A Lebanese hero reflects on the work of Offre Joie, an NGO he credits with saving him.

Article by: Maryam Ghaddar

Sometimes it takes stepping out of the shadows and into the light for a person to become the hero the world needs.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s about the scene in “Superman” when Clark Kent had to face a trial before he could embrace his destiny and become a thing of legend.

Well, Lebanon has superheroes of its own. They faced trials and overcame them. They lead double lives. Students, professors, reporters and business owners by day, volunteers of goodness for Offre Joie by night.

Take Marc Torbey, the manager of volunteers at Offre Joie, for example.

A diving accident in September 2016 left him tetraplegic, which means he has no movement from the shoulders down. He was 29 years old when his life took a turn. It was his response to this challenge, his spirit in the face of such hardship, that showed what he is truly made of. Yet, Torbey credits his colleagues at Offre Joie for saving him.

“First of all, they call me a leader and a hero because they are nice,” Torbey said in his humble manner, before recognizing the other heroes in his story.

“I have received a huge load of support from friends, family, colleagues, and of course my NGO — everyone was very kind and gave me the support I needed to get through this, because no one could do that alone. It’s very important to keep up your morale and maintain a positive attitude in dealing with this new reality.”

In fact, Torbey says he owes his leadership skills to the experiences he had at Offre Joie prior to his accident. “I might have been a leader before my accident through Offre Joie because I was responsible for the volunteers,” he admitted. “At one point, we reached about 1,600 volunteers, and we achieved a huge number of projects. Managing these volunteers gave me an important lesson when it comes to leadership, especially since I studied management and my thesis was on leadership as well.”

This remarkable young man joined Offre Joie when he was 7 years old, participating in their summer camps. His responsibilities increased over time, until he was participating in Offre Joie on a managerial level.

In addition to his achievements at Offre Joie, Torbey leads a successful career in the banking industry. He was appointed branch manager at Banque Libano-Francaise at the age of 27, becoming the youngest manager to be appointed in Lebanon. That allowed Torbey to manage a team of professionals at a very young age.

He also taught courses at Saint Joseph University during that same period. It was the people he met along the way and the experiences they shared that shaped his purpose, he said.

Offre Joie played an essential role in helping Torbey through his ordeal, both in terms of prayers and through their actions.

“The hospital was flooded with people from all over the country wanting to show support,” Torbey explained. “At one point, we had 300 visitors; even the hospital staff was baffled. Many prayers came from mosques in Tripoli, from Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, two regions with conflict in Lebanon, both praying for the same thing. And it meant a lot to me because I am Christian, and Muslims from Tripoli were praying for me. So that is exactly the kind of mutual coexistence we were hoping for, and it was achieved, and that was a big joy.”

At their headquarters in Kfifan, in Beit Batroun, volunteers gathered to show support. They created shifts so that volunteers could alternate nights spent in the hospital with Torbey, just in case he needed anything. Afterwards, he was taken to Chicago for treatment. Offre Joie’s founder and president Melhem Khalaf traveled there to spend New Year’s Eve with Torbey and to ensure that everything was being done for his recovery.

“Upon my return, I was surprised by over 100 people at the airport waiting for me to come back. Then, when I went to our headquarters, I found that it had been made accessible for me. I could move around and have my meetings and spend my time there without any difficulty. Most importantly, they continued the projects I had been working on and did not halt those efforts. That, for me, was the most important favor because otherwise I would have felt very guilty. So, new teams were formed to carry on everything we had been working on.”

“It meant a lot to me because I am Christian, and Muslims from Tripoli were praying for me. So that is exactly the kind of mutual coesxistence  we were hoping for, and it was achieved, and that was a big joy.”

Offre Joie has a long history in Lebanon. It was initiated in 1985 after the Lebanese Civil War, with the goal of reuniting the Lebanese society and acting as a bridge between communities.

Volunteers from all over the country, from different religions, regions and backgrounds came with one thought in mind – never let this happen again. It was unheard of back then to send children to a camp of mixed religion, Muslims and Christians, but that is just what Offre Joie did. They threw the system aside and acknowledged that change started in that moment and with them at the forefront. About 1,100 children were united in the very first camp.

“We need to stand up, say no to war, to hold the peace flag again in Lebanon,” said Torbey. “The country was torn apart by war. It had this dark image, and everyone seemed to forget what Lebanon was really about. Since then, all of our activities go in the same direction, whether we are rehabilitating prisons or old neighborhoods in case of emergencies or bombings, like we did in the 2012 Achrafieh Sassine explosion. We had to rehabilitate a whole neighborhood of seven buildings, including 84 apartments, with the help of 600 volunteers for a period of three months. It was one of the biggest volunteer projects in the Middle East, and now we are being used as a model in the U.N.

“The government had estimated it would need 18 months and a budget of $8 million to rebuild. Offre Joie managed to do it in three months with $450,000. We committed to the project, whether we had the budget or not, because we possessed an undying faith that the Lord would make way for the solutions,” Torbey said.

Two major projects for Christmas are The Prisoner’s Sweater (in which Offre Joie volunteers collect sweaters from universities and schools and distribute them to prisoners) and The Christmas Tree.

For the latter, volunteers gather more than 2,000 children from all over Lebanon who cannot afford to exchange presents. Offre Joie provides that simple joy. They take them to children’s plays, give them gifts, and Santa Claus visits them. That takes a lot of preparation, Torbey noted.

Offre Joie is also active in other countries, with branches in France, New York and Iraq. In Iraq, 3,000 volunteers are doing enormous projects under their own management and with their own volunteers, said Torbey.

“We should never forget that our mission is to spread Lebanon as a message of peace, as a reference for peace,” said Torbey. “That’s all we’ve ever tried to do.”

For more info: https://www.offrejoie.org

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