Participants in a Canadian Foodgrains Bank learning tour to Lebanon met with partners from Syria to discuss the need for food security in the region and the assistance that is being provided, often by small NGOs. Photo submitted by Christine Zyla
SASKATOON — 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 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, Zyla also co-ordinates 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 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 from Palestine, some displaced for decades.
“One in four people in Lebanon is a refugee,” says Zyla. “The impact on the local community 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 a complex society with sectarian tensions. “It is astounding that things have remained relatively stable,” says Zyla. “The work of NGOs is a big reason for that stability.”
When the group arrived in Beirut, a representative of the Near East School of Theology gave an in-depth introduction to Lebanon. “Lebanon is a mosaic,” says Zyla. “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.”
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 hosted the group on their arrival. “They have been working in Lebanon for a 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, food assistance is a means for peace-building, community-building and intercultural relationship-building. 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.
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. Among the PARD representatives were farmers who were delighted to meet farmers from Alberta and Ontario who were part of the learning tour.
“We were speaking through interpreters, but the connection was clear. It was an amazing moment of farmer-to-farmer connection,” says Zyla.
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 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, and heard a first-hand account of that event.
Today, the Sabra Gathering includes temporary structures and concrete buildings that are expanding upward to make space for new refugees coming in. “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,” says Zyla.
“The living conditions were 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 they can go to the local shops and choose what to buy, thereby supporting the local merchants, helping the local economy.”
Food assistance is providing social cohesion in many settings, adds Zyla, describing stops at Sidon, and at a number of other refugee gatherings. 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. PARD has realized that food assistance must be seen as being for all — for longtime Palestinian refuges as well, not only the most recently arrived Syrian refugees. That brings cohesion and builds community,” says Zyla.
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.”