I decided this past year to move back to Lebanon, to establish more roots, and to spend my time growing and shaping Sadalsuud into an organization that will be sustainable and effective moving forward into the coming years. My initial passion here was focused on education, and our efforts focused solely on providing support to Syrian refugees. However, over the past year, my vision for Sadalsuud’s activities has expanded, and our mission has come into much sharper focus. I have come to understand more about the dynamics of life for Syrians in Lebanon, and along with this, a larger and more important picture has emerged, one that will serve as the goal for all of Sadalsuud’s future activities.
One of the prevailing thoughts on my mind this past year has been the loneliness and despair that come as a byproduct of war, displacement, and having to establish life in a place rife with discrimination and racism. More often than not Syrians are living life in a holding pattern and have little or no sense of hope for the future. In fact, a 2014 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) study found that 41 percent of Syrian youth in Lebanon ages 15-24 have either contemplated or attempted suicide. Though physical displacement and trauma from war often lie at the heart of their troubles, these issues are compounded by the discrimination and impermanence they face in Lebanon. Over the years of hearing stories of friends, and though witnessing firsthand this discrimination, I have come to realize that more must be done to counter this psychological pressure Syrians are experiencing in Lebanon. I have come to believe that the best way I can accomplish this is to help Syrians and Lebanese understand each other, live peacefully with each other, and learn to uplift and support each other.
As I arrived back in Beirut this past June equipped with funding provided by Sadalsuud’s amazing donors, my primary focus was to figure out how to further our commitment to educating Syrian children. Additionally, for the first time, I felt it imperative to make a concerted effort to implement programming that would mend ties between Syrians and Lebanese and work to build a more inclusive sense of community. When the opportunity arose to focus on education in Tripoli, in a community with extreme levels of historical sectarian tension and violence, I jumped at the opportunity. Tripoli would allow me a unique opportunity to build community in a challenging environment, one that could serve as a test bed for future Sadalsuud programs and activities.
We educated a total of 120 children in our summer school program. The students were a mix of Lebanese and Syrian children, and came from a range of religious backgrounds and beliefs. These were children whose parents rarely interact with one another, and who sometimes openly fight against each other. Our children bonded and formed friendships, all without the lens of religion, country of origin, or socioeconomic background dictating or influencing their interactions with one another. We accomplished something that these children’s parents have been unable to accomplish; we bridged sectarian and ethnic divides that are normally considered impassable. Our little school gave me great hope for the future of humanity.
One of my favorite moments from the summer school happened when we took the children on a field trip to a natural reserve in the mountains outside of Tripoli. As the children laughed and took a zip line through the forest, one of the Lebanese workers at the facility noticed that we had children from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, all mixed and socializing together. I explained that our underlying goal with the school was to build community, and that we intentionally crafted the demographics of our classes to do so. The young man was happily surprised that we would undertake such an endeavor, and told me he had never seen such a thing before. This experience reinforced to me the need to continue focusing on programming that puts community and peace building at the heart of all we undertake.
Sadalsuud is currently gearing up to launch a literacy program for 12-20 year-old girls in early 2017. We will again focus on mixing Lebanese and Syrian students, forcing them to interact with each other on a much more intimate level than that to which they are accustomed, all while giving them the education and self-confidence to be able to effect positive change in their owns lives and those of their families and communities. We plan to bring in female leaders, artists, and business owners from the local area to speak with and inspire our students. Additionally, we are working on a plan to partner with the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University to provide classes focused on gender-based violence issues that play a critical role in the lives of our students. I truly believe that educating girls and women is the fastest way to educate and uplift a community, and I’m excited to share more about our program as it unfolds in the coming months.
I’m extremely happy to announce that Sadalsuud will also be working in the coming months to establish a bakery in Tripoli, one focused on using local Lebanese wheat and natural leavening to craft sourdough breads and other products that will be new to the Lebanese market. Our underlying goal with the bakery will again be community building, but we will also be providing the additional critical elements of economic livelihood support and food education to the Lebanese and Syrian communities that we will be working for and with. I had the privilege of meeting a baker from New York named Sarah Owens this past summer. Sarah recently won the prestigious James Beard Award for her beautiful Sourdough cookbook, and in meeting we both learned of each other’s passion for food and its ability to bring people together and build community. After several conversations, Sarah happily agreed to come to Lebanon to help establish the Sadalsuud bakery. I can’t wait for her to get here (in less than 24 hours!), and we invite you to follow along our journey on social media at the links noted below.
As always, we are still looking for funding to operate our programs this coming year. We are currently seeking monetary donations to help pay for Sarah’s airfare to Lebanon, and for the many other equipment purchases and first few months of operating costs the bakery will be in need of before it becomes a self-sustaining entity. We are also in need of funding for our literacy course that will be starting in the coming weeks. Your donations will be used to pay for rent for the classroom, school supplies, transportation to and from school, and our teacher and school director’s salaries. As we are able to increase our fundraising ability, we plan to add additional classes at the Sadalsuud school, starting with after-school help sessions for Syrian and Lebanese students enrolled in Lebanese public schools. You can make a donation online via Paypal at www.sadalsuudfoundation.org/#support, by sending a check to us at our mailing address (found at the bottom of our webpage), or by dropping off cash or check to any Bank of America (contact us for details). If you would like your contribution to support a specific program, please indicate so when making your donation.
In closing, I want to offer a huge thank you to all of you who provided donations of money and/or time to Sadalsuud this past year. We started off the year on January 1, 2016 with a fundraiser organized by my friend Brenden who ran a total of 88 laps on an indoor track for pledges of money, amounting to a grueling 24 miles. Thanks for suffering for us Brenden! And as 2016 progressed, I continued to be touched by many of you and your generosity. Thank you to The Generous Light Co. and to all of you who purchased Sadalsuud bracelets from them this past year. The Generous Light Co has raised funds accounting for a significant percentage of our operating budget, and we can’t thank them enough for their selfless and significant donation of time. Thank you to all of you who made both large and small monetary donations, sometimes each and every month. Thank you to the friends whose children opened a lemonade stand to raise money for Sadalsuud, and to those whose children donated money to Sadalsuud in place of giving them birthday gifts. Thank you to the wonderful bakers out there who have started donating money to help us open our own bakery in Tripoli, and thank you to Sarah for selflessly agreeing to embark on this exciting project with us. I’d also like to offer a huge thank you to my friend Angie and her journalism class at Leavitt Middle School in Las Vegas. After going to speak with her class this past fall, the students launched a school-wide fundraiser for Sadalsuud, which will be providing direct support to our literacy course in Tripoli. What an amazing sight it’s been to see these little people using their talents and energy to help other children who live halfway across the world. Thank you Leavitt Middle School!
In this time of extreme hatred and division in this world, I believe it is more important than ever to come together, to uplift one another, and to prove with our actions that humanity is more important than divisive political agendas. You all inspire and uplift me, and more importantly, you instill hope in my Syrian friends in Lebanon. Syrians often feel the world has forgotten them, but your donations and efforts on their behalf have uplifted them and assured them this is not the case. Thank you my friends, I love you.
Please follow along on social media for tons of updates starting this week. On Instagram you can find Sadalsuud (@sadalsuudfoundation), Sarah’s account (@sarah_c_owens), and my personal account (@brantstew). Please also head over to our Facebook page when you have the chance and give us a like (www.facebook.com/sadalsuudfoundation).