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French Version

Lebanon's university students get crash course in humanitarian work

Youth are eager to play a role in preserving their country's future

University students across Lebanon got a crash course in solidarity this summer as thousands traded in vacations for national relief work, rolling up their sleeves and confronting conflict hands-on rather than in the classroom.

However, as the current cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah continues to hold, and as the relief effort moves further South and universities resume summer classes, those students who spent the 34-day war volunteering now face a dilemma - how to extend their relief work into the fall, if at all.

Mira Saidi, a 20-year-old rising senior at the American University of Beirut, says she was "having fun" before the war broke out in mid-July. Ironically, though, she was also already planning to busy herself with volunteer work during the late summer months.

After the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon began, Saidi volunteered with Samidoun, a relief organization that emerged from a coalition of NGOs, political groups and university cultural clubs that had earlier organized a five-day vigil in solidarity with the people of Gaza, starting July 12.

The sit-in quickly transformed into a network providing emergency relief to the internally displaced people of Lebanon and grew to cover 31 schools housing refugees in Beirut, helping more than 10,000 people. Saidi became one of several hundred Samidoun volunteers and helped coordinate aid distribution to the displaced.

Now that the fighting has stopped and most of the estimated 900,000 displaced people have returned to their cities or villages, Samidoun has relocated to the southern port city of Tyre, leaving only a smaller branch to help the citizens of Beirut's southern suburbs. Saidi has just returned from a four-day volunteer mission to the southern city of Srifa, several kilometers inland from Tyre.

"I was conflicted about my work in the South," Saidi admits. "Driving on the small roads between southern villages was so nice but when we arrived at a village it was destroyed."

A sociology major taking 18 credits this fall, Saidi is torn as to how to spend the month before school: Should she work in the South or take the month to see family and prepare graduate-school applications?

Saidi remains skeptical about how her university could integrate reconstruction work into campus life. "I am taking a class on international conflict this fall. So I wonder what we'll be talking about," Saidi laughs.

Many local volunteers ceased their relief efforts when the actual fighting ended, opting to return to their lives as quickly as possible, especially when it became clear that volunteers were no longer needed in Beirut.

Saidi recognizes that Samidoun and other relief organizations "can't keep volunteers forever." She may have taken her last relief trip to the South but she plans to pursue social work or development in graduate school and knows that helping people remains a cornerstone of her future.

Speaking from Srifa, where he has been rebuilding public schools destroyed by Israeli air strikes, Rabih Fakhry is one class away from graduating from the Lebanese University's faculty of science with a major in biology. He has been in Srifa nearly a week and plans to stay until he returns for his final class. At that point, he plans to stay in Lebanon, too.

"I don't want to emigrate because I still believe in this country," Fakhry says. "Lebanon is a country that knows how to rebuild but we don't like to spend our whole lives building. I want to stay and help build this country again and then live here."

Already a volunteer with Mouvement Social, a Lebanese NGO lobbying for increased youth participation in politics, Fakhry spent the month of war working with the internally displaced who were staying in schools in Achrafieh. Mouvement Social was responsible for over 24 schools around Lebanon. According to their website, Mouvement Social took "action while there was no broad national guideline to meet the needs of the victims of the war." These sentiments, and their embedded criticism, are shared by other relief networks.

"I am working now with the people, working on the aftermath of this criminal war. I don't have to put an opinion on the government at this time. I am not involved with political movements, I am involved with the people through NGOs and civil movements," says Fakhry although he later adds that the government's reaction could have been better in terms of reconstruction plans.

"I hope this will be the last war, the last time where Lebanon is used as a playground for regional affairs," he adds Marc Daou has already deferred his acceptance to graduate school at the London School of Economics once due to political turmoil in Lebanon. He chose to stay in the country in the months after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. And he faced making the same decision this summer when the war began.

"This was my first time doing relief work," says Daou, a member of the Democratic Left who responded to the conflict by going with several friends to look for ways they could help. With assistance from the Samir Kassir Foundation, Daou managed the Karm al-Zeitoun School in Achrafieh, where 380 displaced sought shelter during the war.

"In the beginning it was stressful and a huge responsibility," he says. "But then I developed relationships and trust between the families and I looked forward to it more."

Daou continued his work even after the implementation of the cease-fire and the families went home. Deciding not to postpone his education any longer - he says he will study political sociology and hopes to obtain a doctorate before returning to Beirut to begin a career in Lebanese politics - he left for London Thursday. He says he had mixed feelings, but concluded that earning a degree abroad will benefit his country more in the long run than continuing relief work on the ground.

"If this leads to disarming Hizbullah and real support for the state then this will have been a defining moment," he says. "If not, then it is just another stop along the way.

"I think the Lebanese government did a great job on the political level. I believe we progressed but not as much as we could have," he says.

But Saidi disagrees. "Where were they?" she asks of the government. "I believe in unity but here it's an illusion. How do you awaken the people not to follow religion or a man but an ideal? Then we can progress."

Although Lebanon's young people disagree, this is in and of itself a positive sign - they are opinionated and eager to lend their vision and hard work to the rebuilding of their country. Students such as Saidi, Fakhry and Daou are Lebanon's future and although they will return to school rather than continue their volunteer work this fall, their dedication to education remains Lebanon's best hope.

Beirut 01-09-2006
Iman Azzi
The Daily Star

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