“When I help my fellow refugees, I feel I am helping my family”

by Wafa Dakwar, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP’s) Senior Programme Officer in Lebanon

Monday 12 August was International Youth Day. To mark the occasion, we spoke to Hisham, a Social Worker in the MAP-supported Adolescents Health and Life-Skills Education project and a former Animator in the MAP- and UNICEF-supported Mental Health and Psychosocial Support project. Hisham describes how his work is helping to support young Palestinian refugees in Lebanon:

Hi Hisham, please can you tell us a little bit about yourself

“I am a 27-year-old Palestinian refugee from Lebanon. I live in a Palestinian camp in south Lebanon with my mother, father, brother, and sister. Like most Palestinian refugees, I studied in UNRWA schools and, later on, in UNRWA’s Vocational Training Center. I majored in Civil Engineering at the vocational training center. After working for a few years, I started studying Social Sciences at the University and I am expecting to graduate this year. My hobbies are playing football and scouting activities. I also like to participate in community events and initiatives.”

How did you find out about the peer education project?

“Beit Atfal Assomoud [MAP’s partner] are well-known in the Palestinian camps; they have many nice programmes and activities for the youth. When I graduated from the vocational training centre, Beit Atfal Assomoud were offering an English language support course. I thought it is a good opportunity for me to improve my English language, so I joined the course. While I was attending the centre, I heard about the Adolescents Heath project and started participating in peer education sessions. Then I received intensive training that allowed me to volunteer as a Peer Educator in the project.”

What motivated to continue your participation in the Adolescents Health project?

“I have been a community activist my whole life. I like to voice the opinions and needs of people in my community and those who are not able to do that for themselves. For example, in the vocational training centre, I was the Student Body President and I was very active in representing my fellow students and advocating for the fulfillment of their requests and needs. My role as a Peer Educator gave me an opportunity to help other youth from my community- which is why this role is close to my heart.

“In one peer education session about decision making in 2013, there was an exercise about things we need and things we can’t give up. We were given cards with “family”, “friends”, “health”, “education”, and “future” written on them. We were told to imagine we are driving a car, and as we passed a checkpoint had to give up a card. I gave up the “friends” card, then something else, and at some point, I had to choose between family and health, and I couldn’t. The decision was very difficult for me; if I lose my family, I would not care about my health, and if I lose my health, my family will be miserable. This exercise made me think a lot of the importance of finding a balance in life and appreciating the things that I have. It really affected the way I think and my planning and decision making. Till today I like to do this exercise in peer education sessions that I conduct, hoping it will have a similar impact on other young people.”

Can you tell me about your experience working in the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) project?

“When the MHPSS project was initiated in the center where I was volunteering in 2014, I secured a job as an Animator. Five years ago, mental and psychological health were not perceived the same way they are perceived now. There is much more awareness about the importance of mental health and psychosocial support in our community today.

“As part of my induction, I received lots of training on methodologies to use in the activities. It was very interesting for me how every activity has a purpose and there is a process that allows change to happen between the first and the last session.

“After receiving training and working in this project, I started seeing things in a different and deeper way.  For example, when a child behaves in a certain way, you need to look at why he or she is behaving this way and what they are trying to tell you. In our culture, parents teach their children not to express themselves (as a sign of toughness), so many times they express themselves in non-verbal ways.

“Children have very little opportunities to play in the camps. People many times underestimate the importance of children playing, and parents overemphasise the importance of winning or being the best - which is wrong. The camps’ residents mainly work in temporary jobs, so one day the family is doing well and have a good income and the next day they struggle. This is the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon, we don’t have stability or job security. The effects of this situation are reflected on children. In the project, we worked to create a safe and friendly environment for the children to play and develop.”

You studied social work at the University of Saint Joseph with the support of MAP. How has this impacted your current role as a Social Worker?

“It was a 100 hours training course; when I heard about it, I wanted to attend it so badly. I went and informed my supervisor that I wanted to apply and promised that it would not affect my working hours or my performance at work. I was accepted, and it was a great learning experience.

“The course focused on adolescents, a group that is difficult but very important to work with. The course included theory and practical sessions. The teachers and the speakers were very experienced, and they gave very good advice. I used to be the first to volunteer to apply exercises; I knew that this way I would learn from the comments they gave. This course gave me great insight and effective tools related to working with youth, communicating with them, and managing difficult situations and conversations.

“The learning from the course has been very useful in my current role as a Social Worker. I know better to identify youth who need the project’s support the most and to involve them in suitable activities. I am also comfortable working with difficult groups, and I find it rewarding when I know I have made a difference to them. Youth usually wait for me after the sessions to discuss their problems and challenges and ask me for advice.”

What are your hopes for the future?

“I hope to continue to do community work and lead initiatives that help youth and the camps’ community. I like to volunteer in any work that helps the people in my camp. When I help my fellow refugees, I feel that I am helping my family and myself.

“The camp means a lot to me. When I enter the checkpoint leading to the camp, I feel comfortable, I feel I am home. Maybe we have many problems, but there are many beautiful things in the camps. You feel that all the residents are like one family; they support, help, and care for one another. When I am outside the camp, I am always afraid to run into any problem; however, in the camp I don’t feel this way because I know that I will find many people there to help me.”

Thank you for talking and all you do, Hisham

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