Celebrating healthy living
By Laurie Kassman | Wednesday, 10.14.2009, 03:33 AM

A marching strawberry might not be what most people imagine when they think of refugee camps. But if you were visiting the war-damaged Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el Bared in northern Lebanon last year, you would have seen children in colorful, fruit-themed costumes marching in a parade down the camp's narrow and cluttered streets. Colorful parades were once unlikely in these bleak surroundings, but now the Creative Health Campaign (CHC) brings them to refugee camps and poor communities all across Lebanon.

Palestinian children find that fun is contagious in ANERA's Creative Health Campaign festivals.

The goal of the street fairs and other CHC activities is to promote healthy living among Lebanon's 400,000 Palestinian refugees and other impoverished communities. ANERA conceived and implemented the program in 2006, coordinating the work with a growing number of partners that has reached 80 local non-profit partners.

Dr. May Haddad, ANERA's Community Health Advisor, directs the CHC program: "The campaign is about simple, smart, cost-effective practices that people — particularly those in poor and marginalized communities — can do themselves to protect their health, achieve economic benefits and foster self-reliance."

The CHC campaign focuses on breastfeeding, homemade baby foods, eating veggies and fruits, anti-smoking messages, rational use of medicines, good nutrition and exercise.

A key to the program's success is that each community creates and shapes its own events, explains Dr. Haddad. "People immediately link to it because they can see the benefit. It's simple, fun and easily customized to the needs and resources of each community."

Participants young and old enjoy free watermelon during a Healthy Food parade.

To attract greater interest and get children engaged, the program relies on user-friendly projects and educational handouts. The parade of children in fruit and vegetable costumes, for instance, promoted healthy eating at home. Free watermelon at the end of one festival was a great hit with both adults and children. It also provided a useful message about healthy dessert alternatives to overly-sweetened cakes and candy. The message got through to at least one teen who vowed to wean his friend off his belief that "Pepsi is the best thing in life."

The festivals can provide a welcome relief for families enduring difficult conditions in camps like Ain Helweh in southern Lebanon where deep poverty and violence threaten the health and safety of families living there. One festival participant who lives in Ain Helweh said she and her family leave the camp every other day to seek some solace and safety in the nearby town of Saida.

In 2009 alone, 80 Lebanese non-profits have collaborated with ANERA on 20 community festivals that have attracted more than 8,000 participants at 12 different locations across Lebanon. More than 3,500 children participated in the spring festivals.

The non-profit Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts, Al Jana, works closely with ANERA on mobile festivals that tour Palestinian refugee camps and marginalized communities to promote education and creative arts. Al Jana's festivals incorporate ANERA's health campaign, using children's songs, clown shows and street carnivals.

The festivals this summer focused on anti-smoking. In Lebanon, where more than half the adult population smokes, children paraded in masks of wrinkled faces – their view of smokers. It was a powerful message for their parents and other adults. "I was afraid when I learned that smoking kills," said one 11-year-old participant, "I wish my father would quit." Street theater, art exhibits and educational handouts, all highlighted the message that smoking is bad for the smoker's health and for the health of those nearby.

Young Palestinians enjoy wearing colorful costumes that carry an important message about healthy foods too.

The street fairs also encourage children to explore their own creativity. Twelve-year old Ali joined the fun in the Ain Helweh camp and was fascinated by what he saw. "It is the first time in my life that I attend such a festival. I did not know that the kids from NGOs can do all these wonders."

These events all have a spirit of celebration, but they have deeper implications than just a health message. ANERA's May Haddad: "The festivals provide a spark of hope to families who face life with a constant struggle for comfort and survival in impoverished conditions."

ANERA also has initiated capacity-building sessions for parents, teachers, volunteers and community workers. They plan events, acquire new communication skills and share materials and activities for community outreach. "Proud of Liberating This Space From Tobacco" posters, for instance, were designed to build on the value of "liberation," encouraging groups and non-profits to set an example by adopting "Free From Smoking" zones in offices, cars and homes.

Creative Health Campaign festivals bring a sense of joy and community.

The capacity-building sessions also create and test songs, games and general educational handouts for schools and community centers. Games range from card play to complex mazes filled with helpful health hints throughout.

More than 128,000 pamphlets and other educational materials have been handed out to the general public through health centers and local non-profits. The handouts include games and health information, a simple how-to for breastfeeding, nutritious diet plans for infants, warning signs of dehydration and other useful health tips.

In 2009, the Creative Health Campaign has organized 50 capacity-building sessions, reaching more than 860 participants who then carry the message back to their own communities. At the sessions, discussions with health professionals help raise awareness about cleanliness in cooking, personal hygiene, waste disposal and insect and rodent prevention. Participants look at adolescent health and support for complex issues like relationships, marriage, sexuality and pregnancy.

Community activists also see the meetings as a useful networking tool. May Haddad adds, "The Creative Health Campaign has helped create 'communities' where before families were not even talking with each other." She sees more communities being empowered and developing their capacities to provide a healthier life for their own families. Plans are underway to duplicate the program in Gaza.

Visit www.anera.org • 202.842.2766

Laurie Kassman is a media relations manager for ANERA


By Laurie Kassman

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