It’s Time

•March 18, 2018 • Leave a Comment

It’s hard to believe that just two weeks ago today, I was on a plane returning from Beirut. In a way it feels like yesterday, in a way it feels like it never happened. It was a whirlwind of amazing history, delicious food, and wonderful people. So what’s still running through my mind after the excitement has worn off? I’ll be honest, my mind is still spinning. It’s filled with thoughts of products to make, logistic hurdles to overcome, excitement of what the future may bring. But above all that…it’s filled with a deep regard for the people of Lebanon. They have a warmth and determination that still strikes me. This endeavor isn’t about me. I can’t do it alone. We’re a team. And as I visited one group after another during my visit, every one instantly understood that it would take time and effort and patience to achieve anything. They understood that we were in it together. They’re excited to get started and see where we can go together. I can’t wait either. It’s time.

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Scars from the Past

•March 4, 2018 • Leave a Comment

There are moments as I travel that stick in my mind. Forever. They come out of nowhere, hit with an impact, and aren’t going anywhere. I had one of those moments as I rode through the city of Beirut the first time. The moment I realized what I was seeing every so often wasn’t building dilapidation from age. It wasn’t a squirrel aggressively pummeling acorns into walls with a velocity that would chip concrete. Every so often, I saw a building with the wounds from civil war, scorched from mortar fire and rounds of ammunition.

beirut

The scars of the past

It’s a sobering sight. It’s a daily reminder of what can happen when open minded discussion is no longer an option. A wake up call for how slippery that slope can be that leads from angry discussion and agendas into something truly tragic. Some of these buildings have been left here on purpose for that reason alone. A constant and daily reminder of why we need to find common ground, eat together, play together, accept each other warts and all. I have to wonder, with all the anger and hate speech directed across party lines in my own country right now…the people who have voiced nothing short of disgust and hostility at those with differing views…the complete and total shut down of dialogue…the inability to see the grey in issues, whatever they are. I have to wonder, how far down that slippery slope have we slid so far? How much further will we go before we stop ourselves? It seems extreme, outlandish and ludicrous to think we could plunge into something that would create these sober reminders in our own country. But what were the people of Lebanon thinking at the time they started down the slippery slope so many years ago. If the people of Syria realized the resulting mass destruction of their country, would they have stopped themselves? Or the people of Iraq? Or Cambodia? Or Serbia? Or Sudan? Maybe they would have, maybe they wouldn’t. We’ll never know for sure. But I see these daily reminders of what can happen when two sides stop talking and it gives me pause. I walk by and take a moment to wish for dialogue and understanding. At a time where there’s so much anger and silence, it feels like a pretty big wish.

 

Time Traveling

•March 3, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I played tourist today. I rarely spend an entire day playing, but I wanted to learn more about the Lebanese culture…the Lebanese history. You can’t really understand where a country is now, what their mindset is, without knowing where they’ve come from. So in a period of 7 hours, I saw 2600 years of history. No joke. We started at the Temple of Eshmoun dating back to 600 BC and ended up in soap museum in the souks.

eshmoun

Eshmoun Temple

I’m in awe. Total and complete awe. I knew the civilization dated way back. I wasn’t aware of just how much historical significance there was. There are the Phoenicians from before Christ, Christ himself along with the Romans, the Knights Templar, and the list just goes on and on. What I found especially shocking were the stats we discussed as we were walking around. So there are 6 million people living In Lebanon, a country that is smaller than the state of Connecticut. Yeah, mhm, that’s a ton of people in a little bit of space. Of those 6 million, 2 million are refugees from either Palestine or Syria. Can you imagine? What country out there can swell by 30% relatively quickly and continue along without any growing pains?!?!

settlement

Overlooking the Palestinian settlement

It’s no wonder I’m seeing some of the issues I am. It’s actually a bit surprising to me that there isn’t more violence, more poverty, more desperation. And I walked away from the day with a stronger commitment than ever to do whatever I can to make things a little better. I can’t help in a big way at this point, and what help I can offer will be slow. We need to figure out product. We need to figure out pricing. We need to figure out the logistics. And then, and only then, I can start selling…which comes with an entirely different set of challenges. But in the midst of all these uncertainties, I am sure of one thing. I will try. With every ounce of my being, I will try. Hopefully with a lot of work and a little luck, I’ll be successful.

A Material Problem

•March 2, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Today was my second day at a school run by the Presbyterian Church in Tyre. Last night I spent time with the most wonderful seamstress, discussing her class of ladies learning to sew. To see what she has taught them in just a few short lessons was incredible. I’m beyond excited to find projects for them to make, because I know they’ll do a spectacular job. This afternoon was a meeting with a crocheting group. Officially, they’re called a class. By U.S. standards, they’re what I’d call a hen party. It’s a group of Syrian refugee women who get together, sit around a table and crochet…and gab…and share their joys and concerns…and giggle. Mhm, it’s a hen party. This was the second time this week I had nothing to say. Their work is already at such a beautiful level that it left me completely speechless. But it was the second time in two days I’m hearing the same difficulty. They have the skill. They have the desire. They don’t have raw materials. You could find beautiful fabric and yarn in Syria back before the conflict. But that obviously isn’t an option right now. So what do we do? Again, I don’t really know. Based on the feedback yesterday, we made an unscheduled trip to the fabric store in the souks (open air market) this morning.

I bought a variety of fabrics that might have potential, and brought them home, but now I need to generate ideas and find patterns to send back. My initial ideas of what they might be able to sew won’t work. The fabric they need just isn’t available. So now I’m starting over at square 1. It’s kind of fun, this part. Not easy by any standard, but a little bit fun. I’ll buy some patterns, make some samples, and send over the winners. I hope. Time is always an issue on my part. But when we stopped at the souks to look through the fabric store, we didn’t know we needed to look for yarn as well. Soooo I don’t know what’s available. Their skill level is spectacular…but the yarn is scratchy. It’s a hurdle. One of the many I’ve run into this week. Hopefully I can kick it out of the way pretty quickly, because these ladies are ready to work. And I’m ready to put them to work. If only they had some yarn.

A Tricky Situation

•March 1, 2018 • Leave a Comment

These trips can be quite a roller coaster. You never truly know what you’re getting into. Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised and sometimes, well, yeah. The schools and groups I’m meeting with aren’t in the business of being in business. They didn’t start working with refugees and the disadvantaged because they had this entrepreneurial spirit. Or a craft they were itching to teach someone. They saw a need and felt a call to help. Often times they found themselves looking for options to help generate income to make things a little easier for the people they’re trying to help. What they do isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes dedication and stamina along with a willingness to embrace situations that might be out of their comfort zone. Waaayyyy outside their comfort zone. So every time I visit a new group, I go in with cautious expectation. Most of the time on this trip, I’ve been completely blown away in a good way by the skill level and products I’m seeing. There are a few that I could place an order with tomorrow and know things would be perfect. But what happens if they aren’t? What do I do then? That becomes a little tricky. You see, we have this mindset when we visit these groups as “tourists” that we’re doing an awesome thing by praising their products and buying a token amount to show support regardless of the quality. And we are doing an awesome thing, but there’s a side effect that could prove to be more harm than good over time. You see, after months or even years of being told that the product is perfect as is, the women would have no reason to believe that it isn’t. They’re confused by the fact that one group after another say they’ll order more product once they get home and nobody does. They don’t understand what’s wrong. We mean well. We don’t want to hurt their feelings. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. So here we are. They need to improve some things…sometimes a lot of things…in order for people here in the United States to be interested in buying their items. How do I let them know? Is there any way to get there from here? Well, we’ll find out. I’m not totally sure right now. It’s a pretty tricky situation to navigate. Hopefully, little by little, we’ll get there.

A Force of Nature

•February 28, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Have you ever met someone who can only be described as a force of nature? You know, someone who takes the world by the horns and slays it?  I met a force today named Linda. She’s the director of a special needs school designed for kids with disabilities. It was the first school for the blind in Lebanon, opening in 1868, now called Blessed School. The ”kids” range in ages from 5 to 80, and while some are blind, the school’s reach has extended to various other disabilities as well.

Outside mural painted by students at Blessed School

Linda has limited resources, an uphill battle on many fronts, and an energy level that astounds me. Her school sits one block away from an area filled with prostitution and drugs, but inside her 4 walls is a haven for these kids. They learn as they would in any school, but she doesn’t stop there. She teaches them to serve others, to give of themselves as a gesture of love.  She serves as an advocate for not only her children, but disabled children in her community, fighting against the stigma that they face. Children with disabilities aren’t permitted in playgrounds, are often abused at home, and have no place in traditional schools. And if that weren’t enough, she teaches them crafts to earn an income. It’s more like pocket change than a significant income at this point, but she’s only getting started. I was completely blown away by the glass mosaics, the woven baskets, and the knit scarves and sweaters. And by completely blown away…I mean COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY.

Making mosaics

Linda gets up in the morning with no other purpose than to give her kids a shelter filled with love and self worth. She teaches them to be self sufficient. They do everything from caring for the school’s pet turtles to baking cookies in their small bakery. The cookies, delightful bits of chocolaty yumminess, are sold to local schools to generate income for the kids. And what comes with that pocket change? Self respect, dignity, and contentment…the tri-fecta.

From Dream to Reality

•February 26, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Every good adventure seems to start the same way for me. Anxiety and indecision followed by this moment of surrender…the throwing of caution to the wind. Then, once there’s no turning back, just days before my adventure, this complete and utter disbelief in what’s about to happen. Followed, of course, by the frantic search for my passport. This adventure is no different in that sense.  Even as I was sitting in the airport in Pittsburgh, then Washington, then Belgium, my final destination didn’t seem real. Six years ago, when I uttered the words, “This is what I want to do. This is the region I want to build a presence in,” I hadn’t the vaguest idea how it could actually come to pass. The dream seemed impossible. And yet, here I am. Laying in bed hoping for sleep, surrounded by the noises of a faraway land, and filled with cautious hope for what is to come. Where am I? What am I doing?

Beirut, Lebanon

I’m in Lebanon, as in the country, not the city in Pennsylvania. I’m here for the week to meet with various groups and schools that either have a cottage industry established or have the potential. That’s about all I can give you right now. I’m not trying to be cryptic. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to find. I’m hoping there are groups that have possibilities. That’s about as far as I can commit at this point. But for this trip, it’s not quite that simple. I’m already learning that the internet is tricky at my hotel. Super tricky. It drops about every 45 seconds, so uploading photos on my phone is possible with patience, but through the laptop is a no go. Annddd there’s a little bit of a safety issue. Posting what I’m doing in real time isn’t the best idea in the world. And for once, I’m not throwing caution to the wind. So I’m blogging as I go, but everything will be posted upon my return. So stay tuned…cause the adventure has only just begun.