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Photo: Joseph Eid / Agence France-Presse
Painting the word “Peace” in Arabic over 85 rooftops on a Tripoli street for a project led by twin Lebanese street artists over a three-year period.

Nearly everyone wants peace. Nearly everyone expresses that over and over. You would think we would have peace by now. One large-scale expression of the world’s fervent wish in a city badly damaged by conflict took three years to accomplish.

Agence France-Presse reports, “From the street below it’s easy to miss the workers daubing rooftops as part of an ambitious art project in two battle-scarred neighbourhoods of Lebanon’s Tripoli.

“But the Ashekman street art duo behind the project say that once they’re done, the pistachio-green rooftops they are painting will spell out the word ‘Salam’ — Arabic for ‘peace’ — on a scale visible from space.

“The project, three years in the making, is the brainchild of 34-year-old twins Mohammed and Omar Kabbani. …

“They chose a site spanning the Bab Al Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods, which have fought successive rounds of armed clashes in recent years. …

“Peace has been elusive in Sunni-majority Bab Al Tebbaneh and the adjacent Alawite-majority Jabal Mohsen. Fighters from the two areas have battled each other periodically for decades, and the war in neighbouring Syria, pitting a Sunni-dominated uprising against Alawite president Bashar Al Assad, has further stirred existing enmities. …

“Ashekman’s project runs on either side of the infamous Syria Street separating the two neighbourhoods. The duo hired workers from across the divide to help them complete the project.

” ‘All of the workers live here in the neighbourhood, they lived the conflict, some of them got shot,’ Omar Kabbani said.

” ‘Two years ago they were hiding from bullets … now they’re painting their rooftops proudly.’

“The brothers are sensitive to the observation that their project does little to address the most obvious scars of fighting or the area’s desperate poverty, often identified as a catalyst of the violence.

“They say they chose paint that will seal rooftops against rain and reflect ultra-violet rays, cooling the homes below.

“And in order to paint the rooftops, they had to negotiate with residents and often had to clear large amounts of trash and debris. …

“Walid Abu Heit, 29, joined the project as a painter after hearing about it from March, a Lebanese NGO that has worked on reconciliation and rehabilitation in the rival neighbourhoods. …

“He and other workers lugged heavy tubs of paint up seven floors and began plastering a roof with the fluorescent green, which flecked his hands and boots.

” ‘It’s an amazing project,’ he said, smiling and shading his eyes from the blazing sun.

” ‘The word peace, it’s a great word … we haven’t seen it for a long time, now we’re seeing it again.’

Read more here; also at National Public Radio, here.

And ponder the power of artistic twins here, at one of my posts on street artists Os Gemeos. The Greenway’s first giant mural, which they painted, is still my favorite. It makes you think about “The Other” as a sweet little kid.

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Photo: The Daily Star
A temporary refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Marj near the border with Syria.

Tina Rosenberg has an interesting op-ed at the NY Times about how aid groups in Lebanon are making life easier both for themselves and for the refugees that have flooded the country.

“Consider Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people that has taken in probably close to 1.5 million Syrians fleeing their civil war. …

“In 2004, 99 percent of the world’s humanitarian aid came in the form of commodities: sacks of grain, stacks of blankets, building materials. Last year, that number had fallen to about 94 percent, according to a committee financed by Britain’s Department for International Development to study how best to use cash in humanitarian aid.

“Cash is catching on. A decade ago, the United Nations World Food Program was trying out cash in a few pilot programs. Now cash makes up a quarter of the organization’s portfolio …

“Since it’s easier, safer and carries less risk of corruption to provide cash electronically instead of handing people envelopes of bills, mechanisms should exist for debit cards or cellphone banking. …

“It’s no problem in Lebanon, a middle-income country known for commerce. … Here’s how it works: Each needy Syrian refugee family gets a banking card. Family members use it to shop for food at the 450 participating stores and markets; a family of five gets about $135 per month. …

“Many humanitarian groups in Lebanon help with sanitation systems and other in-kind assistance. Many run schools, or provide skills or business training. The cash is intended to address (a little; it’s not really enough to live on) refugees’ most urgent problems: What’s for dinner? Where am I sleeping?

“ ‘There is nothing that could replace cash,’ said Alan Moseley, the Lebanon country director for the International Rescue Committee, a member of the Lebanon Cash Consortium. ‘If we provided shelter materials, clothing, food or direct rent subsidies, it would be more costly to deliver and people would be getting things they don’t necessarily need.’ ”

More.

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You know how once you become aware of a thing, you see it everywhere? That’s what I’ve been experiencing since I learned about how the Providence Granola Project trains refugees on the ins and outs of a food business, acclimating them to the US work culture and helping them develop concrete skills.

Now every few days I seem to read about another food business focused on hiring refugees. Autumn Spanne wrote recently for the Guardian about one in New York that hires refugees who have cooked for large groups (including large families).

“When Manal Kahi arrived in New York from Lebanon two years ago, to pursue a master’s degree in public administration, she longed for authentic hummus, but couldn’t find a restaurant or supermarket that came close to her expectations. So she started making her own, based on a recipe from her Syrian grandmother.

“The recipe was a hit with her friends, and it occurred to Kahi that there might be a successful business in it. The idea also dovetailed with her growing concern about the Syrian refugee crisis. Since the beginning of 2013, the number of Syrian refugees registered worldwide by the United Nations has grown from half a million to more than 5.5 million. …

“Kahi sought a way to help. She decided to start a social enterprise designed to help refugees from all over the world get established in their new country and provide New Yorkers a positive entry point for interacting with the city’s refugee community. Kahi’s efforts put the spotlight on the role business has to play in the refugee crisis, and whether there’s a need for new approaches to help recently arriving refugees integrate and become self-sustaining.”

In January, “Kahi and her brother launched Eat Offbeat, a for-profit meal delivery startup that employs recently resettled refugees from around the world as chefs who prepare traditional dishes from their countries of origin. The main prerequisite is that they enjoy cooking and have had experience cooking for groups – even if that just means extended family. …

“The goal, said Kahi, is twofold: help refugees get a foothold in the US, and ‘change the narrative around refugees.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Eva Cruz/Eat Offbeat  
Potato kibbeh is one of the dishes on the Eat Offbeat menu.

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It seemed clear from the start that the refugee job-training company Providence Granola Project was onto something.

Now I’m realizing that related concepts can spring up independently in other places. Maybe there should be a trade group.

Check out this story about a food-delivery business in New York that hires refugees.

Autumn Spanne writes at the Guardian, “When Manal Kahi arrived in New York from Lebanon two years ago, to pursue a master’s degree in public administration, she longed for authentic hummus, but couldn’t find a restaurant or supermarket that came close to her expectations. So she started making her own, based on a recipe from her Syrian grandmother.

“The recipe was a hit with her friends, and it occurred to Kahi that there might be a successful business in it. The idea also dovetailed with her growing concern about the Syrian refugee crisis. …

“She decided to start a social enterprise designed to help refugees from all over the world get established in their new country and provide New Yorkers a positive entry point for interacting with the city’s refugee community. Kahi’s efforts put the spotlight on the role business has to play in the refugee crisis, and whether there’s a need for new approaches to help recently arriving refugees integrate and become self-sustaining. …

“The result went far beyond hummus. [In January], Kahi and her brother launched Eat Offbeat, a for-profit meal delivery startup that employs recently resettled refugees from around the world as chefs who prepare traditional dishes from their countries of origin. …

“Al Janabi, who uses only her last name out of concern for the safety of family still in Iraq, was one of Eat Offbeat’s first hires. … For months, she was afraid to go anywhere alone. Her first solo trip on the subway was to the Eat Offbeat kitchen in Brooklyn. …

“ ‘I want people in the US to know that refugees have few opportunities here, but we bring our skills with us,’ she said. ‘We come in difficult circumstances.’ …

“Al Janabi and two other refugees from Nepal and Eritrea … learned basic food preparation and hygiene techniques – skills that they can use to get other jobs, or perhaps eventually open their own business, said Kahi.

“ ‘Ultimately we want to change the narrative around refugees, for New Yorkers and the rest of world to see that refugees don’t have to be a burden, they have economic value.’ ” More here.

Photo: Eva Cruz/Eat Offbeat
Potato kibbeh is one of the dishes on the Eat Offbeat menu.

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It’s hard to read about the deprivations of refugees, especially the children and especially in winter. That’s why I appreciate hearing about any kindness extended to them. National Public Radio recently had a story on the kindness of Clowns without Borders.

Laura Secorun-Palet writes, “On a cold November morning, 300 children gather in a soccer field in Zaatari, a Jordanian village next to the country’s largest refugee camp. …

“Today the children are not lining up to collect food coupons or clothes from NGOs: They are here to watch the clowns.

“On the ‘stage’ — a space in front of a velvet curtain covering the goal — a tall, blond woman performs a handstand while doing the splits, while two other performers run around clapping and making funny faces. As the upside-down woman pretends to fall, the children burst into laughter.

“The performers are circus artists from Sweden …

“Clowns Without Borders is a global network of nonprofit organizations that, for the past 20 years, has been spreading laughter in the world’s saddest places. The group’s most recent annual report says more than 385 artists performed 1,164 shows for its chapters in 2012 in 38 countries, both in the developing world and for refugees and other disadvantaged children in Western countries.

” ‘It’s very important to give kids a chance to be kids again,’ explains Lilja Fredriksson, one of the Swedish performers.” More here.

Another way to help refugees is through the wonderful Minneapolis-based nonprofit American Refugee Committee.

Photo: Bilal Hussein/AP
Lebanese clown Sabine Choucair, a member of “Clowns Without Borders,” performs for children in June at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern town of Chtoura, Lebanon.

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In a recent NY Times article, art critic Holland Cotter expressed skepticism that a show of new artists lumped together as “Arab” could work. (Some artists declined to participate for the same  reason.)  The artists in the New Museum exhibit are from “Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention Europe and the United States.”

But in the end, he was thrilled with the opportunity to see the new works.

“It’s a big show, intricately pieced together on all five floors of the museum, and starts on the street-level facade with a large-scale photograph of an ultra-plush Abu Dhabi hotel. The image was installed by the cosmopolitan collective called GCC, made up of eight artists scattered from Dubai to London and New York who make it their business to focus on the preposterous wealth concentrated in a few hands in a few oil-rich countries on the Persian Gulf.”

Cotter goes on to describe many of the pieces in detail, here, and concludes with some advice for visitors.

“To appreciate this show fully, a little homework can’t hurt. But really all you need to do is be willing to linger, read labels and let not-knowing be a form of bliss. In return, you’ll get wonderful artists, deep ideas, fabulous stories and the chance, still too seldom offered by our museums, to be a global citizen. Don’t pass it up.”

The show will be up until September 28.

Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

“Here and Elsewhere” show at the New Museum

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The Arab world is divided on whether Jennifer Grout is an interloper or the reincarnation of their beloved Egyptian chanteuse Umm Kalthoum. Last night she placed third in the Beirut-based “Arabs Got Talent.”

You will be hearing a lot about this young American singer of classical Arabic songs, who is wowing judges without being able to speak a word of Arabic. If nothing else, she is giving the show international recognition. This story is from Agence France Presse (AFP).

Having taught herself to sing “the Arab world’s best-known, most difficult songs,” says AFP, Grout gave contestants in “Arabs Got Talent” a run for their money.

In early December, “Her blonde hair loose and without a sign of make-up, the 23-year-old appeared before a panel of judges to audition for the ‘Arabs Got Talent.’

“When Egyptian film star and panel member Ahmed Helmy asked her in Arabic what her what her name was, she didn’t have a clue what he was saying.

“But then she began to play the oud and sing a classic by Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum, ‘Baeed Annak’ (Far From You).

“She stunned the audience, enunciating every word to perfection as her voice effortlessly navigated the quarter-notes that make Arabic music so distinctive. …

“As a 20-year-old student in Boston, Grout says she ‘came across an online article about Fairouz” [a Lebanese singer often referred to as ambassador to the stars].

” ‘I listened to her and watched a video of her, and I was just really intrigued and mesmerised by her voice. So I decided to start exploring Arabic music more,’ Grout told AFP.”

Read more about her discovery of Arab music and the classical instrument called the oud three years ago and how she ended up competing on a show in Lebanon, here.

Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP
Jennifer Grout, a contestant in the pan-Arab TV show “Arabs Got Talent”, poses for a photo at the MBC television station studios in Zouk Mosbeh, north of Beirut, on December 4, 2013.

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