Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from Lebanon

Mayor Leads Village to Surprising Success

  DEIR EL GHAZAL, Lebanon – Amid a collapsed banking system, corrupt and ineffective government and resulting national malaise, uplifting stories are hard to come by in a country once considered the region’s jewel.

  But here in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range, a feel-good tale is taking place in a village of 240 homes. The man responsible is Rafik Debs, mayor of Deir el Ghazal.

  My great-grandmother, Almas Trad, walked these streets as a young girl in the late 1800s. Inspired by her daughter Wadia Trad Tanber – my grandmother - I lived here for three months in 1974 with my uncle, aunt, their six children, three daughters-in-law and five grandchildren in a stone-block home about the size of a three-car garage. No worries waiting for the bathroom; one did not exist.

  Then, there were around 120 homes in the village. The majority of the families were poor – or middle class at best. Four of my cousins sold the quality stone they mined from the foothill upon which the village was built. A fifth, Elias Trad, became a teacher and, later, a school principle. When he saved enough he married and built a fine home atop his parents’ – a Lebanese tradition. [Elias’s son, Johnny, later built his home above the second.]

  Over the years I have been a frequent visitor, having forged a bond with my many cousins and the village that runs deep. Elias and I – about the same age - were like brothers, and his friends were my friends. Rafik was among them. [Elias died at 63 in 2011.]

  Elias and Rafik shared a keen intelligence and thirst for knowledge beyond that of the typical village life at that time. Like Elias, Rafik was an educator. His father died young, leaving him responsible for his mother and younger siblings. It wasn’t until he was 58 that Rafik married for the first time, in 2003. His wife, Dr. Christiane Debs, is an anesthesiologist who works at various hospitals in the vast and fertile Bekaa Valley, which Deir el Ghazal overlooks. Christiane, who loves to travel, began taking Rafik on trips to her favorite countries, France first among them. On one journey, as they drove through the French countryside, Rafik was struck by the cleanliness of the villages as well as the beauty of the town gardens. He thought: “Why can’t Deir el Ghazal look like this?”

  Lebanon, gifted with a natural beauty few countries can match, has opted for a different path. Garbage litters most roads – many Lebanese freely toss their trash out their vehicle windows – and most towns and cities have uncollected piles of rubbish tarnishing their landscape.  In a badly fractured system, urban beautification - and improvement - is hardly a priority.

  Rafik ran for mayor in 2011 and won. His first task was to hire a crew to keep the village litter-free.  Next, he started planting flowers and shrubs. Everywhere.

The Tour

  He told me this as we began a tour of the village – Rafik driving, me riding shotgun and my cousin George Trad – Elias’s son - in the rear. The main road that dissects Deir el Ghazal connects the villages of Riate to the north and Qoussaya to the south. There are several short gravel roads on the west side of the village that end at its edge, where it gradually drops 3,400 feet into the valley. The view my grandmother always told me about, across the Bekaa to the Lebanon Mountain range on the western side, is magnificent.

  Our first stop was the municipality office, an attractive one-story stone building that Rafik had constructed in 2011, his first year in office. Such a place is a surprise in a village so small. “The people are very proud of this building,” he said, explaining its presence.

  From there we headed to Deir el Ghazal’s new synthetic turf soccer field on the western edge of the village, its presence unimaginable a generation ago. A chain-link fence secures the pitch, which is even lighted for night play. The pathway to its entrance is lined with rose bushes and other plants, enhancing the impressive facility.

  Rafik is a serious, stoic man who smiles as often as it rains in summer here, which is almost never. But he beamed when talking about this project costing $80,000, built with village funds and donations.

  “It’s Olympic size and the only one in the area. We also rent it out to boys from nearby villages,” he said

  From there we drove south to the latest addition to Deir el Ghazal, a generator that provides electricity to the entire village. The significance of this achievement can’t be overstated. Lebanon’s economic crisis is so severe that the majority of the country’s households are restricted to several hours of electricity daily. I asked Rafik how he made this happen.

  “I know we have many international organizations in Lebanon helping, so I start calling them. One-by-one. If one says no, I call the next one. Finally, in this case, USAid said yes.”

  From there we moved east, where a maze of gravel and dirt roads lead into a smaller valley that runs north and south between Deir el Ghazal and the Anti-Lebanon Mountain. Cherry, fig and apple tree orchards and plots of grape vines thrive in the valley’s rich red soil and sunny, arid climate, providing extra income for the villagers. There are chicken farms and small stone quarries here as well.

  We began working our way up the brown, mostly barren mountain until we reached a plateau. There stood a grouping of solar panels. In this setting, it felt like a scene from “The Twilight Zone.” But, of course, Rafik has a plan and it’s not science fiction.

  “I am going to get more panels and we’re going to use them to light part of the village with solar,” he said.

  US Aid is funding this project as well.

  From there we climbed higher up the mountain. Rafik’s tires, working hard to gain traction, began spraying stones. Eventually we made it to another plateau where a massive water storge tank awaited. Before I could ask, Rafik ticked off the stats: The well runs more than 1,000 feet deep and the tank holds 211,300 gallons, which comfortably handles the village’s water needs. The cost was $500,000, $400,000 of which was paid by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in the U.S. – Deir el Ghazal is an Orthodox village – the rest by the municipality.

  From here we could see the solar panels, the citrus orchards, the generator, the soccer field, the village, and across the entire breadth of the Bekaa to Zahle, the valley’s largest city.

  “When I see all of this, I am very happy,” Rafik said. “This is the only village in all of Lebanon like this. I’m sure.”

The Future

  True or not there is little doubt about what he has accomplished here. Which brings us to the next topic. Rafik’s second 5-year term is up next year. What are his plans?

  “I’m tired, very tired,” he said, his deeply lined face showing all of its 76 years. “It’s enough.”

  This comment got George, my cousin, amped-up.

  “He can’t leave!” he said. “No one else in the village can do this job. It will all fall apart.”

  I asked Rafik if there is someone he can mentor to eventually take over. He shook his head. George agreed.

“There is no one,” he said, in fact speaking for many of the villagers who respect and admire Rafik for what he has achieved.

  Rafik provided more details about the job, which helps explain his success. He’s up most days at first light and often works until dark. He’s constantly on the phone or making house visits – he knows every family and their extended families – seeking support for his projects. He might not be Mr. Bubbly, but he knows how to schmooze and sell. He refuses to accept a salary.

  Rafik’s family, Debs, is the largest of Deir el Ghazal’s 17 surnames. Three of his cousins have successful careers in the U.S. and maintain homes in the village. One of them gifts $10,000 to the municipality each December. Last year, during COVID, the cousins shipped oxygen machines to Deir el Ghazal and made sure there was enough heating fuel.

  Rafik pointed down toward the village, noting a couple of other projects on his To Do list. He wants to build a public garden for weddings and other events. And he’d like to plant pine trees in the smaller valley just below. They take 10 years to mature, he noted, but the nuts are highly valued as their cost has become prohibitive. He didn’t sound like a man ready to retire.

  “Maybe you’ll change your mind and run again,” I said.

  Rafik shrugged and said it was time to go.

  The next day, a Sunday, Elias’s widow Golda invited the family to Restaurant Wadi Chamsine, a sprawling complex set among a river and gardens near Anjar, about 20 minutes south of Deir el Ghazal. Rafik and his wife, Christiane, joined us. We dined on a spectacular array of Lebanese meza and other dishes, reminding me of how fortunate I was to be raised on this cuisine.

  I sat next to Christiane. She is smart and confident. We covered many topics, including the trips to France where Rafik became inspired.  After a while I mentioned Rafik told me he was not going to run again.

  In between pulls on her hookah pipe, she laughed. “He can’t stop,” she said. “What would he do? No, he will continue.”

  That was welcoming news. So, for now, it appears Deir el Ghazal will grow and flourish – an inspiring example of one person’s ability to get things done in a country where absolutely nothing is getting done.

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