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Innocent bystanders

Chris Khorey | Thursday, August 24, 2006

This summer, I was supposed to spend a month studying at the University of Balamand, an Orthodox Christian university in northern Lebanon with a mission to spread tolerance, human dignity and Christian-Muslim understanding through the Middle East region.

Unfortunately, two weeks into the program, increasing hostilities between Hezbollah militants and the Israeli army turned the small Middle Eastern nation into a battleground.

Fighting broke out the same day my classmates and I left for a planned weekend excursion into Syria – though we were blissfully unaware of the chaos around us until we reached a Syrian passport control officer who gave us the news. We left the University at 5 a.m., crossing the border not long before the road we had been driving on was bombed by Israeli fighter jets. I spent the next six days outside Damascus, unable to re-enter Lebanon and without most of my possessions, before flying home two weeks earlier than I had planned.

I returned home to almost a hero’s welcome, with family, friends and acquaintances telling me how they’d prayed for my safe return and newspaper and TV reporters clamoring to interview me.

But I hadn’t done anything other than stay in a hotel a few days longer than expected. The real heroes were back in the Middle East.

Several Balamand students and faculty members acted as “facilitators” of my study program, which was open to people from all over North and South America but included mostly Mexicans and Canadians. Some of these Lebanese students were scheduled to graduate in late July (a ceremony that was quickly scrapped when the war began). In the meantime, they had decided to give up their summers at home to stay at school helping foreigners navigate their country, acting as interpreters, tour guides, and friends. They showed us around the numerous historic, cultural and religious sites that dot the Lebanese countryside, proudly pointing out ancient landmarks and beautiful new buildings that arose after the civil war of the 1970s and 80s. Between classes and touring we watched the World Cup together, cheering in four languages for players from around the globe.

When we foreigners went to Syria, many of the facilitators came, finding themselves separated from – and oftentimes unable to contact – their friends and families as the bombing in Lebanon intensified. Yet, even as they stared in disbelief at television images of explosions in their newly rebuilt capital city, they continued to make our safety and transport home their top priority. Hospitable even in the worst of times, they seemed determined to make our stay in the region pleasant even while it exploded around them.

One Balamand senior, a man named Jad, was unable to get a hold of anyone in his home town for days after Israeli rockets knocked out a nearby cell phone tower. One night I saw him, after yet another unsuccessful attempt to get through, sitting in dejection on the stairs in front of our hotel. When he saw me coming, however, he twisted his face into a smile and turned his attention to me. Had I called my parents? Was I scared? Was I excited about visiting some nearby ruins? This man, who for all he knew could have had his home destroyed, was most interested in my feelings and my well-being.

Pierre, a Balamand faculty member who was especially close to English speaking students like me, had an opportunity to leave – an available plane ticket from Damascus to Athens, to the safety of his girlfriend’s home in Greece. He didn’t take it. He stayed with his old friends from Balamand and his new friends, the foreigners he had escorted to Syria.

Greater even than the selflessness they showed was their love for their homeland. Every single Balamand student and faculty member with me in Syria quickly decided that they would return to Lebanon only when they saw their guests safely out of harm. There was a commitment even as the Israelis decimated the country that everything would be rebuilt again, not just as it was, but better.

This commitment was shared not just by those born in Lebanon, but also by those who made it their adopted country. Alejandro, an Argentinian-born seminary student who signed up to help the foreign students because he was one of the few people at Balamand who could translate between Arabic and Spanish, held an Argentinian passport, with which he could be on the other side of the world with ease. But he didn’t use it. Soon after I came home, he returned to Lebanon to continue his journey to the priesthood in his now war-torn, adopted country.

Lebanon is a peace-loving nation, a country that had only recently finished rebuilding from its horrible civil war. Its fledgling democratic government was finally on its feet after years of meddling by the Syrians. Tourists from around the world were flocking to its beaches and historic and religious sites. Then the small nation found itself caught between a terrorist militia it couldn’t control and a vengeful neighbor it couldn’t stop.

And so Lebanon became a battleground once again, another huge rebuilding task looming once the death and destruction end. And once again its selfless, generous people will pick up the pieces and try to make their country the peaceful, prosperous place they all know it can be.

And then foreigners won’t be the only ones who can go home to safety.

Chris Khorey is a junior history major and journalism, ethics, and democracy minor living in Siegfried Hall. A quarter Lebanese, he is a proud member of Notre Dame’s Orthodox Christian Fellowship. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.