Standing on a side street in Beirut, engulfed by the barrage of car horns which never quite disappears, I had a small existential moment. What the hell was I doing here?
I had spent the past half hour trying to find an address. I had asked a soldier, a policeman, a butcher, a man asleep in a deckchair and a boy standing outside a furniture store playing on some cushions for help and eventually I’d found a locked gate and a series of buzzers with names in Arabic script. I had exhausted my three words of Arabic and so stood by the gate wondering just why I had come here.
It was day three in Beirut and I was starting to lose hope slightly. Wondering why I had thought it was going to be helpful to meet community arts leaders in Lebanon and Egypt. I was struck by a sense that it was an indulgence on my part – a piece of vanity. Why would any of these people want to meet me? I was struggling to set up meetings and struggling to make sense – even to myself – of what I was hoping to find out from those meetings.
And then a man emerged – it was the deckchair man – wondering why I was still lurking around. We both remembered our schoolboy French and he worked out what I was looking for – he helped me find someone to let me in and I was able to make my way to the offices of Action for Hope. And suddenly it fell into place.
Basma ElHusseiny established Action for Hope only three years ago but already it is changing the lives of people living in refugee camps in Lebanon. The organisation trains young musicians, has pioneered Cultural Relief Convoys to refugee camps, and established theatre groups. It aims to help people traumatised by what has been destroyed of their old lives make sense of their new lives and their potential to create their own future. Pretty inspiring stuff.
But while Action for Hope is inspiring itself, it was Basma I was interested to hear from. By her own admission, she had been working in this area for a long time. She had done stints with the British Council and the Ford Foundation, and managed cultural programmes in Egypt. She had established a pan-regional arts agency to develop artists in the Arab world, which had created countless opportunities for different artists to find their own voice. But she still had the energy and commitment to start a new initiative: Action for Hope.
I was interested in how you can find this energy and drive. I’ve been working in the field of community arts for half the time Basma has and yet I find it exhausting. And I work in the UK where by any objective measure it has to be easier to do this work than it is in Lebanon. We talked about the challenges of making this work; the pace at which we expect ourselves to work and the issues that generates, and the obstacles that can crop up: bureaucracy, funding (obviously), resistance from various quarters. But mostly we talked about motivation. In starting her work with Action for Hope, Basma was struck by the sheer potential of the work to change people’s lives for the better – the potential it had to unlock their potential. And the numbers are inarguable – the UN has estimated that over 1 million refugees live in Lebanon. This is the equivalent to 20% of the population. That is like England absorbing a whole other London of people. All traumatised and damaged by war and loss. So there is a very real need for the work that her organisation and others in the region are doing.
But in the end, the thing that I was most struck by was Basma’s sense of the limit to the time that one has to do things and, therefore, the need to get on and do them. She said “It’s not just about doing what you are good at, because by the time you have worked for a while you are usually good at a few things, it is about asking what you want to devote your time to.” That was worth hearing.
Basma was the first of 20 different leaders I met in Beirut, Cairo and Alexandria. People working in hospitals and care homes – some with very vulnerable and damaged people – all drawing on the power of the arts to effect change in people’s lives. They were by turns inspiring and humbling and I found more connections between their work and practice in the UK than I think I expected. As for that notion of choosing to devote your time to something worthwhile – there are plenty of people doing just that in the UK and all around the world.
Damian Hebron is Director of London Arts in Health Forum and Head of Arts at Cambridge University Hospitals. In 2016-17 he is the Wellcome Trust Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme and it was through this programme that his time in Beirut and Cairo was funded. http://www.cloreleadership.org