Lebanon, Part 1

In front of a mural in Beirut, my favorite city.

This week I have found myself thinking about a place that is frequently on my mind - Lebanon.

It’s a place few people I know have had the privilege of visiting, and even fewer understand.

 Beirut from a balcony.

Beirut from a balcony.

Beirut is, without question, my favorite city. When I tell people this they give me a confused and concerned look and ask, “Isn't it dangerous?”

My answer is simple - it is the kindest, safest and most generous place I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

Lebanon has long been a place of interest for me. My Godfather, Uncle Michael, is half Lebanese and half Syrian. I grew up with the tastes of the Middle East, feasting weekly on kibbeh, tabouli, hummus, dolmas and lamb served every way imaginable.

I remember reading about Lebanon as a child. TIME Kids was delivered to my 2nd grade classroom every month and I would leaf through the images, many of them of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict and the 7-day war that killed hundreds and displaced thousands in 1993. In them I saw images of war and devastation among the incredible beauty of Lebanon. I kept those magazines in a cabinet in my mother’s kitchen for years, and would frequently sit by the sliding glass door that led to the backyard and go over and over the images.

One of the first non-fiction books I read as a teenager and truly loved was Thomas Friedman’s Beirut to Jerusalem. His depiction of the conflict seemed distant, but incredibly human.

During my first semester at the University of Florida I wrote a 15-page term paper on the Lebanese Civil War for an international relations class and spent weeks pouring over the geography, history and theology of the region.

I think Lebanon was the first place - whether I was aware of it or not - that made me want to be a journalist. It was a vision, a taste and a people I was intimately familiar with and endlessly curious about.

 In a restaurant in Beirut.

In a restaurant in Beirut.

I took my first trip to Lebanon in March of 2014 to work with the Khoury family who own and operate Eastwood Schools in Beirut. Bill and I had met Michel Khoury, the son of Eastwood’s founder Amine Khoury, at an education conference in Ireland the summer before. Michel was incredibly kind and charming, and we quickly fell in love with his story.

His father, Amine, had opened Eastwood’s original campus in the Kafarshima neighborhood of Beirut in 1973. Amine’s dream was to provide an equitable educational community for all learners. However, his country’s history made that dream difficult. In 1975 the Lebanese Civil War began, sending his dream into disarray. Through Eastwood’s history, Amine has had to rebuild his dream four times.

I remember that first trip very well. Bill and I had been on a long series of trips and assignments - we had just returned from our first sandhill crane migration in Grand Island, NE, and were set to go to Singapore as soon as we returned from Lebanon. On top of that, my personal life had taken more than one twist and turn that year.

At that point I was tired, and more than a little burned out. I had gotten to a point where I dreaded travel, and that’s a dark place to be. On the flight from Jacksonville to Beirut, I wrote in my journal:

My anxiety before this trip was the worst ever. I didn’t want to go. At all…But it’s strange, as the miles between me and Beirut have dwindled over the last 14 hours, anxiety is slowly turning into excitement…This trip will change who I am, just like every trip, and that - I think - is a good thing.
— Journal, March 23, 2017

Those words seem prescient now. My life began to change the moment we landed in Beirut.

Michel and his father, whom we had heard so much about, greeted us at the airport. We were hugged, kissed, fed and welcomed.

Over the course of the next two weeks, I discovered a home I hadn't expected. When I felt lost, Lebanon found me.

During our time in Beirut, we captured life on campus at the Eastwood schools. We talked to students whose lives were changed everyday at Eastwood, teachers who loved their jobs and parents who cried when they told us of the love their children received at school.

We met the extended Khoury family. We met Michel’s sister Joelle, his mother Queen, his uncle Edmond, and his cousins Gavin and Megan. Each one of them welcomed us as family. We were taken care of with a hospitality and grace that I had never - in all my travels - encountered. They brought us into their homes, fed us amazing food and shared intimate stories. We were never treated as people hired to do a job. We were treated like dear friends; long lost family.

Michel and I are the steps of Eastwood.

There are a couple moments I remember most from that trip.

The first was our interviews with Queen and Amine. We wanted their voices to tell their history. We sat in their beautiful home, full of antiques and religious icons, as Amine told us his story.

It was clearly a story he was familiar with, but not one he was familiar with telling. The stress of that period of their lives was palpable. He said there were days where he was so depressed he could barely get out of bed. Meanwhile his wife and father went on cleaning the school grounds. Then, one day, his father pulled him aside, grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “Amine, stop it! We work in joy.”

Amine’s eyes were wet when he told the story, a broad smile across his face. His father’s words had clearly made an impact on him, and they were making one on me as well. To this day it is a line I recite to myself when the world feels heavy.

The second was the sad part. We were on campus with some students when Bill’s phone starting buzzing and ringing. Friends were writing, spreading the word that Anja Niedringhaus had been assassinated in Afghanistan. I remember Bill’s face when he read the news - a mix of anger, sadness and shock. One of his closest friends had just been brutally taken from the world.

 A picture I took of Anja and Bill at the Bird's Nest during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

A picture I took of Anja and Bill at the Bird's Nest during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

In the days that followed, the words “we work in joy” kept circling in my head. Anja’s death - and life - made those words incredibly real.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from tragedy, it’s that - as hard and sad as it is - it’s also joyous. Joyous to remember the life that was lived, and joyous to realize the life you have the ability to lead.

We work in joy. Like Anja. Like the Khoury's. We work in joy because life itself is joyous.