Petra Bagust: Singing together, a language we can all understand

  • Opinion
  • 28/11/2018

OPINION: On our second day in Lebanon, Luke and I arrive at the Learning Centre on the outskirts of Beirut with instruments and sheet music.

This 'school 'is housed in a building on the edge of a busy highway.

We climb five flights of stairs, past metal and wood workshops, to a room that's used as both the school hall, and a playground, for the 50 children who come on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the 70 here on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

There is delight and mirth when we bring out the tiny guitars - ukeleles!

We have five to give to the learning centre, and packets or replacement strings - which they'll need, based on the enthusiasm of the children's strumming.

After a brief introduction, we teach them a song about unity, 'Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi'.

The original composer's daughter said: "Our father wrote that for all peoples, regardless of race, creed, beliefs, political stances, it was there for all people to stand as one."

The sound of 50 children singing is just as it ought to be - enthusiastic and chaotic.

The children pick up the Māori words quickly and the hand movements even quicker.

When Luke brings out the drums, it's all go.

The children follow the rhythm and begin to make their own beat - the group claps in support, as the beats fill the air - it's like we all speak the same language.

The centre has been running for five years. A local church doing relief work in the area noticed half the children weren't in school, even though they were seven and eight years old.

In Lebanon, they start school at three years old!

"The children are treated well and taken care of here, they aren't bullied or prejudiced against," the teacher tells me.

"We don't want this to be a lost generation. These children can help their own people to heal from the trauma of a war-torn society, which expresses itself through violence, depression and hopelessness. The cycle of poverty needs to be broken."

I notice a Western man also watching and ask why he's here.

A retired teacher from Canada, he's volunteered his time after raising $8000 for the trip.

He's happy only half the money is spent, so he can gift the remainder to the centre for equipment.

With emotion in his voice, he says the students and he are getting along well - he doesn't speak their language, but through a lifetime of experience, he knows children need to feel loved and be safe to learn.

As classes resume, children come and chat with me about the role of the learning centre in their lives. These are challenging interviews.

I am a stranger asking questions about their real and difficult lives.

I talk with a young teen who is depressed. She's lost her joy for life - it's hard to keep going, she says.

As the oldest child, she supports her mother and helps raise her three younger siblings.

She often bears the brunt of her mother's frustrations.

For a moment she looks as if she could cry, but instead stays strong and moves on. Her desperation is so confronting, I think about her for the rest of the trip.

I also speak with a younger girl who loves the learning centre and maths.

She is so grateful to all her teachers. It's been the best year-and-a-half since she started coming here.

The bell sounds, and they race away into the corridor, down five flights of stairs and out into the chaos of a busy city.

I hope their new song - written out on the whiteboard, can be a warm memory in their hearts, and I hope that we will be able to fund resources for the school.

They desperately need curriculum books, more transport to help students get to school and home safely, plus money for new staff and possible field trips.

Field trips at primary school were the highlight of my life - I imagine it could be the only fun trip they've ever had for many of these children, way better than just having foreigners visiting with small guitars.

A lot can be achieved when we work and stand together.

In the words of Canon Wiremu Wi Te Tau Huata:

Tūtira mai ngā iwi,tātou tātou e, Whai-a te maramatanga, me te aroha, e ngā iwi, Kia tapatahi, kia kotahi rā, tātou tātou e.

Stand together people, all of us, all of us

Seek after knowledge and love of others - everyone

Think as one, act as one, all of us, all of us

Please think about supporting Tearfund's relief work in Lebanon - I've seen how life-changing it is for Syrian refugees.

TV broadcaster and Tearfund ambassador Petra Bagust travelled to Lebanon to raise awareness for Tearfund’s “Room at the Inn” Christmas appeal – donations provide food, blankets, mattresses, fuel, education & trauma care for Syrian refugee families.

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