Becoming a Global Citizen -The Visit to Beirut, Lebanon that Ignited All My Senses
It was random on a Thursday evening when I decided to accept an invitation that had been offered many times over the years to go visit a dear Lebanese friend. The adventure began literally 3 days later when I found myself on a Sunday evening flight to Beirut eager and anxious to explore a location so foreign to me in the middle east. The Google search for this destination left me wondering whether I had made a huge mistake deciding to travel to this place. The state department deemed Lebanon unsafe as a level four threat stating DO NOT TRAVEL. The official website suggested that one reconsider travel to Lebanon due to crime, terrorism, armed conflict, civil unrest, kidnapping and the Embassy’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens. My family was so conflicted and worried about my safety, but I didn’t let that convince me to cancel my trip. I followed my own gut instincts, bringing in the new year with this amazing journey to Lebanon, while I still had some time during my Christmas break. Beirut was nothing like I perceived it to be. My week-long visit enlightened me in ways that I wish to share, in an attempt to change the unbalanced narrative that seems to exist. There is a global misunderstanding of this beautiful region and Lebanon as a country is unmistakably misunderstood.
I met Bilal Ibrahim over 35 years ago in college while we were both earning our chemistry degrees and we became lifelong friends. He went on to become a distinguished eye doctor that does cornea transplants and the like.
He eagerly meets me at the gate with security detail upon my arrival. We hadn’t seen each other outside of connecting via social media platforms, direct messaging and FaceTime calls in decades. Seeing him in person after all these years felt very familiar, like he was family. His exact words when we first saw each other were “welcome home” and honestly it felt like home. I was treated like royalty the entire time and him coming from a prominent Lebanese family made it easy. After expeditiously getting me through customs, escorting me to take my PCR test for entry and getting my bags, I entered his vehicle looking at the night lights across the beautiful skyline of this city. I later found out just 2 months prior to my visit it was completely dark here. There was a fuel shortage in the country and people were without electricity for weeks at a time.
The electricity still goes on and off, I witnessed this during my stay. My eyes began to awaken in a way that I can only describe as an epiphany. Discussions on the ride from the airport gave me direct insight on things that were happening, I began to deeply feel the problems I was hearing about. I listened for understanding, as I wanted to know more about what caused the crisis Beirut finds itself in. Whatever issues I had back in the United States were quickly forgotten as the issues of this country began to unfold for me. On this same ride from the airport we passed by a Palestinian Refugee Camp (a place advised by the state department not to go to) for me to see the living conditions. Then a conversation about the history of the Palestinian people was held. Hearing details coming from those who have shared actual experiences with the Palestinians was enlightening. Essentially, I was told that for there to be true peace in the region the Palestinians need to be given back their homeland. Not only were they robbed of their land but also their history, memories, lineage and sadly their dignity in many ways. They have been blackballed and are not permitted to even work to provide for themselves. Many are left to beg for what they need. Syrians are on the streets begging as well. To end this for themselves, they would need to sign their rights away and not stake a claim to what’s rightfully theirs. Basically, deny who they are and their birthrights. International sanctions have really suffocated them, and these people have done nothing at all to anyone. Sadly, innocent people must suffer for the decisions made by governments. The word suffering is an understatement, because there are no words to describe what I witnessed with my own eyes of their existence in those refugee camps. I wanted to know why this is happening.
From my perspective, perhaps it can best be explained using an analogy from the taking of George Floyd’s life which was due to the pressure of a knee placed on his neck for over nine minutes. In the case of the refugees, the banking system, the elections, sanctions, etc., it’s akin to having a knee applied to the necks of the people to pressure them to conform. This pressure is cutting off their oxygen and making it very difficult for them to thrive. Citizens are unable to access their own money that is being held hostage in the banks. Instead they receive a weekly allowance of sorts (not their entire paychecks they are owed) and what they receive is very minimal to sustain their daily living. Even with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank they can only withdraw very limited amounts equivalent to less than $50-100 weekly. For many it is because of relatives that live outside of the country that send them money they are able to survive. I was unable to use a credit or debit card and only “new” one hundred dollars bills from the United States were accepted. Had I not brought enough cash to cover my trip I would have struggled to get or use funds.
This crisis has been going on now for over 2 years. Maybe the hope is to squeeze so much life out of the people that they will rise-up against the government. Or is this an attempt to make the government comply with strategic demands for the region? Maybe the goal is to apply so much pressure it will have the people turn against Hezbollah, a group that has helped them during their suffering. Maybe the reason is to control the elections to ensure certain interests are maintained. What we know for sure, is that there is a reason this knee is being applied to the necks of the Lebanese people. Whatever the reason, the true narrative is not being told. It’s like punishing a child and not telling them what they did wrong. The people do not know why this is happening to them. What is being said is that there is corruption in the government causing all of this. Ok then, by who? Why are they not being prosecuted? And if not by Lebanese courts, then why not by an international body that handles humanitarian affairs. Nothing is being done. The question is why and when will this end? The knee needs to be removed from the necks of the people of Lebanon so they can breathe again and soon.
It was after meeting with several dignitaries including The Director General of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim who kindly opened his doors to dialogue for well over an hour, that a better understanding began to unravel.
This enchanting middle eastern country in the northern Arabian Peninsula, located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and bordered by Syria to its north and east, and Israel to its south can best be explained by defining sectarianism. This is because sectarianism has a very strong hold within the culture throughout the region. It is a political or cultural conflict between religious groups often related to the form of government they live under. This type of rule can be hard for westerners to really grasp because Lebanon recognizes eighteen different sects, the formal representatives of which have a variety of powers by virtue of their relationship with the country. This includes five Islamic sects (Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawite, and Ismaili); the Maronites and eleven other Christian sects; and the Jewish community. Prejudice, discrimination, and hatred can arise within the various religious sects and this undoubtedly leads to conflicts. Depending on the political status quo and if one particular group holds more power within the government than another, this can determine your fate within society and how you are treated in Lebanon. Being born into a certain sect can bless or curse you in the region. What needs to be understood is that there is something fundamentally not fair about this cultural norm. Ultimately, it needs to change.
Being exposed to all of this, I felt a level of empathy that’s hard to explain. It left me wanting to contribute, seeking ways to make an impactful change. I believe so strongly that all people are equal, but I’m actually witnessing on a global scale how they are not being treated as such. Spreading the understanding of global citizenship across the world may help change this. Becoming a global citizen makes you consciously aware of the wider world and your place in it. It gives you an understanding that compels you to take an active role working with others to make our world a better place, more peaceful and fairer. It’s embarrassing to say it took me over 53 years to seriously consider engaging in global citizenship and it was after seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching Beirut, Lebanon.
This visit ignited all five of my senses and I now have bought sense not a borrowed sense of clarity. It was so moving that I need to do whatever I can to change the narrative based on what I’ve witnessed for myself. There is no civil unrest but instead I saw peaceful protests. I did not experience crime but instead people on the streets begging for what they need or selling things as cars passed by to support themselves. I saw no terrorism or armed conflicts but instead ate comfortably in a Hezbollah controlled area and the food was delicious. I wasn’t kidnapped and didn’t fear being kidnapped as people moved about minding their own business and police were present and armed at various checkpoints making you feel safe and secure.
I was surprised to see Popeyes Chicken, McDonalds, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin Donuts, and Starbucks everywhere. I saw festive Christmas decorations all around, heard sounds from an Orthodox Christian parade from my hotel, window shopped designer stores in exclusive shopping areas, admired million-dollar residential high-rises, bustling restaurants, and yacht clubs. I had a gracious crew that hosted me the entire time, Bilal and Ghiwa and Hassan and others too.
I visited majestic 6 million year old caves at Jeïta Grotto, as well as other popular tourist sites and traveled all throughout the scenic villages up in the exalted snow-capped mountains.
We went to an eye clinic where Bilal volunteered to see patients and he even gave me an eye exam that resulted in a prescription for glasses. We dropped by a children’s hospital to support a child that was severely burned, later meeting up with the doctor so Bilal could donate the thousands of dollars needed to ensure the surgery is performed. After catching up with a medical colleague for dinner, Bilal hands him much needed medicine for his patients.
While there, I saw ordinary people just trying to live good lives. The final evening of my trip ended with a traditional Lebanese feast hosted by an esteemed member of parliament and his wife in their ornate home with all his family, as I sat down alongside other guests from Poland. The hospitality was like nothing I’ve ever encountered. After this beautiful travel experience, I was searching for a way to never let it end and to stay actively engaged in the change that is needed. I found that global citizenship encourages others to develop the knowledge and values needed to interact with other parts of the world in a meaningful way.
I truly believe that we can all make a difference. In becoming a global citizen, I am committed to using my voice from now on to speak for a better understanding of different parts of the world. We need to be a part of the change we want to see and make a positive difference in helping every person in need.
Collectively we can build a kinder, fairer, safer and more secure world for everyone to live in. This trip made me reflect and really think about my values and what's important to me. I began to realize that I needed to learn more about different people and cultures and take the necessary time to do just that. It made me challenge my ignorance and I have a newfound intolerance to any human-being suffering anywhere on this planet. I hope to collaborate and get involved locally, nationally and globally lending a voice to the voiceless to influence and connect the world in a way that creates a better global understanding.