It seems that I experience such encounters more often than the norm.
I lived my first two decades in Lebanon and battled the unfortunate reality of the destruction of war. Despite surviving and thriving in this situation, I found myself debating certain choices that faced me every single day.
For me, the obvious choice was to leave the country after 15 years of war. I witnessed my neighbors emigrating within their own borders. I saw their precious pride undermining logic. Hospitality—which many believe was invented in Lebanon— took a complete 180 degree reversal. It felt as if no space within the geographic confines of the land could maintain and sustain the three million hearts that pumped every day in fear of an uncertain tomorrow.
I often questioned with every living vein in my body, “what the heck is wrong with our leaders?” and “why we can’t get along despite our differences?” The Lebanese invented the alphabet and exported goods to the world through the oldest continually active seaport, but we failed to understand the written words of wisdom and comprehend that words with no action mean nothing.
One united voice means everything.
Leaving was the hardest decision of my life. I felt squashed by society’s expectations of women’s role. The immense pressured by the modesty of my family was crushing. I was driven to discover the desire of my soul and the true meaning of freedom. Inspired by the idea of a land where the sun rises listening to the melody of birds and the greenery whispering melodies of peacefulness, I found myself crashing into walls of silence. I had to save what was left of me. It was my destiny to leave. I never expected that the land I dreamt about was actually in my backyard.
Equipped with nothing but a “hello” in English (“ALO” in Arabic), America became my second home; a place that would eventually adopt every emotion, drop of sweat, mountains of perseverance and my greatest intellectual accomplishments. Never once did my mind wander from what the ideal of Lebanon should be. However, I soon realized that the injustice of what I ran away from followed me here to my new home.
Misconceptions of cultural heritage – coupled with its outright negative promotion – were spread with a wide swath throughout the States. It was spread without any regard to true understanding of what life is like in other nations. I decided to carry the torch on behalf of my own people and begin a dialogue of bridging the gaps from both sides. I did it so I could find peace from within. I invested my life into philanthropy and publishing of ALO magazine.
I have gone through horrifying experiences, challenges that a native citizen would have crumbled under pressure, or spent a fortune at their time and money with a shrink but I had the courage to chose my battles and bite the bullets and keep marching forward for the betterment of others. Indeed, as if my own destiny is in the hand of unforeseen power being pushed through these doors of non prediction or the unexpected. Through it all, resides some of the most cherished moments of my life, a place where my joy filters through my soul and pours tears of resurrection.
Through all of the horrifying experiences, some of my most cherished moments are back home. When I remember those uplifting times, my soul pours tears of resurrection. This is how I felt last month when I took a delegation of journalists to Lebanon.
With a group of journalists from the U.S., we headed on a road of discovery to the Bekaa Valley. What’s funny and sad at the same time is that I have traveled the world, but never was able to step foot into the Bekaa Valley. It’s just an hour away from where I use to live in the city of Beirut but because of conflict and war restrictions never was possible.
During our drive to Bekaa, it struck me that for the first time in my life I was bonding with my roots. Tears were frozen in my eyes and a sense of madness overcame me as we witnessed the beauty of the land and surroundings.
How can we destroy a country that was the birth of civilization?
~We stood in the face of the Crusaders, repelling their invasions.
~We kept Alexander the Great at a distance for over a decade.
~We rebuilt the country after being overtaken by earthquakes and tsunamis seven times!
With all of our pride and intellect, we never move ahead and build the infrastructure to become a global archeological and tourism hub for the world.
With the Mediterranean Sea behind us and the mountains of snow above us, I felt as if we were flying above ground, admiring the touch of God as he gave Lebanon a special treatment of nature. It gave me time to reflect. I reaffirmed my commitment to support my country and lend a helping hand to the underserved, women and children and the physically challenged. I was all smiles being in Lebanon again, grounded with a philanthropic mission of delivering 1000 hearing aids to those in need.
Many would avoid the Bekaa Valley. It’s known as a place where there is massive drug growing, a training ground and THE hub for the country’s militias. This is a place where once no Americans would set foot. Today it’s different. With the hashish trade being shut down by government, locals were forced to focus on agricultural endeavors. Here in the middle of it all, I felt the need to stop at one of the local’s house and visit. I convinced the bus driver to stop so I could act on my instinct.
I chose a specific house, but please don’t ask why. It called to me in the same way a specific pastry might call you at your favorite bakery. “There is something about this place” I insisted. The house was small and humble – barely the size of a normal living room. More than 10 adults and children live and sleep there.
The lady of the house, looking much older than her true late thirties, greeted me with a smile. “Ahlan!” she said (“welcome in Arabic). Her face carried the burden of her hard life. Yet, her beautiful hospitality lit the room. She guided us into the house and her mother sat on the floor dicing organic olives with her bare hands. She looked at us with amazement wondering who we are.
While some of the journalists on the delegation used the open air bathroom sheltered only by a cloth curtain, I was drawn to the old women. She was easily in her seventies, but her hands word magic with the olives. I asked her what she was doing to fully understand her theory of making olives. I didn’t get a response. Her daughter stepped in to let me know that her mother cannot hear and she has been deaf for years. She explained that the family was unable to afford the cost of hearing aids.
I looked at the lady in shock… is that possible? I chose to stop at a stranger’s house while I am on a mission to install hearing aids and here it is a woman who couldn’t afford to be helped.
For few minutes, I felt at home; humble and happy beyond explanation. We were, treated with such warmth from a random family in the middle of Bekaa Valley. Who knew that my most precious and meaningful moment on this trip would come from a simple and unexpected stop?
I promised the old woman that she WILL be receiving hearing aids from the ALO Cultural Foundation and that help will be on the way very soon. Nothing can describe the emotional hug and kiss on my forehead she gave me upon understanding the news. Her prayers echoed the rest of my trip in Lebanon and upon my return back to the US. These prayers paved new steps on my path of wisdom.
Today, I reflect again on the past, assess my priorities in life and determine some of the choices that remain ahead. For me, raising awareness about the underserved and their challenges will remain my passion for life.
For 2012, I urge the world to put aside any perceptions, religion differences and false pride and reach within your giving heart to the world. Let us be the leader in showing that it's possible for all of us to overcome the challenge of unity and tolerance. Let's take a trip together so you can witness for yourself what togetherness can do