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The Lebanese student saving lives with his mobile phone

17 May

At 26 years old, Yorgui Keyrouz has accomplished an extraordinary feat: saving over 15,000 lives. By starting a blood database from his mobile phone, he’s put those in need of blood in touch with a growing number of willing donors. In doing so, he’s filled a gaping void in the Lebanese health sector, which has no centralised blood service. Listen to my report for Deutsche Welle:

http://blogs.dw.de/generationchange/wp-content/plugins/audio-link-player/xspf/player.swf Blood Bank in Lebanon

Yorgui Keyrouz

Yorgui Keyrouz started the blood database on his mobile phone

Samar Khoury

Regular donor Samar Khoury is ready to give


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Women Prisoners Play the Liberation Role

19 Aug

Women in Baabda prison attending one of Daccache's workshops (CREDIT: CATHARSIS)

By Dalila Mahdawi

BAABDA WOMEN’S PRISON, Lebanon, Aug 18, 2011 (IPS) – To a soundtrack of almost constant pounding of fists against iron doors, drama therapist Zeina Daccache is trying to capture the attention of a group of women prisoners. Many of the 45 women are suffering from drug withdrawal and alternately appear agitated, upset, energised and detached. Others chat loudly, take long puffs off cigarettes, or pace the room.

But it doesn’t take long for Daccache, who is also a well-regarded comedian on Lebanese television, to bring calm to the chaotic scene. After a few warm-up games intended to break the ice, she has several of the women relating their life stories and future ambitions, envisioning a world beyond the confines of bolted doors and barred windows.

Daccache has come to Baabda as part of her goal to bring drama therapy inside Lebanese prisons. Her organisation, the Lebanese Centre for Drama Therapy (CATHARSIS), is the only one of its kind in the Arab world and one of very few offering rehabilitation services to those behind bars.

Following an adaptation and award-winning documentary of the 1950s U.S. play ‘12 Angry Men’ (renamed ‘12 Angry Lebanese’) with inmates from Lebanon’s high-security Roumieh prison, Daccache decided to expand her drama therapy programme to other prisons in the country. With support from the Drosos Foundation, she is also training dozens more individuals to become drama therapists in the hope of encouraging a new generation of professionals combining theatre with rehabilitation. Although she has only been working in Baabda for a few weeks, Daccache is already seeing some of the prisoners shrug off their initial caution to embrace the therapy.

“I’m very sad because of my situation and I’m sad because my daughter is far away,” says D.W., who is serving time for drug offences. “I have a good heart but I didn’t think of my daughter,” she says, crying quietly. “I didn’t know right from wrong.”

Drama therapy gained popularity in the 1970s and has been used ever since in schools, rehabilitative clinics, bereavement centres and prisons to help individuals overcome personal problems, promote critical thinking, teach teamwork skills and improve self-esteem. Through role-play, group therapy sessions and dramatisation, many of the women in Baabda are gaining greater self-awareness and reflecting on the events that led them into conflict with the law.

“The aim in the end of this current project in Baabda is to have a theatre performance,” Daccache says. Because of the high turnover in prisoners, the group will create a montage of monologues as opposed to a full play, giving newcomers the chance to participate and explore their personal history. “Each one of them is a scene by herself,” says Daccache. “Each one by themselves fills the room.”

N.L., who has been using drugs since she was 15, clutches a sketch of herself on a stage. “My role in the past was addiction, humiliation,” she tells the group. Although she awaits sentencing for drug trafficking charges, she says she’d “like to be a wife, a mother, someone who is respected, happy.”

Daccache is passionate about the power of drama in rehabilitating prisoners and combating recidivism. At Roumieh prison, “the inmates started working on themselves instead of blaming their situation entirely on society the whole time,” she says. “Depression diminished and the inmates were able to plan a future for themselves outside of prison.” Some of the men became so passionate about theatre that they sought out acting jobs after leaving prison.

The need for such rehabilitative services is especially important given the dismal conditions in Lebanese prisons. Notoriously overcrowded, 19 out of Lebanon’s 20 penitentiaries were not originally built to serve as such, says MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who as head of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee recently presented a detailed report on prison reform. “Prison conditions are to be considered in themselves a form of torture, cruel and degrading punishment,” he told IPS. “There is an urgent need to shift prisons from being places of punishment to places of rehabilitation.”

Besides segregated quarters in mixed prisons, Lebanon has four women’s prisons. Women count for only around 300 of Lebanon’s roughly 5,000 prisoners, all of whom are kept in overcrowded penitentiaries that fail to meet the standard minimum treatment recommended by the United Nations.

Poor holding conditions lead to frequent rebellions and riots. In April, Roumieh prison experienced the worst uprising in Lebanese history. Prisoners protesting a lack of access to medical care and poor services broke down doors, started fires and took control of much of the prison in a standoff which resulted in the death of four inmates.

Earlier this month, Lebanon’s Parliament rejected a proposal to reduce the prison “year” from 12 to nine months, prompting three inmates to set fire to themselves, resulting in the death of one, and hundreds of others to initiate hunger strikes. Last weekend, five prisoners from Roumieh managed a jail-break by scaling the prison walls with bed sheets. Experts are now warning that another prison riot there is looming on the horizon.

While in better condition than many of Lebanon’s larger prisons, Baabda offers no exercise facilities, and women only have access to sunlight filtered through a caged-in rooftop. Many prisoners complain of inadequate medical treatment and unhygienic conditions, and have little to no recourse to legal counsel. Frustrations often lead to spats among the inmates.

Amidst such circumstances, the group therapy offered by CATHARSIS takes on additional importance. “The sharing of experiences and the group dynamic helps them find a way to channel their anxieties,” Daccache says. “The new social interaction has given them back a sense of worth and has made them feel as though they are part of a community.”

Perhaps most importantly, says Daccache, drama therapy offers prisoners a sense of hope at a time when many experience an overwhelming sense of despair. “They are learning that there is still a chance to change even while they are still in prison,” she says. (END)

Filipina worker cuts arms, jumps 7 floors, left on street more than hour

6 Jan

The first Monday of the new year was a grim day here in Lebanon. My friend and fellow journalist Matthew Cassel tweeted about a commotion (warning: graphic photos) near his house in Sanayeh, Beirut. Without even seeing what had happened, he said he already knew: a migrant domestic worker had killed herself. Sadly, this is all too common- since October, at least 30 migrant women (and one man) have reportedly died, mostly by suicide.

Following Cassel’s tip-off, I traveled to the scene, where more than one hour and a half later after jumping to her death, the crumpled body of 28-year old Filipina Theresa Otero Seda was still lying face-down on the pavement, covered with a thin white plastic sheet. It had taken an ambulance around one hour to reach the scene, where a crowd of curious bystanders, four officials from the Philippine Embassy and three policemen had gathered. According to Cassel, the street of the incident wasn’t cordoned off for some time, with cars speeding along the street and almost running over Theresa’s corpse, unaware of what lay under the bag (though of course if they respected the speed limits it would have been clear). One woman driving a school bus apparently stopped almost next to the body to ask for directions. “Someone’s just died here,” she was told. “Huh,” she replied. “So how did you say I am supposed to get to destination X?”

Theresa landed on a slight incline, and her blood had trickled down the pavement. Her right hand poked out from under the sheeting, slightly curled inwards. In full view of the public, the forensic team removed the plastic sheeting and turned her over. Her face had been smashed into an unrecognizable collection of bone and blood: a sickening sight that seems to have been burnt into my mind. Forensics let her lie on the road for a while, taking photos and allowing photojournalists to take a few snaps and giving the public a good look. I felt humiliated for her.

After a while the ambulance staff placed her crumpled, tiny body on a stretcher (without wheels) and carried her towards the entrance of the building, I’m assuming to investigate in a more discreet environment. They reversed the ambulance into the area to try to block off the site. But as they put Theresa on the ground and began to remove her shirt and trousers, I could see everything. I watched with horror as they wiped her face and arms down with Kleenex tissue, and I saw more than I should have been allowed when they turned her over and removed her bra. Again I felt humiliated for her: even in death, she wasn’t treated with due respect . She was practically stripped naked for the world to gawp at.

I managed to speak to her employer, who was standing around at the scene fiddling with his mobile phone. At times he seemed concerned, but at one point he shared a laugh with another man. About what, I don’t know. After telling me the insurance and embassy would take care of everything (aka, repatriating Theresa’s body), he said:  “This is the point- I used to leave my two children with her.” What does that mean, I thought. “So, you won’t be doing that again with future employers?” I asked him. “No way,” was his response.

Unfortunately, it appears Theresa arrived in Lebanon illegally (please excuse the error in first sentence), defying a deployment ban by Manila to work here. “Responsibility will have to be borne by those who brought her here,” Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon Gilberto Asuque told me later, mentioning the Lebanese agency that recruited the young woman.

Theresa arrived two months ago and leaves behind a partner and three young daughters. Even though she had no dignity even in death, I hope she now has the peace she deserved in life. Let her miserable and wholly avoidable demise be the long-awaited wake-up call to the Lebanese authorities that they must protect women like Theresa from the isolation, desperation and, in many cases, the rights abuses that push them over the edge.

Lebanon closer to signing land-mine-ban pact

16 Nov

Country’s actions in sync with global trend to curb use of mines, cluster munitions
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Monday, November 16, 2009

BEIRUT: Despite not signing the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, Lebanon has made considerable progress on mine clearance operations in recent years and appears to be moving closer to signing the treaty, a report by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) has said. “Landmine Monitor Report 2009: Towards a Mine-Free World,” released Thursday at the UN, said that although Lebanon was continuing to carry out mine-clearance activities, these efforts were facing significant set-backs because of a lack of funds.

Lebanon’s actions were in sync with a global trend to curb the use and effects of mines and other unexploded remnants of war, the 1,253-page report said.

“The norm against mine use is firmly taking hold,” said Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch, Landmine Monitor’s Ban Policy editor. “Antipersonnel mines have been stigmatized as an unacceptable weapon globally, including by countries still outside the Mine Ban Treaty.”

Lebanon is contaminated by land and sea mines laid by Israel during its withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 and during a 34-day war in July 2006, and to a lesser extent, by mines planted by Syria during the 1975-90 Civil War. Around 5 percent of the country’s agricultural land is affected by cluster munition contamination.

Some 80 percent of the world community has signed the Mine Ban Treaty, and though 39 countries, including Israel and the US, have yet to join, most are more or less in compliance with the treaty’s core provisions.

“Positive movement toward [Lebanon] joining the treaty in 2005 and 2006 was set back” by a war with Israel in 2006, ICBL said. Like Israel, Beirut has cited regional tensions as the reason why it can’t sign the document, although it appears to be slowly moving towards formal acceptance. “Lebanon’s signature of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions has given rise to hopes it will also join the Mine Ban Treaty,” said the report, adding Beirut “appears generally committed to mine action.”

Although there are thought to be at least 2,720 mine and explosive remnants of war survivors in Lebanon, victim assistance programs fall short of expectations, ICBL said, citing a similar global trend.

“Victim assistance has made the least progress of the major mine action sectors over the last decade, with both funding and the provision of assistance falling short of what is needed,” said Stan Brabant of non-governmental organization Handicap International, a Landmine Monitor editorial board member. “Progress in the most affected states has been variable, with some countries actively engaged, and others hardly at all. Hundreds of thousands of people need more and better assistance, and they need it now.”

In Lebanon, the report found the cost of services and transport, insufficient psychological and financial support, and lack of awareness of services available were barriers to the rehabilitation of survivors. Risk education programs also needed improvement.

The ICBL report also noted that although Lebanon was the fourth top recipient of mine action funding in 2008, receiving some $28.2 million, donor fa­tigue has since led to serious cut-backs in clearance operations.

There were 64 mine-clearing teams operating in Lebanon in the months following the war in 2006, with Hizbullah volunteers also working to clear an unknown number of cluster submunitions. Today only 18 teams remain. But with seven deminers and peacekeepers killed and 12 injured since 2002, 352 people injured or killed by cluster bombs since the cessation of hostilities in 2006, and the fact that “areas contaminated by cluster munition remnants [in the agriculture-dependent South Leba­non] … are very difficult to mark,” clearance efforts are es­pecially urgent, the report noted.

ICBL used its annual report to encourage states that have not acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty to sign up, and urge signatories to make greater efforts to protect their citizens from the effects of war. “The Mine Ban Treaty has led to lives and limbs saved over the past decade,” said Jacqueline Hansen, Landmine Monitor’s Program Manager. “In the next decade more countries must meet their clearance obligations and efforts to educate affected communities about mine hazards should be sustained to ensure no more people are killed or injured by these indiscriminate weapons.”

H1N1 cases in Lebanon reach 82 as WHO abandons count

16 Jul

Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT: The number of people with the A(H1N1) virus, otherwise known as swine flu, has risen to 82, Lebanon’s Health Ministry said Friday, as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it would stop issuing figures about those affected. “Twenty-two new cases of swine flu have been identified since the [Health Ministry’s] last statement on July 10, bringing the total number of infected to 82 cases,” a statement from the ministry read. The tally comes after Health Minister Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh on Thursday put the total number of swine flu patients at 70. A number of the patients include Lebanese who caught the virus locally after coming into contact with swine-flu patients.

“In my opinion, the number is likely to multiply because the virus spreads quickly,” Khalifeh told the National News Agency Friday. He nevertheless downplayed the seriousness of swine flu, saying research had shown it was “not serious because death rates have been limited around the world and it affects patients who already have health issues.”

Khalifeh is due to attend an emergency conference of Arab Health Ministers next Wednesday. The Cairo meeting will discuss contingency plans ahead of the Muslim pilgrimage and budgetary matters for the Arab Health Ministry.

The latest update of Leba-non’s swine flu statistics comes as the WHO said keeping count of individual cases was proving too taxing for countries where the virus was spreading quickly.

“In past pandemics, influenza viruses have needed over six 

months to spread as widely as the new H1N1 virus has spread in less than six weeks,” the WHO said Thursday in a briefing note posted on its website.

The agency said it would continue to monitor the growing epidemic and asked countries to closely track “unusual events, such as clusters of cases of severe or fatal pandemic (H1N1) 2009 virus infection, clusters of respiratory illness requiring hospitalization, or unexplained or unusual clinical patterns associated with serious or fatal cases,” as well as increased absenteeism from schools or workplaces.

Countries not yet affected by swine flu are advised to report the first confirmed incidences of the virus and to provide weekly aggregated patient numbers together with details about the cases.

The WHO partly attributed its change in reporting requirement to the mildness of symptoms in most patients. “Moreover, the counting of individual cases is now no longer essential in such countries for monitoring either the level or nature of the risk posed by the pandemic virus or to guide implementation of the most appropriate response measures,” the briefing said. The organization said further spread of the virus was “inevitable.”

Lebanon has implemented a series of preventative measures to prevent swine flu from spreading further or affecting the economy. All those returning from abroad with the virus are examined and receive immediate treatment, with medication also given to all passengers who have come into contact with the patient. Thermal sensors have also been installed at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport to screen travelers for abnormally high body temperatures, a symptom 

of the virus.

Those who have contracted swine flu are mostly males under the age of 20, the Health Ministry has said. All of Lebanon’s swine flu patients have received medical treatment but most did not require hospitalization and so far there have been no complications and no deaths reported.

Lebanon imposed a ban on pork imports in late April hoping to thwart the virus, although swine flu cannot in fact be transmitted through eating pork-derived products. Beirut followed up by creating a cross-ministry, national emergency committee to combat a potential national flu pandemic. The first three cases of swine flu in Lebanon were discovered on June 1.

A(H1N1) has killed 429 people and infected over 95,000 since the epidemic first broke out in North America late March this year, the World Health Organization said in its final update a week ago. But with the UK saying last week it had an estimated 55,000 new cases of the virus, the WHO numbers are already grossly outdated. Cherie Blair, the wife of Britain’s former Premier Tony Blair, has been reported to be suffering from swine flu. Rupert Grint, who plays Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter films, is also said to have had a mild case of the virus.

One citizen’s blood donor initiative saves more than 1,000 lives

11 Jul
Donner Sang Compter Secretary-General Samar Khoury Donates Blood at the Middle East Hospital

Donner Sang Compter Secretary-General Samar Khoury Donates Blood at the Middle East Hospital

Yorgui (left) and his brother Marc raising awareness at Lebanon's Balamand University
Yorgui (left) and his brother Marc raising awareness at Lebanon’s Balamand University

BEIRUT: When was the last time you donated blood? That question creeps guiltily into one’s head when talking to 23-year old student Yorgui Teyrouz. Teyrouz is what one might call resourceful. Through his lowly mobile phone, he has built up a successful blood bank database that matches volunteer donors to those in need of a transfusion.

An undergraduate student at the Lebanese American University, Teyrouz first thought of the idea as a scout leader, when he suggested creating a blood database among members.

As a volunteer at the Lebanese Red Cross, he became aware of how scarce blood donors were.

But it was only after the grandfather of a friend failed to find donors for a blood transfusion of the very rare blood type AB – that Teyrouz decided to launch a fully-fledged mobile phone database.

“In my existing database, I had only two AB donors who were able to give two units of blood, but my friend’s grandfather needed five units. He died because he wasn’t able to get enough blood,” says Teyrouz. “No one should be allowed to die because they can’t find the right blood.”

In 2007, he founded Donner Sang Compter to coordinate the growing number of willing donors with needy patients. In French, the name means “to give without expecting anything in return,” but is also a play on the word sang, which means blood.

Today more than 1,000 patients have benefitted from blood, platelets and plasma donated by the database’s 5,000 registered donors, and the number of people who call in search of blood is growing steadily every month. In June alone, Donner Sang Compter answered 112 separate blood demands, filling an important gap in the medical sector.

While many people hear of the service through word of mouth, Teyrouz and his team of volunteers also give talks at schools, clubs and universities, and set up awareness stands to recruit new donors. There is also a Donner Sang Compter group on Facebook with more than 6,200 members.

Teyrouz’s answer to donor scarcity was recently awarded a $50,000 prize in the King Abdullah II Awards for Youth Innovation and Achievement. The Jordanian award, which was this year presented at the World Economic Forum in May, recognizes youth-driven community projects in the Arab world. Teyrouz will use the money to build a sustainable blood bank database and employ full-time staff members.

While people might be reluctant to donate blood to strangers, the feeling of helping save someone’s life is “amazing,” Teyrouz says. “We can all make a positive change.”

Karma aside, donating is also good for you, as Teyrouz points out.

“There have been many studies which prove that donating blood is healthy for the donor and helps clean the blood.”

A subtle underside to the Donner Sang Compter project is that it is helping to break down sectarian divisions. “We’re not differentiating between religions,” Teyrouz says, relating a story about a Muslim youth who donated to an elderly nun and of a sheikh who benefited from the blood of a young Maronite. Teyrouz repeats a Donner Sang Compter slogan: “Blood has only one color.”

Teyrouz receives an average of 10 phone calls every day from people desperately seeking blood donors. During the interview, he takes a call from somebody who needs A + blood. Opening up his database, Teyrouz flicks quickly through his Excel sheets to find a match.

“There’s a quote I came up with,” Teyrouz says, looking up. “The biggest proof of responsible citizenship is to serve someone you don’t know.”

 If you would like to donate blood or are in need of blood, call Donner Sang Compter on 03 31 48 68

 

Jimi Hendrix used in Lebanese anti-drug campaign

27 Jun
Nationwide campaign highlights dangers of substance abuse

NGO Oum al-Nour aims to help drug users overcome addiction
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: “Of all the things I have lost, I miss my mind the most.” These words, uttered by the legendary American rock star Jimi Hendrix, sound lighthearted at first. But bearing in mind Hendrix’s premature death of a possible drug overdose at the age of 27, they might better serve as a warning to today’s youth to steer clear of drug use. This weekend, his words will do just that. Along with a number of other celebrity quotes, Hendrix’s remarks are being used in a nationwide awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of substance abuse.

The campaign is organized annually by non-governmental organization Oum al-Nour, which helps drug users in Lebanon overcome their addiction and reintegrate into society. The four-day campaign, which began on Thursday, coincides with International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26. This year, Oum al-Nour has joined hands with the Interior Ministry and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to distribute drink coasters and placemats across bars and restaurants around the country. Drug quotes from Hendrix, actor Leonardo Dicaprio and the late frontman of 90s rock band Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, are just some of the remarks that appear on the accessories. They were chosen with the hope of arousing the curiosity of young punters to the problem of substance abuse.

The campaign is organized annually by non-governmental organization Oum al-Nour, which helps drug users in Lebanon overcome their addiction and reintegrate into society. The four-day campaign, which began on Thursday, coincides with International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26. This year, Oum al-Nour has joined hands with the Interior Ministry and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to distribute drink coasters and placemats across bars and restaurants around the country. Drug quotes from Hendrix, actor Leonardo Dicaprio and the late frontman of 90s rock band Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, are just some of the remarks that appear on the accessories. They were chosen with the hope of arousing the curiosity of young punters to the problem of substance abuse.

While the number of regular drug users in Lebanon is unknown, there has been a definite increase in the number of younger drug users, Oum al-Nour’s Managing Director Mona Yazigi told The Daily Star. “More than 60 percent of the user’s supported by Oum al-Nour are between 14 and 19 years old.” Young drug users are particularly vulnerable because their bodies have not fully developed, putting them at higher risk of serious psychological problems later in life, Yazigi said. But drugs like hashish, ecstasy and cocaine appear widely available and popular.

 

In conjunction with the coasters and placemat campaign, Oum al-Nour has also launched a media campaign targeting the parents of young drug users. The campaign, dubbed “Keep an eye on your child,” is meant to encourage parents to take an active interest in the lives of their offspring and to watch for signs of substance abuse. “The main message is that parents should be involved,” said Yazigi. “They should ask when, where, why and what” of their children’s activities. “It’s a proven way of keeping your children safe and drug free.” Oum al-Nour’s free of charge services include counseling services for the parents of drug users. The sessions help educate parents about addiction and how to best support their child through rehabilitation. This is often harder than it sounds, with Yazigi noting a culture of taboo surrounding the issue of drug abuse.

This year’s campaign is extra special for Oum al-Nour. It is marking 20 years since the organization’s founding by a group of young individuals after the overdose and death of one of their friends. But with Oum al-Nour receiving around 400 new cases each year, there is plenty of work still to be done on drug abuse in Lebanon.

If you want help getting over your drug addition, call Oum al-Nour on 09210285 or 09223731.