ONE-ON-ONE WITH CARMEN CHAHINE DEBBANE Founder and President of CLES

With a golden mind but most importantly, with a golden soul, Carmen Chahine Debbane, Founder and President of CLES shared with executive women her vision and mission. Highly educated, passionate, heart-driven, classy and down to earth, Carmen Chahine Debbane is one of a kind; woman ‘philanthropic’ entrepreneur, she is first and foremost human and humane. She incorporates specialized professional assistance in her long-term vision. Carmen believes in connections and passion. Maybe these are the ultimate keys to any vision one could have…
C.L.E.S. is the Lebanese Center for Specialized Education. It provides free individualized assistance to children with specific learning disabilities.

WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATIONAL DRIVE BEHIND THE PROJECT?

I actually knew two motivational keys. I have discovered the first motivational drive; it was related to my son who had difficulties. I was living in Belgium at that time and wanted to come back to Lebanon, just as any Lebanese citizen living abroad whose dream would always be to come back to his roots. I started thinking where could I find an adequate school for my son since he was in a specialized school in Belgium. Still, in Lebanon I couldn’t find any for him and so I said to myself that I’m going to establish one… as if things were so easy! It’s always easier said than done. With time, I took things more seriously and conducted a study over the markets of education in Belgium and in Lebanon as well. With all the information and database I collected, I put down a small thesis, addressed the ambassador of Lebanon in Belgium and shared with him my concern. I was aware of the huge gap in Lebanon regarding this matter and asked him for support in this regard. He told me that he himself wasn’t very
informed about dyslexia and identical issues and that most of the Lebanese people were as uninformed as him. Still, he assured me that the embassy was backing me up. This is where it all started. This was the very first concrete step I took forward in this project. I mobilized a Belgium team to put down a strategy of implementation. Among the team, there was a key member in the specialized education field; Mariane Klees. Her name coincided with my organization title C.L.E.S. and that was really weird… I do believe that nothing happens by chance; everything is connected. This woman was really passionate about Lebanon and so she deployed her know-how for this cause. She taught and trained educators specialists and we started building this project up. The first center opened its doors in January 2000. Before it all started she opened my eyes to a major issue. She understood I wanted to build a school in Lebanon but was aware that they were still not ready for that kind of projects in Lebanon. Thus, we needed to proceed first with a diagnosis. In Lebanon, we used to mix all handicaps while help should be specialized in a particular field. Accordingly, she suggested we open a center for diagnosis first with a specialized team that included a psychometric specialist, a psychologist and a speech therapist. We were the first in Lebanon not only to diagnose cases but also to encourage them to work in multidisciplinary teams. Our institution was the first of that kind. Afterwards, many centers followed this model. I am proud to say that we led by example. To sum it all up, my son was the conscious cause for me to step forward in that initiative. I have subsequently discovered the subconscious one: my father had inherited an important amount of money from his parents but
was unable to really manage his possessions in terms of numbers. We realized later on that he had a big dyscalculia issue.

WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OR SITUATIONS THAT FACILITATED YOU PATH?

I think that having professional people on board helped me a lot, such as Mariane Klees who was notorious in her country. She wrote books and enlightened professional people to this issue. Moreover, our perseverance was key and my team’s passion motivated me a lot in addition to the will of Lebanese people. They are really amazing on site as they disregard any religious or politic background. Moreover, our good relationship with the Ministry of Education since 1998 was really beneficial to the equation. Today, all our projects target public schools mainly in order to help people with financial difficulties get to where they are today. Although the Belgium government offered us help, UNICEF provided us with equipment for two of our centers. The whole project is self-financed.
IN LEBANON, IF ONE WOULD WANT TO ESTABLISH A PROJECT FOCUSED ON HUMANITARIAN ASPECTS, HOW EASY OR DIFFICULT WOULD IT BE TO GET FINANCIAL SUPPORT?

Well, I have to say that it is really difficult. I know many associations that are constantly struggling to get to their basic needs in order to survive. Relying on personal means certainly helps moving forward quickly. WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR

FIRST MORAL SUPPORT; IN BELGIUM OR IN LEBANON?

Since I lived in Belgium I guess that my first support came from there. However, since I was targeting Lebanon and working outside Belgium, they could only offer minimal support. In Lebanon, they were convinced that after the war we needed support for more important issues than this one and this is why I have called those kids ‘the forgotten children’. Nothing differentiates them from other kids. They seem really alike but after diagnosis, we’d figure out that they need help. Thus, we need to draw attention to them so that people and educators realize they have a serious problem and need assistance. I grew up in Tripoli and since I was among the most studious students in class and came in second rank in the Lebanese baccalaureate, I used not to communicate much with the other students who were less studious in class. Then life sent me my son who was the biggest lesson to me and transformed my way of seeing things. Nowadays, I focus on those who fail to help them move forward in life. I think it’s worth questioning ourselves who are the first-ranked people in life… Exactly. It’s a different perception of the world. Difference, tolerance, love… being open to others…

WHAT IS EXCELLENCE TO YOU?

Excellence is offering one’s best part of oneself. Each and everyone would have their very own. Allowing each person to reach their ultimate excellence standards is a way of achieving it. The most important thing is that our children live happily.

DO YOU THINK YOU’RE MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN NOWADAYS’ WORLD?

It would be too pretentious for me to say so, but I could say I’m bringing my tiny drop of water to the ocean. This is Mother Teresa’s saying… Indeed, it’s Mother Teresa. I think everyone brings a tiny drop of water to the ocean… Tiny drops shake the waters all around them. Thus, I believe we are being able to make a difference in those children’s lives and help them be the best version of themselves.

WHAT ARE THE NEW PROJECTS YOU’RE FOCUSING ON AT THE MOMENT?

We’re trying to incorporate dancing classes in public schools. We’re very enthusiastic about the idea and working on developing it. The second project we’re working on is creating a scholarship for the “lazy ones.” Still, there are no “lazy” students. They would be encountering a difficulty that needs to be elucidated. When those children turn 14 or 15, they are at risk of dropping out. Thus, this scholarship would help them pursue their studies in different fields, in vocational, technical or university level.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE DANCING PRECISELY? BECAUSE IT IS A FORM OF ART?

In addition to everyone in the family being artists, and my dream to become a dancer which I never realized, it was mainly my encounter with Nathalie Baye. She was suffering from dyslexia and realized she also had dyscalculia when she met us. Her parents got her out of school and she integrated a dance school. Afterwards, she discovered her love for theater and cinema. Body language, dancing and music help children develop their self-confidence in a few months.

WHAT ARE THE C.L.E.S. KEYS OF SUCCESS?

I would sum them up in a few words: passion… work, work and work.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO MAKE A SMALL PLAY WITH SMALL CHARACTERS IN YOUR AWARENESS CAMPAIGN?

I grabbed the opportunity of having my brother Carlos Chahine, actor and director, who is very sensitive
to this issue too. He gladly put on stage all four difficulties; dyslexia, dysphasia, dyscalculia and ADHD, which will allow people to understand them more.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ABOUT WOMEN’S ROLE IN SOCIETY? WHAT COULD THEY DO AND WHAT STOPS THEM FROM DOING IT?

I was always interested in women’s role in society despite the fact that I am not a feminist, because I do believe that things simply are the way they are. I believe that we are equally intelligent and clever as
men are. Still, physically we are really different from men and might have weaker or needier bodies; let’s consider for instance maternity; it is the most wonderful thing in the world, and at the same time, life changing. However, we have many qualities that characterize us and I truly believe we and men are complimentary. Therefore, the feminism idea isn’t really pertinent to me. I think that men and women instinctively decide by themselves how to distribute the tasks among each other. I believe women and men make a great combination and we should embrace this harmony, be it at home or at work. Of course, mutual respect is essential.

 

DO YOU BELIEVE IN WOMEN EMPOWERMENT?

I am totally for women empowerment especially when it comes to education. I believe that everything starts with education. Children integrating women and men’s roles in society also have to go through the educational process. I do believe in the education of little girls… and boys as well! I still don’t differentiate between women and men when it comes to education and it is this process that would definitely empower human beings.

COULD YOU SHARE WITH EXECUTIVE WOMEN THE EDUCATIONAL AND PROFESSIONAL PATH YOU HAVE FOLLOWED TO GET TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?

My parents wanted me to become a doctor and so I studied biology. Afterwards, I got married and traveled. I worked in fashion with Georgio Armani enterprises and then I founded my own textiles firm. Then, I switched to a completely different field and worked in real estate development. I met many people who awakened my interest in this field and so pursued my studies at university in order to get specialized in this field… and then I went from being a commercial to being a philanthropic entrepreneur.

WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE TO WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS?

Women have an important and difficult role because they have
many responsibilities to fulfill at the same time. A woman CEO should let go of her guilt when it comes to family responsibilities. The quality time a woman spends with her kids is really important in order for her to find balance between her job and her role as a mother, as a wife, or as a woman in general. It is really a complex and complicated role she has to manage. Still, I believe that passion is key. We should always seek to become the best version of what we are. Being a woman entrepreneur should come as an answer to one’s inner needs. Therefore, women should be able to determine the percentage of their own investment in different fields and sectors.I have always been encouraged by my family who offered me the biggest support. My son Charles taught me to see the difference from a different perspective, my daughter Myrna inspires me and always pushes me forward and my husband Ray who helped me reach excellence by becoming the best version of myself and also helped C.L.E.S. expand geographically in all Lebanon. Moreover, I would like to thank my friends and all C.L.E.S. specialists who are working on site and are driven by their passion, their love for the children, perseverance and professionalism.

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