French freelance journalist with Lebanese origins, I covered stories for one year in Spain during the economical crisis, before settling in Niamey, Niger, for one year, during the war in Mali. I am now back to my roots in Lebanon. I am passionate about unbreaking news, long-term human reports, telling stories which embodie a social, political or cultural trend. But I also regularly cover breaking news for French and Swiss press.
"Reverse mobility", says Kasimis Charalambos, specialist of the Greek rural world, when asked about the current movement of "return to the land" that turns thousands of Greek city-dwellers into farmers or olive producers. Since the end of the civil war in 1949, the Greek rural world experienced an exodus and Athens, a once 200.000 inhabitant's city, now gathers almost half of the 11,23 million's national population. "A tool of resilience against the crisis", adds Karina Benessaiah, who writes a Phd on the issue. Indeed, since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, more than 600 000 jobs were destroyed in the country, mainly in Athens, where unemployment, combined with increased taxes and raising daily costs, turned life into a never-ending nightmare. Suicide rate have dangerously increased and the Neo-nazi party Golden Dawn, whose members are whether in jail or in trial, is the third party of the capital, since the municipal elections that were held in May. "I want to leave the city to be free and human again", endeavors Giorgia, unemployed for 2 years, from a piece of land located in Nea Makri and owned by the collective Nea Guinea, which provides trainings to city-dwellers eager to live a sustainable and self-managed life. "This field, at a one-hour-distance from Athens, is a bridge between Athenians and the rural world, a laboratory to succeed in the hard process of going back to working and living of the land", explains Fotini, founder of Nea Guinea, who will move in Nea Makri for good in September. For Dimitris and Penelope, Athens is already an old souvenir. They swapped their urban lifestyle in the beginning of the crisis for the tough adventure of the rural world in Pelion, at five-hours-distance from Athens. In spite of many sacrifices and efforts, they are happy to live among olives, apple trees, homeopathic plants and wild pigs. For them, more than an economic opportunity, returning to the land was also a way to live a more sustainable life and to take their distance with the Greek political system that they find illegitimate. Agriculture may be a tool of resilience, but it will not be enough to solve the economic crisis, in a country where more than half of the youth is unemployed.
"Agriculture won't be able to absord all the people affected by the crisis", ponders Kasimis Charalambos. "Until now, the State did not do anything to guide this movement of return to the land. A program was announced to give land to the new rurals a few years ago, but nothing happened", regrets the researcher. Returning to the land is in any case a provisional relief. But to become a real alternative for Greek city-dwellers affected by the crisis, it may need a stronger public support.
For 20 years, Giorgia worked as a secretary in a law office. Unemployed for two years, she only finds offers to work for 400€/month, 6 days on 7. "As an unemployed, I even have to pay charges to the State, and I don't receive anything. We feel like thieves, as if we would have to pay back something we robbed. But the only who robbed were the banks!", she denounces. Recently, the Greek vice-minister of Justice brought in a bill proposing to lock up until one year in jail any citizen who would not be able to pay a debt over 5000 euros to the Greek State after 4 months. "Nea Guinea is our way to do the revolution against the system of austerity and neoliberalism. But instead of fighting against police like the anarchists, we do concrete and everyday actions. From housing to energy, health to food, we propose to the Athenians an alternative, sustainable and self-managed way to live, without having debts to pay to a State that we don't trust anymore", abounds Fotini.
Yannis and Maria followed a training of beekeeping in Athens. They are excited to be able to implement it in Nea Makri. "Today, we will release them for the first time", says Maria, anxious. Honey, olive oil, mastic or snails are products of niche that many Greek city-dwellers choose to produce while going back to the land. Mixing tradition and modernity, they apply their own taste and marketing knowledge to ancestral cultures.
"We were cultivating our own vegetables for a few years on the roof of our building. But last year, Yannis and I followed the training of Nea Guinea on plants and herbs. Click! We began to really think about changing our way of life and going back to the rural world", explains Giorgia, while snatching the weeds of a piece of land in Nea Makri, a small village one hour distant from Athens. Every sunday since one year, Giorgia, Yannis, Maria and Ana, who all met during Nea Guinea's trainings, were able to come here and put into practice their lessons. "Before that, we would do any old thing. Now we have a clear idea of what would imply living from the land", says the Greek woman, enthusiastic.
"The return to the land is positive in the short term; life is easier and cheaper in the province than in Athens, and cultivating the land is a proactive way to react to the loss of a job or the closure of a company. But on the long term, it is not clear yet if people will manage to earn a living with that", confesses Karina Benessaiah. Penelope does not look for benefits. For her, the return to the land must go with a renewed economic system. "I swap my creams and oils against services with the local community. And I sell my fruits and vegetables in an independant market in Volos, the nearest big city, that was created by an anarchist squat for ecological producers. But here, I don't need a lot to live."
Back in her house, Penelope picks some Malva, let her chicken out from his house, in the back of the garden. A big dog is at the entrance, "vital to chase wild pigs", she precises. "For one year, we lived here with a friend without water and electricity. Now things are easier. But my friends are still scared to visit, because they are scared of loosing the confort of the city. Still, when I go back to Athens, every body tells me how he envies me and which he could do it. So why don't they do it?!"
"The return to the land is a proteiform movement", explains Karina Benessaiah, who writes a Phd on the issue. Some of the Greek go back to working the land because of economic necessity, but some aloso do it for convictions, others to open a business based on a product of niche, in reaction to the fall of other sectors such as real estate or finance." According to her, this movement goes beyond the frontier between rural and urban world. "Athenian had always kept a link of identity with the rural world. Now they develop a link of production with the land, which is also a great tool of resilience in a time of economic despair." Penelope explains that her choice was mainly guided by her convictions. "I can't change the world, but I can change my life and inspire the life of others", she says, full of optimism.
"Hypericum is great to appease stings or wounds", she explains, fliting around the bushes, her wicker basket in hand. "I learned a lot about homeopathic plants with my mother, who is from Crete. It is a tradition there. But since I live here, I had the opportunity to really deepen and experiment this savoir-faire", she says. "The return to the land is a return to the tradition, as well as a post-modern phenomena", confirms Kasimis Charalambos.
Penelope is able to recognize a handle of 'hypericum' in the middle of the bush of Pelion, to name any plant and flower of the forest in latin and to prepare a cream with it, that will enhance its homeopathic virtues. Still, this radiant 40-years-old Greek lived in Athens most of her life. Five years ago, she decided to replace her urban life for a more natural one. After the death of her father, she sold his flat and bought a piece of land in the middle of the forest of Pelion. To reach the first village, Neochori, she needs to drive for 15 minutes on a stony road, with an old and undeclared Citroën. For her, Pelion is the place "where dreams come true."
In the midst of an economic crisis in which Greece lost more than 600.000 jobs, 40.000 agriculture jobs were created between 2009 and 2011! “The rural world resists better than other sectors of the Greek economy. It progressively turns into a refuge and a laboratory of ideas for many city-dwellers, who head for it, by necessity or choice”, claims Kasimis Charalambos. Every choice comes with sacrifices. Dimitris knows it all too well: “The first thing you lose by leaving the city are your social relations. I broke up with my girlfriend because of the distance. Here, you need to be stable not to go mad after two months!” he warns. "Still, whenever a client tells me that my olives are the best he ever tasted, all my efforts are rewarded!"
“The movement of return to the land is possible because of the late urbanization of Greece”, underlines Kasimis Charalambos, from his desk of researcher in the University of agriculture of Athens. “Almost every Greek has kept a piece of land in his village of origin”, he adds. Dimitris lives in the house built by his grand-father and works the field that the latter bought decades ago. In spite of this support, it is only now, after five years of continuous efforts, that he sees the end of the tunnel: “This winter will be decisive; my production will be certified ecologic, I will be able to raise the price. Until now, between the price of tools, the rent of the new lands I bought and the salary of the workers, I did not earn anything. Still, I work between 12 to 16 hours every day during the winter!”
Producing olives was a dream of childhood. Every summer, Dimitris would spend his holidays in his grand-father and uncle’s fields in Pelion. To make this dream come true, he studied agronomy in Athens. But “theory and practice are two different worlds. After my first day of work, I told to my uncle that I understood now why people left the village to live in Athens!”, he laughs. But now his body is shaped to hard work and, fortunately, he can rely on Leonardo, a strong Albanese who works in the Greek lands since he turned 13.
Dimitris, 32, spent his youth fighting against Greek police in the streets of Exarchia, Athens’ anarchist neighborhood. When the 16-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos was killed by an armed policeman in 2008, the whole city became inflamed. “For two month, I didn’t sleep; Athens looked like under a civil war. But I was mature enough to come here and start my life again. First I felt guilty towards my friends, but now I know that I took the right decision”, says the apple and olive producer in his field of apple trees in Pelion, a natural paradise in the north of Athens.
While men are building the camp, settling electricity and wood-burning stoves, women take care of their youngest children and prepare food. Most of the families don't have any home to come back to. Should they have to stay in Lebanon, their children's education would be the only way for them to obtain a decent life. This mother's girl is going to a vocational training of nursing in Halba. She hopes her daughter will be able to work soon.
While children are at school in the camp, teenagers are building a house for a Lebanese family next to the camp, where they have to rent the field to its owner: "They don't pay us for this work. Because we are Syrians!", explains one of the worker, a former farmer who shows pictures of his house in Qusayr, full of cows and goats on his phone, with a melancolic smile.
Food, shelter, money for clothes... Education is not on the top list of priorities for many refugee families who have to struggle in their everyday life. Investing money to register their children at school is sometimes impossible in these conditions.
Young children are the most able to learn foreign languages, and thus to integrate the Lebanese school system. According to the minister of Education, 40 000 Syrian children follow the morning shift and 45 000 the second shift, in the afternoon, of the Lebanese school system. "But because of the language, many children enter a grade much below their real level. I saw a Syrian girl who repeated her grade for the third consecutive year because of English. The Lebanese system lacks of flexibility", affirms Maha Shuayb, director of the Center for Lebanese Studies, specialized in education.
In the camp near Halba, the Syrian community built everything, from the school to the tents. They are now extending it with six new small houses to face winter. For the children and teenagers working in construction, Relief&Reconciliation is beginning a program of extra tutoring, to avoid their definitive removal from school.
In Meshmesh, an isolated village near the Syrian border, the volunteer of Relief&Reconciliation teach French and English in a school without heating where children can hardly concentrate because of the cold. One of them smiles as he just received his certificate of French. But at 15 years old, he says he will not join the Lebanese school, because he needs to work to help his family to survive.
Mustapha was a teacher in Qusayr. Long enough to design books and exercise books for the children of the camp. Here, Syrians did not wait for NGO’s: since they arrived in Lebanon two years ago, they built two school classes in the camp. All their children get up at 8 am to sing their lesson in Arabic or memorize mathematic rules.
The first barrier for Syrian education is language: “Syrian children - especially those above 12 years old- face challenges as they would be completely adapted to the Syrian curriculum- when studying the Lebanese curriculum. In Syria, all subjects are taught in Arabic while either French or English are the language of instruction in Lebanon”, explains Aseel Jammal Caballero, from UNHCR. In the camp, young children learn very fast, according to their French and English volunteer teachers. But the older ones usually have to help adults to work, in construction for boys, nurse or couture for girls.
“Most of the children had to walk for more than 15km under the bombing of Assad’s regime from Qusayr to Arsal, in Lebanon”, explains Friedrich Bokern, founder of Relief&Reconciliation.
Just before arriving to Halba, the capital of Akkar, the car of the French volunteer teacher from Relief&Reconciliation turns left. Among the agricultural fields, a Syrian camp have been settled to host hundreds of families from Qusayr and Homs. Every day, the children receive French and English lessons for free from the NGO's teachers.
Two Syrian doctors who are participating in the training. The oath of the UOSSM states "I swear to God that I will fulfil, according to my strength and capacity, the following commitments: I will give the necessary treatment to my friend as to my enemy, by preserving him from death and disease, from pain and anxiety. I will preserve the secrets and intimacy of each one, while ensuring to stay fair and honest. I will always try to develop my science and to use it wisely. I will be loyal to my profession and will respect my colleagues, and God is testimony of the present oath."
During the five days of training, the Syrian doctors experienced their training model die several times. Unable to give him oxygen or to detect a diagnosis, they felt powerless in front of the poor mannequin. It is uncertain how many times they had the same feeling during the battle of Qusayr, unable to save a wounded person because there were too many to attend to, or because of the lack of material.
Dr. Amer Kabakibo, left, explains that UOSSM already organised six war medicine trainings inside Syria and Turkey. This training is the second to take place in Lebanon. 300 trained doctors are now able to use war medicine techniques in the Syrian conflict. Last year, the retired French war doctor Raphael Pitti decided to created the UOSSM. Considering the situations the Syrian doctors were dealing with to save people's lives in the midst of the Syrian war, he decided to give them the tools to work with to counter their situation of minimum availability of material and workforce. After the training, they will return to their job in Arsal's hospital. But some of them say they could go back to Syria to exercise the techniques that they have learned during the training.
An old Syrian suffering from LUNG diseaseis now bedridden in Arsal's hospital. He lives in the Syrian camp of the city, among thousands of refugees. A cold wind sweeps the Bekaa valley and announces a hard winter for the Syrian families living in tents in the refugee camps of Lebanon.
The hospital of Arsal, set up in a mosque, has three surgical unit. But the lack of material is a constant worry. Last month, tens of Syrians suffering from severe burns after a bombing attack came from the Syrian city of Qalamoun to be cured in Arsal.
For two years, the doctors from Qusayr were forced to work in secret. Dr. Hassan explains that their clandestine hospital in Qusayr was discovered five times, and bombed by the regime. According to the Human Rights Watch, the Syrian regime commited war crimes during the battle of Qusayr, which ended in June 2013, and didn't allow doctors to cure civilians and NGOs to help the population during the confrontation.
There are 40,000 Lebanese residents and 35,000 Syrian refugees in Arsal. The area, in the middle of the pro-Hezbollah region of the Bekaa is sympathetic to the Syrian rebels . As a result, Arsal suffers from isolation. The UOSSM trainers express that it is very difficult to transfer medical materials to Arsal and to transfer a patient from Arsal to another region of Lebanon.
For five days, doctors train on how to treat a patient suffering from burns, how to save someone from under the rubbles after a bomb or shelling, and how to recognize the symptoms of a chemical attack among other techniques. Here, one of the doctors is learning how to give oxygen to a patient whose lips were burnt after an explosion.
After the workshops, the doctors organized a debriefing, where they spoke about what they have been through in Qusayr. On the right, Bassem has witnessed his friends and cousins die because of the bombs. Mohammad, a young nurse, lost 50 kg in the army, before escaping to Arsal. All of them remained in Qusayr as long as they could to try and save some lives.
*The names have been modified
Commenting on the oath of UOSSM Dr.Kabakibo says "When you see your sister raped, your best friend die in front of you or your neighbourhood destroyed, it is hard to bear this oath in mind. That's why it's crucial to insist on its values every day." Here, the doctors learn how to take an injured person out of a car without worsening his state.
According to Dr.Amer Kabakibo, who is one of the trainers at UOSSM, war medicine has nothing in common with general medicine. In the trainings the participants learn the four steps of war medicine: 1) Checking the vital functions 2) How to position the patient and to procure him oxygen 3) Make a complete diagnosis 4) Treat after diagnosis. One of the features of the UOSSM's training is the oath put up on the walls. "I shall give the necessary treatment to my friend as to my enemy, preserving him from death and disease, from pain and anxiety". The text, a humanist reminder in an ocean of hatred.
Dr. Hassan was an anesthetist in Qusayr. When the confrontation between the rebels and the regime, assisted by Hezbollah, took place and became too violent, he had to walk 40 km to Arsal. "I saw my best friend die in front of my eyes during our escape. Here, I can only pay my 200 dollars rent." My family remained in Syria. "There is no way I will quit smoking", he jokes, after being lectured by the others for smoking inside.
Behind him, Dr. Quassim, who is the founder of the hospital, in Arsal.
In Syria, most of the experienced doctors have fled to make use of their skills elsewhere from the very beginning of the conflict, leading to the general practitioners and young nurses being responsible for the health of millions. The doctors and nurses who remained in Qusayr during the battle of June 2013 had to flee to Arsal after surviving terrible events. Here, they opened a hospital to treat Syrian refugees who crossed the Syrian/Lebanese border. During the training sessions, they practice war medicine techniques on a model.
From the 17th till the 22th of October, 16 doctors and 16 nurses are learning about war medicine in Arsal, a Lebanese city bordering Syria. The training is organized by the Union of Syrian Organizations of Medical Aid (UOSSM), created in France and present in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. Here, one of the trainers prepares a workshop, in the last floor of an unfinished building, used as a training center.
Biba would like to know what happened to her father, who died 40 days after her birth in 1986. He spent 10 years driving trucks in Somair, Areva's uranium mine of Arlit.
Three former workers of Areva's uranium mine in Arlit. On the foreground, Mamane Sani, a quarry worker for twenty years, is today paralyzed down his left side.
An ice-cream seller below a white neon in Niamey. Without electricity, ice-cream is an utopia and his fridge is empty.