On the other side of the sea, clasped tight between ancient mountains and a battered blue coast, perches a small country with a brilliant and blemished past and, with a little help and a little hope, a great future.
For many over the age of 30, Lebanon summons grainy televised imagery of car bombs and the ruins of Beirut. The country’s civil war (1975-1990) was as calamitous as it was brutal, especially when one considers that, when it broke out, Lebanon, and especially Beirut, was a highly-developed, eminently intellectual, objectively beautiful place. War turned a bright haven of a country into a dark, broken place, as they do.
But Lebanon is not a nation in civil war anymore, and hasn’t been for a quarter century.
It is, I understand, slowly wading back to the old shore of metropolitan glory, the Paris of the Middle East.
Apart from brief conflict with Israel in 2006, I have never known Lebanon to be a violent country. For me, it has always carried the lovely, minareted, Arab enchantment. Other Arabs I’ve met speak with a certain grandeur and dignity about Beirut. I’ve heard the people are beautiful, physically and in terms of their hospitality. I’ve heard the Lebanese are kind and open. I’ve heard they are intellectuals, connoisseurs, translators between worlds. Never have I looked at a map of the world, ran my eyes over Lebanon and thought, That is a place I cannot go.
And though I have had almost all pleasant feelings toward Lebanon since I’d learned about it in fourth-grade geography or some such place, it was not a sliver of the world I suspected I’d call home.
Because this country, which is at the crossroads of the world and of history, which is a prismatic portrait of cultures from Europe and the Middle East, which is the melting pot of the region, is also a country in need.
Today, there are about six million people living in the country smaller than Connecticut. Half a million are Palestinian refugees, and well over another million are refugees from Syria, fleeing a civil war that is burning into its fifth year.
This means a quarter of the population of Lebanon is refugees. How could even the mightiest country be expected to support such an influx of castaway, war-flung people?
The Syrian Civil War is only getting worse to the north and east, and the U.N. and aid groups report large declines in support from the international community. To put it plainly, Lebanon cannot handle the burden cast upon its shoulders, and the rest of the world would rather not deal with it.
I am going to Lebanon to work as an emergency response assistant with a humanitarian aid organization. I leave in August for training in Pennsylvania, then in Egypt, and will end up in Beirut working with Lebanese-Syrian peacebuilding and humanitarian aid teams. My primary responsibilities will be:
1. Preparing reports and assisting in the development of emergency response plans.
2. Evaluation and monitoring of humanitarian aid programs.
3. Writing stories related to the organization’s emergency response.
4. Assisting directly in emergency response efforts.
In all the world, there is no country with as high a percentage of its population composed of asylum-seekers as Lebanon. There is no country in the Middle East with as spiritually diverse a population. There is no country in the region that has historically been more a refuge — for Muslims, for Christians, and for Druze.
And so it is again.