Offre Joie (Offering Joy)
Diala Gemayel - 22/06/2010
In order to get a more vivacious idea, one has to listen to Melhem Khalaf, vice-president and cofounder of the first hour, recounting the beginnings of an extraordinary adventure in the sad, trivialised, ordinary horror of war. “I come from a generation of ten years of conflict from whom childhood was stolen in 1985”, he begins, with an even and smiling voice. During this period, it used to take a whole day to travel 100 km. And as the following years have proven, we only had one goal: how to say no to war and how to bring the Lebanese together when you’re an adolescent? The only thing that was attainable was first of all to organise holiday camps and then to take the symbolism of Beirut into consideration.” 117 children of all confessions replied to the call. “We have collected tents, mattresses and buses for travelling and we were 33 young people to reflect on resolving the crucial issue of food. After having emptied our pockets and our heads, we were only three left around the table. One of us suggested asking each one of our mothers to ensure a meal per day for the 15 days planned… And that’s when we have seen that solidarity was possible: we have provided not less than five meals a day and we still had things left to eat!”
This is when Offre Joie started to deliver its message: a united, plural, free and just Lebanon. Among its borders but also beyond, in countries hosting exiled Lebanese such as France where Melhem Karam pursued his studies in 1987. “I saw that very often my compatriots carried their political party or their confession with them but not the idea of a country. In Montpellier, where I was staying, I encouraged people to send donations without considering religion or region. That is when the Association met Father Jean Rouquette. I told him about the incredible but successful organisation of our holiday camp and he told me: “If what you’re saying is true, I then have a debt of happiness towards Lebanon where I went in 1962. The monk committed himself by coming to Lebanon to join us each year, gathering funds in France, thanks to which the Association has been materially established in the two countries.”
The aims and principles were clearly established. The main concern of Melhem Khalaf and his friends was to make these same principles real through attitude. Apparently, this has remained in the dazzled memories of many participants. “In 1990, we have organised a 17 day itinerary camp. 1200 children have participated, surrounded by 350 counsellors, remembers our interlocutor with a tangible emotion. Offre Joie had become an expectation for people who desired to express themselves, to get some air”. 1991: end of the war in Lebanon and the second founding step for the Association: working holidays. “The children present at the holiday camps had grown up and wanted to do something else. They were the ones who pushed us to action.” These young people are committed to public space, public property through the activity of cleaning one of the country’s lakes. “From this first experience, we have learned to overcome our mistakes and to insist, thereafter, on the essential fact that youngsters were replying by a full commitment to a leisure activity aiming at public interest.” Once these persons were committed, not less than 35 companies supported the activity financially or by providing equipment. They have rolled up their sleeves for what Melhem Khalaf calls with deep admiration “the Offre Joie incubator working camp”: an abandoned school, dating to 1837 in the village of Kfifane has been given to the association for a 43 year lease.
“It’s a centre built by youth for youth and it’s our holiday camp centre”.
1999: Offre Joie organises the first off-site holiday camp for juvenile delinquents in collaboration with the UPEL (Union for the Protection of Lebanese children). “A new step, that of working with prisons has been taken”, rejoices Melhem Khalaf.
Thanks to schoolchildren’s donations, the Prisoners’ Pullover’s activity enables to distribute 3 to 4000 pullovers annually in 18 prisons in Lebanon.
Offre Joie’s third founding stone: the rehabilitation of the Baal Darawich district, a disadvantaged area in Tripoli in 2002. “We have discovered this grinding poverty while we were trying to replace parts of the appliances needed for the Kfifane site and for which someone had recommended an address in the district, tell us the vice president. We were dumbfounded in front of such insalubrities when we were accosted by a cry of joy: “I recognise you, you are from Farah al Ata’ (Offre joie)!” It was Hammoudi who had participated to one of the holiday camps. In a minute, we were surrounded by a crowd of people to whom our friend wanted to introduce us at all costs. Without consulting each other, we knew what we were going to do. Offre Joie was embarked in the project of repainting the buildings. The municipality of Tripoli, dumbfounded by the presence of these youngsters who were actively supported by the inhabitants, decided to act. “Our small team of 80 persons together with the municipal employees became one of 200 workers, supported by the Association’s volunteer engineers and the tractors provided by the public office of the Northern City.
Finally, 80 building were entirely repainted, without counting the renovation of the drainage system, the electricity restructuring, the reinstallation of water in all storeys and the creation of a playground and a public garden”. All this in a matter of a few weeks.
Melhem Khalef has tens of similar stories to tell. The signposts relocated in the South after the withdrawal of the occupying army in 2000, the mobilization in Beirut during the 2006 war or taking care of children from Nahr el-Bared in 2008. In 2008, 31 peace initiatives including a string of peace made up of 1000 people in downtown and then on the 22nd November, the last day of Emile Lahoud’s mandate, Offre Joie was the only association present to open the chicane heart of Beirut, a highly symbolic act. “The Lebanon that lives together exists,” says Melhem Khalef. We are committed in a society with simplicity, authenticity and free of charge, without any discrimination”. That is the hope of a Lebanese citizen who has not had his last word.
Translated into English by Elizabeth Grech