By Marie Dhumières

BEIRUT: As many students are relaxing and enjoying their holidays, some have chosen to spend the summer standing in the heat for hours at a time, four times a week, trying to convince passers-by to join their cause.

“Do you like the environment?” “Do you go to the sea?” “Do you eat fish?” are some of the many approach lines used by Greenpeace recruiters to catch the attention of potential members.

Wearing black Greenpeace T-shirts, students Mohammad Tabaja, 24, and Mohammad Zeidan, 23, have just started a morning shift in Sassine Square, interrupting pedestrians as they pass by.

“Hello, can I have one minute of your time?” Tabaja shouts. As his target hesitates, Tabaja insists: “It won’t take more than a minute, I swear.”

The man agrees, and as promised, in just one minute, Tabaja tells him about the Greenpeace campaign to create marine reserves along Lebanon’s coast, explaining that the first reserve will soon be introduced to Jbeil, as the organization is in final talks with the municipality there.

He also speaks about Greenpeace’s actions against the company Sanita, “which pretends to be environmentally friendly,” and how activists blocked one of the company’s pipes that was pouring waste directly into the sea.

A few minutes pass, and Tabaja has a satisfied smile on his face and a new membership sheet in his hand. At the moment, he says, Sassine is the best spot to recruit new members, but activists also often stand in street corners of Verdun, Mar Elias and Hamra.

“Hamra is a great site, but we’ve been there for 15 years. Everybody knows us,” he laughs. “We covered all the people, literally, walla.”

Activists sometimes also recruit in Gemmazyeh’s main street at night, usually at the end of the week when many are out partying. “Someone asked me once if we’re coming at night because [people] are drunk,” Zeidan laughs.

It might be – or not – because of the level of alcohol imbibed, but both agree that they get results.

Greenpeace opened its Lebanon office in 1996, and direct dialogue coordinator Yara Moussaoui admits that at first, the organization didn’t know what to expect from the Lebanese public.

“When we started, we had this prejudice that people in Lebanon wouldn’t really be interested [in environmental issues]. But actually they are,” she says.

The organization currently has some 1,800, mostly young members, who donate an average of $5 every month.

Recruiters have only brought in 30 new members in May, but 108 joined last month and July seems to be even more successful so far. At just mid-month, recruiters have already brought 121 new members.

“I’m very proud of you,” Moussaoui tells her team during their monthly meeting in the organization’s office in Bliss.

Every month she decides on a target number of members that recruiters should bring in. She admits it’s easier to bring new members during the summer, especially as some members of her team go to festivals in Baalbek and Beiteddine, where many new recruits sign up.

Currently her team consists of six recruiters and two team leaders but Moussaoui says the organization is hoping to bring in more recruiters to extend their campaign across the country.

New recruiters are tested during a few shifts on their ability to “stand in front of a person, talk and talk and convince him [to become a member],” Tabaja explains, admitting it wasn’t an easy job.

Twenty-one-year-old Sharif Haidar, who started at the organization two months ago, couldn’t agree more.

“I was very stressed at the beginning,” he says. But Haidar has obviously been learning fast as, during the meeting he received the title of “recruiter of the month” after bringing in 46 new members in June.

This meeting session is special as two new activists will be joining the team and recruiters demonstrate their work for them. Haidar plays the recruiter, while Zeidan goes for the picky potential member.

“Well first of all we’re called Greenpeace, not Greenthief,” retorts Haidar when Zeidan expresses reluctance to give his account number.

“Yes, it works,” smiles Haidar when asked if the bad pun helps making people trust him.

It’s not his only trick, he says, arguing that he’s also very good at imitating British and Texan accents, as well as politicians.

“But I don’t do it a lot because it can be very risky,” he admits, saying some people don’t really appreciate having their favorite politician being mocked.

Haidar says it’s sometimes difficult to convince people to join, “especially in our society.”

He argues that many don’t believe in the organization’s ability to actually make a change.

“They tell us ‘what can you do to change things with our politicians?’ etc. We tell them ‘help us get stronger, it’s important for us … and for you. After all, this is your country.’”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 20, 2011, on page 3.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::