Middle East

Volunteering in Dangerous Places: Beirut, Lebanon
Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Without a doubt, Lebanon is one of the most complex countries I’ve visited. On one hand, you have the cosmopolitan capital, complete with a seaside Corniche, trendy restaurants, high-end shopping, and colorful street performers. On the other, Lebanon offers a glimpse of an ancient rural life that still exists throughout much of the Middle East.

About a year and a half ago, I was invited to Beirut to work with the nonprofit organization Baladi. The organization is dedicated to preserving and promoting Lebanon’s heritage to youngsters by encouraging students to learn about their country’s cultural diversity and works to foster mutual understanding between communities. Baladi sees Lebanon’s shared culture as one way to peacefully address regional conflict.

For my Lebanon visit, I accompanied my close Egyptian friend Inji, whom I met volunteering in Cairo the year before. She introduced me to her friends and colleagues in the country. I was most grateful for this personal introduction to a fascinating country.

In addition to the diversity of landscapes, I found the people and the cultures of the region incredibly absorbing (justifying Baladi’s great pride in their indigenous communities). Here’s a snapshot of my impressions during my short time spent in this most remarkable country.

City Life in Beirut

While staying in Beirut, we shuttled between our apartment in the city’s center to the suburban residence of Joanne, Baladi’s founder and CEO. It was here in Joanne’s home that we did the bulk of our volunteer work of providing philanthropic business development and fundraising advice. (Nonprofit development is my profession in the U.S., and I often provide pro bono consulting during my overseas volunteer stints.)

One of the advantages of meeting in a private home is the ability to see a modern-Lebanese lifestyle up-close. Our friend Joanne lived with her extended family in a stylish apartment with sweeping views of the Mediterranean. I got the chance to meet her charming husband and her children.

I especially enjoyed meeting Joanne’s mother. Our conversation was a bit stilted, with Joanne translating for me, but upon my departure she gave me a blessing to protect me during my onward travels. Looking back, I credit these heart-felt good wishes as one reason I survived my 2-year journey relatively unscathed.

As peaceful as the Beirut suburbs are, the reality of the country’s ongoing political conflict is never far away.  During our city stay, there were three incidents that reminded me I was in a country that continues to experience deep and long-running political tension:

  • – After dinner one night, Inji and I were walking back to our apartment we heard a series of loud shots. We were uncertain if the noise was fireworks or gunshots or an incoming missile. We took cover under an apartment overhang, just to be on the safe side.
  • – Driving to meet a potential donor, we made it through the city in record time. The reason? Traffic was light because there was a bomb scare. (I, of course, was wondering why we were still out and about when everyone else had retreated inside.)
  • – While strolling through the winding streets, Inji pointed out the main headquarters of Hezbollah, a Shi’a Islamic militant group and political party which is based in Lebanon. I kept my head down and eyes averted as we walked past the guards stationed outside.

Road-Trip Lebanon

After a few days of intense work, Joanne arranged for several of her Baladi guides to give us a 2-day tour of northern Lebanon as a thank you gift. This was an extraordinarily generous offer, and I cherished the opportunity to be shown the country by these trained historians and local experts. Highlights included:

  • Bekaa Valley:  Here we visited a Druze temple, came across an itinerant Bedouin family living out of a wagon, and hiked through the fertile valley observing the natural wildlife and beauty of this biblical valley.
  • Baalbek: Formerly known as Heliopolis during the Roman period, Baalbek is an extremely well-preserved example of a temple compound from these ancient Roman times. Baalbek is also a Hezbollah stronghold, as evidence from the black flags and pictures of Syrian President Assad lining the streets, political murals on the walls surrounding the Roman ruins, and loudspeakers blaring revolutionary music outside a Lebanese military base.
  • Mount Lebanon: This mountain range which includes the highest mountain in the Middle East is covered in snow 4-6 months out of the year. I admit, I was dumbfounded to still see traces of snow on the ground in June. The mountains are also the known for their famous groves of cedar, Lebanon’s national symbol.
  • Maronite Village: We spent the night here in a village nestled high on the mountains. In the morning we visited several ornate orthodox churches and observed the caves carved into the rugged mountainscape that were sanctuaries for monks seeking complete solitude. With more than 3 million Maronites (about 22% of the population), Lebanon retains a distinctive Maronite character.
  • Tripoli: The country’s second largest city, Tripoli was founded as long ago at 12th century B.C. and has a large Sunni majority (as evidenced by the preponderance of abayas and head scarves worn by the women).  It was here that I had the best meal of my entire 2-year trip, a hand-made feast of full of lively mint and lemon flavors.

Quintessential Volunteer Experience

Even though the country might be in the midst of fluctuating degrees of conflict and unrest, it still provided me with a wonderful volunteer experience.  In fact, as I look back, my quick trip to Lebanon was the ultimate volunteer experience, affording me the opportunity to:

  • – Do some good by lending my business development skills to a worthwhile nonprofit doing important work on conflict reconciliation in the region.
  • – Visit and learn about a country I wouldn’t have necessarily traveled to on my own.
  • – Benefit from a personal tour of the country to see first-hand the richness of the culture and the physical beauty of the landscape.
  • – Make friends with local Lebanese, providing me with a window into their lives and some insight on the challenges they experience each day.
  • – Push my limits of where I felt comfortable in terms of physical safety and erode some lingering stereotypes about Arab countries.

Volunteering in Lebanon opened up a new frontier for me and helped me put into context the struggles that we hear so much about through the news. I consider myself truly lucky to have had this wonderful volunteer experience.

To read more about volunteering and travel in Lebanon, check out the following articles:

A former finance executive, Erin Michelson is now an “Adventure Philanthropist,” who recently completed a two-year global giving adventure, visiting all 7 continents and exploring 60 countries. Volunteering with global non-profit organizations along the way, Erin helped build a house in the Philippines, a well in rural Uganda, and a library in northern Laos, sponsored secondary school education for a young woman in India and helped provide self-defense training for young girls in Israel.  Read more about her experiences on Go Erin Go or follow her on Twitter @GoErinGo.

Photo credits: Lebnen18, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

Photo Friday: Beirut, Lebanon
Friday, April 1st, 2011

Religion in Lebanon

In all of the countries I’ve traveled to, Lebanon produced the most contrasts and confusion. Whether you are there to enjoy the beaches of the Mediterranean, the cosmopolitan nightlife and shopping of Beirut, or the beautiful hiking on the Lebanon Hiking Trail – you can’t avoid the religious contrasts that are woven so deeply into this country.

Unlike the rest of the Middle East, all religions are represented, lending way to many scenes like this one where churches and Mosques are placed right next to each other. Even after a month in Lebanon, I still just scratched the surface of history, culture, and understanding.

You can follow more of Sherry’s adventures in the Middle East through her Volunteer Chronicles.

Photo Friday: Birthday Guest
Friday, March 25th, 2011

Birthday Guest

In Beirut everything is done with flare – even birthdays. While I was volunteering there I was showered with attention from the Lebanese and their ‘guest culture’.

However, nothing prepared me for the attention I received on my birthday. My host family threw me a party and invited family and friends; people who I had just briefly met in the short time I had been staying in Lebanon via GeoVisions. Not only did they provide fireworks, but each of them gave me presents. It was as if I had known them all for 12 years, not 12 days.

You can follow more of Sherry’s adventures in the Middle East through her Volunteer Chronicles.

Be Our Guest
Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

The first night in Lebanon I mentioned to my host mother, Mira, that I needed to find a place the next day to buy some shampoo and toothpaste. “Ok, no problem.” She said.

Host Family in LebanonThe next morning I woke up, opened my door and went down the hallway to the kitchen to find Mira. She wasn’t in the kitchen; instead she was at the front door where a man was delivering groceries to her. After greeting her with “good morning,” she handed me a bottle of shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste, saying “these are for you.”

I was a little stunned, as I hadn’t asked her to buy me these products – I just mentioned that I needed to buy them. But she wouldn’t take any money and insisted I take them. This was my first experience of what it was like to be a guest in Lebanon.

Guest culture is a very important piece of Lebanese culture and it took some getting used to as an American. Over the next month I learned that this also took on a traditional form of ‘volunteering’. Lebanese regularly help their relatives, friends, and neighbors without expectation of direct compensation, financial or otherwise. This provides them with a mutual aid network in which they do not necessarily reciprocate help to the person who helped them. Rather, the expectation is to reciprocate by helping others within their network.


Photo Friday: Zahle, Lebanon
Friday, March 18th, 2011

Zahle, Lebanon

Somehow Lebanon feels like it shouldn’t be considered the Middle East – probably because of vista’s like this one. It really goes to show you that you shouldn’t make assumptions…especially when traveling! I traveled high up into the hills to capture this view of the town of Zahle. Zahle is just one of the many fascinating towns near Arcenciel in Taanayel – the organization I wrote about on Wednesday.

While volunteering, you often have time to get out and explore your surroundings. Many times the locals are excited to show you their home and lord knows I never would have found this view on my own. Thanks to my ‘tour guide’ a local while in Zhale who was more than eager to show me around!

In addition to her Volunteer Chronicles on Briefcase to Backpack, Sherry gets more in depth on her personal blog, OttsWorld. Check out updates from this week:

Volunteering Reality: Lebanon
Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

I arrived in Lebanon in order to try out another one of GeoVisions cultural volunteering programs – Conversation Partner. Having spent the last month in Jordan doing the Conversation Corps program, I was excited to try out something new – something that felt a little more like volunteering. Conversation Partner programs vary depending on the country you are in – but the general idea is:

Conversation Partners speak conversational English to tourist police officers, hotel staff, local business professionals, teachers, tour guides and more. You do not need to have teaching experience to be a Conversation Partner. You just need to meet with your group each day (between 15 and 20 hours each week) and converse in English with them. It’s fun and rewarding. You might live with a family, or in a dorm or a hotel. Still, we provide most meals and a safe and comfortable place to stay.


In Lebanon I lived with a family and helped them occasionally with English as they were always curious about certain English idioms and vocabulary; try explaining the term “Soap Opera”! I also enjoyed helping them with their pronunciation and their American accent. However, tutoring the family wasn’t the purpose of my trip, it was to tutor students. I had been told that as part of the Conversation Partner program in Lebanon I would be sharing my language and cultural knowledge up to 20 hours per week Monday to Friday with the students getting ready to travel to the US on a summer work and travel program.

This sounded great in theory…


Photo Friday: Puppy Love in Jordan
Friday, February 25th, 2011

boy and puppy

Everyone lives in Peace...even the animals

This will bring a smile to your Friday!  Who doesn’t love kids and puppies?  This Photo Friday comes from Sherry’s visit to the Schneller School in Amman, Jordan  where they teach “Everyone Lives in Peace” between the different cultures and religions. In addition they even encourage the animals and humans to live in peace together!

The boarding school grounds has an animal ‘farm’ so that the students learn to care for animals and treat them with respect. The young boys were taking care of chickens, donkeys, dogs, and these new puppies as I walked around the campus. They were eager to show me the puppies and of course I was eager to hold the little pup!

In addition to her Volunteer Chronicles on Briefcase to Backpack, Sherry gets more in depth on her personal blog, OttsWorld. Check out updates from this week:

Volunteering Isn’t Just Teaching English
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

schneller school Jordan

Students at the Schneller School in Amman Jordan

Are you fed up with the fact that most volunteer experiences are for teaching English? Do you have a fear about past participles, adverbs of frequency and conditional phrases? I think most native speakers of English are a bit intimidated to actually teach English and I don’t blame them – we don’t know grammar rules, we just speak!

When I started to look into volunteering opportunities as part of my career break travels I found it frustrating that most of the opportunities seemed to be in the English language area. Yet as a career breaker and a former IT business manager with an MBA – I kept thinking that I could be utilized in a better way than to simply teach English. I hunted for organizations that would actually look at my business experience and work experience and try to put it to use. But alas, there aren’t really many of these types of opportunities and the ones which are available are harder to find.

One of the things that attracted me to GeoVisions was not only the Conversation Corps cultural exchange programs, but also the fact that in some of their destinations they were going beyond teaching English and trying to find other ways to use volunteer’s skills in their Volunteer Abroad Options:

  • Medical/Health work – Cambodia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Argentina
  • Land Conservation – Australia, Costa Rica, New Zealand
  • Wildlife Work – Mozambique, South Africa, Costa Rica
  • Humantarian Work – Brazil, Thailand, Costa Rica, South America (teaching computers, working with orphans and kids)

And in the Middle East, they are just starting to provide a great array of opportunities which have nothing to do with English teaching. I’ve been lucky enough to go visit some of them in Jordan and Lebanon as they start to get off the ground.

One of my recent visits was to the Schneller School in East Amman. The school is essentially a boarding school for orphans, refugee children, or kids with extremely difficult family situations. There are currently about 300 students living on the campus including 15 girls; the addition of girls are relatively new to the program.

The vision and value of the school is clear as you walk throughout the grounds. It’s about bringing people together in peaceful co-existence and respect. They accomplish this by intermixing the kids and religions showing them that differences aren’t a bad thing.

Photo Friday: Schneller School for Orphans
Friday, February 11th, 2011

Schneller School for Orphans

This Photo Friday is from Sherry Ott, who volunteered in Jordan last month with GeoVisions.

New cultures can be hard to decipher when you travel. During my time in the Middle East, I’m constantly challenged with understanding religious culture and Arabic culture. One of the highlights of my time in Jordan was a visit to the Schneller School for Orphans.

Located in East Amman, the school has been in operation since 1959 and is teaching students how to all get along despite cultural differences. This photo is a view of the school’s hallway; they support various religions and most importantly they teach tolerance and understanding. Their motto is “Learning to Live in Peace”.

GeoVisions will be announcing some new, exciting volunteer opportunities with the Schneller school; then you too can have the opportunity to live in this educational environment and be a part of that peace.

In addition to her Volunteer Chronicles on Briefcase to Backpack, Sherry gets more in depth on her personal blog, OttsWorld. Check out updates from this week:

Want to see your photo here? Join our Facebook Fan Page and upload your career break photo onto our Wall. Add a brief description & we may choose to feature it here!

Photo Friday: Tree of Life
Friday, January 28th, 2011

Tree of Life

This Photo Friday is from Sherry Ott, who is volunteering in Jordan this month with GeoVisions.

The Tree of Life is often depicted throughout Jordan. I happened to find this ‘real’ Tree of Life at Wadi Feynan on a sunset hike. As the sun goes down across the wadi, the sun perfectly illuminated the tree putting the perfect end to a cultural day. The landscapes in the area around Feynan are stunning and if you are interested in volunteering here, you could be wowed by scenes like this every day!

In addition to her Volunteer Chronicles on Briefcase to Backpack, Sherry gets more in depth on her personal blog, OttsWorld. Check out updates from this week:

Want to see your photo here? Join our Facebook Fan Page and upload your career break photo onto our Wall. Add a brief description & we may choose to feature it here!

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