Du­nia El Khoury and the women lead­ing devel­op­ment in Deir Al Ah­mar

Lebanon Traveler - - CONTENTS -

In a north­east Bekaa vil­lage, the Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion of Deir Al Ah­mar has re­de­fined the role of its women. The founder, Du­nia El Khoury, shares their vi­sion for a sus­tain­able fu­ture

Orig­i­nally from Ghadir, Du­nia El Khoury’s adopted vil­lage of Deir Al Ah­mar and its women have be­come her life’s pas­sion. She set up the Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion of Deir Al Ah­mar (W.A.D.A.) in 1991, a non-profit ded­i­cated to sus­tain­able devel­op­ment and em­pow­er­ing women, which gained legal sta­tus in 1994. The vol­un­teer-led ini­tia­tive, which counts 50 women among its mem­bers, is a pow­er­ful ex­am­ple of how sus­tain­able devel­op­ment can come from within a com­mu­nity and in 2002 it was rec­og­nized for its achieve­ments with the Dubai In­ter­na­tional Award for Best Prac­tices to Im­prove the Living En­vi­ron­ment.

“My hus­band is from Deir Al Ah­mar. I got mar­ried there. I sug­gested to him that we should do some­thing to sup­port the lo­cal com­mu­nity. It’s a very rich area but we don’t re­ally know about its re­sources,” El Khoury says. “This is why I founded the or­ga­ni­za­tion. It’s a long process but it’s very well im­ple­mented as the project is re­ally com­ing from the lo­cal com­mu­nity.”

Deir Al Ah­mar has im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, lo­cated on the Ro­man road con­nect­ing Baal­bek to By­b­los. It stands at the cross­roads be­tween Phoeni­cian, Ro­man and Greek her­itage and the ru­ins of those civ­i­liza­tions can still be seen. Im­pres­sive nat­u­ral land­scapes and moun­tains sur­round Deir Al Ah­mar. Its many wa­ter springs and rich fer­tile lands have cre­ated a re­gion abun­dant in bio­di­ver­sity. W.A.D.A.’S mis­sions are many, all with an eco­tourism slant and a fo­cus on self-sus­tain­abil­ity and pro­tect­ing the vil­lage’s nat­u­ral, cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal her­itage. The as­so­ci­a­tion aims to im­prove the life of the lo­cal com­mu­nity, in­volve women in devel­op­ment, train dis­em­pow­ered groups such as women, youth and farm­ers and de­velop agro, ru­ral, re­li­gious and eco tourism.

Deir Al Ah­mar’s W.A.D.A. cen­ter has acted as an in­cu­ba­tor for the com­mu­nity since it opened. It’s the head­quar­ters for the as­so­ci­a­tion and the site of its many ac­tiv­i­ties. Sur­rounded by vast gar­dens, it houses an industrial-sized kitchen where lo­cal women pre­pare re­gional dishes with lo­cal pro­duce such as maakroun bi toum, kaak bil halib, khobeyz’e borghol, freekeh and kebbeh hazineh. They pro­vide a cater­ing ser­vice and share the culi­nary her­itage of the area by pre­par­ing mouneh in the pro­duc­tion cen­ter to be sold around the coun­try. Re­gional crafts are also made in the cen­ter and it’s be­come an ed­u­ca­tional hub for lo­cals.

“We wanted to en­hance the role of women and im­prove the living en­vi­ron­ment in the ru­ral ar­eas in Deir Al Ah­mar,” El Khoury says. “It’s our vil­lage. We have to fight to im­prove the en­vi­ron­ment be­cause it’s a ru­ral area, and there are lots of prob­lems like migration. It’s our role to con­trib­ute to sus­tain­able devel­op­ment.”

W.A.D.A. has also put a struc­ture in place to ac­ti­vate and im­prove ru­ral and eco­tourism to at­tract tourists, pro­vide in­come for lo­cal fam­i­lies and kick start the lo­cal econ­omy. They work with lo­cal farm­ers to pro­mote or­ganic farm­ing and sup­port two or­ganic winer­ies, Barka Wine and La Cou­vent Rouge. There is a net­work of 30 guest­houses, with lo­cals en­cour­aged to ren­o­vate their homes and open them to vis­i­tors. W.A.D.A. has launched var­i­ous

It’s our vil­lage. We have to fight to im­prove the en­vi­ron­ment

en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness cam­paigns and worked with lo­cal schools on pa­per re­cy­cling. The as­so­ci­a­tion has re­cently launched a new small grants project Zaater and Zayzafoon, which cul­mi­nates in a week­end fes­ti­val in May. The project pro­motes the con­ser­va­tion of za­atar (wild thyme) and zayzafoon, a flow­er­ing tree, both na­tive to the re­gion but in decline. “We want the lo­cal com­mu­nity to re­plant th­ese trees be­cause there are only a few left. Through the an­nual fes­ti­val our ob­jec­tive is to con­serve th­ese two species which are at risk,” El Khoury says.

“There are eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties in ru­ral tourism; it’s very im­por­tant for us. Through this we can sup­port the lo­cal com­mu­nity and have di­rect in­come,” El Khoury says. Though the coun­try’s cur­rent po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity has posed a chal­lenge in bring­ing tourists into the vil­lage, El Khoury is con­fi­dent that they now have the right struc­ture in place for a sus­tain­able fu­ture. “We’re con­vinced it’s an im­por­tant sec­tor for us.”

It’s W.A.D.A.’S “bot­tom-up” ap­proach to devel­op­ment, di­rectly in­volv­ing the lo­cals, that’s clearly the key to its suc­cess. Lo­cal women have been given a voice and now have an ac­tive role in the vil­lage’s devel­op­ment. “Be­fore women had no role, now they are very strong. Now there is a big change in the com­mu­nity. Women are fight­ing to have a role in de­ci­sion­mak­ing and as a re­sult the opin­ion of men to­wards them has changed.”

Du­nia El Khoury (third from the right) in the vil­lage of Deir Al Ah­mar

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