Camp Rafiqi: Cultivating Confidence

In the picture: a group of volunteers gather plastic items to be recycled using trash bags in a wooded area.

In the picture: a group of volunteers gather plastic items to be recycled using trash bags in a wooded area.

Okay, so ETI’s participants with visual impairment learn new skills, gain confidence, and feel hope for the first time during the month they participate in the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi. Where do they go next? ETI has designed a community service-based program model that allows for its participants to demonstrate their value to society.

The Social Project Program exists to do just that. A three-to-six-month program that builds on the philosophy created in the Life Skill Program and at Camp Rafiqi, both blind and sighted youth carry out community service projects through collaborations with local organizations. This is monumental because, for many children with visual impairment, their participation serves as their first time going out in society without being helped by family members or guardians. This experience also serves as their first time on the giving instead of the receiving end. Witnessing these children performing acts of community service allows fellow citizens to realize that they are like anyone else, and are not a charity to be pitied and patronized. This helps to break the stigma of disability for both groups.

Cerine, a past participant in our social project program, informed us that she never thought she’d be able to help other people herself. Other people would often help her, even though she was fully capable of living independently. Completing a simple recycling project with kids her own age made her realize that she had the power to do anything she wanted.

Past Social Project Program facilitators have reported that the involvement has changed not only the youth with visual impairment, but also the sighted participants. They have noted that the sighted participants began to accept the visually impaired kids as part of the group, learning to regularly ask for their opinions and to engage in conversation with them about their personal lives. This may seem like a regular occurrence among peers, but it is revolutionary and critical for those with and without disability in a setting where the two groups have traditionally been segregated.

So, Have the Seeds of Confidence Been Planted?

“Yes, definitely, there have been interactions,” says Rania, Camp Rafiqi’s Art Director, on social and intellectual engagement during her art classes. “We started with basic things like fonts, font types and points and now we are working on more accurate projects such as drawing on aluminum and three-dimensional shapes like the cube.”

ETI's Founder and CEO Sara Minkara guides Fatima, a student with visual impairment, to her STEM class at Camp Rafiqi 2017.

Intellectual stimulation is one of the expected outcomes of Camp Rafiqi’s curriculum because learning and critical thinking allows individuals to expand their minds.

Besides learning, though, social engagement and personal accomplishment are also expected outcomes. Being in an environment in which opinions are wanted and creativity is encouraged can, quickly and simply, turn wallflowers into contributors. This is a major piece to the puzzle of inclusion in society—those who have been marginalized must, of course, learn new things every day and grow intellectually, but they must also become empowered to speak their minds and be themselves.  

“Today the children were excited and every day they share their increasing enthusiasm, express their opinions and suggest new things,” says Rania. “At first, they were scared and hesitant to do something new but now they have become more acclimated, and more enthusiastic to speak for themselves about their feelings and they have began to express their feelings by drawing.”

In the picture: Rania, ETI art class trainer (left) poses with a camp participant, who is showing off his sculpture; she wraps her arms around his waist.

In the picture: Rania, ETI art class trainer (left) poses with a camp participant, who is showing off his sculpture; she wraps her arms around his waist.

Art Group Leader Jana concurs. “Yes, they have definitely opened up, but on the first day, they were shy and uncomfortable with the blind folds, specially in the science class because they work with their hands,” she says. “They have talked about this in the cogenerative dialogues that take place throughout the camp.”

As noted in previous blog posts, Identity classes have been an important component to Camp Rafiqi’s overall goals. The identity classes seek to cultivate independent thoughts of how we see ourselves within a community through a dialogue between peers, the creative process, literacy, and reflection. This curriculum is essential in empowering those who have been marginalized in that it teaches them to speak for themselves and to address their feelings.

“The children have enjoyed the class, we have witnessed many improvements with them, they know themselves better after venting out their inner feelings, and they say things they do not tell their parents about,” says Tala Badr, an identity trainer for Camp Rafiqi. “Yesterday we had someone who cried while talking. Identity class is very personal, the children tell private things about themselves to me. This is not easy, of course, because they don’t know me well, but venting to someone they don’t know makes them feel more comfortable.”

In the picture: a music teacher sits to the left of a participant with visual impairment at a piano and guides his hands on the keys.

In the picture: a music teacher sits to the left of a participant with visual impairment at a piano and guides his hands on the keys.

Participants have also become more comfortable, and have realized their potential, during their STEM, soccer, music, and theater classes. To continue this momentum, we want the children to immerse themselves in work that further demonstrates that they are not a burden to society—and that they can contribute to the improvement of their communities.

Looking Ahead

“I felt that the tree planting project was effective, especially on youth with visual impairment,” says Yara Kobrossy, who formerly facilitated these projects. “They were very involved and excited. They wanted to do everything on their own—carrying the trees around, not afraid of falling down. They were the ones who taught the sighted participants. They planted around 60 trees, and filled a road that was empty. One of the visually impaired people was responsible for keeping tabs on the bus.”

Being on the receiving end of society is disempowering. As human beings, we are driven to seek out self-fulfillment, independence, and dignity. Being a fully-integrated member of society means contributing to society as well. According to twentieth century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human needs, the need to feel as if one belongs is at the top of the list of what every person across the globe needs. This means that humans don’t just need the basics such as food and shelter—they also need self-fulfillment in order to be fully functioning members of society. This includes being on the giving end. Being on the giving end allows individuals to gain confidence that, because they have been given power and autonomy—often for the first time in their lives.

Just ask Cerine. “I love to do my own chores without my mother’s help,” she reported to us after her involvement with the Social Project Program. This may seem like a small task, but for someone like Cerine, it’s life-changing—and it’s why ETI was created. 

What is Camp Rafiqi?

In the picture: Tim Mauro, far right, assists a student (center) and volunteer (far left) with putting together a record player made of paper, a pin, a pencil, and tape during a science class.

In the picture: Tim Mauro, far right, assists a student (center) and volunteer (far left) with putting together a record player made of paper, a pin, a pencil, and tape during a science class.

“My teacher told me about the camp and about how we would learn new and beautiful things," says Helmiyya Al Masri, a past Camp Rafiqi participant. "I came here and I found out that what she said was true. We learned things we didn’t know before. I learned to walk using the cane without anyone’s help, and I made friends with both the students and the teachers.”

Helmiyya is just one of ETI’s successful past Camp Rafiqi participants. As referenced in the quote above, our program participants learn many important life skills—including learning to use a white cane, as well as meal preparation, money management, and social skills—but what happens after learning them?

In the real world, people with visual impairment will need to adeptly, and confidently, operate alongside sighted people. Many people think that they can’t, or shouldn’t be given the chance to do so. However, we believe that all have the potential to do so, and with the right practice, people with visual impairment can thrive. This is why ETI has designed an integrated camp to follow the Life Skill Program. But how are we able to achieve this?

Feeling Included

Inclusion is the core idea of everything ETI does, so when designing the curriculum, team members created two courses that instill this value in camp participants: identity and cogenerate dialogue. In cogenerate dialogue, teachers and students collaborate to identify and implement positive changes in a classroom's teaching and learning practices. The identity curriculum, on the other hand, seeks to cultivate independent thoughts of how we see ourselves within a community through a dialogue between peers, the creative process, literacy, and reflection.

In the picture: a group of about fourteen students sit on chairs around a table, with two teachers (one standing, one sitting in a chair), and discuss "Symbolism and Storytelling."

In the picture: a group of about fourteen students sit on chairs around a table, with two teachers (one standing, one sitting in a chair), and discuss "Symbolism and Storytelling."

Understanding one’s story, and the idea that one belongs, is essential to full integration in society, especially for kids who have not always been included. For example, one of Camp Rafiqi’s current participants created a sculpture in art class, meant to represent herself using found objects, shown in the picture below.

In the picture: A volunteer holds materials while a student creates a sculpture representing herself during an art class.

In the picture: A volunteer holds materials while a student creates a sculpture representing herself during an art class.

The focus on identity and inclusion pervades every other class throughout the program, and these classes are designed to empower the kids to believe in their own self-worth. “Through all stages of development we look for purpose and sense of belonging,” says Ross. “The identity curriculum encourages students to develop an understanding of purpose, place, and value, and it was guided by the question of belonging and our story.”

In the picture: four children stand around a table with several records strewn about. A UNHCR representative (in a blue vest) and Tim Mauro, who stands and holds a paper cone, supervise the activity.

In the picture: four children stand around a table with several records strewn about. A UNHCR representative (in a blue vest) and Tim Mauro, who stands and holds a paper cone, supervise the activity.

“In the science class, we made each student put the blindfold on his or her eyes, visual impaired or not, and we did this for two reasons,” says a volunteer. “The first is to let the sighted students know that even blind people are able to do what sighted people can do and that they have the same abilities, even if they are blind. The second reason is to ensure that blind people don’t feel that they are different from sighted students. The first day with the blindfold was hard for the sighted students. But day after day they realized that they are able to use their other senses to do what they want, and this made them know that blind people have capabilities using their other senses as well.”

Creativity

Fostering individual creativity among the students is another way ETI seeks to instill a sense of empowerment in our participants. Creativity is encouraged in all classes that participants take, and this includes STEM classes.

“Today was ‘Science of Sound Day,’ and the kids made stethoscopes out of tubes and funnels, and record players out of paper and needles,” says Tim Mauro, ETI’s IT Manager, who is currently volunteering at Camp Rafiqi. “All went well, but my favorite part was watching the kids use the stuff in ways other than we planned for! One student found that the stethoscope in reverse makes a great microphone, and regaled us with an amplified rendition of E-I-E-I-O. Another found it useful in determining who is hungry. If you hear the stomach growl, they are hungry. Hilarious.”

In the picture: Dr. Mona Minkara stands in front of a classroom full of students and teaches a science class.

In the picture: Dr. Mona Minkara stands in front of a classroom full of students and teaches a science class.

Anecdotes like these illustrate how Camp Rafiqi’s classes help the kids develop their creativity and instill in them the confidence that they bring value to society. Another example of a curriculum designed in this way is the art curriculum. Seeking to cultivate purpose, expression, and studio habits of the mind, Camp Rafiqi's art curriculum encourages technique and reflection, and children explore the process of making by using tactile, auditory, and olfactory sensitivities—which help students learn to not rely on sight alone. In the video below, a camp participant interprets the artwork of his peer to his teacher using the sense of touch (the dialogue of the video is in Arabic).

The goal of fostering expression among the participants is also found in Camp Rafiqi's music classes. The music curriculum explores the fundamentals of music, which includes lessons in rhythm, percussion and found objects, and world music.  An example lesson from the music curriculum is the Forbidden Rhythm Game, where students learn to distinguish between rhythmic sequences using a call and response method.  Teachers demonstrate a unique rhythmic pattern that is “forbidden,” and the students must listen actively for it when it is hidden in a call and response activity. In this class, students improve their listening, rhythmic, and singing skills—all while learning to adapt to a set of rules.

“The stethoscope and record player were supposed to be separate projects, but one student decided to put their stethoscope up to the record player to magnify the sound,” says Tim. “That became the hit of the session, as everyone then put their stethoscope up for a better listen.  Bottom line—I have a degree in engineering, and these kids thought up ways to use this stuff that hadn't even occurred to me.”

Playing Together

Despite all the learning and innovation happening within each individual class, the primary goal of participation in Camp Rafiqi is to just be a child and have fun.  Many of the children with visual impairment have been shunned in the past from the normal activities of childhood, and this includes school and camp. By playing alongside other children, they receive the message that they deserve the same opportunities as any other kid, and that they belong.

Teaching teamwork is just one of the many ways ETI instills the idea of belonging in its participants. One of the ways Camp Rafiqi participants learn team work is through our soccer curriculum. The soccer curriculum introduces and develops soccer skills—including dribbling, passing, shooting, and running—while teaching participants how to work on a team and to bring out the potential of their peers.

In the picture: a group of about four children, to the left, watch a group of about four other children, to the right, practice a soccer drill in the corner of an open room while a volunteer supervises.

In the picture: a group of about four children, to the left, watch a group of about four other children, to the right, practice a soccer drill in the corner of an open room while a volunteer supervises.

The focus on team work is not just found during soccer instruction, however. “We assure that students work in groups in order to improve the ability of group work, which they will have to use the rest of their lives, and every day we change the groups so they get used to integrating into society,” says a volunteer.

Besides revolutionizing the mindset of the kids with visual impairment, ETI’s goal is to show the rest of the community that people with disabilities have just as much to contribute to society as people without. “While the impact of ETI’s programmatic activities is evident among campers and their parents, it is important to note the impact that ETI programs have had among students, faculty, and staff at the American University of Beirut and the University of Balamand, where the camps are held,” says Anna Barbosa, ETI’s Director of Empowerment Programs. “For example, AUB students walking on campus have noticed an increase in the population of visually impaired children and youth on campus during the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi and, more than once, they have asked our staff and volunteers about our programs. They were also impressed and surprised to learn about the resources available for visually impaired youth. This represents another way that our programs impact the community and promote awareness regarding our mission and vision.”

After only one week, the impact that Camp Rafiqi has accomplished is extraordinary, and everyone involved feels excitment for what next week will bring.

It Takes a Community to Unlock a Person's Potential

In the picture: a male Life Skill Program participant learns to use a white cane at the University of Balamand while walking with a female guide.

In the picture: a male Life Skill Program participant learns to use a white cane at the University of Balamand while walking with a female guide.

“To be honest I can’t decide what I liked most about last week, because so far everything has been helpful and fun," says Rasha. "I also don’t know what I am looking forward to the most of the coming weeks because I think every training is so much fun.”

Rasha is an 18-year-old who been visually impaired since birth. She lives in Beirut, close to Rafic Hariri Stadium, with her family, which includes two other siblings who are visually-impaired and currently enrolled in ETI’s programs.

“I heard about this program from the principal of my previous school,” says Rasha. “I really enjoy being here. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from everyone since I came here last week. The program teaches me how to be more independent and more confident. Now that my brother, sister and I have joined ETI, I feel we can learn to be more independent at home and help each other out more than before.”

Opening Up

Becoming independent is essential for many of these young people to gain confidence and to lead more fulfilling lives. However, a challenge to full independence for many people with disabilities across the globe is that the environment in which they live is not fully accessible. Included in the many obstacles to full accessibility these countries face is an educational infrastructure that does not always offer opportunities to learn basic life skills. It’s not that these kids don’t have the potential to learn life skills—they most certainly do—it’s just that they haven’t yet been presented with the opportunity. That’s where ETI steps in.

“Here in Lebanon, a lot of parents don’t really know how to deal with the visual impairment of their kids,” says Faten Nassif, an Activities of Daily Living trainer. “At ETI, they are learning things in groups. In these groups, they have contact with other children. This makes them more socially engaged.”

And many of ETI’s participants have already become more engaged over the past two weeks. They have built trust with their trainers and teachers, and have come out of their shells.

In the picture: a female participant (right) laughs alongside a male participant (left).

In the picture: a female participant (right) laughs alongside a male participant (left).

“I witnessed a student who was really shy, and I noticed he was putting up a wall between the two of us,” says Faten. “It was like, ‘I don’t want to learn because I don’t know how.’ The first day he wouldn’t even talk, but day by day, until now, we’ve noticed that he’s started to talk to us. And I think in the next few weeks he will become more engaged with our activities and he will open up more.”

These stories are common during our programs, and they are what we expect. Everyone is nervous trying something new for the first time, but with encouragement, and confidence on the part of ETI’s volunteers and staff, our young participants gradually realize that they can try new things—and that they can succeed at them.

“Providing these educational experiences for kids to open up is the key to changing society’s view on disability,” says ETI Founder and CEO Sara Minkara. “Everyone is supportive and everyone believes in this kid—that’s what we’re trying to reinforce. When kids open up and become comfortable with who they are, they are able to explore their potential, and discover that they have so much more to offer to the world.”

How Do We “Deal” with People with Disabilities? Well, We Don’t—We Integrate Them

Of course parents and other community members who don’t have much experience interacting with people with disabilities would wonder how to “deal” with them. However, one of the narratives we are trying to change is approaching the subject of people with disabilities.

“When we say, ‘this group of people,’ and designate a group separately from everyone else, we continue to stigmatize, and to isolate people into groups,” says Sara.

By integrating the youth with visual impairment with sighted youth, and by offering the Parent Workshops, we also acknowledge a truth about changing the norm: that it takes everyone—including program participants, parents, family members, and volunteers—to make this happen.

Parent Workshops

As mentioned above, ETI holds monthly Parent Workshops, which are also meant to transform the mindset of parents in Lebanon about the potential of people with disabilities to contribute to society as a whole.

Parent Workshops seek to create a safe space for dialogue among parents of children with visual impairment and to promote discussions about the social and cultural challenges associated with being blind or having a blind family member. Volunteers are trained to facilitate dialogue among parents that focuses on the identification of possible misconceptions about blindness, to co-construct empowerment and integration strategies with parents to better support families and children with visual impairment during and after the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi, and to increase access and exposure to empowerment and integration resources for parents and their families.

Bringing the message of empowerment beyond the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi allows the it to grow beyond the youth participants in ETI’s programs. A child learning life skills for the first time cannot continue to develop his or her skills without the support of his or her family members, and this goal of continuous growth starts with the parents. In addition, parents of children without visual impairment partake in the Parent Workshop to bring the message of inclusion to their communities as well.

Transformation of Perspective from the Volunteers

“I think all of us have some deep wish to empower people in situations where they have not been as lucky as us,” says Tim Mauro, ETI’s Information Technology Manager who is currently volunteering with the Life Skill Program in Beirut. “Children born with visual impairment can face a difficult life without integration. This group in particular calls to me. The people in this group are exceptional, extremely dedicated, smart and kind-hearted. This has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life.”

In the picture: a Life Skill Program participant feels the tip of a white cane.

In the picture: a Life Skill Program participant feels the tip of a white cane.

During volunteer training, volunteers learn how to, among other interpersonal skills, conduct discussion sessions, ask the right questions, and handle sensitive moments. Topics covered that pertain specifically to the Life Skill Program include learning about eye diseases and visual impairment, running simulations with goggles, learning Orientation & Mobility (O&M), and using the cane. Many of these volunteers have never encountered such topics, and report that they have gained a perspective on inclusiveness by working with ETI.

“One thing I’ve learned through working with ETI is that people who have visual impairment have the potential to live like any other person,” says Nasser, ETI’s music trainer. “I’ve also learned that having visual impairment, it doesn’t make them any less of a person. I have a lot of respect for these children.”

It Takes a Community

ETI’s programs are essential in instilling the power of confidence in youth with visual impairment, but it takes all of us to make sure that this idea sticks. The youth practicing their newly-developed skills will not continue to improve if they are no longer enmeshed in an inclusive, encouraging environment. It is also important to reinforce the fact that the inclusion of people with disabilities benefit all of society—because when everyone can participate, everyone can contribute their own passion, talent, and ideas.

“In the future, I what to share everything I’ve learned with other people who have visual impairment as well,” says Rasha. We look forward to the day that she does.

In the picture: three Life Skill Program participants—a girl and two boys—sit at desks during an activity.

In the picture: three Life Skill Program participants—a girl and two boys—sit at desks during an activity.

What is the Life Skill Program?

In the picture: a child learns to use a white cane.

In the picture: a child learns to use a white cane.

According to the twentieth-century psychologist Abraham Maslow, self-actualization—the ability of a person to reach his or her full potential—is at the top of a list of needs that all human beings share. When self-actualization, and the corresponding feelings of confidence and inclusion, is denied to certain people, society as a whole suffers, because not every person is able to contribute the ideas, knowledge, and skills that lead to progress.

In Lebanon and other countries, many kids with disabilities, including visually impaired youth, are marginalized due to stigma and are not included in the educational and social sectors. Nearly all visually impaired youth in Lebanon do not use white canes to get around, also because of the stigma associated with them, and many of them may not even leave their homes.

There are currently a lot of social barriers to full integration in Lebanon, as well as in many other parts of the world. Therefore, it is ETI’s goal to equip people with visual impairment with the tools to be fully independent, and this includes the Life Skill Program.

The Life Skill Program

“The life skill program is a two-week course that children with visual impairment attend,” says Erica Hogle, one of ETI’s life skill coordinators currently working on the ground in Lebanon. “During the program, they learn several skills. They have lessons in 3 different curricula, including orientation and mobility, activities of daily life (ADL), and social literacy.”

These lessons are split into groups based on age. The immediate goal is for students to learn certain skills for themselves so that after the Life Skill Program they can go on to participate in Camp Rafiqi. Here they will integrate with sighted peers, where they are able to do things on their own, and fully participate in activities.

“The Life Skill Program is long-term, but the goal is much grander than that,” says Erica. “The program is about teaching independence to participants, which includes them learning how to do things on their own. In doing so, they build confidence, self-worth, and fuller, more independent lives.”

In the picture: a child learns how to hold a white cane.

In the picture: a child learns how to hold a white cane.

What is Orientation & Mobility, and How is it Taught?

“The word orientation refers to knowing where you are,” adds Erica. “This could mean understanding where your body is in space, knowing how to get from point A to point B, and having the ability to update where you are along a route when traveling to a particular destination. It’s also understanding the layout of your environment. It is like a cognitive map.”

Similarly, mobility refers to movement. Since many kids with visual impairment in Lebanon are enabled from a young age due to the stigma, they internalize this idea and often come to depend on family members or guardians to move about. They do not realize that they have the power within themselves to travel around on their own. But, with proper instruction and practice, they master the skills of navigation and movement, and this is the key that evokes feelings of confidence and empowerment within them.

“A phrase we often use to describe O&M is it is about moving safely, efficiently, and independently,” says Erica.

The way people with visual impairment move and orient themselves in their surroundings is just a different way of interpreting the world—neither superior nor inferior to any other method. It is important to recognize that everyone on this planet—whether they have visual impairment, sightedness, or any other number of disabilities or perceived “differences”—leads their lives in different ways, and this includes the way in which they navigate their environments. ETI purposefully integrates children with visual impairment alongside sighted children to demonstrate this principle firsthand.

Learning Life Skills

Many of the skills that are taught in the Life Skill Program will typically take years to be mastered, so after the summer programs end, ETI continues to provide one-on-one life skill training to achieve this goal. But the first steps toward mastery are learning to use a white cane independently and to learn how to move around in the environment, which includes positions for the feet and arms—important to figure out where to go.

In the picture: a group of children learn how to place themselves within their environment.

In the picture: a group of children learn how to place themselves within their environment.

In addition to orientation and mobility, an example of an ADL lesson that is taught includes money management. In this lesson, students learn how to identify money, keep items organized in wallets, the general cost of basic items, and ways to be safe with money. Clothing selection is another lesson taught within ADL. This includes how to identify different kinds of clothes, how to keep clothes organized, and how to know the different types of clothing owned. Once these exercises become comfortable, participants then practice skills such as putting clothes on hangers and folding different articles of clothing.  ADL’s curriculum also includes meal preparation, with lessons such as cutting, peeling, food identification, pouring liquids into cups, and spreading hummus on bread. Of course, cleaning the area after a finishing a meal is discussed, and this includes wiping down the table and sweeping.

In the picture: two children wipe down a table.

In the picture: two children wipe down a table.

Since the Life Skill Program meets for only two weeks, it is important to always review the skills that students have learned, and to give them more opportunities to practice. Even if a student does fine the first time doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she has mastered the skill or that he or she will be able to do it again in the future. In this way, practice is essential.

Social Literacy

The physical act of learning life skills is not the only component of the Life Skill Program. The social literacy component of our curriculum goes beyond learning skills that will be implemented later. The social literacy aspect of our program is based on discussion, which includes practicing conversation skills and learning how to participate in different kinds of games. There are also lessons which teach students how to talk about individual visual conditions, as well as different accommodations for people with low vision to make so that they can see things better. For example, if a person with visual impairment tries to eat something on a black table, making the plate white helps since those colors are in high contrast. Lastly, one of an essential skill practiced in the Life Skill Program is how and when to stand up for oneself. In these lessons, students learn how to vocalize what they need, but also when they don’t need help. Learning boundaries—and how to best assert them—is an essential tool for any independent person in the world, but even more so for people with disabilities, because they are often taught subconsciously that they are victims and should follow others’ leads.

“In general, the social component is huge,” says Erica. “Many of these children are often isolated, and giving them an opportunity to interact with other students can make a huge impact. In addition, being surrounded by teachers who have higher expectations on them than what they typically find in their day-to-day lives is powerful. With that in mind, sometimes the best takeaways for many of these students is that that they’re there to learn, and to interact with each other.”

This notion of integrating youth with visual impairment without question and expecting that they will rise to the occasion is a foundation of ETI’s philosophy and program design, and it allows the kids to succeed when they are integrated with sighted youth in Camp Rafiqi.

“A lot of the things that the teachers do are amazing, but there’s also all these little things that the teacher doesn’t even realize they’re doing that means a lot to the student,” says Erica. “They can be quite life-changing."

In the picture: a closeup of a child's and teacher's hands feeling the handle of the white cane.

In the picture: a closeup of a child's and teacher's hands feeling the handle of the white cane.

Empowering Lebanon's Youth

It all started with a camp.

In the spring of 2011, ETI’s Founder and CEO, Sara Minkara, was a math and economics major at Wellesley College, planning to apply to graduate school in one of those fields. Sara’s friend Maysa, also a Wellesley student of Lebanese descent, came up with the idea for the camp. Maysa came from an education background, whereas Sara’s passion aligned with disability rights and inclusion. “She wanted to do something  in Lebanon and I wanted to do something about blindness and inclusion. So we put our heads together and came up with the idea of a summer camp. We then applied for the Clinton Foundation grant and other Wellesley grants, which we got, and put on the camp,” says Sara.

Pretty simple, right? Just form an idea, implement it, and watch as it becomes a success. Well, not so much. A lot of planning and hard work by dedicated staff and volunteers goes into making ETI’s programs a reality. This summer, as we celebrate ETI’s sixth summer of programs for youth in Lebanon, we reflect on the reasons behind the design of our programs, as well as what it takes to empower our participants.

Sara Minkara (left) supervises a girl learning how to use a white cane.

Sara Minkara (left) supervises a girl learning how to use a white cane.

A Holistic Approach

“I never knew that it would be a successful project creating huge impact. So I knew then and there that I wanted to continue on that path. I put together a team and by my senior year in college I had registered ETI as a nonprofit. I never thought  that ETI would become my life—I was  planning on pursuing a PhD in Economics—but I realized that ETI is what ignites my passion and it is what is needed in this world. So I switched paths.”

Following Camp Rafiqi’s success its first summer, Sara and her team realized that, in order to continue, ETI needed to offer more programs beyond the camp. Since there is no such program in Lebanon besides ETI’s Life Skill Program that teaches basic life skills to youth with visual impairment, many of the kids with visual impairment who come to Camp Rafiqi have never been taught these essential skills. In order to better participate in all the activities Camp Rafiqi has to offer, the kids with visual impairment would need to learn some of these basic skills before arriving at the camp.

This is how the Life Skill Program came to be. The Life Skill Program is a two-part training that occurs before ETI’s summer camp and throughout the year. In this program, children with visual impairment learn orientation and mobility, independent life skills (such as choosing an outfit and preparing simple meals), and technology. The Life Skill program has been designed to build confidence in the children with visual impairment, so that they can go on to participate in Camp Rafiqi (and later on, the Social Project Program).

All of ETI’s programs take this holistic approach—planting the seed of confidence during one program, and then allowing it to continue growing throughout the next program, and then in the one after that. The cyclical nature of our programming is important because we want our kids to continuously learn and become more confident as time goes on, without interruptions or major setbacks. In other words, we want our participants with visual impairment to progress as the capable, constantly-learning young individuals that their peers are. Our expectations of what they are able to achieve are similar to those of any other kid, and we support them every step of the way as they grow and evolve. 

A supervisor leads a group of camp participants in an activity.

A supervisor leads a group of camp participants in an activity.

Why a Summer Camp?

Every summer, children across the world get excited about going to summer camp. There is so much to do at camp—make new friends, learn new activities, and just be a kid. For youth with visual impairment in developing countries, however, the option to go to summer camp—much like participating in other activities—does not exist. 

“We wanted to create an environment where kids with visual impairment would be integrated with sighted kids, and one that is typical for children, so that they could just play together and have fun—the way kids are supposed to,” says Sara. “Having both populations of kids come together revolutionizes their mindsets.  It shows the kids with visual impairment that they have a right to exist in society, and it shows the sighted kids that their peers with visual impairment aren’t so different from them.”

A girl displays her art project, which resembles a clock, while a boy in the left background looks on.

A girl displays her art project, which resembles a clock, while a boy in the left background looks on.

It is important for us to show the kids with visual impairment that they belong, just by having them come to camp. We do not patronize them. We do not pity them. They have a seat at the table just like the sighted kids. They’re given the opportunity to learn about music, art, and theater just like everyone else, and they get to play soccer with other young people. Having visual impairment does not mean that you can’t enjoy all the fun things childhood has to offer.

“Working for ETI’s summer programs in 2016 was a rewarding experience on so many levels,” says Ziad Azar, ETI’s Tripoli Program Manager. “I met positive and hardworking people from different backgrounds who shared the love of community service and doing good deeds for society as a whole. Taking part in the programs made me realize how needed and important integration and inclusion are in any society, and witnessing beautiful friendships between two participants who were complete strangers at the beginning of camp is a memory I will cherish forever.  Finally, participants with visual impairment taught me how beautiful life can be even with loss of sight.” 

Purposeful Integration

When people of different backgrounds and interests come together with a common goal, we learn, without even meaning to, that they are not so different than us. ETI does this by purposefully integrating blind and sighted youth, but we take it a step further by also integrating other supposed differences: Palestinian and Syrian refugees with Lebanese youth, as well as Muslim and Christian children integrated together.

“We want to clearly demonstrate to the kids that everyone has value and that inclusion is important,” says Sara. “Everyone has different abilities, and everyone has something beautiful to bring to the table. It’s a loss on society if we don’t integrate everyone. This camp allows the visually impaired kids to gain independence, and second, for every single kid to learn that they have abilities and potential to contribute.”

We’re confident that each kid in our programs will gain confidence this month, and we look forward to watching it blossom in every participant. Stay tuned with us as we explore the impact we are creating this summer through the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi, in this blog series, Empowering Lebanon’s Youth, and let us know in the comment section what you think.

A girl (left) and a boy (right) smile for the camera.

A girl (left) and a boy (right) smile for the camera.