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PART TWO - A gateway into the world which was opened and left an indelible impression

Caterina Mazzullo

What is the difference between a tourist and a traveller?

Perhaps the idea that the traveller is able to totally break through that barrier that shields, and divides, his reality and everyday life, from that in which he is fully immersed. The frenzy with which he lives his days, the worries that invade or drowns his mind, are flattened and zeroed out the moment the traveller decides to live what is in front of him, the present.

A present made of diluted time, made of waiting and simplicity.

Because the truth is that in the West we are carried away by an unnecessary haste, almost as if there is an ingrained fear chasing us. The fear of wasting time, the fear of not having lived enough.

If there is one thing I learned in Lebanon, to be precise in Beirut and the Beirut Mountains, it was just how slow you experience and relish things.

And this is precisely why we need to unify these two basic trajectories, because the weakness and fragility of each one of us manifest themselves the moment we return home, the moment we get back in touch with our usual reality, and realize that we have experienced something true, something indescribable.

My work in the field was very diverse. I worked with children for about a month, in a center situated in Baabdet, a town in the Beirut Mountains. There, for the first time I felt that I also had a role, that I had to take care of others besides myself for the first time. For the first time, I had to hold back my emotions and show myself as a little superman in front of the difficulties experienced by these children. I think one of the strongest feelings I ever faced was realizing that the conditions in which these people live represent normalcy for them. Who am I to disprove them? Who am I to tell them that there is more to life than what they experience?

I vividly remember the words of Gabrielle, another volunteer at the center, when I asked her how I could help Diana, a little girl who was crying desperately because of a cavity. We were on a field trip and had taken all the children to the pool. Gabrielle simply told me that I couldn't, that it wasn't our job, that we are not doctors, and that most of the children there, because of poor hygienic conditions have cavities, or lose their teeth.

It may seem futile or short-lived; many imagine volunteers in almost folkloric situations for us Westerners, such as working with families in slums or rescuing children in Africa in situations of War. Instead, in Lebanon I experienced these children every day, and in what may seem like trivialities to us, I found my answers.

I remember when the summer camp ended, a little girl had to stay in the center because no one came to pick her up. A week later, we had to take her back "home". I don't even feel like calling that shack a home. The drunk father was screaming through the window. I didn't have the courage to get out of the car.

Besides accompanying these children to the center, I also spent a period in a nursing home called "Le foyer des tetes blanches" (The home of the white heads). In particular, those 2 weeks were quite intense. There I experienced something totally new in every way. I had no specific or essential task within the home.

I admit that the first few days I really had to make a physical and mental effort to adapt to what was and is the daily routine of this group of 12 elderly people. At the children center a smile, a hug or in most cases a ball was enough to take care of the children, in the nursing home I realized that my work there could never be as "determinant" or "impactful" as I would have liked. Working with children means leaving an imprint, as well as an educational contribution, that their families are not always able to make, because of their already little economic stability and their relational and emotional fragility. The goal lies in the promise or trust that their difficult conditions can improve and this does not always happen but, the practical help of volunteers who put their hands to work brings a clear message "hope ".

In contrast, my experience caring for the elderly has completely “Balanced” me. The constant contact with death, to which they are subjected to every day and the apparent static, unchanging and paralysis of their lives is something that leaves its mark on anyone who comes into contact with such a reality. Especially when projected in a country like Lebanon, which has experienced and is experiencing a very critical political situation. I remember the talks I had with Antoinette on the rocking chair, once I found myself counting the number of times she repeated the word “misère” (misery) in her sentences.

"Comment tu veux te soigner lorsque tu es dans la misère, c’est un pays plongè dans la misère, il n’y a que de la misère."

Antoinette was not the only one I had the opportunity to engage with, although I admit that of all of them, she was the only one who could still hold a real conversation. She liked to refer to that house as a “comedy house” because in her opinion everyone was a little crazy.

There I realized that the life of these souls has no possibility of “movement”, that they live perhaps waiting for death, almost not counting time. They repeat the same simple actions every day, many of them have no relatives or friends, they seem almost abandoned to themselves. So how do you go home, how do you leave behind this self-consciousness.

Something within me exploded.

The last part of my time was spent in the Mariapolis Center of the Focolare Movement. There I was in charge of organizing a workshop that would assemble teenagers from all over the Near East. Here, too, for the first time, I experienced something totally new.

My role during this work was never really precisely defined; we could call it almost "fluid." There was no real boundary between me and the youngsters, given also the small age difference. There I found myself having to be assistant and child at the same time.

I had the right to cry, to let go when emotions got the best of me, but I also had to remain clear-headed, to take care of these kids, to pick them up in their time of need. I had to be a single entity, without a specified role, I simply had to be there, there, present and responsive.

The workshop was attended by young people from different countries: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, and even a small group from Italy. In those two weeks we experienced first-hand that the spirituality is not one-size-fits-all and that diversity does not mean lack.

For me, Lebanon was a listening to myself, a realization of a truth that may be taken for granted but that you have to experience to really understand: it's scary, but we have to open our eyes to look. As one Mona, the strongest and most resourceful children's assistant I have ever met, writes:

We cannot be retired on this earth we have to understand where our soul vibrates

1 "How can you take care of yourself when you are in poverty, it is a country immersed in poverty, there is nothing but poverty.”

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