When you type “Syria” into Google Images, you get pictures of violence and destruction. Before the war, it was the country that Ruba, a 31-year-old Palestinian woman, called home. Today, she reminisces about her childhood there, growing up in a two-story home with her parents and six siblings, walking through the inner city streets and smelling the jasmine aroma that filled the Damascene air. She still remembers the life lessons her parents taught her at the time about ambition, positivity, and hope.
Ruba was living in the Yarmouk Camp for Palestinian refugees, but didn’t feel any different from Syrians. Nationality was irrelevant to her.
Soon, she would feel the pain of being discriminated because of her origin. That is, until she joined our Better Together project.
As Ruba entered her teenage years, she felt the urge to become financially independent. She started working as a teacher’s assistant at an international school in Damascus. Then, she became a private Arabic teacher and a videomaker.
At that time, she felt like the stars were aligning. Energy and purpose filled her. But world politics do not take young people’s ambitions into consideration, and soon enough she found herself forced to flee from a war-torn country.
Her home, Yarmouk Camp, became “a magnet attracting missiles from above and firepower from beyond.” She and her family had no choice but to escape and seek safety and shelter in Lebanon. Despite the instability of their situation, Ruba maintained a positive attitude, believing that their displacement was only temporary.
A few months in, they realized that their situation might last longer than expected and rented an apartment in Saida. That was the day Ruba really felt the weight of her situation. The pretty image of Lebanon she held in her mind was shattered. Locals avoided them, didn’t reply to their greetings, and talked behind their backs. Having been raised to speak up against injustice, Ruba confronted each and every person who accosted her family with discrimination — but they remained on the margins of local society. Financial hardships weren’t helping either, and with every newspaper headline, the idea of returning to Syria seemed less realistic.
Low on money, they decided to move to the Ein el Helweh Palestinian camp in Saida, thinking that people there would be more welcoming because of their shared origins. Ruba thought it would be “the closest place to home.” She was unaware of the long history of divisions and violence in the camp. Once again, their safety was compromised as armed conflicts escalated right next to their house.
“I recall how things began. I was going home when the shooting started. My mother called me and I could hear everyone in the house screaming, especially my one-year-old cousin, who then developed a traumatized panic reaction for every sound he heard.”
Ruba felt the urge to do something to improve the situation of refugees like her. In addition to her job as an Arabic private tutor, she started taking trainings on documenting human rights violations against refugees. That’s when one of her students told her about a new project that brought together young refugees and youth in host communities and invited her to join one of the meetings. At first, she resisted, because she didn’t want to interact with a community that resented her. But her student insisted and she gave in.
That meeting was part of Better Together. It changed Ruba’s life.
Ruba’s Better Together
Our Lebanon team launched the Better Together project in 2013, in response to the increased tensions between Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities. Funded by the European Union, and in partnership with LOST (the Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training) and DPNA (the Development for People and Nature Association), Better Together created a space for youth from the Syrian and Lebanese communities to work hand-in-hand and break societal barriers and stereotypes.
At that first meeting, Ruba recalls feeling a bit alienated. The project was focusing on Syrians and Lebanese, but she was Palestinian. She spoke up and said that many Palestinian young people lived in Saida too. The project’s team listened to her and made sure to include Palestinians going forward. To her surprise, Ruba was selected as a leader of a group of volunteers in support of the upcoming youth summer camp in South Lebanon.
For 6 days at the camp, Ruba felt safe sharing tents and meals with 80 other Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian youth, all from very diverse backgrounds. Together, they explored the arts, working on theatre, music, drawing, storytelling, and photography. They developed new skills and passions, as well as new bonds to help them overcome the deep societal divisions that set them apart.
The first couple of days were tough for Ruba, especially because of the overwhelming surge of emotions that flooded her whenever someone would talk about Syria. With the help of our facilitators and artists, she found a way to express those deep emotions by painting and drawing her tragic experience and discovered that others could relate to her and empathize.
Ruba left the camp with renewed hope, feeling like she could help people facing the very same hardships that she had to endure. She became an assiduous participant in the project’s workshops, helping countless other young people express their emotions and build relationships outside of their community.
“This change is important because I can now put myself in other people’s shoes. I know how to engage others in common peaceful dialogue instead of fighting with them.”
The Better Together team selected Ruba to be part of the second year’s volunteering group because of the strong leadership skills that she demonstrated in the first year of the project. She also became a Master Facilitator leading young people in our Aswat Faeela project and even launched her own initiative providing livelihood trainings.
Today, Ruba is a true superhero in service of young people living in Lebanon.
“My experience in Lebanon – with all the goodbyes, sadness, meeting new people, and adventures attached to it – made it so clear to me that if we really looked at each other we’ll find that life is only beautiful because of our differences… This life deserves hope!”
Joe Hammoud is a Communications Coordinator at Search for Common Ground, based in Beirut.
Blake Kraus is a Communications Associate at Search for Common Ground, based in Washington, D.C.