Youngsters get `holiday' from hate
Fresno, Calif. — MOHAMAD Hakim and Georges Khoury are seated at the kitchen table, engrossed in a video game called ``Centipede.'' Cheering each other on, the teen-agers shout in triumph whenever one of them scores a hit at the menacing creature on the screen. Zapping electronic spiders, scorpions, and centipedes is comic relief for two boys who have grown up in strife-torn Lebanon. In their homeland, the menace of car bombs, explosions, and random sprays of gunfire is part of everyday life. Both say they feel safer here in this central California city, where they are spending six summer weeks with an American family.
But what is most remarkable about the scene at the kitchen table is that the boys, sitting companionably shoulder to shoulder, represent different sides of the conflict in Lebanon. During his stay in America, Mohamad, a Sunni Muslim, has been sharing everything -- a family, meals, new experiences, and even a bedroom -- with Georges, a Lebanese Christian.
The two are here as a result of the work of Vincent Lavery, a substitute schoolteacher whose love for children has prompted him to strive, in a very specific way, to overcome the seeds of suspicion, anger, or hatred that sprout in strife-torn countries.
In all, 16 young Lebanese, 10 boys and six girls, are in the US this summer, joining 200 Protestant and Roman Catholic children from Northern Ireland.
``As the tree is planted, so shall it grow,'' says Mr. Lavery, explaining his philosophy that children who are raised in climates of hostility and fear need to see that violence is not the norm. ``It is easier to straighten out the tree of children, because the older we get the more set in our ways we become.''
The idea of bringing these children to America was conceived in 1981, when Lavery went to Dublin for a vacation. The day he left New York, the headlines relayed the news that Bobby Sands, the outlawed Irish Republican Army guerrilla sentenced to prison outside Belfast, had died following his hunger strike. Later, Lavery read about a Belfast milk carrier, a Protestant family man, who was killed in a bomb explosion.
And, Lavery recalls, while he was there officials campaigning during local elections in Northern Ireland only heightened tensions by ``screaming at each other.
``The key to resolution of conflict is compromise,'' he says. ``But when people are using words like `total,' `never,' and `always,' there will be no resolution of conflict.''
Lavery's idea was to give the children, in whose lifetime there has not been even a semblance of peace, a respite from the conflict.
``We don't discuss religion. We don't discuss politics,'' Lavery says. ``We are putting children together in an atmosphere of love. It's that simple.''
Since 1981, more than 1,000 youngsters from Northern Ireland have spent ``a holiday'' with host families in 46 states in the United States, Lavery says. This year, for the first time, he extended his efforts to children in another country -- Lebanon.
Traveling to Beirut twice last spring to make arrangements, Lavery experienced the horror firsthand when a bomb went off a few blocks from his hotel, killing nine people and injuring about 60 others. So few people are traveling to Lebanon these days that only three rooms in the 600-room hotel were occupied, he says.
Despite obstacles -- poor or nonexistent communications, the difficulty of crossing from east to west Beirut, and initial skepticism among the Lebanese -- Lavery says he was able to pull off the trip thanks to ``a series of coincidences that are almost eerie.''
There was the travel agent at the hotel who was instrumental in making transportation arrangements for the group.
Then the US ambassador in Beirut agreed to provide visas for the Lebanese children at no cost. And, finally, at the last minute, a representative from Mideast Airlines arranged a Lebanese Army escort for children in Christian east Beirut for safe passage to the airport in Muslim west Beirut.
``In both countries you've got children caught in the cross fire between adults,'' Lavery says. In Lebanon, the situation is aggravated, because ``you also have a country itself being caught in the cross fire between the Soviet Union and Syria on one side, and the United States and Israel on the other.''
About 100,000 people have been killed in Lebanon since 1975, Lavery says, noting the difference between that figure and the 2,800 killings in Northern Ireland since 1969.
But, he points out, though the intensity of the conflicts differs, the effects on children are the same.
May Johnston of Belfast has been a volunteer with Lavery's program since its start. (He calls it Children's Committee 10, reflecting the view that its effects will be seen a decade from now). Mrs. Johnston says she can attest to the changes that take place in the children as a result of their stays in the US.
``Anyone born after 1969 has been brought up in the troubles,'' she said in a telephone interview. ``They've seen violence. Soldiers are always in the streets. We've had children whose fathers have been murdered.''
The children are growing up unexpressive, uncommunicative, always guarded, Johnston says. Living as part of a family in America, without violence and without fighting, helps to open them up. ``They come back very confident in manner and attitude,'' she says.
It's difficult to discern whether Lavery's work will ever have any measurable effect on the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Lebanon. For Johnston, it's enough to know that Protestant and Catholic parents in Northern Ireland now meet to plan for the annual trips, when otherwise they would never have gotten together.
``You're just hoping for the future,'' she adds.
Lavery knows that many of the children who live together for six weeks will not see each other again outside the program. But he is looking 10 or 20 years ahead when, perhaps, they may pass on the street, meet in the board room, or even intermarry.
``This program is just a grain of sand, but I think it pricks people's consciences,'' Lavery says. ``You can't, unless you're extremely mean in spirit and in humanity, be opposed to a holiday for children.''
``We can't change the past, and we can only react to the present,'' he says. ``We must try to change the future.''