Urbi et Orbi in Lebanon;
Signs of Hope in Lebanon’s Recent Election

    “Things are getting better… I was so happy that I cried.” — Prof. Aya Naimeh, who teaches in Beirut and is one of our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon partners, on her response to the outcome of the recent May 15 national elections in Lebanon

    “We visited the tomb of St. Charbel and heard stories of 29,400 healing miracles at the shrine — meeting a monk who, eight years ago, was declared clinically dead and then, three hours later, came back to life… An image of what could perhaps also happen to Lebanon.” — Urbi et Orbi Founder and President Dr. Robert Moynihan, describing moving scenes from a visit to Lebanon at the end of May    

    “We blame all the authorities in the country (governing forces and oppositions) for the horrific collapse of the country. […] The Patriarchate will continue to work hard to save Lebanon and will lead the people who cannot anymore accept to be victims. We want to live here and precisely here, free, proud, faithful to the mission of our fathers. Trust yourself, trust the future, trust the in the victory of the truth. We are the people of the truth and the faith.” — Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, speaking candidly about the present and future of Lebanon during a homily given on May 29, 2022, in Adma, Lebanon

    “No one has stressed more the Lebanese vocation to unity than the great Pope [John Paul II]. He did so repeatedly and insistently, addressing message after message to Lebanon, going so far as to oppose the aspirations of some of Lebanon’s Christian political parties, who were tempted by partition.” — excerpt from Dévastation and Rédemption: Récits d’Apparitions de la Vierge Marie au Liban (1960-2005), by Fady Noun; John Paul II’s focus on unity is still crucial today for Lebanon, as the country seeks a path forward following its recent election, in the face of extensive political and sectarian discord

From left: Urbi et Orbi advisor Tony Assaf, His Beatitude Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, Urbi et Orbi Director Deborah Tomlinson, and Urbi et Orbi Founder and President Dr. Robert Moynihan, at a meeting in Bkerké, Lebanon, May 31, 2022. During the meeting, Dr. Moynihan presented the Patriarch with a dossier explaining the Unitas initiative of Urbi et Orbi Communications, which the Patriarch is holding

    Lebanon Report 2022, #6: Thursday, June 2

    Urbi et Orbi Group Travels to Lebanon

    “The Patriarch thanked us for our work, and encouraged us to continue”

    By Christopher Hart-Moynihan, Director, Friends of Lebanon Project

    Last night, I received a message from Dr. Robert Moynihan, the Founder and President of Urbi et Orbi Communications, from Beirut, where he is currently in the midst of an in-person visit to Lebanon, together with Unitas: Friends of Lebanon Project Advisor Tony Assaf and Urbi et Orbi Director Deborah Tomlinson.

    The message was this: “Lebanon is magical and mystical and mysterious and confronted with grave problems that need solving… Amazing.”

    For the small delegation, this visit has truly been a mystical experience, full of unexpected encounters, testimonies of gratitude for the work that has already been done through Unitas: Friends of Lebanon, and plans for future collaboration to support the people of Lebanon as they seek to overcome their many great challenges and become once again a “message of peace… for East and West,” in the words of Pope John Paul II.

    Foremost among these encounters was an hour-long rosary on the evening of May 31 with Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi (also often written as “Patriarch Rai”), the Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church whose tireless efforts to bring lasting peace to Lebanon have been covered at various times in this Report. While many Christian Churches are present in Lebanon, Patriarch Rai is generally regarded as the preeminent spiritual leader of Lebanon’s Christians, and his Patriarchal See at Bkerké is generally seen as the center of the Christian community — a kind of Lebanese “Vatican.”

    Following the recitation of the Rosary with Patriarch Rai, the group had the opportunity to present the Unitas initiative to him, and to discuss the work Unitas: Friends of Lebanon has been doing in Lebanon over the past two years.

    “The Patriarch thanked us for our work, saying that it was very helpful, and encouraged us to continue,” Tomlinson told me.

    Patriarch Rai “was very friendly, very receptive, and he thanked us very much,” Tomlinson said. “The Patriarch also assured us that he would facilitate meetings for Urbi et Orbi that would help us make our work to build unity in the Church even more effective and wide-ranging.”

    Over the past several days, the Urbi et Orbi delegation has met briefly with the Apostolic Nuncio in Lebanon, Joseph Spiteri, and, for a longer time, with the General Secretary of all Orthodox Churches of Lebanon, Marwan Abou Fadel. “We had a meeting for about an hour with him in which we discussed future projects under Unitas, perhaps the most impactful meeting we have had while in Lebanon,” Tomlinson told me. “This gentleman and his colleagues who received us were very grateful for our work in Lebanon, and our work with the Orthodox, and reiterated how important it is that we continue to work with the Orthodox for unity.”

    One outcome of these meetings with representatives of the Orthodox Church in Lebanon was an agreement, in principle, to sponsor a common event for Church unity in Lebanon in 2023. The Custodians of the Holy Fire of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, some of whom were present at this meeting, expressed a particular interest in working with Urbi et Orbi on such an event.

    The delegation’s visit also included trips to some of the holiest sites in Lebanon, including the tomb of St. Charbel, the monastery of St. Maroun, and the city of Byblos (from which the Bible takes its name).

    “We visited Harissa (site of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon) and saw floods of pilgrims seeking healing, including many Muslims, and we visited the tomb of St. Charbel and heard stories of 29,400 healing miracles at the shrine — meeting a monk who, eight years ago, was declared clinically dead and then, three hours later, came back to life… An image of what could perhaps also happen to Lebanon,” Dr. Moynihan said.

    Of course, the group was also excited to meet with Georges Assaf (Tony’s brother) and Aya Naimeh, with whom we have been collaborating for almost two years to bring “short-term help” and “long-term hope” to the Lebanese Christian community through Unitas: Friends of Lebanon. The group had very productive meetings with Georges and Aya and discussed our ongoing projects with them, including the distribution of 50 H2g0 water purifiers to needy families in Beirut and financial support for scholarships for hundreds of students struggling to stay in school.

    The visit was also an opportunity for Tony Assaf to deliver emergency cancer medicine from Italy to patients who had been waiting for it desperately for several weeks. This delivery was made possible by timely donations from our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon donors. The medicine is currently unavailable in Lebanon, so the delivery has almost certainly saved lives as without the medicine, many patients currently undergoing cancer treatment in Beirut would not survive.

    We were informed about this opportunity to help cancer patients by Fr. Maged Maroun, the director of the Villa Serenella, home of the Antonine order of Lebanese Maronite Catholic monks in Rome. Unitas: Friends of Lebanon will continue to send support as the funds are raised and the needs are made clear by Fr. Maroun and others.    

    “Everybody we meet is thanking all of our donors; they say that the money is very important,” Tomlinson told me. “And they are very grateful.”

    She encouraged all who are interested to follow “Urbi et Orbi Communications” on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube) for updates on the trip.  

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Unitas Project Advisor Tony Assaf delivering life-saving cancer medicine upon his arrival in Beirut, May 29, 2022

    From 1 to 14: A New Generation is Emerging in Lebanon

    Overall, the prevailing mood in Beirut these days seems to be one of cautious optimism and hope. This is in part due to the results of the recent national election, held on May 15.

    “In the last election, only one independent candidate was elected. In this election, 14 independent candidates were elected,” Aya told us (independent candidates are not affiliated with any of the dominant sectarian political parties, who are seen as largely responsible for the current crisis in Lebanon).

    “Things are getting better,” she told us. “I was so happy that I cried.”

    Lebanon’s recent national election was an event that had been anticipated for many months. Since the October 17 Revolution in 2019, there has been a series of failed governments in Lebanon, and the country, at one point, went 13 months without any functioning government.

    The elections, which saw gains for political parties opposed to Hezbollah as well as the accession to parliament of the 14 candidates from newly-formed independent political parties, have been widely seen as a tentative sign of hope for Lebanon. Initial reports indicated that Hezbollah would likely lose its parliamentary majority, potentially breaking the stranglehold of the Iran-aligned Shia party on decision-making in national affairs.

    The Christian Lebanese Forces Party stands to be the biggest beneficiary of the electoral shift. Lebanese Forces is seen as a party in opposition to Hezbollah and with strong ties to Lebanon’s Sunni community and to Saudi Arabia. The party originated as a militia during Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990), and it has called for Hezbollah to give up its military arsenal.

    According to reports, Lebanese Forces won at least 20 seats in the election, making it the biggest Christian party in the Lebanese Parliament.

Election ballots in the city of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, on the day of the Lebanese election, May 15, 2022 (Times of Israel/AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

    Lebanese Election: New Faces, Old Problems    

    While the May 25 election offered a glimpse of change, it is still unclear how significant these results will be, and what kind of concrete results they will have. Lebanon is still facing massive economic and social problems, as well as sectarian division. Hezbollah operates in large part as a “state within a state” in southern Lebanon, with a paramilitary wing that is far larger than the Lebanese Army. Many now speak of the “new poor” in Beirut – families who have lost everything in the economic collapse of the past several years, many of whom now seek a way out of the country at all costs.

    With this as a background, Patriarch Rai gave a stirring homily last Sunday, May 29, at the consecration of a church in Adma, in northern Lebanon between Junieh and Byblos, not far from Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa. Unitas Project Advisor Tony Assaf described it as “about as strong a call for an end to corruption and ‘business as usual’ as the Patriarch has ever made.”

    Here is a preliminary translation of part of the Patriarch’s remarks, (courtesy of Tony Assaf) which were delivered in Arabic:

    We blame all the authorities in the country (governing forces and oppositions) for the horrific collapse of the country.

    Governors made the wrong decisions and picked the wrong allies. The existing powers betrayed Lebanon, and its constitution, and its people. The opposition powers wasted their time on fighting about elections instead of looking at the suffering of the people.    

    The Lebanese people are living the results of the collapse on all levels. it is time to find solutions to get out of this disaster. It is time for a rectifying uprising [he used the word “intifada”] of the people, and to work with the United Nations to ensure a free and neutral Lebanon.

    It is also a shame that the judicial system itself is unacceptable, as is the living situation. Some judges made themselves instruments in the hands of political and religious powers and it became clear that they are freezing some cases and yet inventing others. It is not possible that we leave the judges disrespecting [or: let the judges disrespect] human dignities and harming people’s freedom.    

    Furthermore, what it even worse is that the Minister of the Treasury refused to sign a decree to continue to investigate the crime of Beirut port’s explosion, which keeps those arrested without sentences, and some are innocent, and those who committed the crime remain free.

    The Patriarchate will continue to work hard to save Lebanon and will lead the people who cannot anymore accept to be a victim.

    We want to live here and precisely here, free, proud faithful to the mission of our fathers.

    Trust yourself, trust the future, trust the in the victory of the truth. We are the people of the truth and the faith.

    The Patriarch’s words give the impression that Lebanon is at a turning point, which is also an opportunity: at this moment, it is both possible and extremely important to “find solutions” to reverse Lebanon’s collapse.

    This balance of cautious optimism for the future and clear-eyed assessment of the “horrific” depths of Lebanon’s “manufactured crisis” in the present has been echoed repeatedly by many other Lebanese thinkers, and also by many ordinary Lebanese. One writer who has returned frequently to these themes is Habib C. Malik, the Lebanese intellectual and son of diplomat Charles Malik, whose analyses of Lebanese history and politics have been previously shared in this Report.

    Malik offered this summary of Lebanon’s politics in a September 2021 article, written at the time in response to the establishment of yet another “new” government in Lebanon — this one under Najib Mikati:

    “‘New’ is a funny word in a Lebanese context: the anomalous permanent tends to reinvent itself in novel ways that ensure its self-perpetuation.”

    In the same article, entitled “Lebanon: Meet the ‘New’, Same as the Old,” Malik offered a harsh criticism of the Lebanese political elite:

    Reducing followers to bare subsistence has become the modus operandi for how the vicious political class treats the entire population of Lebanon.

    After defrauding the people out of their life savings, over the past year the crooks in charge have allowed the country’s deterioration to reach the point where daily-life necessities, taken for granted in normal times, are either in terminal short supply or missing altogether.

    These include essential medicines, vital medical and power supplies for hospitals, diesel fuel to run electric power plants and bakeries, gasoline for vehicles, and more.

    The consequences of this systematic country-wide deprivation have been the severe rationing of electricity and water supplies, erratic internet and mobile phone services, long lines at gas stations that block roads and cause traffic congestion, and the hoarding of dwindling basics by greedy suppliers seeking to make windfall profits once prices climb further.

    Meanwhile, callous politician-criminals can only think of how to divide the spoils accruing from any deals among them to fortify their pervasive cronyism. They have not a single thought about the deepening sufferings of the Lebanese at large.

    Malik contrasted these “callous politician-criminals” with the grass-roots movements working to better the country:

    Meanwhile, a variety of civil society groups and organizations born out of the bitterness of spontaneous popular protests in fall 2019 — known collectively as the Thawra, or revolution — have started to assemble their forces. They are fielding opposition candidates in electoral districts to boldly defy the hitherto unshakeable ruling elites and dislodge them from power through the ballot box. This coalescing opposition is determined to make sure the new in Lebanon will not be the same as the old.

    Despite the renewed hope that these “Thawra” grass-roots organizations represent, Malik, writing in late 2021, was doubtful that the “anomalous present” could actually give way to something truly “new” in Lebanon:

    Sadly, rigged elections or no elections, Hezbollah and its politicians will emerge as the big winners so long as Iran’s extended arm continues to reach the Eastern Mediterranean.

    If the upcoming elections in Lebanon do not produce a real opening for the true opposition, Plan B should entail a serious attempt at a creative federalism. This new formula would accommodate sectarian pluralism while safeguarding the rights of minority communities — and in Lebanon all 18 constitutionally recognized sects are numerical minorities within the country’s communal kaleidoscope, meaning there is no single majority sect.    

    Perhaps, however, the election results do, in fact, represent a “real opening” for the “true opposition” in Lebanon. In that case, there may indeed be hope for a future direction that is not, on the one hand, one-party dominance by Hezbollah or, on the other, a federalism that would entail de facto partition of the country along sectarian lines.

    Malik ended his article with an appeal for greater involvement and engagement on the part of the United States, and the West as a whole, in Lebanon:

    In the wake of the Afghan debacle, perhaps there is a modest opening to salvage part of the principles that generations of Lebanese and Arab youth learned at the universities established in Beirut by American missionaries over a century-and-a-half ago.

    Back then, Americans who were true to their country’s deepest values made up the face that the United States showed to the region and the world. This is precisely the American face we all desperately crave to see once again.

    So, nation-building by armed outsiders is not required here; the Lebanese will do that themselves once the monkey of the cartel is lifted off their backs.

    The way to achieve this is to go after the mafia component of the cartel, specifically their chief bosses, by holding them accountable for the crimes they perpetrated against the people of Lebanon.

    A promising start for this could be ensuring the brave opposition competes on as much of a level playing field as possible in Lebanon’s approaching parliamentary elections.

    The wide and nuanced spectrum of possibilities lying between outright nation-building (which is a fool’s errand) and total abandonment (which, to say the least, is shameful) beckons to those both perceptive and inventive enough to take up the challenge.

    Here, Malik is making a point that many others have made over the past several years, as the situation in Lebanon deteriorated and chaos predominated in the Middle East.

    The point is this: Lebanon, unlike other countries in the region, has the ability to take the initiative in its own “nation-building,” if it is assisted by the international community.

    Given the incalculable resources allocated to American and American-supported military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and many other countries over the past several decades, it is, and remains, an extreme miscalculation and misjudgment on the part of the United States government (as well as the U.K. and European Union) not to support Lebanon with even a fraction of the engagement and resources that went into these “nation-building” and “peacekeeping” missions.

    A (relatively) small investment on the part of the United States, U.K., and E.U. in supporting civil society in Lebanon is almost certain to have a more direct impact on peace and stability in the Middle East than the billions that have been spent elsewhere. Supporting schools, hospitals, universities — many of which are run by Catholic religious orders — and other institutions within civil society will have an impact that goes far beyond those institutions: it will have a positive effect on the country as a whole, and on the entire Middle East.

    This kind of support is also in line with the “deepest values” of the United States (and of Europe) spoken of by Malik.

    Our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon project is trying to contribute to peace and stability in Lebanon, through support for children attending school in Beirut and for parents trying to provide them with food and clean water.

    Our work must continue, with the help of readers like you, but more support is needed. It is hoped that the eventual visit of Pope Francis — now expected to take place in September — will focus international attention on Lebanon and make this kind of broad-based international support a reality.

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Pope Francis with the Lebanese flag during a summit with Lebanon’s Christian leaders held at the Vatican, June 2021 (AFP/Arab News)

    Vatican Confirms, Then Postpones Papal Visit to Lebanon

    After several years of anticipation, it seemed to be all but a formality: a Pope would be visiting Lebanon for the first time since 2012.

Then came a flurry of statements from sources in the Curia that rolled back the travel plans. Now Pope Francis’s visit is once again at the stage where it had remained for quite some time: slated to happen sometime “very soon,” though nobody is entirely certain when.

    The first news about a papal visit in June was, in fact, not released by the Vatican, but rather by the office of the President of Lebanon, which put out a statement on Tuesday, April 5. In it, they announced that Pope Francis would be coming to Lebanon on June 12-13.

    Then, in May, first the Vatican and then the Lebanese government backtracked. On Monday, May 9, two Vatican sources told Reuters that the trip would be postponed, followed by an announcement from Lebanese tourism minister Walid Nassar that Francis’ visit to Lebanon in June would, in fact, not take place due to the Pope’s health issues.

    Francis has been suffering from back pain (sciatica) and has been told by his doctors to rest. Subsequently, he was limited to public appearances in a wheelchair.

    The Vatican will now be waiting to see the direction Lebanon takes following the results of the national election.  

    A History of Conflict

    One of the many issues the next government of Lebanon will have to confront, and find solutions for, is the history of mass displacement of families and communities, going back to Lebanon’s Civil War of 1975-1990.

    The expulsion of families from their homes and their communities became a lasting — and tragic — legacy of the Civil War. Christian militias drove Muslim families and businesses out of their strongholds in Beirut, while Muslim and Druze forces systematically eradicated Christians in towns and villages in southern Lebanon.

    The issue of internally displaced persons (IDPs) was already a pressing one at the time of John Paul II’s visit to Lebanon in 1997. Since then, to the IDPs from Lebanon’s Civil War have been added individuals and families displaced by events such as the withdrawal of Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, and the many “spillover” battles of the Syrian Civil War that were fought on the territory of Lebanon between 2011 and 2017. Now, still more IDPs have been added to the total as a result of the catastrophic Beirut port explosion in August 2020.

    As a result of these many conflicts and disasters, Lebanon has had, for many years, a twofold challenge: trying to provide a safe haven for refugees, first from Palestine and then from the Syrian conflict, while simultaneously supporting its own internally displaced citizens.

    The data on refugees in Lebanon paints a bleak picture: according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Lebanon remains the country hosting the largest number of refugees per capita and per square kilometer in the world,” with an estimated total of 1.5 million Syrian refugees (90% of whom are estimated to live in extreme poverty), 208,000 Palestinian refugees, and several thousand refugees of other nationalities.

    As far as IDPs, the data is more hopeful: the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center shows a yearly decrease of IDPs in Lebanon, from a high of 90,000 in 2009 to just 50 in 2021.

    However, one reason for the drastic decrease in IDPs is emigration: in other words, rather than being able to return to their homes or finding other long-term living arrangements within the country, many of Lebanon’s internally displaced persons have simply left. It is also thought that many of the IDPs who remain in Lebanon may simply have stopped identifying as such, displaying the characteristically Lebanese traits of adaptability and the ability to start over, even in adverse circumstances.

    Whatever the explanation, it is certain that the psychological — and spiritual — scars of displacement in Lebanese society will linger long after the displaced persons have returned to their homes, or begun new lives in new ones. This is another issue that Pope Francis can perhaps shed light on — and in doing so, perhaps begin a process of reconciliation and healing — during his eventual visit to Lebanon.

    While researching the 1997 visit of John Paul II to Lebanon for last month’s (May 2022) Lebanon Report, I came across an article from that time that told the story of several IDPs in Lebanon, poignantly depicting the impact of displacement on the lives of ordinary Lebanese people. It seemed to me, as I read about the lives of each person and each family, that these vignettes gave a “snapshot” of Lebanese life, its struggles, and its simple joys — and most of all, of the Lebanese national vocation to unity, in spite of decades of conflict — that is still relevant and worthy of sharing today, almost 25 years later:

    Robert Abu Jawdeh, a Maronite Catholic who runs a grocery in East Beirut, has lived through the worst of [the sectarian conflict], and he shares the pontiff’s hope [for peace].

    “The pope’s visit is not only for the Christians, it’s for all Lebanese,” he says. “Whether you’re a Muslim or a Christian, you want to live in peace.”

    A poster announcing the pope’s visit hangs outside Abu Jawdeh’s grocery in the community of Nabaa in East Beirut. The neighborhood exemplifies John Paul’s perception of Lebanon as place of coexistence.

    The cross of St. Doumit’s Church shares the sky with the crescent moon of the corner mosque’s minaret. The Muslim owner of a sandwich shop laughs at his Christian neighbor’s joke about the lack of arak, a licorice-flavored liquor popular among Lebanese, in his store. Devout Muslims do not drink alcohol.

    Nabaa also reflects the legacy of ethnic conflict. Elsewhere in Beirut, gleaming steel and glass skyscrapers are rising. The city’s fabled affluent class dines sumptuously in reopened restaurants, dances in discos and packs the Casino du Liban. But Nabaa remains a neighborhood of tenement-like buildings scarred by gunfire.

    Maronite Catholics, driven from their homes in the nearby Chouf Mountains overlooking Beirut during the war, still occupy apartments once owned by Shiite Muslims who fled the Christian militias in the city.

    For Ibrahim Maatouk, a Shiite Muslim, the year was 1976. He was 9 years old. His father ran a small restaurant in Nabaa. But the fighting between Christians and Palestinians drove Maatouk’s family from the neighborhood. Maatouk moved to the south with his parents and siblings. He returned to the neighborhood in 1985.

    By then, a Christian was operating a carpentry shop in his old home. Maatouk dreamed of returning there one day. That day came two years ago.

    ‘A passing cloud’ of war

    The carpenter was among the displaced Christians who had received compensation from the government for the loss of their homes. He agreed to give up Maatouk’s family home. Maatouk rebuilt walls blasted by militia shells. He repainted, retiled and opened an eatery like his father’s. He named it The Cedars Restaurant.

    “I like all the people here,” said Maatouk, whose neighbors are mostly Christians. “The war was only a passing cloud. The Christian cannot live without the Muslim and the Muslim can’t live without the Christian. Before the war, we used to live together. Why should we be divided now?”

    Mona el Kik, a Maronite Catholic, hasn’t moved back to her family home. For most of the past 15 years, she has lived in a two-room flat in Nabaa with her husband and four children. The family fled their two-story house in the Chouf Mountains in 1985. Her town was overrun by militias of the Druze, a religious sect with Islamic roots.

    “We never went back because we would have been slaughtered by the Druze,” she said.

    When el Kik’s family moved into the Nabaa apartment, the place was a shell. Over the years, they have transformed the space into a home. Pictures of Jesus Christ and St. George, the patron saint of Lebanon, hang from clean, plastered walls. The couches convert into beds for el Kik, her husband and father-in-law. Her three daughters and son share the one bedroom.

    As the Muslim call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque, she closes the living room window. El Kik, a seamstress, and her husband, George, a port worker, managed to raise their family here. But they look forward to returning to their land in Silfaya.

    Two years ago, el Kik’s brother persuaded her to visit the family home there. She arrived to find the house a scorched ruin.

    “I couldn’t speak,” she recalled.

    El Kik thought she would never return to the village. But a long-awaited compensation check from the government has enabled her and her husband to rebuild. Her husband has been tilling the land.

    “I want to return to my village,” said el Kik, 40. “We, as true Christians, the real Christians, do not hold any grudge in our hearts. One nice word from them, the Druze, and we forget.

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    Aziza Sbaity: Running Towards Peace

    One of the people working alongside Unitas: Friends of Lebanon to bring “short-term hope” and “long-term help” to the Land of the Cedars is none other than Lebanese national athletic champion Aziza Sbaity.

    An athlete who has represented Lebanon multiple times on the world stage, Aziza is the national record-holder in the 100-meters and national champion in the 200-meters for Lebanon.

    Aziza also recently was able to assist the Friends of Lebanon in bringing a number of H2gO filters into Lebanon. She has been collaborating with us on this and other projects along with her trainer and coach, Georges Assaf.

    Aziza was recently able to talk with me about her work with Lebanese Young Talents, a partner organization of Unitas: Friends of Lebanon, her thoughts on religion and religious tolerance in Lebanon, and her vision for the future of the country.

***

    Lebanon Report: Can you tell us about your background and how you got involved with this work?

    Aziza Sbaity: I am a Lebanese-Liberian, representing Lebanon in the sports world. I hold the Lebanese national record in the 100 meters. I also work with an NGO, Lebanese Young Talents, which has been taking up my time between training.

    I’ve been involved with the NGO for the past two years, since the Beirut explosion in August 2020. That’s when I really started getting involved with the activities of the NGO, especially when it came to helping the people that were in need. My job started on the social media content side, writing content, but then I started working with Aya and Georges on revamping the whole concept of the NGO, and clarifying the vision and mission, reviewing what we have been doing for the past 15 years, since 2007, basically. So I’ve been trying to promote everything that we’ve been doing since 2007, on the sports side.

    LR: What are your memories of August 4, 2020, the day of the Beirut port explosion?

    AS: It was a tough day for everyone. I was actually at home. Beirut is small in general, so my house is just 20 minutes away by car from the site of the explosion. I had Covid-19 at the time, I was maybe one of the first people in Lebanon to get Covid. Lebanon was in full lockdown — I was still able to go up to the facility and train, but I had terrible symptoms, full-body aches. It was during that time, and I was feeling a little dizzy that day. And first, I was looking outside and I felt a really heavy wind, blowing the curtains outside. And I thought, “I’m sure I tied the curtains very tightly.”

    And then I sat up, and I felt a pressure, a really heavy pressure, in the building, and my ears hurt, and I saw the roof of the house shaking, and then it felt like an earthquake. And I smiled because I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be home alone and there’s about to be an earthquake.”

    The next thing to come was a huge bang, and it was one of the scariest sounds that I’ve heard in my whole entire life. The whole building shook, and it felt like a bomb had dropped in our backyard. It was that strong. I was shaking to the core. We have been through bad times before in Lebanon, so the first thing that came to mind was, “We are under attack again.” That was the only thing that came rushing through my mind.

    I waited a few minutes. I tried calling my parents, my family, but the calls wouldn’t go through. I even called my mom in the U.S., and the call actually went through, and I told her, “I don’t know what’s happening, but if I die, I love you.” It was like that. You don’t really know what to think.

    Then I went outside and I saw the mushroom, the pink mushroom, and at this point, I didn’t know what was going on. The only think I could think of was, “Is that a nuclear explosion that we were hit with?”

    And then things started unraveling, and we figured out what was going on. But even though I was far from the scene of the explosion, I can’t tell you how long it took to get me out of that trauma. Every time a door would shut, I would jump up. I can’t begin to explain or even understand what people who were at the site of the explosion where going through, the pain they were feeling from losing loved ones.

    I have some family who work near the site whose workplace was completely destroyed. They had some rubble drop on them and they had to go to the hospital. It’s a pain that Lebanon is going to live with for a long time. Not even a long time; anybody who was here will live with that pain forever.

    LR: What are your thoughts on the recent national elections in Lebanon?

    AS: Everyone in Lebanon was following what was going on. Everyone was on edge. You want to believe that there’s hope in a better tomorrow. On a personal level, I don’t know how much our leaders really want the best for Lebanon. I don’t know if they don’t just want what’s best for them, rather than what’s best for the country. It’s so hard to believe that, after everything that the country has been going through, a lot of people still voted for the same political parties and the same people that were in charge when the explosion happened. How is that even possible?

    We’re trying to have faith, and to believe that there will be a better tomorrow, and a better future for, if not my generation, at least the generations after us.

    LR: Is Lebanon still “a message of peace,” as Pope John Paul II stated? Does that Lebanon still exist?

    AS: It still does exist. If you came to Lebanon as a foreigner, you would be welcomed as if you had lived here your whole life. That’s just the way Lebanese people are. They have always been that way and they always will be. There will always be a part of the culture that is welcoming, and bringing peace, and building connections with people.

    But [on the other hand] people don’t know what’s best for them, because they’ve been made to believe that certain political parties are there to protect their land, or their cultures, or their personal religious views. It’s so deeply ingrained in people, all over Lebanon, in different areas: “You need to vote for me because I’m going to protect your religion; you need to vote for me because I’m going to protect your sect.” So there’s always a kind of fear between Lebanese people themselves, but it doesn’t apply to people coming from abroad to Lebanon. They will always be welcomed and made to feel safe. But every country has their own struggles, and this is one of Lebanon’s struggles, for sure.

    LR: You come from a mixed religious background; your father is Muslim, and your mother is Christian. What effect has this had on you as a person?

    AS: On a personal level, it just made me respect two completely different religions, in a deep way. It makes you a peace-builder, internally, because you see the different views, and no matter what a person’s view in life is, I feel that it’s the core that matters. Are you doing what’s right? You could be very religious, and you could be out there lying, and destroying, and breaking… to the point where a whole country is destroyed, because you say you are protecting your religious views. But where is the humanity in that? So I think I learned from a very young age that the main essence of religion was to teach humans to be good to the core, to love one another, to respect one another, and to create peace. And that’s something that a lot of people are missing. It’s all about greed, and power, and hunger. That’s a sentence that you would actually hear in Lebanon: “Trying to hold on to the throne.” It’s like a Game of Thrones in real life [laughs].

    LR: With the economic crisis in Lebanon, many people, especially young people, are now trying to emigrate to Europe or other Western countries. Have you had thoughts of leaving Lebanon?

    AS: That’s a very tough question because I feel that a lot of people are leaving the country, and when I say a lot of people, it’s a lot of the good people. I keep saying, imagine if every single good person just left the country. The country would cease to exist. It would be a jungle.

    So that’s why I find purpose in an NGO like Lebanese Young Talents. It’s trying to work on so many different levels, not just on the sports level. With everything that’s been going on, education in Lebanon has been hit so hard. Lots of kids are dropping out of school. So we are trying to keep education alive. We’re trying to keep teachers available. We’re trying to keep hope alive for so many people that feel like they’re not going to be able to find jobs. And having the help from Urbi et Orbi, which we’re very grateful for, we’ve even been able to provide the water purifiers, which we’ll soon be handing out to people as well.

    So there are so many levels that we need to work on and help people with, that if I think about leaving, I know [the work] is not going to stop if I leave, but it’s such a huge responsibility. You know how when they say, “Every person matters”? Every decision that you make is going to affect Lebanon in a certain way, wherever you are. So at this point, I don’t see myself leaving. But if I feel that there’s no room for growth, and no responsiveness, I don’t know. That’s something I don’t want to think about right now. I’m still at a point where I feel that I need to stay here.

    LR: So you have hope for the future?

    AS: I’m surrounded by people who are all on the same wavelength. We have hope. We see that there is a bright future ahead of us, if we keep working. That’s what I love about the group of people that I’m working with. Because we believe in Lebanon. So that faith will stay there.

    We recently had a project with Beirut Marathon, one of the top marathons in the world. We don’t really have parks in Lebanon, places where people can go out and walk or sit. There aren’t a lot of public spaces. That’s something that’s missing. Lebanon is full of nature, but in the middle of the city, those spaces are rare. So when you have an event with no cars on the road, moms and dads and kids and teenagers can be running on the street. It really helps with their mental well-being.

    Our vision with LYT and the Beirut Marathon is to create a healthy community in Lebanon through sports. They are people who still believe in Lebanon. They re-opened using their own personal funds, one year after the explosion. There are so many people that are still working, that still want this country to work. I still believe in this country, and in its people.

    LR: What kind of impact will the H2gO water purifiers have? How is this project progressing?

    AS: We have a huge number of volunteers that want to help. Now we’re getting in contact with the people how are in desperate need of purified water. We will start giving out the purifiers next week. People don’t have a source of clean water. It’s not just about drinking. Sometimes people with babies, they want to give them a shower and they need purified water because of some condition [that the babies have]. Or cancer patients. So these water purifiers are really going to change lives, on all levels.

    LR: What is the current situation regarding education in Lebanon, and what is Unitas: Friends of Lebanon doing to help?

    AS: On the level of education, because of everything that has been going on in Lebanon, kids have been dropping out of schools. It’s a scary number. Families have not been able to keep their kids in private schools, which are the better schools in Lebanon because public schools are not built to have that huge number of students. They just are not ready. The public system, unfortunately, is a failed system in Lebanon.

    So we’re trying to collect as many funds as we can to actually help families keep their kids in school. And a lot of the kids that we are helping are either in a single-parent household where one of the parents have passed away, or in a family where the parents are jobless, because of everything that has been going on in Lebanon. So the situation has been dire.

    The other thing we are trying to do on a social level is the water filter project, and the food boxes that we give out to people. There are so many things that the government should be providing that NGOs have to step up and provide at the moment.

    LR: You spoke earlier about creating a healthy community in Lebanon through sports, which you seem very passionate about.

    AS: Since two athletes were able to make it to the [2020] Olympics [from Lebanon], maybe in 2028, which is the L.A. Olympics, we can try to get 10 athletes there. Let’s find those talented people, help them work hard, and get them to the Olympics. That’s a long-term project that’s not just for now. It’s revolutionizing the sports sector in Lebanon, improving on it and working with the youth, which is the future of the country.

    [End interview with Aziza Sbaity]

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    Urbi et Orbi Communications

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    As a special thank you to all of our Friends of Lebanon, we will host a bimonthly Friends of Lebanon Meet & Greet on the last Friday of every other month. This event will be held on Zoom. This will give you an opportunity to hear about our latest efforts as well as to speak with those who are on the ground in Lebanon. You can join us on Friday, June 24, 2022, at 11:00 a.m. Eastern by registering here.

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    Christopher Hart-Moynihan
    Director, Friends of Lebanon Project
    Urbi et Orbi Communications

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Lebanon Reports