BEIRUT, Lebanon — A visit to Gift and Thrift Shop in Virginia, one of Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) 108 thrift shops, was a revelation to Tarek Chebli, a peacebuilding student from Lebanon.
Thrift shops are an unknown concept in Lebanon, Chebli said, so he was intrigued by what he learned on a day trip there with other students attending the 2015 Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.
He had come to SPI on a scholarship from MCC because of his work with the Lebanese Organization of Studies and Training (LOST), an MCC partner in the Bekaa Valley, an agricultural area bordering Syria. LOST, a civil society organization, trains and employs young people in development, relief and education.
Chebli wondered whether starting a thrift shop in the Bekaa might be another way LOST could help some of the Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese living in the area.
He brought the idea to LOST director Ramy Lakkis, who was enthusiastic because he believed a thrift shop could succeed by harnessing “the power of the people,” without having to seek funding from foreign donors.
In a country where that kind of charity has largely been left to churches and mosques, who do handouts on religious holidays, LOST needed to launch an awareness campaign to get the whole community involved and to encourage people to donate gently used clothes, said Lakkis. Local women pitched in to prepare and repair donated items.
A year later, the thrift shop, dubbed in Arabic “We Are Here for Each Other,” is operating out of a room in the town of Baalbek. Lakkis proudly explained that LOST employees decorated the space in their free time.
It was stocked with warm clothing in November as winter descended on this broad mountain valley, now home to thousands of refugees living in informal tent communities where MCC continues to provide heaters, heating fuel, blankets and other “winterization” needs. MCC also supports LOST’s sheep-raising program for vulnerable Lebanese families. People registered with LOST can receive vouchers for the shop so they can pick out whatever they like.
The success of the thrift shop led to another idea new to Lebanon: a free kitchen that provides hot meals for 500 people — Syrians and Lebanese alike — five days a week. The operation employs a supervisor, chef and three volunteers to produce food and package it for families, who take the meals home to eat together. It’s mainly funded within Lebanon, using corporate donations.
LOST’s creative approaches to solving problems locally are “building a social safety net that Lebanon doesn’t have,” said Naomi Enns of Winnipeg, Man., who is an MCC Lebanon and Syria representative with her husband, Doug Enns. At the same time, with Christians and Muslims working together, LOST is helping to build social cohesion and peace in communities historically divided by sectarian conflict.