Our names are Abdul Manfoukh and Liam O’Neill, and we represent the United Nations Association at Arizona State University (ASU). We took initiative to plan a three-month backpacking trip through developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and in Eastern Europe to scout for future projects as well as to see firsthand and fully comprehend the reality of global challenges requiring UN intervention. Along the way, we wrote stories on our blog about not only what we saw, but also about the unforgettable interactions we had with locals, refugees, and other foreign travelers. We hope that our story will inform the student community of the alarming realities for so many abroad and ultimately the importance of maintaining unyielding support for UN affairs.
A portion of our blog is posted here. Abdul traveled to Lebanon in the Middle East while Liam backpacked through countries in the Balkans such as Bosnia, Serbia, and Macedonia to observe firsthand the global refugee crisis. This was a short excerpt that truly does not capture the complexity of the refugee crisis that is straining economic, political, and social systems, but we wrote this with the intention of shedding light on their struggles and the support that is advocated by local communities.
Abdul in Lebanon
Lebanon is a country of relics, vibrant tradition and extraordinary cuisine. With its expansive mountainous coasts towering over the crowded cities, the 4.5 million inhabitants are blessed with their location between lush Mountain and Mediterranean sea. With its influential Roman, Phoenician, and Ottoman history, as well as the progressive advances in technology, social standards, and sustainability, the former French colony is truly living up to its nickname as the Paris of the Middle East. Sadly, as a member of the most unstable geographic region in the world, Lebanon has experienced the hardships of war, corruption and terrorism. In the midst of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, the country has proven to be one of the largest recipients of refugees as the neighbor to the war-torn country. According to UNHCR statistics, it has been confirmed that over one million registered Syrians seek refuge behind Lebanese borders. Among the million of documented refugees exists an estimated 1.4 million undocumented displaced individuals, who are using Lebanon as their safe haven away from their war-torn home.
Streets and markets in Lebanon used to be bustling with smiling faces and open shops attempting to make their sales for the day. Children would run in the street playing renditions of the old war with sticks and bottles, as they dodged the busy shoppers. With the visit this year, my pleasant, existing memories of Lebanon were tarnished by the social divide created by the struggling population. The ancient streets that I used to be so fond of, were now lined with hundreds, if not thousands of Syrian refugees, struggling to attain food for their exhausted families. The local vendors sat in their shops with frustration due to the lack of business, as the presence of the refugees made the traditional markets a barren wasteland of once thriving shops and business. With an estimated 2.5 million refugees within the borders of the 4032 square meter country, tensions are incredibly high within the bustling major cities of Lebanon.
My house during the visit was located in an artisan village north of the historic city of Tripoli. Of the eight major districts of Lebanon, Tripoli was the second largest recipient of refugees, as it is located near the southern Syrian border. I used this geographical opportunity to interact with as many of the displaced Syrians as I could to fully understand the horrors and difficulties they had been and were currently enduring. In my travels I met a 24-year-old student who had escaped from the town of Homs in 2013 with his little sister due to the unexpected abduction and imprisonment of his parents. It took him three months to receive a government notice about the imprisonment of his parents, as they were believed to be conspirators for a rebel group. When I hesitantly asked what became of them, he looked at me with eyes void of hope and shrugged. He was standing in front of his “Turmose” (Lupini Beans) stand, and I realized that his parents were most likely executed by the regime government as the people’s rebellion had become the main obstacle for President Assad and his goonies. The student further explained that after he received the notice, he packed his belongings and urgently traveled with his sister for fear of being pursued as well. Currently they are both out of school and are struggling to survive off the sales of their lupini beans.
With the instability of the region and the inefficient handling of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, the Lebanese government’s inadequacy was noticed. According to various local opinions, the Lebanese government has been functioning without a president for the past three years due to the unamendable division within the parliament. The current strategy in dealing with the displaced people involves placing large populations into rundown compounds located within busy cities and in tents throughout the outlands while providing them with a small pension for food and utilities. Unfortunately with the displaced groups, their lives are based in the streets and at the mercy of their geographic location and god.
Liam in the Balkans
“You’re traveling where? The Balkans? Why?!”
This was a question I was frequently asked after informing my friends and family of my intentions after Africa. Well that is, only with the few geographically acquainted friends and family whom I could skip the explanation of where exactly the Balkans were on the world map.
In the beginning, I answered that deliciously-flavored, heavy foods, precious historical treasures, dynamic cultural identities, and secret geographical wonders were my compelling appeals, but after more research and the unfolding of current events on the news, I also realized that I had an opportunity to absorb much more than traditional vacation splendors. Amidst the glamour that these countries offered to foreign travelers, there was another side, undeniable in nature, which peculiarly roused my interests.
Situated above the Mediterranean, east of Turkey, and northwest of conflicted Syria, the Balkan Peninsula has been made a path by resettling Syrian and non-syrian Syrian refugees who have intentions of settling in Central or Western Europe. Before migrating however, they are faced with the difficult decision of either embarking on a dangerous and expensive boat ride across the Mediterranean or migrating across the arduous terrains of Turkey. Along with the high costs and risks, many are emotionally harrowed as they are forced to leave close-friends and family defenseless and vulnerable to the dangers that prompted their painful decisions to leave.
My first experiences with subject began in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After disembarking at a bus station in Sarajevo, the capital, I was met with numerous cries from teenagers dressed in mud-stained clothes of “Give me mark (local currency) now! Give me mark, sir!” I understood the harmful repercussions of freely giving money like promoting a begging culture and the once-you-give-one-you-must-give-all concept. After shaking my head, I heard them speak Arabic amongst themselves before repeating the same demand of “Give me mark now!”
This triggered a response from me that made me want to ask them more questions about their origins; however, I had to be cautious not to exceed a point of insensitivity and/or eventually creating an obligation for me to meet their demands. After distantly making conversation with them, I learned they were Syrian children temporarily living in Sarajevo begging for money to buy food for their families while their parents did the same except to pay for their next ride on their journey up North.
Next, I visited Belgrade, Serbia With the thousands of people who narrowly enter Serbia everyday after risking their lives on the perilous journey, I was very touched to see the commitment Refugee Aid Miksašte has for their cause. Located directly next to the hostel I stayed for the night, I accidentally discovered this refugee center on my way into the city. Refugee Aid Miksašte is not limited to providing much needed supplies like clothes, food, hygiene products, and medicines to refugees; the center also acts as a comfortable home for migrants with available toilets, showers, washing machines, and even ports to charge mobile phones! I encourage you to check out their services and remarkable commitment here.
Their unquestionable loyalty to the refugees was something that will resonate with me forever. The initial objective of my meeting was to gauge the level of transparency of their intentions, and if they are trustworthy enough, enact collaboration. This meeting however, soundly beat my expectations, and I am left with a great deal of excitement to work with them. Please visit their website to learn more about their efforts and if willing, support in any way possible.
Read more about Liam and Abdul’s stories on their blog.