As the war in Syria enters its sixth year, 11 million people continue to be displaced. 1.5 million Syrians have found refuge in the neighbouring country of Lebanon. Life in makeshift tents, abandoned buildings and garages is harsh for entire families, but children suffer the most. More than half of Syrian children of school age in Lebanon are not enrolled in any kind of formal education. Many children are forced to work to support their families and very few of them have access to sports and fun activities.
ClimbAID is a non-profit organisation that aims to foster the physical and psychosocial development of refugee children and teenagers through climbing.
Beat Baggenstos founded the organisation in Zurich, Switzerland this September and the project has since gained momentum and been embraced by top Swiss climbers including Nina Caprez, who is volunteering as a climbing instructor in Lebanon. ClimbAID has taken on a two-pronged approach in different countries so far - an initiative in Zurich introducing refugees to bouldering, and the 'A Rolling Rock' project in Lebanon, which brings climbing into refugee settlements.
Giving up a job in the finance industry to follow a passion for climbing and humanitarian voluntary work, Beat asked himself: “How can I bring climbing to young refugees to divert their attention to something fun, healthy and motivating?” In light of rising tensions between refugee and host communities in Lebanon, Beat hopes that joint climbing activities between Syrian and Lebanese people will also foster a sense of community.
We got in touch with Beat to find out more about his plans for the charity...
What's your background in climbing and charity work?
I started climbing just three and a half years ago. I was working in a bank and last year, after eleven years in the banking sector, I decided to quit my job and went travelling started climbing a lot in Argentina, Mexico, Chile and Ethiopia. Whilst away, I decided to do some volunteering in Lebanon and somehow got in touch with a climbing project in Ethiopia focusing on developing a crag and bringing business opportunities to the village. At the same time I also heard about bouldering sessions with refugees at the Minimum bouldering gym in Zurich and started looking into climbing as a means of economic development, but also as a form of therapy.
So how did ClimbAID get off the ground, so to speak?
Right from the very first day in Lebanon I really wanted to do something with refugees there. I met people from the Lebanese Climbing Association and started talking to them and I thought OK, I could bring the kids to the crag and do some climbing with them, but I soon realised that it was impossible with all the military checkpoints and settlements. I'd also need papers and to gain the trust of the parents, plus transport was almost impossible logistically. I realised I had to do something different, so that's when I thought about bringing climbing into the settlements using a mobile wall.
What is the Rolling Rock?
'A Rolling Rock' is going to be a mobile boulder block on a truck: there are two options for it really, it can either be placed on a trailer or on a truck. I think it's more realistic to build it on a truck. I realised that people liked it and that it might be realistic to do something like this. When I came back to Switzerland I started contacting outdoor companies and realised it’s not that easy to get cash and that a lot of the companies are struggling with economic pressure and the strong Swiss Franc. I somehow had to find another way around it - a fundraising campaign is currently underway, we need $50,000 to make it happen! I also learned that the refugee bouldering sessions in Zurich that had inspired me were no longer happening, so it came logically to me that I would kickstart this initiative again with ClimbAID to build a base for engagement abroad. Adi Schiess and the Minimum Bouldering Gym generously supported us in taking these activities up again.
Tell us more about the MaxiMiNimum sessions?
Our MaxiMiNimum groups are headed by 20 volunteers who started to engage in bouldering sessions in Zurich with refugees, and many are now also working passionately on the Lebanon project. The refugees come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Eritrea - mostly from these three countries but some have also come from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Tibet.
What are the benefits of bringing climbing to the refugees and people in settlements abroad?
We are convinced that ...
- Climbing simulates the mind, fosters the physical development, builds a sense of community and cultivates feelings of accomplishment.
- Climbing helps to cope with the psychological stress of conflict and the social marginalization many experience from living at the edge of society.
- Our projects facilitate inter-cultural exchange through sport, which creates positive emotions and connects individuals through a universal language.
What do the kids say?
They love it! Before the first session I was a bit worried, I thought it might be chaos and hard to control, but it was just pure fun. As an example, we started with a voluntary school project in Zurich and the kids went twice with their teachers to the train station and then we picked them up at the other end. The third time we weren't there anymore to pick them up and the teacher had said that five should come, but I thought there might only be three if no one was picking them up, but in the end seven kids came! Now the group is growing and the kids are asking for a second weekly session and we are exploring how to make it possible for them to come in the evening or every other day, as that’s how integration can really start working.
What’s next for ClimbAID?
In Switzerland we got in touch with another bouldering gym recently and we might offer our sessions there too. It’s about expanding the activities there and with regard to the Lebanon project it’s all about our fundraising events, the next one is with Nina Caprez on 22nd December. We are also working with an NPO in Dubai which builds playgrounds in slums, called You Smile I Smile - it's easy to put small bouldering walls in these areas and we are looking at a similar project in Beirut.
All donations made until 22nd December will be doubled by the Z ZURICH FOUNDATION.
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