The construction of the Jarahieh School marked a turning point for CatalyticAction. We faced various obstacles over the five month period, and overcoming them together strengthened us as a team. Almost five years on, I want to share some key moments on this building project and my memories of being so warmly welcomed into the community within Jarahieh Informal Tented Settlement (ITS).
The Jarahieh School was built by adaptively reusing a pavilion donated by Save the Children Italy, shipped to Lebanon from its original location at the 2015 Milan Expo. By repurposing the pavilion, we created a new school with bright and naturally lit classrooms, as well as dedicated spaces for recreation. This redevelopment created a stimulating environment for children who have to endure life within the harsh conditions of a refugee informal tented settlement. As a space of safety, it also provides children with the opportunity to grow and develop confidence.
The construction phase of the project took place in Al-Marj, where our team rented a shared apartment for the duration of the build. We spent our days on site working from early morning until sunset. As the school had to be ready in time for the new Academic year, there was no time for delays. A tight schedule, and a tight budget, were just some of the challenges that we faced along the way. Yet, with the help of a strong and resourceful construction team, we were able to work together and finish the project on time.
We wanted everyone to feel welcome during the construction process, and over the course of the project the site became a social space where friendships formed as problems were solved together on a daily basis. The construction team was made up of local labourers from the ITS – some were skilled workers and others were residents who simply wanted to learn and earn some money to support their families. Some stayed throughout the whole process, while others just participated a few days a week. Either way, people wanted to get involved and somehow the process of building together felt therapeutic, as it brought different people from the ITS together to collaborate on a common goal.
While activity centred around the construction site, throughout the project we were welcomed by the community and made to feel a part of their everyday lives. We were invited to weddings and holiday celebrations, and on a sadder occasion the funeral of an old woman we’d got to know over a daily cup of tea. Milestones in the construction process were often celebrated by the whole community, whether they were building with us or not. At moments when extra help was needed, some people would show up even just for a few hours. It was these interactions and the amazing people that participated in the project that ensured the school was ready in time for opening, but more importantly that made the end product something that felt truly collaborative. 5 years on, we’re still in touch with many of the team. While some people have returned to Syria, we stay in touch via Whatsapp video calls.
News of the school construction process also spread to neighbouring towns. Our search for sheep’s wool to insulate it had ensured that most of the farms within a 10km radius knew about the project and what seemed like a crazy idea to buy 2000kg of wool.
We were also on the look out for second-hand corrugated sheets to build the facade of the school as the remaining budget was very limited. Funnily enough, what initially seemed like a strange request to the residents of the ITS, gained traction as they went to purchase the same sheets to fix their own tents.
Towards the end of the project, I was invited to spend a night in the house of one of the men we’d been building with since day one. He lived just 20 steps away from the construction site with his parents and siblings. It was October so the subia (stove) was turned on. I shared a meal with his family as we tried to communicate with one another. After eight months on the construction site in Lebanon, I was able to talk only about building tools and materials linked to the project. Yet, luckily my vocabulary was enough to have a friendly chat and a few good laughs. The next day, 20 steps and we were back at the site for the final touches. In September 2021, it will be five years since the construction of the school. I am really pleased to say that it is still operating at full capacity and that our time working with the community in Jarahieh had a positive impact.
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