Lodian Giving Hope in Lebanon

In December, Lee Baker Kralijav, a Lodi woman, went to Lebanon. If you’ve ever met Lee, you know she’s incredibly intelligent and just as incredibly committed to using her strengths to help others. She wants justice for everybody and is dedicating her life to making that happen. Lee grew up in Lodi and went to Tokay High School. She got her degree from the University of Southern California. Like a lot of us who grew up in Lodi, she never saw herself moving back home after school. “I didn’t see professional activisivism modeled for me, at least in my experience, growing up here,” explains Lee. “So I went to USC and I worked in the entertainment industry for a few years and then I like to joke that I got tired with the egos in Hollywood so I went into politics.” After school she worked on a campaign that took her all over before she finally ended up back in the last place she expected, Lodi. Lee’s been doing activist work locally and had been looking for an opportunity to make an impact internationally as well, which is how she ended up in Lebanon. It’s pretty amazing to be so motivated to help others that you are willing to dedicate you life to it they way Lee is, and be willing to travel to places like Lebanon to help others. That’s why I wanted to share her story of how by following her passion, Lee is giving hope to others all over the world.

Lee started with some background of how she ended up taking a trip to Lebanon. “I started looking into opportunities to spend shorter periods of time volunteering internationally with an NGO [a nonprofit organization that operates independent of any government] focused on refugee services. I ended up finding Salam LADC,” explains Lee. Salam LADC is an organization that supports vulnerable populations in Lebanon. “I wanted to go somewhere where I was actually going to be making a difference and not just paying to take pictures in a cool place.” One of the things I learned listening to Lee, is that Lebanon actually has the highest number of refugees per capita. “They have Syria to the north and Israel and Palestine to the south,” explained Lee. You don’t have to be totally up to date on your current events to know that there’s been a lot of strife in that area. ISIS is of course in Syria and and there’s the ongoing conflict over land between Israel and Palestine. “So they have both Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees. They’re [Lebanon] already a country torn through civil war and they’ve had a lot struggles themselves.”

The settlement camps that Lee worked in were pretty dismal looking. The refugees are not allowed to build permanent structures so they’re living in tents. Lee  was there in December, and it was cold and flooded. Since people are forced to live in tents, they have poor protection from the environment, and have a hard time keeping warm without creating fire hazards. To summarize the brutal living conditions, Lee confirmed that pretty much the images we’re seeing on TV of these refugee camps are true. One of the things that’s important to know in reference to the work that Lee did is that there wasn’t much structure for a lot of things, including education. “I was really surprised and excited that it’s the volunteers who pretty much run the education program. I flew into Beirut on a Sunday night and somehow managed to get myself to the Beqaa Valley [where she was located], which is about two hours outside of Beirut. By Monday morning I arrived at the volunteer house. The volunteer coordinator welcomed me, gave me a brief run down, and by that afternoon I was in the settlement, covered in children. Completely covered in children,” says Lee with a smile. “The three or four weeks that I was there, we were working. We weren’t there to have fun, we were there to work. Everyday there’s a schedule of the different educational programs that they do and you get assigned to them.”

Amongst other things, Lee taught English classes and helped with two other program, Play with Purpose and the Birthday Project. Play with Purpose was designed to give structure, organization and focus to kids who didn’t go to class. “We would just park in the middle of the settlement,” explained Lee. “It was December so it was very cold and wet. We would get them [the kids] moving, give them songs and dance together and they LOVED it. One of the problems was that if it was freezing cold and we went out there the kids would come out even if they didn’t have shoes or jackets. So we had to develop relationships with some of the families to try and let us use their tents so we could go inside and stay warm with the kids. It was hopefully helpful too for their parents to have the kids focus on something. Otherwise, they’re just kind of running around the settlement without any organization or structure. So that was really amazing.”

The Birthday Project was what you think it is: throwing birthday parties. This is my favorite. In part, because I love birthdays. My mom always made birthdays special for my brother and I when we were younger, and has continued that tradition even though we’re both well into adulthood. Birthdays aren’t about the party or the gifts. Birthdays are an annual opportunity to show the birthday person how loved they are. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for these refugees who don’t have a place to call home. I can’t imagine what it does to a person’s self esteem or mental wellness to be forcefully removed from your home and told you are unwanted wherever you go. For humans who want nothing more than to have a sense of purpose in this world, that has to have a serious impact. I wonder how something so simple, like taking one day to celebrate a child’s birthday, as frivolous as it sounds, could make an impact? To have one day where people say, “We see you, we value you, and you are special just because you’re you.” I wonder what impact that could make on kids? Lee shared “For every one of the kids there, we knew when their birthday was and we would bring them a present and a cake and food and juice and face paint and have a birthday party. All the kids from the whole settlement would crowd in there and they loved it, it was so much fun.”

I like to share good news on Lodi Live, but with that said I don’t want to act like there aren’t really big, serious, and complicated problems in our world. I mean, Lee was working with many people who had escaped from ISIS. These people have no place to call home because their homes were stolen, and they’re not wanted where they are now because it’s hard for even the most well meaning country to take on millions of refugees. All these people want to do is return home and they can’t. They’re stuck at these camps. What I want to focus on, is that Lee traveled halfway across the world to let these humans know they are loved and have value. And she found people who, despite everything, were living with an abundance of hope. “I was really inspired by the resiliency,” shared Lee. “Even though the conditions were as bad as you might see on TV, it can be really, really tough, they were building lives and they were laughing and they had their families and they had joy. They had lots of hardships as well but they had dreams and aspirations. It was really impressive to see how resilient they are and how much potential they have and how much they can give back. I was teaching English to a girl, she was 16 years old, and she wanted to be a doctor and then volunteer in refugee settlements to provide services. And they were so welcoming and generous. Here we are, these dumb Americans coming in, with no experience, and they welcome you into your home. If you say you like their necklace they will take it off and give it to you and you have to keep it. And they would just hand us their children. I could hold their children. They were just all so generous and kind and strong and resilient.” It was hard for Lee to really know the impact she made through the education programs. Salam LADC is a good program but has room for improvement to be sustainable. By the stories she shared though, I do think she was able to show people that they are so valued and loved, and our hearts are with them. She was telling stories of the women she met in such a detail, you know she was really listening and engaged during her trip. I think Lee, someone who lives worlds apart, was able to give these people more than education, love, and joy. She was one of the many volunteers showing these strangers that people all over the world are rooting for them. Her efforts are giving them hope for a better future.