In conversation with the Kahkaha project in Lebanon: an effective example of a Southern-led initiative.

‘One cannot come from outside and decide people’s needs on the basis of assumptions or experiences lived somewhere else.’

In this blog post Dr Estella Carpi interviews Lina Khoury, the founder of the Kahkaha project in Lebanon.  The Kahkaha project aims to blur the boundaries between urban and Palestinian refugee camp spaces.   To do this the project promotes infrastructure for sport and play  within and outside refugee camps with the aim of achieving social participation and everyday security for Palestinian refugee children and youth.  The initiative is an example of what some international scholars have named South-South or Southern-led humanitarianism.  However, as emerges in the interview, Kahkaha’s work often departs from the mainstream humanitarian narrative and action.

This blog was posted on 9th October 2018

In conversation with the Kahkaha project in Lebanon: an effective example of a Southern-led initiative.

by Dr Estella Carpi, Research Associate, Southern Responses to Displacement Project.

In July 2018 the Southern Responses team met with Lina Khoury, a life coach and mental health counselor for people with experience of substance misuse. In 2011, Lina decided to start her own voluntary assistance project to catalyze Palestinian refugee youth’s social participation in community life within Lebanon.  She chose the name kahkaha – meaning ‘laughter’ in Arabic – with the purpose of making the NGO’s name easier to be remembered by local youth and children.  Indeed, Lina’s initiative is primarily aimed at blurring the boundaries between urban and Palestinian refugee camp spaces by promoting sport and play spaces both within and outside refugee camps.

Lebanon began hosting Palestinian refugees following the Nakba (‘Catastrophe’) in 1948. Today, there are 12 formal refugee camps and numerous informal gatherings across the country that host nearly half a million Palestinians. These refugee camps often lack clean drinking water, electricity, and access to other basic needs for survival. Lina’s project started with the aim of providing refugee youth with the proper sports infrastructure and space they need to achieve social participation and everyday security.

Kahkaha’s work and Lina’s involvement in assistance provision is an effective example of what some international scholars have named ‘South-South humanitarianism’ and ‘Southern-led’ initiatives to support displaced people and refugees. However, as discussed in the interview, Kahkaha’s idea of – and practical approach to – humanitarian action, consistently differs from the mainstream humanitarian tendency to victimise and stigmatise forced migrants as non-members of the host society. It also moves away from standardised strategies that try to build co-existence and social cohesion without providing host countries with proper infrastructure.

In this interview for the Southern Responses project, Estella Carpi spoke to Lina about her reasons for starting the project and the support and difficulties she has experienced. She also shares her reflections on what ‘Southern’ assistance provision might mean, especially against the backdrop of the so-called ‘localisation of aid’ agenda.

E.C. ‘Lina, it is a pleasure for the Southern Responses to Displacement team to speak with you today. To start our conversation, could you please introduce us to the Kahkaha project you initiated?’

L.K.  ‘First of all, let me tell you that, as a Lebanese, I did not know much about the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon myself before being engaged in this programme. I started the project with a friend, who was a US counsellor, and who recently left Lebanon. Deliberately, I now prefer not collaborating with international organisations (INGOs) and UN agencies. I simply look out for funding. Indeed, our partners are mainly community centers inside the camps.’

‘I, in fact, conceive of Kahkaha as a community-based project which has been set up in Lebanon and I would like it to remain domestic, not international. However, for volunteering any individual is welcome, independently from their nationality. Since 2012, we have had 200 volunteers from abroad, as many volunteers in fact as we have had from refugee camps; my role remains that of coordinating their activities. Now we are quite known at an international level, but mostly at a national level.’

E.CWhy did you decide to start this programme, and with what purposes? And, if any, who has supported you in undertaking this endeavour?’

 L.K.My purpose is not fighting for the return of Palestinian refugees [to the ‘Holy land’], or organising protests with that purpose. I feel like I need to specify this, as I exclusively deal with Palestinian refugee children and youth. Kahkaha wants to be politically neutral. I see myself as a humanitarian, with no political involvement.’

‘However, the local language differs to the global humanitarian language: Refugeehood is the language of INGOs, UN agencies and international scholars who approach and seek to understand Palestinians in Lebanon [and the Middle East in general] through a single-lens. This portrayal cannot be fully realistic, as these people were born here, have fought for survival with us, and have been living in Lebanon for their whole life. However, they are not allowed to fight for their rights in Lebanon, and they generally cannot afford becoming ambitious in their life purposes.’

 ‘In this framework, Kahkaha’s action is symbolic, to enhance support and local opportunities for refugees: I do not want to make a career, or money out of this. Projects need to be only for the people, or you lose the very sense of what you’re doing. You can still be ambitious, but ambition needs to be there for the sake of your goals.’

‘Our main aim is thus building a common intima’ – “belonging” – to reconnect camp society to outside society in Lebanon. In this sense, ‘refugee’ is an uncomfortable label which has been abused by the international humanitarian system: Palestinians need to liberate themselves from this classification system. The main aim for me has therefore been creating suitable conditions to build normality for Palestinians in Lebanon, despite the national law that does not meet the needs of Palestinians and does not provide them with rights. Better infrastructure can provide them with life opportunities: we forget the importance of not seeing children afraid of being chased, but rather of ensuring they feel protected. Their happiness in the Kahkaha playgrounds is visible, and play is able to teach us a lot about the human being; how to lose and how to win. It has a pedagogic function that we all need in order to feel accomplished.’ 

E.C. What difficulties, in particular, did you face when starting your association – for example, social, legal, or political challenges?’

‘When I started co-facilitating a project I baptized el-rehalat – “travels” – we intended to take Palestinian children outside of refugee camps into Lebanese society, in an effort to create new spaces of encounter between camp-dwellers and local resident outsiders. So, on Sundays, we would organize trips to urban playgrounds for children from five different Palestinian camps: ‘Ain al-Helwe (in the South), Nahr al-Bared (in the North), and the three in Beirut – Shatila, Mar Elias and Bourj al-Barajneh. Likewise, people from outside do not generally travel into camps, so what we create is an actual ground to make that encounter between different social groups happen.’

‘Since the year of the Nakba (1948), the United Nations rented some urban areas and made them available to Palestinian refugees. After decades, their size is still the same… Finding a playground has always been a challenge in Lebanon, as here they would ‘sell the air’- bi‘ al-hawa – if they could. So, several times people try to make cash out of buildings and areas inside and outside camps across Lebanon.’

‘Generally, there is no privacy and no proper lightening system in many camps, so we started targeting roofs to build public spaces and playgrounds: Something which not only the Palestinians lack, but also myself when I was a child in Lebanon. Surely our aim is not to own the playgrounds, but rather to provide infrastructure to the camp-dwellers.’

‘In this framework, the biggest challenges I have been facing since I started is finding a space: we then decided to build playgrounds in refugee camps. I started visiting NGOs to find ways of gaining a space. While it was tough to convince funders that playgrounds should be a camp priority, the biggest challenge was the lack of space. Bourj el Barajneh camp’s one square kilometer, for example, hosts 28,000 residents. I therefore opted to build playgrounds on roofs. Indeed, Lebanon lacks public spaces, and private spaces are not easily accessible, as people want to use them on a private basis.’

‘The second challenge was finding NGOs which are as politically neutral as us. Since there is no municipality in or responsible for the camps, making partnerships with local NGOs is viable and inevitable. The fact that I was not affiliated to any political party was an asset to build such partnerships.’

‘Other similar challenges I have faced include my will to empower people while making clear that I am not promising money: if Kahkaha wants to build roofs we need a carpenter, and you need to be aware of every single individual you involve in your network to preserve neutrality and keep your purposes safe and viable.’

‘Despite all challenges, so far we have built six playgrounds in three refugee camps – Shatila, Bourj al-Barajneh and Nahr al-Bared, and in the informal gathering of Sabra.’

E.C.  ‘With the 2011 crisis in Syria, a large number of refugees relocated to Lebanon, and several NGOs and UN agencies shifted their focus to Syrian refugees in a bid to attract new funding or to be able to continue their old projects. At times, humanitarian and development organisations had to dismantle their old services, targeting chronic vulnerable categories or other longstanding refugees across the country. How did ‘Kahkaha’ tackle the arrival of Syrian refugees in Lebanon?’

L.K.  ‘When the Syrians arrived, I did not extend our projects, as that would have meant dismantling what precedes crisis. That being said, some Syrian-Palestinians came from Syria and they joined some of our activities, but I did not refocus my main plan. Adapting our plans and goals to new crises may end up benefitting no one in the long run; especially in a country like Lebanon, which is frequently stricken by regional and domestic crises.’

E.C. Scholars looking at humanitarian assistance provision and ‘emergency crisis’ contexts have been discussing the need to know, in more depth, the forms of assistance and protection proposed and designed from people, organisations and governments of the Global South. As you know, this interest has also been institutionalised through the so-called ‘localisation of aid’ agenda, which aims to involve Southern actors in official humanitarian programming and hire local staff to a greater extent. How do you think your practices differ from or are similar to UN and INGO programmes? Do you identify yourself as a ‘Southern provider’?’

L.K.  ‘In all frankness, I am not aware of exactly why the academic literature has decided to call such alternative forms of support ‘South-South’. However, to me, the approach to assistance provision needs to come from the ground, and not from the people who are not familiar with the locals and their needs. One cannot come from outside and decide people’s needs on the basis of assumptions or experiences lived somewhere else. INGOs are disconnected from local life in this sense. I’m a Lebanese citizen and therefore not a refugee at the moment, but what I’m talking about is the feeling of belonging to the same reality. Supporting children, cohesive societies and local infrastructures cannot be about sitting and asking one-to-one: ‘How do you feel?’ In this respect, INGOs are not aware of everyday life to pose the right questions. I’m also skeptical about local-international partnerships: thus far it looks like a cover-up to better dictate the Global North’s rules, while making this hierarchy ethical.’

‘In this context it is important to highlight that many INGOs and UN agencies generally do not primarily recruit on the basis of personal commitment, but rather of technical competence. This sort of job cannot attract only committed people when salaries are kept that high. As a result, local NGOs started competing to get funding and to become partners with INGOs during the Syrian crisis: Everyone wanted to work with the internationals because of the funding… So, the ‘localisation of aid agenda’ you talk about is quite problematic. It even ended up overshadowing honest local opinions about INGO service provision. ‘You need to look at where the money and professional possibilities go’ is the answer I normally get when I denounce this local tendency of disguising their honest opinions and opting for compromises to survive as a local NGO. All of this, thus, causes plenty of social harm. Respect and dignity rarely get along with aid provision.’

‘As for my own personal experience, INGOs that wanted to collaborate with me sometimes proposed  to increase the quantity and distribution of material items to children. In that way you are not empowering children: you are making them beggars.…There is too little respect towards the people we decide to support. Instead, we need to re-value a local culture of assistance, which does not assume, for example, how children eat, what food they should have, and so on.

‘While not forgetting the importance of advocating for refugee rights in a legally defined “transit country” like Lebanon,[1] Lina Khoury’s Kahkaha promotes humanitarian assistance as a local catalyzer for refugee youth’s enfranchisement, as well as individual and collective social awareness. Unlike several INGO programmes which presume and emphasise refugee vulnerability, Kahkaha pragmatically recognises that Palestinians in Lebanon are an integral part of local society, who should claim their rights but also contribute to its functioning. In this vein, refugees, by becoming players in safer spaces, need to be acknowledged as full agents and – at least – de facto members of Lebanon’s local society.’

For more on the localisation of aid agenda and other related pieces:  

The localisation of aid and Southern-led responses to displacement: beyond instrumentalising local actors.

Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement.

Before defining what is local lets build the capacities of humanitarian agencies.

[1] Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention for Refugees.

Photo credit:  Birds and bird cages, Baddawi Exteriors, Lebanon.  (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2018

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