While walking through Beirut, I decided out of curiosity to direct my travels to a location that was somewhere South of where I was, at least according to Google Maps. I intended to travel to an orphanage, but I wasn’t certain what I would find when I got there. I was even less certain as to what I would say when I got there. ‘I’ll figure it out’, I told myself. It was a hot day and it promised to be a long walk, but I was determined. ‘Maybe’, I thought, ‘I would see something interesting along the way.’
As I walked through foreign neighbourhoods, along busy streets and empty intersections, I wondered if I would ever find the place I sought. Stubbornly, I refused to ask for directions, confident that I would feel more fulfilled if I didn’t ask. I wasn’t wrong. Along the way I saw it all… I saw modern shiny buildings standing side-by-side beat down buildings with classic Arab markings on their balconies, expensive luxury cars that I could never afford, beat down cars I never would buy, children playing in dusty clothes, narrow roadways lined with old men sitting outside cafes smoking shisha, and young men hanging outside restaurants like I had seen in Egypt.
But however familiar some things seemed to me, to the people around me, I was obviously out of place. As I walked, I found myself in a residential areas with small shops. I felt I was getting close to my destination. At the end of the road, I spotted the place I had come in search of. I struggled to read the Arabic on the front to confirm where I was, ‘Arab Association for Social Affairs’. As I arrived, I saw more than 30 youths leaving. A small argument broke out between some of them.
The grounds of the orphanage were guarded, so I asked the security guy at the metal gate if there was someone I could talk to inside. I told him I was from out of town and to my surprise, he was welcoming and led me inside. As he did, I asked him about the kids fighting outside. He answered only that they were ‘kids were just being kids’. I left it at that but I caught myself wondering why I assumed it was something more. I asked the woman at the front desk if I could speak to the person in charge of the orphanage because I wanted to know what the organization needed. I wanted to purchase some goods for the kids but I didn’t want to make any assumptions as to what they needed. I was then introduced to a woman named Aisha.
I told Aisha a little about me and how I wanted to learn about the orphanage. Aisha had worked at the orphanage for more than 35 years and had seen over her long tenure many children arrive, grow up, get married and some even return to visit her with children of their own. She was kind enough to give me a tour of the orphanage. There were close to 750 children living there at the time.
Their ages ranged from infants to eighteen-years-old and came from all over: Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and several other neighbouring countries. Some children came from families who were too poor to support them, while others were not gifted with the gender of their choosing. The orphanage provided separate housing for young girls, young boys, teenage girls, teenage boys and still additional accommodations for babies from one-day-old to three-years-old. These ‘loqat2’ were typically found by police – abandoned on the streets – and brought to the orphanage.
On the way back to the orphanage, I decided it would be easiest to catch an Uber because of the big bags I was now carrying. Oussama, my driver, asked where I was going, and I gave him the address. He looked at his phone and made the connection between the name of the destination and the packages I had placed in his trunk. Intrigued, he asked if I was on my way to bring gifts to the orphans. I said that I was. As he drove, we talked on a range of topics: the economy, the sex workers on the streets, the children begging, the orphanage, and the world at large.
He also asked many questions about the act of donation and why I was doing what I was doing. I didn’t really have an answer except that I had been inspired by others’ generosity and wanted to make a difference. Your browser does not support the video tag. When we arrived at the orphanage, Oussama asked if I needed him to wait for me. Given that my phone did not have a signal and finding transportation was precarious, I said that I would appreciate it if he did wait. I went inside and waited for Aisha but it was taking longer then expected for her to see me.
When I told Oussama that I felt bad that I was making him wait, he waved off the inconvenience and refused to leave. While I sat and waited, a young boy came and sat down beside me. I could not help but stare at him: he was incredibly cute with the most beautiful, long black lashes. I wanted to talk to him, but I was afraid to disrupt him as he looked shy. One of the employees at the orphanage suggested to ‘Walid’ that he talk to me, and he did, shaking my hand. Walid was nine-years-old and lived at the orphanage with three roommates.
He wore fancy little shoes, which I complimented him on, pleasing him greatly. When Aisha arrived, I was sorry to bid farewell to my new companion, and so was he. Walid followed us to Aisha’s office and sat in her big office chair. I caught him smiling at the scene and my heart broke a little at his joy. ‘Why was he here?’, I wondered, but there was little hope of an adequate answer. I was upset. I felt connected to Walid. I exchanged thanks with Aisha and got up to leave. I had only met Walid for a short time but his goodbye still weighs heavy in my heart.
He smiled at me and I said good-bye. I taught him to say, ‘Have a good day’ which was perhaps a way to make me feel better about leaving. As we parted, I gave him a high- five and I hurried out. Thankfully, Oussama was still waiting outside for me and I was happy to see him. As we drove to my hotel, we continued our talk of politics, street life, the political situation in Lebanon and Egypt, and the number of people struggling to make it by.
Oussama seemed bewildered to learn that I, and a friend of mine, had planned together to do something good in the places I visited; that we would both fund the act of gifting, that I would enact it, and then he would receive a diary account of my travels in return. Oussama said the world needed more people like us. And I thought he wasn’t wrong. As we drove, we talked about how each of us wanted to contribute our own small bit of good in the world, a world full of people in endless need of help. When I finally got back to my hotel, Oussama refused to take any payment even though I had cost him at least half a day’s earnings. As I reached for wallet, he stopped me, ‘What are you doing?’ He smiled, ‘It’s for the orphans!’