BEIRUT: Keeping kids close to home normally means peace of mind for parents. Not so these days in Lebanon, where increasingly frequent bombings have left many shaken, putting parents in the unfortunate position of trying to keep their children safe by asking them to leave their country. “When I came to Lebanon [from Kuwait] 18 years ago with my three babies, I thought we were going to live in a country where my children would never go through what we went through,” says Amine-Jules Iskandar, a Beirut-born architect. Having spent most of his life abroad, Iskandar returned to Lebanon after the Civil War to raise his triplet daughters, now 18, two of whom are now studying in Lebanon while another is at university in France.
“When I see this coming again, I hate it. One thing is for sure: things will get worse. I’m not worried about myself, but my children are something else.”
Since last July, there have been 14 suicide bombings, killing a total of 143 and wounding hundreds more. The numbers tell a grim tale; the faces tell an even grimmer one.
Two days after Christmas, a car bomb ripped through Downtown Beirut, assassinating former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah and killing seven others.
Among the victims was 16-year-old Mohammad Shaar, who had taken a picture of himself with friends just moments before the deadly blast. The contrast between the “before” picture of the teen smiling in a hoodie and enjoying the sunny day and an “after” picture showing him lying limp on the street in a pool of blood struck a chord, with many Lebanese remarking that he could have been anyone’s son.
The location of the attack also resonated with many Beirutis, who until then had only seen bombings in less central neighborhoods.
“As long as bombings were happening in Tripoli and the southern suburbs, I could tell myself that things were OK,” Iskander says. “But when the explosion happened in Downtown, it became a problem. I saw that it could happen anywhere. The road where Mohammad Shatah was assassinated is the exact street my daughters take to go to university. Now it seems things are back to normal, if you can call a bombing in south Beirut normal.”
On the campus of the American University of Beirut in Ras Beirut, it’s hard to find students whose parents want them to stay in Lebanon, a far cry from just two years ago when many families did all they could to keep their children in the country. Back then, it was often the kids who wanted to go abroad and the parents who fought to keep them home.
“My parents want me to transfer now,” says Robert Jamal, a 20-year-old civil engineering student who is considering going to the U.K.’s University of Manchester to complete his studies.
He says that his parents started pressuring him to leave around six months ago when the car bombs started becoming more frequent. Even without the explosions, he admits that, although he would prefer to stay in Lebanon, it would make more sense for him to leave, given the low salary he would likely be paid at whatever job he finds after graduation.
Yet this is home for him. “Lebanon is a nice country,” he says. “Two years ago, I never thought about going abroad.”
As a compromise, he is spending this summer at the University of California at Berkeley to see how he likes studying abroad and will then decide what to do after that.
Lynn Jabra, an 18-year-old sociology student, is also nervous about moving abroad, even though both she and her family think it would be best for her. She recalls that when her older sister went to Canada, she returned home after just three months because she felt homesick.
“I think it’s better that I leave, but I just love it here,” she says, gesturing around at the tree-lined courtyards of the AUB campus.
She says she can’t imagine raising kids abroad, adding that she always thought her children would grow up in Lebanon and attend the same school she did.
Her friend, Ghina Awad, is looking to move to Montreal at the suggestion of her parents. She already knows some people in the Canadian city, which is home to a large Lebanese community, and so her parents wouldn’t fear so much for her safety.
“I’m used to it here. I’m not used to living alone. I’ve had the same friends since I was young,” says the 18-year-old studio arts major.
Yet she admits she doesn’t like to see her parents worry about her. “Maybe if I go away, they’ll be less stressed,” she says.
For Abed Yassin, leaving Lebanon means leaving behind his dreams of working as a doctor here.
“I don’t want to leave because I love it here,” the 18-year-old pre-med student says. “I feel like I belong here. I can’t leave.”
But he might not have much of a choice: “My parents are against me staying. They say they wish I could find a college in the U.S.”
Sitting on one of AUB’s many long outdoor stairways, he looks down at the ground pensively.
“I do feel bad. I imagine myself living outside and seeing Lebanon from a faraway place. I’d feel depressed. I’d feel homesick.”
And then he pauses, remembering the advice of his parents: “There’s no future here. Maybe I need to go away and live peacefully.”