Travel

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On Camps, Traffic and Reporting in the Middle East for the First Time

Posted By on Wed, Jun 22, 2016 at 3:00 PM

On a hilltop overlooking informal settlements near El Kaa in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley - FOUAD HIJAZI
  • Fouad Hijazi
  • On a hilltop overlooking informal settlements near El Kaa in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley

I’ve come to believe that drivers in Beirut are all in on a giant game of Chicken that the rest of the world hasn’t really caught onto yet. Just how close can one get to the other drivers on the road before a vehicular accident is inevitable? Or worse, scratch the paint on the Mercedes.

Cars bob-and-weave through uneven lines of traffic at stressful speeds, getting close enough to pudgy delivery drivers to watch their rolls bounce with the tut-tut-tut of their rickety mopeds. Traffic lanes are painted on the asphalt but are entirely invisible to the average Lebanese motorist. My cousin, a true Beiruti to his core, rocks his steering wheel back and forth within centimeters of oncoming drivers if he feels I’m falling asleep in the car. The Lebanese, not unlike the very pulse of the country itself, are determined to keep you on your toes.

I’m in Beirut filming for my master’s project on the Syrian border and have found that, as a student journalist on her own, reporting in the Middle East for the first time entails a similar chaos to be found on Beiruti freeways. Plans and expectations, no matter how many or how well laid out, are often followed through about as well as Beirut’s fading white traffic lines.

A young boy plays around at an old high school now functioning as a refugee camp in Baalbek, Lebanon. - JENNIFER HIJAZI
  • Jennifer Hijazi
  • A young boy plays around at an old high school now functioning as a refugee camp in Baalbek, Lebanon.

My third day in Lebanon I travel to Baalbek, a town in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut to gather footage from refugee camps in the area. The Lebanese government does not allow for the foundation of formal refugee camps, a paranoia still seething in the wake of Palestinian camps-turned-cities in Beirut and beyond. The valley is dotted with tent villages of all sizes, many set between open agricultural fields.

My fixer, a local videojournalist, agrees to take me to the Syrian border near Arsal, where we surreptitiously set up my virtual reality camera out of range of the military presence at the border gate. Every so often my fixer will take out his own credentials and “film” the street to deflect attention from the blinking Freedom360 rig we’ve set up facing the barbed wire concrete wall from the median a block down. After a few minutes, I hurriedly set up the camera from another angle across the busy street, praying to the journalism gods that I can stow away all of my equipment in the SUV before a guy in uniform shows up.

A ten minute drive from the border takes us to a camp in El Kaa, an informal tent village baking in blazing Bekaa sun, surrounded by Lebanese fields to the west and Syrian mountains to the east. Children, playing barefoot in the dirt, spot my cameras and begin following closely at my heels. One boy in a striped polo and munching on biscuits observes me synchronizing my 360 camera and quickly memorizes the steps, pointing at each GoPro as I turn them on, just in case I miss one. An invaluable camera assistant for the day.

I take a moment of hesitation to consider my next few shots, long enough for a young man to come bounding up the dirt road from the entrance to the camp. He gestures to my cameras and begins speaking to my companions in Arabic. My translator turns to me and says “Let’s go.”

Frustrated and slightly concerned, I shove both of my tripods in the car, cameras still on from the last shot. I am told as we exit that the informal camp “chief,” or shaweesh as they are called here, has been watching us from his perch on a nearby hill and has requested the pleasure of our presence. We declined.

Going through footage back in Beirut a day later, away from shaweesh threats, border guards, and impatient fixers, I take a moment and decompress. Some of my interviews are just a hair too dark, some b-roll just a little shaky, and I’m pretty sure you can see my feet in at least one 360 shot. I resist the urge to hurl myself into the Mediterranean while I peruse my photos and replay the long tape of expectations and shortcomings I had in my head before heading to the Bekaa.
Three boys living in an informal refugee settlement near Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. - JENNIFER HIJAZI
  • Jennifer Hijazi
  • Three boys living in an informal refugee settlement near Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

A few more scrolls and deep breaths later, relief sets in.
From the last camp, three boys pose for a picture, full of pent up energy and curiosity. In another frame, a group of women sit beside each other outside a small market, lined up to be mic'ed and interviewed. Still one more shows a string of drying laundry and a playful kid at the end of the hall, his gleeful grin obvious even out of focus.

Despite all the missteps, close calls, and missed opportunities, my latest trip to the Middle East proved invaluable in ways that I'm still rediscovering miles away back in my own desert. Perhaps the most profound of which is the trust given to me by the many people I met along the way to tell their stories. I am eternally grateful for their time and patience.

For young international journalists, I would advise constant preparedness without the burden of well-laid plans. Be ready and open for anything to the best of your ability, but don't rely heavily on expectations. Give yourself plenty of time, always say "yes" within reason, and always check your equipment before heading out. Most importantly, make sure the people and their stories remain your constant guide and purpose, that above all will keep your work moving forward.     

And Beirut driving does not translate well back home in the States. Trust me. 

A group of Syrian children at an informal settlement near Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. - JENNIFER HIJAZI
  • Jennifer Hijazi
  • A group of Syrian children at an informal settlement near Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Into the Mild: So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2016 at 3:00 PM

Hey Amigos,

I'm pretty bad at goodbyes so I'll just cut to the chase: I'm no longer able to write the Into the Mild feature for Tucson Weekly. I've enjoyed writing it immensely and hope that you enjoyed reading it, but my time is simply stretched too thin to continue. I'm currently working, writing two books, looking for permanent work in the United States, dealing with banking issues, and trying to maintain a social life. I'm juggling all of this with very limited internet access. Writing for Tucson Weekly is a luxury that I can't squeeze into my schedule anymore.

I'm now using the lion's share of my writing time writing two books. The first will be a collection of short stories from my time exploring the world alone and the new perspective it puts on life's struggles. The other will be about working for grassroots charity groups, with sections on my stint living at refugee camps, my time in the Real Life SuperHero community, and the experience of working for several small organizations in the global south. I hope to have both books published sometime in 2017. I'll also post stories and photos on my personal site, IntoTheMild.co, from time to time.

I owe many thanks to former TW editor Irene Messina for writing an article about a charity project I used to run (found here) and then allowing me to cut my teeth by writing the “Hero of the Week” column, despite my having zero training, experience, or skill in writing. I'm also extremely grateful to Chelo Grubb and the other current staff at Tucson Weekly for giving me another opportunity to share stories with TW, this time personal accounts of exorcisms and life at refugee camps. I hope that my stories added a unique flavor to TW and hope to someday, when life has slowed to a sprint, write for Tucson Weekly again.


May all your dreams come true,
Jason

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Into the Mild: Rednecks For a Better World

Posted By on Mon, Mar 21, 2016 at 10:30 AM

Houston, Texas – December 2015

Could first impressions be worse?

There they were, the four of them talking so loudly to each other that they were almost yelling. Their Cajun accents were so strong that they would have better fit in a cartoon. Their voices drowned out the conversations in the seats next to them. Two of them had the lower lip and gum decay that only a lifetime of chewing tobacco can inflict on someone, and they all wore amazingly greasy hair. Despite the frigid December weather, they boarded the plane in sleeveless shirts and ripped jeans. Did I mention that they were loud?

My mind was set.

I fortunately sat far enough away that their voices faded out after 30 minutes and I slept deeply. I was awakened to an intercom announcement: “We are now making our final descent into Istanbul, please turn off all electronics and return your seat to the upright position.”

“Idunmind if they speak Turkush here, suhlonguz everone understanz English too!” cackled my Cajun friend. It had to have been a joke. Nobody who willingly leaves their own country really thinks like that. But nobody else was laughing. Not even the others in his group.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Into the Mild: Misadventure in Mozambique

Posted By on Mon, Mar 14, 2016 at 12:00 PM

Mozambique and I got off to a bad start.

After less than 24 hours at my new job in coastal Mozambique, I decided it was time to leave. My new boss had changed his mind or been misleading about a couple of key things, then wouldn’t be available for several days to answer questions. I had a bad feeling. So I left.

Ilha de Mozambique
  • Ilha de Mozambique
First I wandered onto an island nearby and asked a hostel if they needed help. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t. I went to a hotel, asked the same question, and got the same answer. I decided to look for work at a hostel in a nearby city where I had grown impatient previously because there was nobody working in the morning. I grabbed my backpack and flagged down a van, stuffed to the gills with 25 people people and their bags. It broke down 30 miles into the 120-mile trip. The driver of course didn’t offer a refund.

I flagged down a Toyota Tacoma and rode in the bed for the next 30 minutes, then was left at a fork in the road. A passenger from the first minibus helped me find another ride and jumped into the bed of a farm truck with me.

We spent the next hour driving down a small highway, constantly surrounded by green plants, palm trees, and small hills. It was perfect. But the approaching grey clouds made us nervous.

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Monday, February 22, 2016

Into the Mild: Day One in a Nairobi Slum

Posted By on Mon, Feb 22, 2016 at 3:30 PM

Mathare Slum, Nairobi, Kenya – January 2016

Summer.

Finally.

I grew up in Death Valley and don’t do well with cold. Seeing 2016 on my calendar means that I’d been on the road for 18 months now, shifting between hemispheres every six months and staying in perpetual winter. 18 months of cold nights and stuffy clothes. But not now. The warm and humid air that stuck to me after I exited the airplane in Kenya was a long awaited hug.

After a quick wait in the immigration line, I made my way out of the airport and was quickly met by Eric and Vivian. Eric is the founder and leader of Mathare Foundation, the organization where I would be working for the next month. Vivian was an assistant who coaches the soccer team and counsels children in writing. We grabbed a cab that was too small for the three of us plus my backpack, so I went with my bag on my lap and Vivian offered to take Hobbes on hers. These were good people.

We were headed to Mathare Slum, a slum of 500,000 people with a 30 percent HIV infection rate and no free education past 8th grade. I would work at Mathare Foundation, a non-profit that offered children free classes in soccer, performing arts, and photography. The pragmatic hopes are that the photography program can be self sustaining and offer the children real work, while the soccer and performing arts programs were meant to assist children in getting scholarships to continue their studies. The immediate results are that the kids can display and take pride in their accomplishments, have positive role models outside of the home, and have productive work to do in the time when they are most vulnerable to drugs and crime.

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Monday, February 15, 2016

Into the Mild: A New City, New Job, and New Overdose

Posted By on Mon, Feb 15, 2016 at 9:00 AM

Salvador, Brasil


I’ve never touched a drug in my life. The only possible exception would be when we tried to make a delayed-fuse piccolo pete bomb by poking a hole in a cigarette, putting the fuse of the piccolo pete through the whole, then inhaling to try to light the cigarette. It didn’t work. Instead I just coughed a lot and learned to hate the smell of tobacco. I don't drink alcohol. I even avoid caffeine when I can. Despite this, I ended up overdosing on legally purchased sleeping pills while using them for their stated purpose. Life’s a bitch, eh?

click image The sign at the entry to our hostel
  • The sign at the entry to our hostel
My first job in Brasil was at a holistic retreat in Arambepe. I worked daily from 7 a.m. to noon, handling anything from construction to helping at ayahuasca ceremonies. A month later, I went to coastal Salvador to work at a hostel. Overnight, I went from starting work at 7 a.m. in Arambepe to working nights and ending at 7 a.m. in Salvador. I enjoyed the night shift quite a bit. I only worked thrice a week and spent the first three hours of my shift hanging out with amazing people that I would be hanging out with at night anyways, then spent the rest of the night ironing sheets and watching Breaking Bad.  

In addition to working when I usually slept, I also started sleeping in a very active dormitory. These changes in my sleeping pattern completely threw off my internal clock. I was lucky to get four hours of sleep in a day. It started to catch up to me quickly so I went to a pharmacy and asked if they had anything light that could help. I declined the first thing offered and took the cheaper of the two medications. The recommended dosage was one pill, so I took them for a couple mornings. I looked up the pill online to see why it wasn’t working better and found out that it was generic brand valium. Normally I would worry about that but I still struggled to get more than four hours of sleep and I was exhausted all the time. I figured that valium or not, if I wasn’t getting more than four hours of sleep a night with it, it couldn’t be too dangerous to up the dosage. I finally felt horrible one night and took two.

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Monday, February 8, 2016

Into the Mild: Santiago's Mad Max University

Posted By on Mon, Feb 8, 2016 at 9:00 AM


Santiago, Chile


Students live in the classrooms, all fences have been blocked off by tables. The police just gave up… it’s Mad Max in there!

-My boss


mm1.jpg


Many universities and high schools in Santiago were on strike for much of the last year. Each had different reasons for the strike, with the students striking at some, the teachers at others. The most visible effect were messages written on posters and draped over university walls. The weekends often featured large protests. While exploring Barrio Providencia, I found the mothership, Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano. It made the other protesters look like amateurs.

The first striking image was the walls. Universidad Academia’s fences and gates were completely boarded off using chairs and tables taken from the classrooms, while the outer wall was often plastered with signs and graffiti.


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Monday, February 1, 2016

Into the Mild: The Adventures of Jason and Hobbes

Posted By on Mon, Feb 1, 2016 at 11:00 AM

Traveling alone can be tough. When all of my snooty friends couldn’t join me because they had families or careers they couldn’t walk away from, I had to get creative in my search for a companion.

I left Tucson in June of 2014, traveling with a group of 500 soccer fanatics to watch the World Cup in Brasil. We were hundreds of strangers from across the US and everyone seemed to bond almost immediately

Then, after two weeks, they were gone.

I next stayed with a friend from Brasil, though she usually had school and I spoke no Portuguese at the time.

Then, after two weeks, I was on my own again.

I worked in Bahia for a month, then left and never saw my coworkers again. I repeated the experience in Salvador. And Ecuador. And Peru. You see the pattern. I was surrounded by people who wouldn't stay in my life. I was alone in a crowd. I wanted a permanent travel companion, flexible and adventurous.

So I made my own.

First came the pattern. I found this nifty guide, printed out a PDF of the design, bought some fleece, and got to work.


hobbes3.jpg


I started with the arms and legs. They were the easiest pattern, and as I had never sewn before, the least noticeable if/when something went wrong.

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Festa San Gennaro

Feast of San Gennaro arrived in the United States in September 1926 when immigrants from Naples congregated… More

@ Michelangelo Ristorante Italiano Sat., Sept. 24, 4-8 p.m. 420 W. Magee Road.

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