Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2013, Pages 24-25

Special Report

Making a Difference: The Mazen Afifi Park for the Children of Nahr El Bared

By Delinda C. Hanley

Kids enjoy normal childhood fun at the Mazen Afifi Park for the Children of Nahr El Bared. The park is a haven in a depressing, overcrowded environment with no other diversions. (Staff photo D. Hanley)

Last fall Ellen Siegel and I visited the Nahr El Bared Refugee Camp on the coast of northern Lebanon, less than 10 miles from Tripoli and 19 miles from the Syrian border. Much of the camp had been destroyed in 2007 during heavy shelling between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam militants hiding inside the camp. Walking through the wreckage of homes and buildings with Siegel, an American nurse who had witnessed another tragedy in Lebanon—the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre—was horrifying. To see families with little children walking past the ruins—or living alongside the rubble—was even worse.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has rebuilt 1,350 of 4,591 housing units and 350 of 880 shops destroyed during the bombardment, but donor funds dried up after the Syrian crisis began. Rebuilding costs skyrocketed when UNRWA discovered 12,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance in the rubble, not to mention ancient ruins, according to a recent article in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper.

Last year Palestinian refu­gees fleeing Syria already were pouring into Nahr El Bared,  sharing cramped living quarters—including dark cargo crates, piled two-stories high—with relatives who were awaiting new apartment units. The long-time Palestinian refugees we spoke with groused about unemployment (around 80 percent) and the endless wait for new apartments, which are an average of 10 to 35 percent smaller than their original homes.

Amid this scene of unhappiness and rubble I was stunned to open a gate and step into the “Mazen Afifi Park for the Children of Nahr El Bared,” and see children playing without a care in the world. Boys and girls of all ages swayed on brightly painted swings shaded by blue awnings, while their moms chatted nearby. Kids clambered up and rocketed down slides, and big brothers and sisters helped little ones join a raucous merry-go-round (pictured). Colorful murals festooned the walls surrounding this joyful spot, which also featured newly planted eucalyptus trees and climbing roses.

It’s like entering a different world far from grownup troubles. I asked Siegel how this haven appeared in the midst of such a hellish environment. She told me to look more carefully at the sign outside. It says the playground was “established by the generosity of Mary and Jamal Afifi, Beit Atfal Assomoud, American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), Playgrounds for Palestine (PfP) and Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA).” I already knew about these excellent American charities, and we had just visited the Lebanese NGO Beit Atfal Assomoud Center in the Baddawi refugee camp in Tripoli, which provides health and social services on a shoestring budget to refugees. I didn’t know the Afifi family—so Siegel promised to introduce us.

Mary Lou Dunford Afifi says building the playground has made her own life better. (Staff photo D. Hanley)

Mary Lou Dunford Afifi was born in San Mateo, CA, but told me over a cup of coffee in our DC offices that she’d attended 14 schools around the country before high school—her father worked for American Express and their family relocated as he was promoted throughout his career. Even in high school she was especially interested in meeting foreign students, so she took Arabic classes when she enrolled in Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. She transferred to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she got to know Arab students who were studying engineering. After returning to Vassar and graduating in 1975 she got a job at the U.N. Secretariat, typing for the General Assembly and Security Council—one of only five or six Americans in a 25-person typing pool.

It was there she met Mazen, a Palestinian who worked for the printing office and was assigned to her typing pool. Mazen was born in Akka (Acre), raised in Lebanon, and attended high school in Libya, where he became head of a Palestinian student union. During their five-year courtship, Mary Lou learned that Mazen’s siblings were scattered all over the world—in Palestine, Libya, the UAE, Oman, Morocco, Belgium and Vietnam. In 1980, she and Mazen were married at the U.N. Chapel, by a minister and a sheikh, with a cross and a crescent. “Mazen and I were going to save the world together,” Mary Lou recalled.

For 32 years they did just that. When they lived in California, they helped establish the House of Palestine in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Each country has an international cottage, participates in an ethnic food fair, and hosts a popular arts festival—this year’s Palestine festival was Aug. 25. The couple also sponsored free medical treatment for sick and disabled children through Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF).

Mary Lou worked at the U.N., Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and Exxon, then had a successful career as group human resources director at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) while she and Mazen raised their son, Jamal. SAIC relocated the family to Vienna, VA in 2004, where they became active members of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

In September 2007 Mazen attended the 25th commemoration of the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon and met Siegel, who attends every year. He returned with a renewed passion to do something to help Palestinian kids and teens in the camps. Three months later he was diagnosed with cancer, and died on Feb. 3, 2008 at the age of 63.

Mazen’s wife and son had promised to carry out his plans to help Palestinian children. In September 2008 they made their own journey to Lebanon with Siegel and saw the destruction at Nahr El Bared Refugee Camp that had so shocked Mazen the previous year. They decided that would be the ideal place to make Mazen’s wish a reality.

The Afifis leased land (which was being used as a garbage dump at the time) for a significant monetary donation. Together, with the help of Beit Atfal Assomoud Center, ANERA, MECA and PfP, in 2009 they installed a playground and soccer field in the heart of the camp, next to buildings pockmarked with bullets. Mary Lou visited the playground again in 2010 and made arrangements for enhancements in 2012, including a tent and updated playground equipment. She continues to support the playground annually.

“My son and I felt a playground in Mazen’s honor was the perfect tribute to him,” said Mary Lou. “It gives them a bit of light-hearted fun and physical activity on a daily basis and a place to laugh and let out their energy, so important for children who might have been emotionally damaged by the struggles of living in the camp. It gives parents a place to go and socialize. I feel like it’s made my life better.”

Today Mary Lou is using her years of expertise in the human resources field  to help recently incarcerated women and homeless or abused teens in Alexandria, VA obtain skills training, mental health services, housing and jobs.

“I’m a lucky person and I’m grateful for everything I have,” she told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. “I was married to a great guy for 32 years. I have a son with a heart of gold, I had a successful career and I am in a position to give back. I like knowing that Mazen and I have made a difference.”

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.