BINGO! That’s right. Of all the amazing and eye-opening experiences I have had in the past eight weeks in Lebanon, this single word reminds me of one of the most important events that happened on this trip. From this experience, I saw what it means to be human. From a game of Bingo, I learned about the Palestinian women we were visiting in the Bourj el-Barajneh camp.
The camp is located in the southern suburbs of Beirut, between the city and the airport. It was a hot and humid 25-minute car ride from our hotel in Hamra. I had never seen the inside of a refugee camp; I had only heard stories and descriptions of them. These descriptions usually involved the powerlines draped over every ledge, the water dripping down the sides of the buildings, and the trash that lined the streets. However, all these descriptions lacked one, rather crucial detail: the people.
From the moment we stepped out of the van, eyes were upon us. Everyone from the shopkeepers to the taxi drivers to the children playing in the streets was looking at us. And why shouldn’t they? I probably looked really odd walking around with a bright blue shirt that had the name “Duke” across the chest and a small picture of a devil sitting under it. However, these stares were not “other-ing” nor did they make me feel uncomfortable. They were warm, inquisitive, and welcoming. Every passerby greeted us with a hearty “Ahlan!” (“Welcome!” in Arabic). Immediately, I felt comfortable in a place where (based on the descriptions I had heard) I only expected the opposite.
We had come to the camp to visit an active aging home for elderly Palestinians. After a couple of minutes of navigating through the narrow streets, we arrived at the home. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by around 15 women who were sitting around playing games, solving puzzles, or having casual conversation. After our initial introductions, we were allowed to socialize and work with the women to solve the puzzles or play any of the different board games they had available. Personally, I saw Shoots and Ladders and immediately had flashbacks to hours of playing with my Dad when I was younger. I was drawn to the group that was playing, and they kindly allowed me to join them. None of them spoke English, so I had to use the Arabic that I had learned in my two years at Duke to communicate with them. However, I only know FusHa (the written, formal Arabic) not 3amiyyah (the different spoken dialects of Arabic), so this proved to be challenging, but all the women were very patient whenever I stumbled over a word or forgot a verb conjugation. Ten games and an hour later, I had only won one game, and I truly did not remember being that bad at Shoots and Ladders. But during that hour, I built relationships with each of the women sitting at that table. They knew my name, where I was from, how old I was, and what I was studying. I knew their names, how old they were, which villages in Palestine they were from, and all about their families.
After that hour, it was time to play Bingo, and these women took Bingo seriously. After three games of intense Bingo-chip-placing, I was asked if I would read the Bingo numbers. Terrified and unconfident in my Arabic skills, I begrudgingly agreed. I can still remember how my hand shook while I was turning the Bingo wheel. I cleared my throat to say the first number in Arabic, then in English: “B6.” To my surprise, everyone, Palestinian women and DukeEngage students alike, looked for B6 on their cards. As I continued to read numbers, they continued to look for them on their cards until finally one woman shouted “BINGO!” Sure enough, she had a Bingo, and I had read all her numbers, and she had understood the numbers I had read. Without missing a beat, one of the women from the Shoots and Ladders table tells me to hurry up and call the number for the next game. Quickly, I got into a rhythm of calling numbers, only pausing on “B11” because for some reason I just couldn’t spit it out.
After another hour of playing Bingo, lunch was served. The women were teaching me how to eat the rice and bean dish mixed with the spices to add more flavor while I was trying to keep up with their quick Arabic sentences. They insisted that I kept eating, even after I was certain that my belly was going to pop, which is exactly what my grandmother does back home. It is when this thought crossed my mind that I almost broke down into tears. For the past three hours with those women in that active aging home in the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp, I felt as though I belonged. But what did I belong to? I am not an avid Bingo player. I am not an old woman. I am not a part of those ladies’ families, friends, or their everyday lives. I am not Palestinian. After weeks of pondering, I have finally discovered what I belong to: humanity. I found the little things – losing a game of Shoots and Ladders, listening to two women quarrel over whether I called “I22” or “I32,” trying to find the words in my broken Arabic to describe just how full I was – connected me to those women on a deeper level, on a human level.
I have had so many experiences since I arrived in Lebanon, and this program has most certainly changed my life, but I chose to write about this one, singular experience in order to share the most important thing I have learned on this trip: we are all human. Of course, we are all human beings, and I am not implying that I did not know this before. Of course the Palestinian people are human beings. I am not implying that I ever thought they weren’t. Here is what I mean: I have taken classes on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at Duke; I have read countless news stories about the Palestinians; I have read so many books and articles in my preparation for this trip, but none of these sources served to encapsulate the humanity of the Palestinians. None of these sources showed me Palestinian women who will play Shoots and Ladders for hours. None of these sources showed me brilliant, amazing Palestinian students who are capable of changing the world. None of these sources showed me the little things, the minute interactions that make up our lives. I will probably never meet the grandsons of those women, but I now know that we have a shared experience, an experience that I will be reminded of every time my grandmother insists I eat more of her mashed potatoes. These little things connect all human beings. They remind us that we are all brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, cousins, and friends. They remind us that underneath all the layers and labels that make up our individual identities we are all human beings. I know that my words can never convey the feelings I had in that moment, but I hope that my words can at least remind others to take a moment to look at the little things and appreciate them: they are what make us human.