When I'm watching videos of ISIS destroying ancient statues or news coverage of the wars in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, I'm thinking about other "victims" of the current turmoil in the Middle East--my students at the American University of Beirut. Every day, their futures are being mapped out by bullets and bombs, and their hopes and dreams hijacked by widespread violence, rampant corruption, and the appalling failure of the international community to put an end to the Syrian war.
Being in college is hard enough, but imagine studying for a bachelors degree and living away from home for the first time with violence breaking out in all directions. ISIS and the army exchanging gunfire on the border with Syria. Deadly shells detonating on the border with Israel. Suicide bombers exploding in the heart of Beirut. Political deadlock that has left Lebanon without a president for almost a year. No wonder it's hard for so many students to focus in class.
Some of my students are Syrian refugees--whose trauma from the war back home is magnified by the unwelcome treatment they receive in Beirut. Others are Palestinian refugees, who have known nothing but displacement since birth. The majority are Lebanese, whose parents not so long ago were embroiled in a brutal civil war--that many believe never really ended.
ISIS fighters make regular guest appearances in my students' creative assignments, and close friends who died in bomb blasts in Beirut cry out for peace from beyond the grave. When my students and I read Plato's Republic, I invite them to imagine themselves as philosopher kings of Lebanon--and ask them what their first order of business would be. A common response? "Burn it to the ground!" And after that? "Walk away," they say.
My students have little hope for Lebanon's future. But from where I'm standing--at the front of the classroom--the future doesn't seem as dire.
Because every week, I witness Christian, Muslim, Druze, and atheist students in my philosophy class come together to contemplate the big questions of life. Informed by the radical humility of St. Augustine and the Sufi morality of al-Ghazali, they easily put sectarian divides aside to debate how to live a life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and virtue. In my Semitics class, I watch with delight as students plunge with passion into studying Hebrew, Syriac, and Ge'ez--the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Despite what the headlines say, many young minds in the region--from Iraq to Sudan--are open to interfaith dialogue, cross-cultural connections, and secularism too.
Since a number of my students will likely go on to become the future leaders of the Middle East, the stakes for helping them think critically and imaginatively are high. To debate the most effective ways to confront violence and injustice, we turn together to revolutionary thinkers like Gandhi, Karl Marx, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Edward Said, Cornel West, and Angela Davis. We do not approach their words as mere theoretical abstractions--but urgent and necessary tools to help us change ourselves and the world.
Earlier this semester, when I asked my students to list their heroes, they didn't name any figures from the Middle East. Unlike them, the majority of my heroes hail from the Middle East--because my heroes are my students. And I've been very lucky to witness all the good they're doing outside of the classroom first-hand.
Take Patrick and Marwa, for example--two socially-conscious students from my Sudan seminar with whom I volunteer every Sunday to teach African migrant workers English in Beirut. Or Hrag, a visionary psychology alum, with whom I founded the first mental health advocacy program in Lebanon run by young people with mental illness. Or Joseph, whose impressive film-editing skills helped me create a short film about Syrian refugee children shining shoes on the streets of Beirut. There are many other young people in Lebanon making a difference--like the countless students I see volunteering to cheer up kids with cancer in the playroom at St. Jude's.
While many students in the Middle East from both privileged and underprivileged backgrounds are helping to transform their local communities and improve the lives of those in need, who will help these students transform their own futures into more hopeful and stable ones? What legacy will they inherit from these poisonous political divisions and endless wars? Every day, these students are planting seeds of change, but in an environment polluted by war, corruption, and distrust, how can these seeds take root and grow?
Whenever the semester concludes, I like to leave my students with one last homework assignment, which I expect will last them the rest of their lives: "go out and change the world." No pressure, of course. But for these students, they have little choice--their lives depend on it.