Benefactor supports US college education for 2,500 Lebanese

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On the Boston University campus here recently, several young men were observed asking directions to something that sounded like ``sealab.'' Most people didn't know what they were talking about. But someone who did directed them to 730 Commonwealth Avenue, home of BU's Center for English Language and Orientation Programs (CELOP).

This winter almost half of the students in CELOP are new arrivals from Lebanon. The students are here as the result of one man's desire to rebuild a peaceful, unified Lebanon.

Rafik Hariri, an Lebanese-Arabian billionaire, is footing the bill for the 272 Lebanese students here. He wants them to study in the relative calm of American colleges and universities and to return to Lebanon with their new skills and knowledge, along with the resolve to help heal the country's rifts.

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Mr. Hariri's generosity is not limited to Boston. Rafik Bizri, director of the New York-based Hariri Foundation says Hariri is sponsoring more than 6,000 students in Western Europe and North America. Almost 2,500 of them are in the United States, scattered from Arizona to Florida.

Dr. Bizri says Hariri's concept is to ``get these [students] out of the mess [in Lebanon], and to educate the Lebanese people.''

Susan Doll, acting director of CELOP, says the goal of Hariri's program is ``to get the promising generation of students to a stable atmosphere, so that this generation isn't wasted.''

One of Lebanon's leading philanthropists, Hariri has spent millions of dollars in relief efforts since the Israeli invasion of that country in 1978. His construction company, Saudi Oger, is based in Saudi Arabia, and Bizre says that Hariri has himself become a Saudi citizen.

Yet, he adds, as with ``anyone with a Lebanese background, he [Hariri] has a love for Lebanon.''

Bizri is full of praise for the program. He says this is the ``first time in the history of humankind that one individual has supported so many'' in order to educate them.

He says Hariri has provided ``an unlimited budget for educating Lebanese, and if we can educate all Lebanon to stay away from these crazy civil wars, we'll do it.''

The new arrivals at BU represent a diverse group. There are Christians, members of various Moslem sects, and one Jew. The students come from all parts of Lebanon, and 31 of the 272 are women.

At home, these students might be at odds with each other because of religion or politics. Yet one of them, Mohamad Chidiac, says he thinks none of the students will be caught up in politics here.

``The point of the Hariri Foundation is to save students from the political [upheaval] going on in Lebanon,'' he says.

Another student, Afif Arabi, says: ``We are here as students. We are not fighters. We are here to study, and have good intentions.''

Most of the Lebanese students at Boston University cannot speak English yet. But those who do are eloquent in their praise of the program.

Mr. Arabi speaks of ``the marvelous man who gave you this opportunity to study here.'' In Lebanon, he says, he would not have been able to attend a university.

The ``official,'' or private, schools there are very expensive, he says, and the public university in Lebanon has few openings and many applicants.

It was too dangerous for him to study in his hometown of Beirut, he says, with the periodic threat of bombings or other violence.

``It's perfect to come here to study, even if the temperature is minus 40'' -- a slight exaggeration.

For some of these students, Boston's winter has presented the most challenging adjustment. They had been told to expect cold weather, but most of them had never even seen snow.

Another challenge for them is the switch to American food. Arabi said he was having a hard time adjusting to American cooking. But he couldn't say specifically what he objected to, because he doesn't know what anything he's eaten is called. American students here probably just call it ``dorm food.''

Ghada Kreidly, an earnest, intelligent young woman, says she attended a university for two years in Lebanon. But the school was closed last summer. The Hariri Foundation is making it possible for her to continue her studies, she says.

She will, however, have to change her focus. In Lebanon, she had been studying to become a doctor. But the foundation has discouraged her from continuing in that field.

Ms. Doll of CELOP says the foundation did an assessment of projected job openings in Lebanon for the coming decades, and found probable oversupply of doctors and civil engineers. Miss Kreidly thinks she may study computer science.

Yasser Kazma finished high school this past summer. While he wanted to continue his education, he says it was simply too expensive.

Now he plans to stay in the United States for five years to get degrees in biomedical engineering.

Fatima Smaily, a soft-spoken young woman from the Bekaa Valley, says she will study English literature here. She is very much in earnest about her reason for being in the US.

``You are here to study,'' she says, ``and don't do anything else. You are sent to study. If you fail, you return to Lebanon.''

She says the students have been given the opportunity to ``come and study, and rebuild our country.'' Miss Smaily adds that Mr. Hariri has come upon ``the perfect way to build the country, by building the people.''

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