For three Lebanese students, politics takes back seat to friendship. Some hope relationships nurtured in US will one day blossom in Beirut
Atlanta — Despite the violence in Lebanon, signs of friendship are evident among Lebanese university students in the US who come from rival groups back home. And there is hope among many Lebanese in the United States that such friendships will eventually help restore peace when the students return to Lebanon.
As Lebanon's national-unity Cabinet was resigning Wednesday amid renewed violence there, at the Georgia Institute of Technology here in Atlanta three Lebanese university students -- a Christian, a Shiite Muslim, and a Druze -- met as they often do to laugh and joke among themselves on campus.
They have much in common. All three are engineering students. They all appreciate a chance to get an education in a peaceful place. They are all affected by the big drop in the value of the Lebanese pound compared with the dollar. And they all want peace at home.
``Regardless of where we come from or what our religions are, we're friends,'' said Wassim Selman, one of the three. Mr. Selman, who is a Druze, is president and founder of the Lebanon Club. The club draws Lebanese Muslim, Christian, and Druze students here together for social events at the university. One of the members says ``eating'' is the club's main activity: ``If we got into politics, there wouldn't be any Lebanon Club.''
Lebanese in Washington, D.C., and in Detroit, which has a large Lebanese population, say such friendships among Lebanese students in in the US are typical. According to Antoine Andary, assistant cultural attach'e at the Lebanese Embassy in Washington, there are from 4,000 to 5,000 Lebanese university students in the US.
``It's very encouraging,'' says Kahlil Farah, a Lebanese Christian in Detroit who operates an American-Lebanese restaurant. ``We hope even in Lebanon [after their return] they will meet like they're meeting here, and it [the fighting in Lebanon] will all be settled.'' He says his daughter, a student at the University of Michigan, has numerous Lebanese Muslim friends.
His brother, Robert Farah, a spokesman in Washington for Lebanon's Christian military forces, says such interreligious friendships among Lebanese university students in the US is common.
``They work together and talk together,'' he says. When they go home, ``the friendships will survive in the heart of the person.'' And they may remain in contact with each other, he says.
But he and Selman are aware of the tremendous difficulties involved in retaining such contact once the students return home.
``If it was up to us to solve the problem [of fighting at home], we could solve the problem,'' says Selman. But the extremists of the rival religious groups are in control now, he says. And that makes contact between groups difficult in many parts of Lebanon.
But once home, if former university friends of another religious group come to visit him, says Selman, ``I'm going to protect them -- and vice versa.''
And while many Lebanese grow up having little contact with members of other groups, many others make and retain such contact, even today, in schools and apartment buildings ``in Beirut and elsewhere,'' he adds.
Another member of the Lebanon Club at Georgia Tech is Hassan Kadouh, a Shiite Muslim who came here last year from Beirut, where he attended a high school with many Christian students.
Like some of the other Lebanese students here, Mr. Kadouh has experienced the violence back home. He says that a car bomb exploded near his apartment in 1982, shattering all the windows in his family's eighth-floor apartment. And once bullets landed in a wall of their apartment close to where he was sleeping.
``After 11 years of living in the war you say: `I can't stand it anymore. I want to live,' '' he says, adding that when at home, he didn't care if he risked his life in order to have a more normal social life.
``It's nice to live in a place where you have law,'' he says of the US. He marvels that even on nearly empty streets at night here, cars stop for red lights. And he likes the quiet. Like the other Lebanese students, he has to be frugal, however, because the Lebanese pound has declined sharply in value compared to the dollar.
Here he has Christian Lebanese friends. ``Sometimes they tease me,'' he says.
``We call him a Shiite Maronite,'' says Antoine Kossaife, one of his Christian Lebanese friends. A Maronite, he also came here last year, from the village of Zebdine, near Jubail, on the coast north of Beirut. From 1981 to 1984, Mr. Kossaife was a member of the Christian militia. Even if fighting in Lebanon continues, he plans to return. ``It's better to die in Lebanon than somewhere else,'' he says.
He sees hope for peace. ``You can live with an educated Muslim or Druze,'' he says. But living with uneducated members of such groups is ``difficult.''