by Adriana Ermter with files from Janine Chehade
The hum of 5,000 bees fills the air. A few buzz by, but most of the bees remain enclosed in their wooden-box hives resting on the ground. Dressed from head to toe in thick, white, protective clothing, a group of 13 to 16 year olds walk from box to box, stopping to remove the honeycomb-covered wooden frames from deep inside each one. They are the beekeepers of Bee Valley.
"I love the bees," says Mohamad, a 13-year-old beekeeper. "I used to be afraid of them stinging me, but we wear suitable clothes and I know what I am doing."
Learning to Become Worker Bees
Mohamad and the other young beekeepers confidently check each honeycomb frame for larvae, gently brushing away the stray bees as they work. They've been trained to return the frames containing the growing larvae to the hive so that they can fully develop and produce honey. Those that are larvae free are removed by the beekeepers who, with outstretched arms and watching each step they take through their mesh masks, carefully carry them to a small building at the side of the field. Once inside, they place the sweet-smelling honeycombs into a large metal container where the honey extraction process will soon take place.
It's taken more than a year's hard work and dedication to get to this stage. With funds and training supplied by Right To Play, through a partnership with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the youth have been able to buy the bees, build the beehives and diligently tend to them each week. The young beekeepers take their newfound roles seriously and with a growing sense of pride.
Reviving Bee valley
Once renowned for raising bees and producing sweet, delicious honey, Bee Valley in North Lebanon is currently one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the country. Over the past seven years, there has been an ongoing influx of displaced Syrian and Palestinian refugees to the area. With this increase in population, unemployment has risen and school attendance has dropped. With no jobs to aspire to and the reality of a future as soldiers fighting in the Syrian war, hopes have been crushed, leaving youth like Mohamad questioning the relevance of pursuing an education, personal interest or vocation.
"Before the program, I didn't know what I wanted," says Mohamad. "I like movies, so I wanted to be an actor…but how?"
With a lack of recreational and after-school programs, the youth have also been deprived of an outlet for their curiosity and creativity and with it, their opportunity to dream. Many see their futures as bleak and futile and as a result, are using drugs as an activity to fill their boredom and to squash their feelings of despair and hopelessness. The beekeeping program is helping change this perspective and behavior.
"I didn't know I could do something, especially in Bee Valley," says Mohamad, explaining how he felt prior to joining the program, last year. "The only thing I thought about bees is that they can sting you and it hurts. Now, I know more."
The Path Towards a Bright Future
Mohamad and 99 other Lebanese and Syrian youth—67 of whom are girls—are participating in the Gaining Opportunities and Access to Livelihoods' (GOAL), bee-keeping project. The project is part of GOAL's larger, national initiative to inform young Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon about their professional opportunities and to support them in integrating into the employment market through educational and vocational training and qualification.
Comprised of students, the beekeeping group meets twice a week after school to learn about the art of beekeeping. Led by local, young adults who have been trained in Right To Play's play-based approach to learning and development, the group also plays games, talks about their feelings and even, puts on plays about the importance of beekeeping for their community. Combined, these activities are helping to develop the participants' life skills such as self-worth, empathy, communication, and teamwork. It's even enabling Mohamad to fulfill one of his dreams: performing as an actor.
"One of the most exciting parts about participating in the beekeeping program was when we acted in a play elaborating the stages of bees in making honey," says Mohamad, happily. "My parents and friends were very excited to learn about what I am doing. They love that I am now a beekeeper. They keep asking me for honey!"
While the plays create public awareness about Bee Valley and its honey, more importantly, they demonstrate the benefits, potential, and opportunity the youth now have through formal schooling and their bee-keeping education.
For Mohamad and his fellow beekeepers, this has been life-changing. Rejuvenated with a newfound sense of purpose and self-worth, they say they feel validated for their choice to stay in school and for becoming productive members of their community.
As beekeeping experts, they are building their entrepreneurial capacity as they grow into their roles as Bee Valley's future leaders.
"The skills I am learning are priceless and I think the whole neighborhood should learn beekeeping and raise more bees," says Mohamad. "All it takes it just one beehive of my own and I am a beekeeper and I can make a career for myself."
In just a few more days, the young beekeepers will be able to pour the golden liquid into containers to sell. But they aren't just making honey for money. They're as equally invested in building a purpose and a legacy for themselves and their community. As budding beekeepers , they're bringing the community's defunct Bee Valley back to life.