By Ferial Berjawi
My earliest memory of being exposed to conflict and violence was on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2005. I was eight years old, in my middle school Math class on a normal school day when suddenly the floor beneath my feet shook and glass from the windows above my desk shattered all over my notebooks and my school uniform. I had no idea what was going on – all I could hear was some fragments of my teachers’ conversations, “an explosion in Saint George… they killed him… tens of people are dead”, but the fear and sadness in my their eyes made it clear that our daily realities were about to be transformed.
Within 10 minutes, my mom, like other parents, had arrived to my school to pick me and my brother up. She looked at us with eyes full of tears, and said with a quivering voice, “Rafik al-Hariri was just assassinated in the heart of Beirut.” For my family, Rafik al-Hariri was not just Lebanon’s prime minister who retained Lebanon’s dignity and integrity and significantly boosted the economy, he was an idol whose drive, values, and morals we aspired to live by. Ever since I was a child, my mom would tell me stories about him – how he was the son of a farmer who sold oranges at the side of the road, how he completed his education regardless his socio-economic background, and how he used his influence, wealth, and power to save his country after the civil war.
A month after the assassination, on March 14th, 2005, I participated in Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolution, the largest demonstration in the history of the country that united people across different religious sects and political affiliations to demand the end of the Syrian military occupation and to seek justice for al-Hariri’s death. The protests were completely nonviolent. If anything, it was one of the most memorable days of my life – Christians, Sunnis, Shias, Druze were on the streets wearing Lebanese flags, singing beautiful Arabic songs, and dancing dabke hand-in-hand in downtown Beirut. Despite the fear of political, economic and social uncertainties, people seemed to be at tremendous peace in the aftermath of this violence.
Unfortunately, February 14th’s bombing was only the beginning of a wave of explosions and assassinations of prominent political figures whereby around 24 other bombings struck the city from 2005 to 2009, most of which hit very close to home and had a direct effect on my family and friends. There was also the 2006 war with Israel during which my family and I hid in my aunt’s mountain house and I could literally see bridges getting bombed and collapsing to the ground. In addition, Hezbollah’s militia invaded Beirut in 2008 and took over the whole city in one day. It was April 7th, and I remember very clearly sneaking out to the balcony against my mom’s orders because I was curious about what was going on, when a man in Hezbollah’s military uniform pointed his gun at me, an 11 year old girl, and threatened to shoot if I do not go back inside immediately.
The political situation improved slightly by 2011; however, that is when the Syrian revolution began, and with it, came the large influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon and the military battles against ISIS and other militias at the border. This influx significantly increased tensions between Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian populations residing in the country, resulting in more physical violence and clashes. Moreover, I was witnessed first-hand the injustice, oppression, and trauma that these conflicts caused within these three populations.
Why am interested in peace-building? I do not even think I know what “peace” in Lebanon would look like. My country is constantly on the verge of collapsing, political crises in its neighboring nations have been ongoing for years and years, and the same warlords that orchestrated the civil war in 1975 still hold the reins of power today. Nevertheless, I see a thin veil of peace in this context of conflict and violence in Beirut’s nightlife, food, and outdoor activities. This is how the Lebanese find peace – in Garten every Saturday when thousands gather at the club at 2AM and stay there, dancing on their feet, until 7AM, and then go to Zaatar w Zeit, a Lebanese chain restaurant, for a mankoushe. The restaurant gets so packed that people end up eating their Mighty Kafta on the floor, and there’s people dancing and singing around with absolute strangers. We find peace in the crowded streets of Marmkhayel when you realize that you pretty much know all the bartenders and all the waiters, and that you have known them since you first started going out when you were 14. There is peace in the organized chaos and the common frustration over the lack of jobs, the traffic, electricity cutouts. We find peace in the hundreds of satirical memes and videos that will come out after a parliamentary meeting to mock pretty much all politicians and their incompetence at their jobs.
I have spent months and months wishfully dreaming of peace in Lebanon. This absence of peace has pushed me out of the country, as it has with thousands of youth like me. Every family in Lebanon has at least one family member that lives abroad. Whenever I go back home, I find myself staring out of my window at the beautiful Mediterranean sea on one side, and the impoverished refugee camps on the other. I am inhaling polluted air which smells like garbage while I listen my mom’s soothing voice in the background and then smell her stuffed grape leaves and zucchinis. And I am just standing there, and I am both angry and heartbroken as hell. I am angry at Beirut for pushing me out, and I am heartbroken that it will probably never love me back the way I love it.
But this is why I am attending the SPP. I refuse to give up on my country, my region, and just mankind in general. We can, and we should, do so much better to uplift and empower each other rather than focusing on superficial ethnic, religious, or racial differences to justify violence and conflicts. I believe in the radical humanization of al individuals, and I am excited to understand how I could translate this belief in the real world, spread it to others, and build more progressive and equitable societies that work for the benefit of all of us rather than just some of us.