I’m the son of a Lebanese father and an American mother. I’ve had the great privilege of being born a U.S. citizen while also having roots in the cradle of civilization.
I spent much of my youth in Byblos, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth, where ancient ruins intermingle with modern structures and where you can stand atop a Crusader castle and stare out across the blue Mediterranean. Byblos is the origin of the word “Bible.”
My father, who passed before the turn of the millennium, belonged to the Maronite sect of Christians, who trace their roots to the Phoenicians. He took me to old stone churches in his (and my) ancestral village of Lehfed and gave me a sense of history that has rooted me through decades of turmoil.
I was a child when war broke loose and the world around me crumbled. Looking back now, I can still see the fear and anguish in my parents’ faces as they tried to protect their children from missiles and bullets and bombs, from kidnappers and snipers. I remember nights in dark, dank bomb shelters with no heat and no electricity, huddled against my siblings. I remember the whistling sound of incoming rocket fire and that deathly moment of anticipation – hearing the explosion meant you were still alive. It also meant someone else, perhaps your friend or neighbor, wasn’t as fortunate.
As an American, I had somewhere to escape from the war, somewhere to build a better life. That’s not the case for most refugees, who rely on the compassion of strangers to escape the living hell that is war. As America debates the plight of Syrian refugees in the aftermath of a spate of violence from Beirut to Paris, voices of intolerance get louder. We must counter those voices by speaking the truth.
Refugees are not the problem, they are the victims.
I’ve been in their shoes, I know what it feels like when your home is no longer a safe haven, when your parents lose the ability to fulfill their most basic role as protectors. Imagine resting your head on a pillow at night and wondering if you and that pillow will be obliterated before morning.
My family escaped by paying hundreds of dollars to a taxi driver willing to risk a gauntlet of snipers to reach Beirut’s airport. As we grabbed our belongings and squeezed into a beat up Mercedes ready to face the harrowing airport drive, little did we know that in the chaos, my father had packed his expired passport and that he’d be forced to leave us at the airport to make the dangerous round trip to retrieve the valid one. It was the longest wait of my life, but thankfully, he made it.
We spent time in Paris, where there is a large Lebanese expat community, then in New York, where my mother’s family lives and where I eventually settled. We returned to Lebanon in the vain hope of a lasting ceasefire, a hope that was shattered over and over again. Round after round of terrible violence followed. One of my family’s attempts to escape the bloodshed involved a midnight ferry to Cyprus. The Syrian army, under Bashar Assad’s dad, got wind of the journey and began shelling the port. Miraculously, everyone survived by hiding in a reinforced structure, piled on top of one another as fire rained down.
Brutality was everywhere. I was a few hundred yards away when the U.S. embassy was brought down by a massive bomb and I watched bleeding victims scramble away from the devastated structure. Months later, I remember driving to a market and hearing a huge explosion behind me. A suicide bomber had accidentally detonated his explosive before reaching the market and he lay in the street, car mangled, his body in two pieces. The force of the blast had blown his hair out grotesquely and I stood there contemplating what might have happened had our paths intersected just a few minutes sooner – or later.
When I was 15, the Lebanese Forces, a leading Christian militia during the civil war, began mandatory combat training of high school boys. I was one of them. That lasted for three years and I was not allowed to leave the country without written permission, which proved nearly impossible to procure. When I finally received it, I moved to New York and enrolled at NYU. I’ve only been back to Lebanon a handful of times since then – the memories are still very painful.
All these experiences inform my view of the current political debate on terrorism and refugees. I’ve come to understand that there is a relatively small but highly destructive segment of human males with a thirst for violence. Whether they massacre school children in the U.S. or concertgoers in Paris, whether they pour acid on girls or become serial killers, their goal is the same, to take life, to taste blood. They wrap themselves in different flags and different religions and rationalize their barbaric acts with everything from extremism to racism to misogyny, but those excuses shouldn’t distract us from their common nature and common purpose.
Violence is the story of human history. We can’t embrace intolerance in the false hope of protecting ourselves from every possible threat. What we must do is maintain our principles and our dignity and show these murderers that we will always stand strong. Our legacy is one of compassion and integrity, theirs is one of hate and failure. The former will prevail.