Religious tensions melt for Lebanese youths in Fresno
Fresno, Calif. — Georges Khoury says he's had a lot of fun in America -- roller skating, swimming, playing miniature golf, shopping, fishing. But what he likes most of all is to relax at the park. ``You must understand that in Beirut people are confined to their own street,'' says Kathy Morley, host ``mom'' to Georges and fellow countryman Mohamad Hakim. Simply being able to move about freely is a special treat for the boys, she says.
The two are among 16 Lebanese children -- representing Sunni, Druze, and Shiite Muslims and Catholic, Maronite, and Orthodox Christians -- spending a summer vacation in the United States. Eight of the youngsters are staying with families here in Fresno, two are in Atlanta, two are in Crownsville, Md., and four are in Austin, Texas.
There were tensions at first between Georges, a Christian, and Mohamad, a Muslim. ``They went through an I-know-you, you-know-me period, and now they are responsive to each other,'' Mrs. Morley says.
The teen-agers agree they have become friends. Georges, affectionately clapping Mohamad on the shoulder, is the first to admit that Mohamad's English is better than his own.
But they also say they will not see each other again back in Beirut -- even though they live only four blocks apart. Their homes are on opposite sides of the ``green line,'' the invisible boundary that separates the Christian and Muslim parts of the city.
It is too dangerous to cross over. But even if it were not, Mohamad says he would not go.
Vincent Lavery, the Fresno resident who is responsible for bringing the young people to America, says no one here tries to change their values and attitudes. During the six years he's been bringing children here, however, he has found that ``most get along beautifully.'' Some become very close; others remain more distant but still develop a respect for each other.
Mr. Lavery says the program works because young people's attitudes are still fluid and because they readily adapt to change. ``Therefore, they are capable, if they have hate in their hearts, to change from hate to love,'' he says.
Indeed, smiles, laughter, and sharing were much in evidence at a recent pool party for the eight Lebanese youths staying in Fresno. Swimming, soccer, and food were uppermost in their minds, but the young people were also concerned about family members back in Beirut. A recent series of bombings there, some explosions occuring in neighborhoods where their relatives live, threatened to put a damper on the fun until host George Wade got word that all were safe.
One boy has already lost both parents, killed in an earlier bombing incident. And Georges was visiting his older brother when a car bomb went off in front of the apartment building.
``I walked into the door, and the explosion came two minutes later,'' he says. ``I passed right by the car that blew up.''
Georges says no one ever knows when a car will explode, or a bullet will fly past. ``When we walk the streets, we don't know if we will live or die,'' he says.
Kathy Morley and husband Bill, who have three children of their own, say Mohamad and Georges have become part of the family. They know that Mohamad likes to sleep late, and that Georges is particularly fond of ketchup. It's enough to know that, for a time, the boys are out of harm's way, Mrs. Morley says.
``They're not here to talk about politics and religion,'' she says. ``They're here to enjoy.'' Peacemakers profiled so far
Marianne Diaz, who prevents street-gang violence in the barrios of Los Angeles. May 8.
Nico Smith, a white South African minister who tries to bridge South Africa's black-white divide. May 21.
Dennis Wittman, who reconciles victims and their assailants in New York. June 24.
Robert Marovic, a high school student who resolves disputes between fellow students in New York. July 1.
Sydney Callaghan, a Methodist minister in Belfast who ignores Protestant-Catholic labels in helping people fight unemployment, poor housing, and discrimination. July 11.
Efrain Martinez, a federal conciliator in Houston who tries to head off conflicts before they arise. July 31.
Ralph Gomez, who combined his interest in the arts and in young people to defuse a brewing gang war over graffiti in Paterson, N.J. Aug. 7
Mary Gratereau, who helps immigrant families in New York ease the parent-child strains that come with moving into a new culture. Aug. 13.