Camp Rafiqi

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.

Closing Ceremony

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Hello all!

So it's been nearly a month since the closing ceremony that Camp Rafiqi threw has come and gone, but it feels as if yesterday when we were all seated at the theater auditorium... watching, laughing, and admiring the work of all of our beloved campers and counselors.

The closing ceremony was filled with theater performances, musical performances, award ceremonies, even a magic show, and a huge dance blowout on stage to end it all! The campers and counselors had prepared long and hard for this event, and it definitely showed in their orderly and well put together display. They made it quite a special day for everyone... allowing people to reflect back on the camp and reminisce on the beautiful memories and times it had brought to us all.

You're probably feeling a bit left out by now, so let me give you a taste of this excitement and bliss through these pictures:

Basil was our Emcee for the night.

He had originally felt shy and nervous when the camp had first asked him to take on the task, but if he was still feeling jitters, he sure didn't show it. From leading us through the Lebanese National Anthem, to introducing each performance, Basil did an amazing job, all with a clear strong voice.

Camp director Immaud came up to say a few words...

...along with Sara Minkara, the president of ETI.

She shared with us the vision of the camp along with visions of ETI.

 

We had our two favorite girls dance and sing for us!

....followed by quite an entertaining skit

 

And even a magnificent MAGIC SHOW!

The campers gathered to perform a spectacular dance..

Which had us erupting with applause!

 

and lead us quite conveniently into the Awards Ceremony.

 

I hope you felt as much part of the ceremony as able to... it's one that we definitely wished everyone could have witnessed.

 

Hindsight is 20/20

When we created Camp Rafiqi, it was important that we include both blind and sighted campers.  Our primary commitment is to blind individuals, but we felt like we wouldn’t be working toward the “Integration” in “Empowerment through Integration” by separating blind campers from the larger, sighted society.  By mixing the campers together, we hoped that we would not only raise the self-esteem of the blind, but we also hoped to give sighted children the chance to interact with blind kids as peers. In one respect, the camps have been a great success!  Almost all the campers—without any provocation—have told us that this camp has helped them see their society differently.  For example:

I love this so much you can’t even imagine.  I’m so happy.  I’ve been to a lot of camps—one I went for 15 days.  This is the only when where I’ve been happy.

I love everything.  In the other camps, the activities weren’t as exciting, and I didn’t feel like I was treated like everyone else.

Here is another glowing review:

I like meeting a lot of people, I like the concept, and more than that, I like meeting people who are more open to the world.  I like the microcosm that was built here—I don’t mind meeting blind people here, but outside it’s different.  There, if I meet other blind people, it’s not the same, I wouldn’t fit in with everyone else.

Consistently, blind campers talk about Camp Rafiqi as if it’s a “safe haven” away from the cruelty of everyday life.  It gives them hope for their individual lives and a sense that an integrated and harmonious social life is possible.  It is fulfilling to provide a sense of “normalcy” to kids who are constantly humiliated and told that they cannot amount to anything.

However, our model has also raised new questions because of the ways that we have fallen short.  While we concentrate our efforts on the blind campers, we worry that we might treat our sighted campers unfairly.  We want to provide blind children in Lebanon with the support they lack, but it’s unethical to treat the sighted kids as if they were the “others”—a nameless mass of children there solely for the sake of the blind campers.  My language here is a little too strong, but I hope it illustrates an underlying danger in our efforts to do blind advocacy and create a blind curricula.  It makes some of us wonder if our approach is a little skewed.  Perhaps we should think less about “integrating the blind” and more about creating social cohesion through equal efforts from “both sides” of society.

Finally, how do we find activities that will interest both the blind kids and the sighted kids equally?  In the second week of camp, we were able to treat the kids to a field trip to the Jeitta Grotto.  Throughout the week, anticipation grew as we taught the kids about caves in science class, made cave paintings, and grew our own stalagmites.  The caverns and lakes of the grotto were stunning, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much the blind kids could enjoy the experience.  The blind children were allowed to touch some of the rock formations, but the environment was far too visual, I thought.  The sighted kids, of course, raved about the trip, but I wonder how the blind kids process their experience. Was it fun for them to participate, even though they couldn’t see what the other kids described to them? Do they secretly feel left out?

We will be exploring these questions at an organizational level with the input of our campers and counselors.  If you would like to weigh in on these issues, we would love to hear from you.  Please feel free to contact us at any time.

Camper Close-up: Muhammad Ahmed "Maestro" Loubani

Piano-keyboard

Our oldest camper at Camp Rafiqi Tripoli is Muhammad Ahmed Loubani at age 21.  But if you call him “Muhammad” around camp, everyone will look at you strangely; he is known only as “Maestro”.  As his pseudonym suggests, Maestro is an incredibly talented musician.  I learned this on the first day when the afternoon session turned into a dance party because of his improvisational Arabic music on the keyboard.  At this point in the post, I realize that I left out necessary information to convey how extraordinary Maestro is: he was born completely blind.

A rising senior in high school, Maestro is torn between a couple ambitions for the future.  First, when he grows up he wants to be a journalist.  As he said, “I want to cover everything, society.  I want to go other societies and study them.”  I joked back, “So, you want to be an anthropologist, right?”  He replied with optimism, “Really?  Can you help me… I want to go to college. I don’t know where.  I want to leave this country because it’s limited here.  Outside I can go farther.”

On the other hand, Maestro wants to continue to study music at a conservatory.  He started learning piano about 9 years old, and now he can play the flute, piano, and ood (a predecessor to the guitar).  As you can see from this clip, Maestro is much more than a camper to us because has taken the role of music instructor to the younger campers.  He teaches them songs such as “Shater, Shater” (in the clip above), and accompanies other campers and counselors as they use the drums.  Here you can see our volunteer Henry trying to keep up.

Maestro is also a camp favorite because he has a very witty sense of humor.  He kept cracking jokes throughout our interview.  For example, when we asked him if he finds it difficult to be a blind person in Lebanon, he told us a story about when he once accidently stepped on a man’s shoes in the street.  The man got so angry about his shoe that he threw Maestro into a cake store and he fell on a brand new cake!

On the other hand, some of his stories didn’t have that silver lining of humor.  He explains:

Sometimes people think that I can see because I open my eyes, but I can’t.  I went through a military checkpoint and they asked for my ID card, and I gave them the card that said that I was blind, but they didn’t believe me.  They shouted “are you lying to us!?”, and they told me to put my hands up and put a gun in my face.  For two hours they interrogated me like this.  I look sighted, and that’s why I keep getting into trouble.

All of our blind campers could tell you stories like this, and this is why many of them look to the United States for refuge. He’s very curious about how the blind do things in America, asking Mona how she lives alone, if she lives close to home, how often she gets to see her family, etc.

At the end of our interview, Maestro expressed his appreciation for Camp Rafiqi.  When we asked what he liked about the camp, he replied:

Everything I have no negative comments.  It was a positive influence.  I like meeting a lot of people, I like the concept, and more than that, I like meeting people who are more open to the world.  I like the microcosm that was built here—I don’t mind meeting blind people here, but outside it’s different.  There, if I meet other blind people, it’s not the same, I wouldn’t fit in with everyone else.  I would like this duplicated in Lebanese society, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.  Inshallah.

“Inshallah”, which translates to “God willing”, permeates conversations in Lebanon.  The Lebanese have such great hopes for themselves, hopes that keep many living in Lebanon despite the fact that their lives could be much better—much easier—in America.  Unfortunately, the systems and politics of Lebanon circumscribe the lives of disadvantaged citizens into a very narrow frame.  At ETI, we are frustrated by these limits this society imposes on the blind, but we also wish that our campers will be able to transcend limits without crossing national borders.  It’s a long road ahead, but we hope we’re moving in the right direction together.  Inshallah.

 

"Hot Dogs for Sale!"

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We did a lot of cooking at the Beirut camp today.  Actually, I should say we tried to do a lot of cooking at the Beirut camp today.  The “Bears” (our youngest group) learned to make rice krispie treats.  Of course it was totally a mess and our 4-10 year olds could only help out so much, but they had a great time, and I think we all appreciated having a little dessert with our lunch today. The “Tigers”, on the other hand, made solar-powered hot dog cookers in science class!  By creating a convex, reflective surface, the theory is that sunlight will converge to a “focal point” that will be very hot.  In an ideal world, the kids would have been able to cook our lunch with them.  Instead, we ended up cooking almost all the hot dogs in the microwave.  Pam put it best: “The kids are learning one of the most important rules of science: experiments seldom work as planned.”

Still, the hot dog cookers were by no means a complete failure!  Not to toot my own horn, but my group’s cooker actually cooked 2 hot dogs!  Sure, it took over 15 minutes and the hot dogs were only luke warm, but we’re pretty proud of it.  Furthermore, the kids seem happier and better behaved than I have seen them all camp!  One of our campers, Hassan, really embraced our project--not only did he want to rotate the hot dog skewers constantly, but he ran around the USJ campus yelling, “Hot Dogs for Sale!”  This little businessman even earned 1,000 LL from a friendly professor (though we didn’t accept it, of course).  Talk about life skills, haha!