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Lebanese Social Worker Sisters Tackle Radicalization and talk about their Fears, Hopes and Regrets

The sisters are tireless in their work, but the challenge they face is daunting, while their funding remains threadbare

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Nancy (left) and Maya Yamout have been visiting Islamist militants in Lebanon's Roumieh prison for the last five years. VOA
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Within the confines of Lebanon’s Roumieh prison they gathered together as men recounting lives led before they became seen as terrorists.

Inmates whose affiliations spanned across Islamic State (IS) and a gamut of other Islamist groups were in discussion and, for once, religion and politics were not on the agenda.

Instead, led by two pioneering social workers, the talk was to be of their fears, their hopes, their regrets.

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“The moment you refer to religion or politics it becomes an endless debate,” explained Nancy Yamout, who along with her sister Maya has been overseeing sessions that also include art therapy.

“Religion is part of it, of course, but we’re not sheikhs, we’re social workers. We want to look at how they have reached this point socially and psychologically.”

For five years they have worked within the prison as they search for a new way to respond to radicalism, a search that is now taking them from the Islamists of Roumieh prison into neighbourhoods of the dispossessed.

Beyond the sectarian

A country deeply divided along sectarian lines, Lebanon’s instability has increased with the Syrian war.

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Struggling with an influx of Syrian refugees, the country also finds itself under threat of bombing – the last deadly blast took place this June in the northern border town of al-Qaa and state security services claim to have foiled numerous other IS attacks.

This neighborhood in west Beirut is the target of the Yamout's efforts to prevent radicalization. VOA
This neighborhood in west Beirut is the target of the Yamout’s efforts to prevent radicalization. VOA

Meanwhile some youngsters within Lebanon’s own borders are being lured by the likes of IS into the conflict.

Some of the main drivers behind this are well established.

Raphaël Lefevre, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told VOA that recruits were “young Sunnis who feel strongly about supporting the Syrian revolution.”

Referring to the role of the powerful Iran-backed Lebanese Shia group which intervened to support Syrian Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad, he explained they “also feel frustrated by Hezbollah’s intervention in the ongoing conflict there and domination in Lebanon.”

The same year the war began, 2011, the Yamout sisters entered Roumieh prison for the first time.

A bar of soap, one of many items the Yamout sisters bring in to Roumieh prison for the inmates. VOA
A bar of soap, one of many items the Yamout sisters bring in to Roumieh prison for the inmates. VOA

They had both lost friends to radicalization, and persuaded the authorities to let them in as they sought to understand what it was that drove people into the arms of islamist militants.

But, as social workers, they wanted to look beyond the religious and political context of their subjects.

Building trust

Nancy and Maya Yamout have slowly built trust among inmates in Roumieh’s Block B, exclusively home to the prison’s 680 Islamist militants, as they go about conducting interviews rather than the more usual interrogations.

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“We don’t ask them why they are accused of terrorism,” explained Nancy.

“We ask them how they are doing, what are their happy memories, what kind of food do you like?”

The latest art sessions were created as a form of therapy, though the sisters had limited material at their disposal — the prison would not allow chalk because it could potentially be smeared by inmates across the prison’s CCTV camera lenses.

One of the artworks created by an inmate in Roumieh Prison after art therapy. Some refused to draw or paint, considering it against Islam, but used photos instead. The words "I'm tired" and "tomorrow we will meet" are drawn over the work. VOA
One of the artworks created by an inmate in Roumieh Prison after art therapy. Some refused to draw or paint, considering it against Islam, but used photos instead. The words “I’m tired” and “tomorrow we will meet” are drawn over the work. VOA

Such workshops act as a gentle entry into discussions exploring the circumstance that created men seen as monsters by much of the outside world.

The Yamout’s findings led them to explore the role of family, and the support mechanisms available.

“If they’re between 15 and 20, they are developing their ideology, and if the parents are not creating a sense of self worth, or even something like the Scouts or Red Cross is, others will,” explained Nancy.

“It’s about a sense of belonging, of being wanted,” added her sister Maya.

And now, armed with their findings, they have moved beyond Roumieh in an effort to stop the cycle before it destroys more lives.

Reaching out

Having come to Lebanon from Manbij, the Syrian town controlled by Islamic State until August, Amal* has left one nightmare to be confronted with another.

Living in a poverty-blighted neighborhood in west Beirut, she fears for the safety of her children in a place she says is rife with crime.

“Maybe children here will reach drug dealers, or extremists – I don’t know,” she told VOA.

The Yamouts were pointed in the direction of the neighborhood by their contacts within Roumieh.

Here, claim the sisters, is a toxic mixture that contributes to radicalization – poverty, but more importantly broken social structures and familial relations.

Many here also lack Lebanese citizenship, making them vulnerable, according to the sisters, to those offering a new sense of identity and purpose.

In response, the Yamouts and their NGO Rescue Me have set up workshops for youngsters, offering them therapeutic activities like mosaic-making and job training, and are also setting up an office in the neighborhood to offer more permanent support.

Nancy, Maya and their mother at their home, from which they run their NGO Rescue Me. VOA
Nancy, Maya and their mother at their home, from which they run their NGO Rescue Me. VOA

Oil on fire

“When you support these kids, and give them enough, their self esteem rises and they gain the tools to work,” said Maya.

The sisters are tireless in their work, but the challenge they face is daunting, while their funding remains threadbare.

Advocating for more focus on prevention of radicalism at its roots, with supporting families in vulnerable communities crucial, they argue that more effort needs to be made helping former prisoners leaving Roumieh’s Block B into Lebanese society.

Otherwise, they warn, no matter how many arrests are made, or how many end up in Block B, the cycle of violence and radicalization could continue.

“The message [of Islamist militants] can spread,” warned Nancy. “It’s like oil on fire.”

*Amal’s name has been changed to protect her identity. (VOA)

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Indian Cuisine becomes the most sought after in Moscow

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Indian cuisine in FIFA World cup
Indian dishes available in Moscow during FIFA World Cup 2018, representational image, wikimedia commons

June 17, 2018:

Restaurateurs Prodyut and Sumana Mukherjee have not only brought Indian cuisine to the ongoing FIFA World Cup 2018 here but also plan to dish out free dinner to countrymen if Argentina wins the trophy on July 15.

Based in Moscow for the last 27 years, Prodyut and Sumana run two Indian eateries, “Talk Of The Town” and “Fusion Plaza”.

You may like to read more on Indian cuisine: Indian ‘masala’, among other condiments spicing up global food palate.

Both restaurants serve popular Indian dishes like butter chicken, kebabs and a varied vegetarian spread.

During the ongoing FIFA World Cup 2018, there will be 25 per cent discount for those who will possess a Fan ID (required to watch World Cup games).

There will also be gifts and contests on offers during matches in both the restaurants to celebrate the event.

The Mukherjees, hailing from Kolkata, are die-hard fans of Argentina. Despite Albiceleste drawing 1-1 with Iceland in their group opener with Lionel Messi failing to sparkle, they believe Jorge Sampaoli’s team can go the distance.

“I am an Argentina fan. I have booked tickets for a quarterfinal match, a semifinal and of course the final. If Argentina goes on to lift

During the World Cup, there will be 25 per cent discount for those who will possess a Fan ID (required to watch World Cup games).

There will also be gifts and contests on offers during matches in both the restaurants to celebrate the event.

FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia
FIFA World Cup 2018, Wikimedia Commons.

“We have been waiting for this World Cup. Indians come in large numbers during the World Cup and we wanted these eateries to be a melting point,” he added.

According to Cutting Edge Events, FIFA’s official sales agency in India for the 2018 World Cup, India is amongst the top 10 countries in terms of number of match tickets bought.

Read more about Indian cuisine abroad: Hindoostane Coffee House: London’s First Indian Restaurant.

Prodyut came to Moscow to study engineering and later started working for a pharmaceutical company here before trying his hand in business. Besides running the two restaurants with the help of his wife, he was into the distribution of pharmaceutical products.

“After Russia won the first match of the World Cup, the footfall has gone up considerably. The Indians are also flooding in after the 6-9 p.m. game. That is the time both my restaurants remain full,” Prodyut said.

There are also plans to rope in registered fan clubs of Latin American countries, who will throng the restaurants during matches and then follow it up with after-game parties till the wee hours.

“I did get in touch with some of the fan clubs I had prior idea about. They agreed to come over and celebrate the games at our joints. Those will be gala nights when both eateries will remain open all night for them to enjoy,” Prodyut said.

Watching the World Cup is a dream come true for the couple, Sumana said.

“We want to make the Indians who have come here to witness the spectacle and feel at home too. We always extend a helping hand and since we are from West Bengal, we make special dishes for those who come from Bengal,” she added. (IANS)