BASSMA: changing society

27 Nov

“I’m tired of the Lebanese pretending that everything is perfect.  I wanted to prove to them that it isn’t – and that only by admitting that, can we fight.”

These are the words of Sandra Klat, Lebanese founder of BASSMA (www.bassma.org), a humanitarian organization that aims to assist social development and combat poverty in Beirut through the rehabilitation of its most important unit: The family.

Sandra established BASSMA – which means smile in Arabic – in November 2002.  It began as a food aid organization, providing monthly food packs to 35 families.  Over the last seven years, it has expanded into an institute that leads families towards self-sufficiency.  It now works with 135 families, all of whom are seen minimum on a weekly basis.  Considering that BASSMA is operated entirely by its volunteers, of whom there are currently around 50, one can understand Sandra’s frustration with society.

In an interview about life in Lebanon, a student of the Lebanese American University describes it as “a constant party.”  For her, quotidian existence provides her with beaching and skiing, trips to the beauty salon, hard work at university and hard partying to relieve it.  Asked whether poverty is a problem in Lebanon, she replied “probably.”

For Sandra, there is no “probably.”  A 2008 study found that 29% of the population(about one million Lebanese) live under the poverty line.  And yet homelessness and destitution remain neglected.   The richer counterpart of the population encounter these phenomenona in physical realization so rarely that the greater issue of poverty is easy to shelve.  “For them, it’s taboo.”  In a trend in a line with the widely-known Lebanese habit of not talking about the 15 year civil war, those who are not daily confronted by poor standards of living pretend that it does not exist.

It is for this reason that a large portion of BASSMA’s work is focused upon raising awareness.  BASSMA organizes regular awareness activities, based on the premise that “all citizens have the right to live in dignity in Lebanon.”  It is a premise with which few would disagree, but to which few in everyday life attend.

One such campaign is Kidswap, a scheme financed by the World Bank.  It enables the mixing of public and private school children, who would otherwise remain divided by their different statuses in society.  Kidswap teaches public school children to recognize and appreciate the advantages that they have, and also to respect disadvantaged children as equals.

A central part of BASSMA’s aim is to aid Lebanese social development.  The volunteers work only with families that BASSMA defines as “eventually able to be rehabilitated.”  For each family it develops an individual rehabilitation program; BASSMA then works intimately alongside the family for a minimum of three years.

Known as “assisted families,” the families BASSMA work with develop close bonds with their volunteers.  They help them in every aspect of their lives: every month the families are provided with food and hygiene packs; they are given interview practice and helped with CV composition; they are shown the most appropriate places to look for work and coordinated with employers in a matchmaking scheme reminiscent of online dating sites.  Ultimately, the objective is to restore each member of these families to a recognized, defined position in society.  Enabling them to have a social role restores their own confidence.

“The families are our families now,” says Sandra, matter-of-factly.  She has taken it upon herself and her organization to provide the care that the upper echelons of society may believe to be necessary, but do little to engender.

Aside from Klat, only three people, Nicole Maftoum, Kira Munk Wells and Michèle Sawaya, work at BASSMA.  In view of the many projects that BASSMA is pioneering, the size of the organization is remarkable.  Last year, they opened soup kitchens in Gemmayzeh and Sin El Fil.  They have an Employment Office and a Training Program, alongside their widespread awareness programs and fund-raising activities.

This, of course, is aside from the work with the families themselves.  Aspects of rehabilitation include food, medication, hospitalization, educational fees, employment and psychological follow-up.

The other plan is for geographical expansion.  BASSMA currently operates only in Greater Beirut; clearly, it is needed elsewhere.  While South Lebanon and the Bekaa are struggling in terms of social well-being, the most shocking statistics pertain to the North.  There, 38% of the population lives in poverty; of those, half live in conditions so destitute they are defined as “extreme.”

For BASSMA, the idea that there are two worlds in Lebanon, two levels of society – one rich, one poor – that do not mix and do not affect one another, is an acute inaccuracy.  Sandra defines poverty as “pervasive.  Even in the richest area, someone will be living beneath a store or something like that.”  The dichotomous nature of Lebanese society is not quite as distinct as it might pretend to be.

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