Crossing the Sectarian Divide in Lebanon

Crossing the Sectarian Divide in Lebanon

Kerr with students at the American University of Beirut who represent Lebanon's cross-sectarian mix.

UCLA Fulbright Coordinator Ann Kerr reflects on her visit to Lebanon in early May.

I thought about the students in this photo as news poured in about the sectarian fighting in Lebanon and of their parents who went through the fifteen-year civil war in the seventies and eighties.

This article was first published on May 22, 2008, by The Palisadian-Post. This republished version contains minor edits.
IN THE JOVIAL and energetic atmosphere on the campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB) where I was visiting in early May, one would not have imagined that fighting would break out a few days later. "Hi Mrs. Kerr," the students at the visitors' office near the main gate called out, remembering the play they had done the previous year for the university trustees about the past presidents of A.U.B., of whom my late husband was one. After the play, they had presented me with a rose to place on his memorial stone in the middle of the campus.
These AUB students represent the cross-sectarian mix of Lebanon, the pretty young woman standing next to me in this photo, clearly a Muslim in her chic brown and white head scarf, the others probably a mixture of Christians and Muslims of various sects. They work together in the visitors' center doing outreach for AUB where their sectarian differences seem to have little relevance to the inter-sectarian problems bedeviling the Lebanese government. It occurred to me that these vibrant students were not even born at the time of my husband's assassination in 1984, a few hundred meters from where we were now standing, and even more astonishing was the thought that their grandparents might have been students at the same time my husband and I studied at AUB in the mid 1950's. Many students in those days had had to flee to Lebanon from Palestine at the time of the partition of Palestine and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
I thought about the students in this photo as news poured in about the sectarian fighting in Lebanon and of their parents who went through the fifteen-year civil war in the seventies and eighties. They might have been among the students I taught in the early eighties who used to have to study in the middle of civil war fighting without electricity or travel to campus during lulls in the shelling. Their children, these students I was talking with, had only heard war stories from their parents until they too had to experience war first hand in the summer of 2006, when Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel engaged in a pointless war that killed thousands of people.
Another group of students I met with were the recipients of Malcolm Kerr Scholarship aid, 82 young men and women from different sectarian groups, studying mainly medicine, engineering and business. We talked about their hopes for the future and all admitted to facing the reality that they would have to look for jobs outside Lebanon, most probably in the Gulf. The walkways of the campus that week were full of booths for the annual job fair where multinational companies came to recruit bright AUB students to work for them, much as British Mandate civil servants had come to AUB in the 1920's and 30's to offer graduates jobs in Palestine and Iraq.
I also think of my faculty friends at AUB who founded an interdisciplinary study and research group in the biodiversity of Lebanon with the goal of planting trees throughout the country, of preserving endangered species of flowers and plants and to make better known their use as food and medicine. They are bringing programs to schools to teach children about these local resources and the importance of preserving the environment. And I think of my long time friend, an elegant Muslim woman now in her sixties, who will not stop her efforts in trying to bring cross- sectarian groups together. Three weeks ago she and a group of friends got permission from the government for a demonstration to pull down the barbed wire between the sit-in tents of competing sectarian groups surrounding the parliament building, with the agreement that they would put it back up again at the end of the day.
I am inspired each time I go to Lebanon by the ability of so many to live their lives well in spite of the turbulence around them, and I pray for the glimmer of hope that a sectarian compromise will allow people to live in peace.
Ann Zwicker Kerr coordinates the International Institute's Fulbright Visiting Scholar Enrichment Program. Kerr is a long time Palisadian, a member of the Board of Trustees of the American University of Beirut, and the author of "Come with Me from Lebanon" and "Painting the Middle East."

Published: Tuesday, June 03, 2008