By Harry Funk
Here’s one for Hollywood, perhaps.
An American volunteer who’s a recent college graduate travels to Lebanon and is assigned to a Syrian refugee camp, where his task is to teach a bunch of youngsters how to put on a play.
Being typical kids, many of them don’t stay interested for all that long. Plus, there’s no requirement for them to attend rehearsals.
“It was really becoming a problem because we didn’t know whom we could count on to memorize their lines,” the American explains. “So my local volunteers and I, we redid the script, kind of at the 11th hour. We cut a lot of the lines. We had to eliminate some characters and had to have some of the more serious kids play more than one role.”
The production is scheduled as part of a festive final ceremony at the camp. But a final rehearsal earlier the same day makes the American think: No, this is not going to work.
“But it did,” he reports. “And I was told afterward that it was the best play and the most ambitious play that has ever been put on in the program’s history.”
Roll the credits.
Even if South Fayette Township resident Connor Phoennik doesn’t return home with such a beating-the-odds type of story, he has plenty of tales to tell about his six weeks in Lebanon this winter.
They could start with: Yes, winter hits the Middle East, too.
“You might not expect this, but most of the time I was in Lebanon, it was rainy and pretty cold,” Connor says. “And then when we would leave Beirut and go into the Beqaa Valley on Fridays and Saturdays to the refugee camp, sometimes we would even get snow. It was very cold in the valley most days.”
The Beqaa Valley is in the eastern part of Lebanon, near the border with Syria, and the Kafar Zabad camp is one of many established for the millions displaced because of the latter nation’s seemingly unending civil war.
“You would see the impoverishment and how much the children’s education had been disrupted,” Connor observes about his place of assignment.
For the story of how he winds up teaching theater at Kafar Zabad, let’s begin back in 2018.
During his senior year at McGill University in Montreal, Connor has the opportunity for an educational internship in the African country of Algeria, through an international leadership development organization known formally by the acronym AIESEC.
“For me, it was a way to build my resume, to get teaching experience, because I’m an aspiring Arabic professor,” Connor explains. “The version they teach you at university or any Arabic class you would take here is the standard language, which is useful for reading, writing, watching news broadcasts. But for speaking with someone in the streets, you need to know a dialect, and it’s very hard to learn one unless you go to the Middle East.”
Fast-forward to 2019, and Connor revisits AIESEC for another Middle East experience. And one is available in Lebanon.
In case geography isn’t exactly your strong suit, Lebanon is on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the nation’s land border is with Syria, to the north and east, and a relatively small section in the south is adjacent to Israel.
Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, is along the Mediterranean, practically equidistant from the north and south borders. And that’s where Connor heads for his six-week stay.
AIESEC connects him with the Middle East-based service group for which he’ll be working, one with another alphabet-soup title.
“LOYAC is an organization that believes in youth empowerment, especially through education,” he explains, including programs for children in refugee camps. “They’re not a school. They don’t teach the traditional subjects. They offer a dance program, a coding camp, a theater program.”
As for Connor and his fellow volunteers:
“They explained that for the next six weeks, we would choose one of those areas. And the reason I chose theater, despite not having any experience in acting or anything like that, was because I thought, since I was the only international volunteer who spoke Arabic” – the others hail from the Netherlands – “it was the field that would require language skills the most.”
The volunteers spend three weekdays at the LOYAC office in Beirut and then travel to Kafar Zabad to work with children on Fridays and Saturdays.
“The way the camp was set up, there was an area where we would have our lessons, and we weren’t allowed outside of that area,” Connor says. “We weren’t allowed to wander off into the tents or meet any of the parents, unless they came to us.
“And not all of them wanted their kids to participate in the program,” he continues. “A lot of the boys actually don’t finish school, because as soon as they’re old enough to work and earn money for the family, that’s what their parents want them to do. As for the girls, a lot of them are married off at a young age, because it puts more economic strain on the family if they’re still dependent on their parents.”
Nevertheless, with the assistance of some Lebanese LOYAC volunteers, Connor embarks on helping the youngsters in his charge develop a play.
“We wanted them to choose the topic, so they would be enthusiastic about the project. Another aspect of this program is they weren’t obligated to attend, so you could never count on having a full class,” he explains. “So it was really important to incentivize the kids’ attendance at practices and get them excited about what they were doing.”
They come up with their very own fairy tale, complete with competing kingdoms, kidnapped princesses, to-the-rescue princes and a big wedding, presumably with the couples living happily ever after.
As far as Connor living happily while attempting to organize a viable stage production, he runs into quite a few challenges.
“There were kind of like factions in the class between the older kids, who were more serious about the actual play, and the younger kids, who just wanted to play games,” he recalls.
“Also, in some cases, between the boys and the girls, there would be problems. And I would learn from my supervisor, who knows these families very well from going to the camps for all these years, that there were also family conflicts,” he says about whom he reports to at LOYAC. “There were families who weren’t speaking to each other, and their kids were in the same class. So they didn’t get along.”
Of course, we know how everyone involved manages to pull everything together. And on top of that, the youngsters later have the opportunity to travel from Kafar Zabad to the bright lights of Beirut for a LOYAC exhibition highlighting their achievements.
A few days after that, Connor is scheduled to fly back to the United States. In the meantime, he’s able to visit some of Lebanon’s prime attractions, including ancient Roman ruins in the cities of Byblos and Baalbek.
Then it’s on to Tyre, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and the upscale Beirut suburb Jounieh, where he has the opportunity to give paragliding a try from atop the original Mount Lebanon, which rises an average of 8,200 feet above sea level.
“The instructor was saying that a lot of people think it will be like skydiving, that the air will be hitting your face so hard, you won’t be able to see anything. But it’s very gentle,” Connor reports. “It’s much slower. We were actually able to take pictures with our phones.”
Although he personally has no problems with acceptance – “I didn’t find anyone who had a very strong anti-American sentiment” – Connor’s six weeks in Lebanon take place during ongoing protests against the likes of a stagnant economy, unemployment, corruption and failures of the government to provide basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation.
“I was watching the news a lot when I was there, and I tried to avoid the parts of the city where the protests were very active,” he says. “The only time I really came face-to-face with the protests was accidentally.”
The scene is a Beirut restaurant, and the occasion is a birthday party for one of the Dutch LOYAC volunteers.
“We cut the cake, and as we were finishing dessert, we were starting to hear explosions outside,” Connor recalls. “And the Lebanese volunteers were telling us, ‘We’re downtown. We’re not that far from where the protests are. So you’re going to hear them firing water cannons and tear gas.’ But nobody was panicking at the restaurant, because everybody was accustomed to that.”
Then the noises become louder, as rocks start to strike the restaurant’s windows.
“Actually, it was really interesting to see what happened once people realized that it wasn’t OK because there was such a unity. The waiters and waitresses started showing people out back doors. Nobody was worried about who paid. And I think everybody got out safely,” Connor says.
“We found out that it wasn’t that the restaurant was targeted. It was just that the protest spilled over, and we were in the wrong area.”
On a better day, he pursues one of his goals in traveling to Lebanon.
“I was looking at a graduate program in the country for Arabic at the American University of Beirut,” he says, referencing one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the Middle East. “And I was able to meet a professor I had contacted about being my thesis adviser.”
Wherever he eventually continues his studies, Connor’s journey to Lebanon represents a time he’ll remember fondly:
“It was a very fulfilling experience. I got everything I wanted out of it in terms of teaching experience.”
And that now includes theater education.
Hollywood, take note.