- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

BEIRUT — Hassan Abou Chaar was demonstrating in Beirut’s Martyrs Square on July 12 to support Palestinians in the Gaza Strip — who were under attack by Israel in retaliation for a soldier’s abduction — when bombs started to fall in Lebanon.

At that moment, Mr. Abou Chaar and fellow activists created Samidoun, an informal collective of secular Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze, who have taken on the task of caring for refugees — mainly poor Shi’ite families — in dozens of emergency shelters in Beirut.

“It seemed important to do something for our own people, too,” said Mr. Abou Chaar, a information-technology specialist for British American Tobacco. “At first there was no work, no school, there was plenty of time.”

“Samidoun,” which is Arabic for “steadfast,” has grown to more than 200 volunteers. They have adopted about 12,000 refugees seeking shelter in schools in the tranquil Sanayah neighborhood in Beirut.

The chaos of war and the paralysis in Lebanon’s government have created an opportunity for divergent strands of Lebanese society to meet.

It is an incongruous mix — with secular and trendy Lebanese from all religious backgrounds, dressed in slacks and T-shirts — helping Shi’ite families, in which loosely fitting black robes cover women from head to toe.

The group coordinates medical aid, food deliveries and clothing donations to Beirut’s swelling refugee population. It also has begun working with established private charities to deliver assistance.

More than 850,000 Lebanese have been displaced in more than two weeks of Israeli attacks, the Lebanese government said yesterday, and an estimated 109,000 are living in schools.

A half-million more are likely living with friends and family, and 210,000 are thought to have fled to neighboring countries.

The displaced families are overwhelmingly poor Shi’ites from the capital’s southern suburbs and the hard-hit villages along Lebanon’s border with Israel.

They are sympathetic to Hezbollah, which in Lebanon is a political party that operates an extensive charity network. In many cases, the refugees have traveled long and hard to reach overcrowded and minimal accommodations in Beirut.

Samidoun volunteers are mostly middle- to upper-class and college-educated, although some refugees also have volunteered.

Many have dual citizenship with Western nations.

At the Ras el Nabeh primary school, home to about 200 people from southern Beirut and southern Lebanon, women in hijab chat quietly in the shade while men smoke and talk in groups.

The arrival of two women in T-shirts carrying pots of rice stirs hunger rather than judgmental stares.

“I feel that people are more open with us than they normally would be,” said Lana el Khalil, 23, who coordinates the medical teams for Samidoun.

She said volunteers usually cover their shoulders when they go to the schools “because now is not the time to impose our culture on them.”

“There is so little judgment now. People are grateful and it’s easier to get to them, and them to know us,” Miss el Khalil said.

Samidoun is housed in a glorious old Beirut home with a peaceful graveled garden.

Volunteers sort mountains of clothes in piles for men, women and children of all sizes.

They coordinate food deliveries, package medical supplies and work their cell phones to seek donations.

Medical and hygiene teams are dispatched to shelters, as are entertainers who dance, paint or play with bored and frightened children.

“So much of the older generation is apathetic, but we have very, very positive energy,” said Miss el Khalil, an art therapist who coordinates the medical teams.

“We don’t say, ‘Death to America,’ we say ‘life.’ ”

At the Ras el Nabeh center, two children, ages 5 and 8, stared at the tight jeans and heavily made-up faces of the female Samidoun volunteers.

“Stop that,” their mother said in Arabic. “They are friends.”

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