as the community pond. One third of the costs for the pond were raised by the villagers, and the water benefits more than 100 families.

The community spirit is represented by the large pagoda at the heart of the village, a simple open barn that is beautifully decorated with a sea of stunning homemade bunting and decorations. The villagers worship here, but also meet to make plans for the village, tackle any crises and relax. There are charts, maps and pictures on the wall; outside there are colourful flowers and a peaceful stream.

In many ways Boengsangke is a model village: decisions are made as a group through various committees, including a Women’s Committee and Youth Committee which raises awareness about HIV and marriage rights. The villagers told us that due to regular discussions, the levels of domestic violence, a problem prevalent in Cambodia, are now much lower than in other villages.

We were confronted with the hardships that face much of Cambodia’s, mainly agriculturally reliant population when we visited the household of an industrious widow, a lady admired throughout the village for her hard work and determination. It was clear that this was no easy existence: While she owned the land her small house was built on, she did not own any farmland which, in rural Cambodia, means that a family is unlikely to have a sustainable livelihood.

The widow was brought to tears when she talked about her fears for her children’s future as she gets older and is less able to do so much manual labour. Like many Cambodians, her son has migrated to Thailand to work as a construction worker, while her oldest two daughters help her out in the home. Her youngest daughter was lucky enough to be in school, but it was clear this woman had to do a lot to make this happen. It is currently harvest time and she works as a farm worker all day and through much of the evening. She supplements her income by collecting bamboo to sell from the forest, an activity that is incredibly dangerous in an area littered with land mines.

There are three to five million land mines still undiscovered in Cambodia. We met Sysarang, a 39 year old pig farmer who volunteers as a point of contact for the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. When people find mines in the area, Syssrang leads a specialised team to their location. Boengsangke is surrounded by beautiful open space, but the villagers can’t wonder freely without risk of a land mine exploding.

There is a lot we could learn from the village of Boengsangke in Britain: like the importance of community space, and how important it is to tackle issues of stigma and empowerment to make changes in our own communities.

Poverty, lack of education and access to healthcare mean that many villagers face an uncertain future, while land-mines trap the community in a constant state of fear. I was left with the realisation that any way of life is rarely perfect, but we always have something to learn from each other.

Photos thanks to Hannah Henderson

Dust From A Distant Sun: Looking Ahead

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on November 29 2010

Cambodia is a beautiful country with a rich culture and history blighted by genocide and violence. An incredible 80% of the population is under 30 years old, as many lost parents, grandparents and older siblings when an estimated 1.7 million died under the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.

20 volunteers will be travelling to Cambodia for two weeks to do on-the-ground reporting for Ctrl.Alt.Shift; visiting various local development organisations, finding out about the work they do and the issues they face. The organisations we will be visiting work in a variety of areas, including HIV/AIDS, women and children’s rights, community organising and violence against women.

We will be visiting the capital Phnom Penh and travelling to Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampot Cham and the awe inspiring temple Angkor Wat, which has been described as the 9th wonder of the world.

Cambodia descended into violent chaos during the Vietnam War after bombing by the US and a military coup which overthrew the monarch King Norodom Sihanouk. The radical Communist group the Khmer Rouge eventually gained control of the country, led by the notorious Pol Pott. During this time the name of the country was changed to Democratic Kampuchea.

The middle classes, people not of pure Khmer ethnicity, the educated, the disabled, workers for the government and city dwellers were particularly persecuted by the regime, and essentially an entire class was wiped out by this extreme brand of militant communism. Money was abolished and people were forced to live in villages and work in agriculture. Much of the population died of starvation and exhaustion.

Although this tragic history has inevitably had a great effect on the current situation in Cambodia and has shaped the present circumstance of its people, there are still a lot of inspirational stories to be told.

Throughout our trip we will be writing a blog where you can find out more about the kinds of issues we’ll encounter, the people we’ll meet and the things we’ll learn along the way.

Hollywood Humanitarians: Help or Hindrance?

First published on Ctrl.Alt. Shift on October 15 2010

This month Sean Penn is awarded the Hollywood Humanitarian Award for his work in Haiti… but exactly how much good can celebrities feasibly do in helping resolve desperate situations around the globe? More importantly, do they do it for the right reasons? Ctrl.Alt.Shift’s Amy Hall explores the impact of the humanitarian celebrity…

Despite getting a lot of criticism for their flashy lifestyles, many celebrities do take an active interest in charitable work. While the more cynical among us may accuse the rich and famous of using charity work as an effective (but immoral) means of gaining popularity, there are evidently some big names out there who genuinely care about the bigger picture. Ctrl.Alt.Shift ambassadors like Riz Ahmed are entirely dedicated to using their popularity for a good cause, proving that fame can be utilised to put across a positive message to an already captive audience.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are the latest Queen and King of the celebrity humanitarian world, but almost every celebrity has some kind of charity or campaign work they’re involved with. Whether it is George Clooney’s efforts to stop genocide in Sudan or Rhianna’s ‘Believe’ foundation which helps terminally ill children, celebrities the world over are doing their bit to prove that compassion is cool.

Of course, the actions of celebrity humanitarians like Penn to raise the profile of worthy causes are extremely commendable. The worrying thing is that it can take the glitzy power of celebrity to inspire us to sit up, take notice and act’

These caring celebrities are, unsurprisingly, always looking for ways to publicise their cause, and maybe it’s time we gave them a pat on the back for their efforts. This is where humanitarian awards ceremonies come in handy – all the glitz and glamour of a typical award ceremony, but with no need to feel guilty at the extravagance entailed. It’s for the good of humanity after all. Hmmm…

Awards ceremonies that acknowledge the charitable work of celebrities are becoming increasingly common, though perhaps one of the most glamorous among them is coming up on October 25. The Hollywood Humanitarian Awards are part of the Hollywood Gala Awards Ceremony at the Hollywood Film Festival in Beverly Hills, an important date in the diary for any self respecting celebrity do-gooder.

This year’s Hollywood Humanitarian has recently been announced: none other than two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn. Penn already seems to have proved himself as an all round good egg; acting as a roving reporter from troubled regions like Iraq, and even covering the election protests in Iran. His CV also boasts interviews with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s head of state, Raul Castro.

This latest accolade Penn received is for his work in Haiti, following the earthquake which devastated the island at the beginning of 2010. Penn founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization which focuses on providing medical aid, protection and relocation to Haitians affected by the quake. Penn seems to have been developing a special relationship with the country, and has even been knighted by Haiti’s President Rene Preval.

Of course, the actions of celebrity humanitarians like Penn to raise the profile of worthy causes are extremely commendable. The worrying thing is that it can take the glitzy power of celebrity to inspire us to sit up, take notice and act.

The sad fact is, the technicolor mages of suffering in developing countries that the media beams into our living rooms on a regular basis can often feel profoundly detached from our own lives. Perhaps it can take a celebrity to bridge this gap, to utilise their charisma and familiarity to show us the inherant similarities between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Videos of celebrities visiting places like Africa form an integral part of high profile charity appeals like Comic Relief, and compel people to pick up the phone and give money to people half way across the world.

However, a celebrity endorsement does not solve everything. It seems that issues of international development are as vulnerable to the fickle, fast paced nature of the global media as the celebrities themselves. When a story becomes less newsworthy, many desperate situations and worthy causes are dropped from the agenda and the urgency seems to dim; there is a new disaster to respond to, a new crisis somewhere else.

It seems that issues of international development are as vulnerable to the fickle, fast-paced nature of the global media as the celebrities themselves’

Once the initial media flurry around a disaster, a crisis, or a desperate situation has died down, money, support and a constructive and sustainable action plan for the future are still required. In Haiti, the pieces still need to be picked up, and a plethora of organizations are still working on this, including Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief. It seems that issues of international development are as vulnerable to the fickle, fast-paced nature of the global media as the celebrities themselves.

The cold hard truth remains – it’s going to take more than monetary hand outs to solve global poverty.

Poverty is the result of human structures and systems. It is the product of marginalisation. It is what happens when people are excluded from decision-making processes. Celebrity endorsements can bring a rush of money to a specific community or location, but if the way in which this aid is delivered isn’t well considered, the charitable act can be more detriment than development.

Celebrities are pretty stuck. If they don’t give money to good causes they are accused of not helping and greedily hoarding the millions to themselves. When they do act charitably, they’re accused of glory hunting, trivialising the cause, or even causing more harm than good.

In today’s media saturated, glamour obsessed culture, maybe it’s inevitable that celebrity culture seeps into every part of our lives. If these Hollywood do-gooders actually manage to do some good then why should we complain? And who knows? Maybe in the not so distant future we’ll see Hollywood stars battling it out to become the Most Humanitarian instead of the Best Director. Regardless of the image the red carpet snaps or award show reviews portray, it is the international charitable organisations, and the vulnerable communities in developing countries themselves, who truly have the power to christen ‘the celebrity humanitarian’ a help or a hindrance.