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Lebanon’s Urban Youth

Challenging the status quo

“Living here and working here isn’t working,” says Walid Khoury, a 20-year-old student in Beirut, Lebanon. “Not in a million years will life in Lebanon improve, but I would be very happy if it did. Don’t get me wrong.”

Mr. Khoury is far from alone in his pessimism. Countless Lebanese youth express similar sentiments; many others plan on emigrating or have already done so in recent years.

Christine Labban, a 19-year-old high school senior, says she intends on moving to New York when she graduates to pursue a career in fashion photography.

“It’s not stable here, and it scares people,” she says. “Outside, there’s much more safety and security, financially and politically.”

Ms. Labban also cites the inequity that women face in Lebanon’s job market. She says employers presume that a man supports a family and deserves a better salary than a woman with the same qualifications.

“Employers think a woman doesn’t need to get paid because it’s just a hobby for her,” she says. “That’s not right. That’s sexist.”

The youth who do stay in Lebanon and attend college often set their sights on graduate school or a career abroad upon graduation.

Ali Shamas, 21, studies biochemistry at Lebanese University. As with many of his peers, he plans on applying to graduate school in Europe. Asked whether he sees a future for himself in Lebanon, the young man quickly replied, “definitely not.”

He explains that in the field of protein science, in which he specializes, he cannot advance very far in Lebanon.

“We are taught the theory, but the real work is on the machines, and we don’t have them here. There is no way I can work in Lebanon.

“I have seen many examples of people who have gone so far in their academic area, and now they don’t use any of the tools they were given. Here, you are given tools to research and develop yourself, but you don’t use them. Lebanon is an ambition killer,” he continues.

The dearth of employment opportunities in Lebanon, however, extends far beyond the fields of science and fashion photography. At present, unemployment hovers around 10 percent. The rate of emigration is high; between 1990 and 2000, more than 250,000 people left Lebanon for work purposes. Emigrants also represent a vital source of income; foreign remittances total about $5.6 billion each year, one fifth of Lebanon’s economy.

For generations, Lebanon reigned as the Middle East’s trade and economic hub. But when civil war erupted in 1975, Lebanon began its slide toward economic ruin.

The war raged for 15 years, claiming between 130,000 and 250,000 civilian lives, wounding a million others (one quarter of the country’s total population) and severely damaging most of the Lebanon’s infrastructure. When it finally ended, the economy was shattered. In the past two decades, the government has incurred the third highest ratio of debt to gross domestic product in the world.

Thanks largely to the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Lebanese government, local and international companies and various aid organizations have spent on redevelopment and reconstruction, Lebanon has experienced a steady, albeit slow, economic recovery over the last 20 years. A few years before the 2006 war with Israel, the country even enjoyed record economic growth. But, this conflict, which killed 1,200 Lebanese and caused $3.6 billion in damage, rattled anew the country’s fragile economy and its war-weary population.

Economic woes explain only in part the malaise that prevails among some Lebanese youth. Today’s young people grapple with dysfunctional governance, which often masks politics with religion, that has plagued the nation since its birth in 1941.

Another war, says 15-year-old Sarah Shamas, will kill her remaining hope for Lebanon. She is finishing her freshman year of high school and hopes to go to college for interior design or animation. She says she loves Lebanon and does not want to leave, but realizes she belongs to a dwindling group among her peers.

“This is what scares me. Our youth, this generation, is losing hope and they’re not going to come back,” says Ms. Shamas. “The older guys, they’re still affected by the civil war and they’re not going to change anything. So, it’s like you have the ‘good guys’ going to other countries, but the ‘stupid guys’ are still here.”

When in 1989 members of parliament signed the Taif Accord, named after the city in Saudi Arabia where it was brokered, most wartime militias formally disbanded and peace was restored. Healing the trauma inflicted on Lebanon’s collective conscience and eradicating the hatred at the war’s origin, however, would require more than a political agreement.

Tension remains high among members of government from rival parties, which often divide along religious lines. At times, this tension erupts in acts of violence. Since 1991, a string of assassinations of prominent politicians, journalists and intellectuals have scandalized Lebanese society.

“I really believe the reason everyone was assassinated is because they defied the system,” says Mr. Khoury, adding that the loss of these leaders has inhibited progress.

“Nobody learned from the civil war; they just stopped it, without talking about why they stopped it,” says 24-year-old Rasha Ismael.

“People just wanted to move on, but deep down, you see a guy who lost his brother because of his neighbor … and nobody talked about it. And this guy thinks to himself, ‘Hey, how am I going to move on after this?’ and all he can do is stick to his own, so if it ever happens again, he thinks, ‘Hey, someone is supporting me.’ ”

Tensions evaporated during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, when thousands of Sunni and Christian families came to the aid of the mostly Shiites fleeing Israeli bombings in southern Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut. “People forgot about the politics; they were just there to help people,” says 23-year-old Ibrahim Hourani.

As the war ended, however, old hostilities resurfaced and intensified during an 18- monthlong political stalemate between opposing parties that froze the government. The stalemate culminated in May 2008, when radical party members battled in the streets of Beirut and elsewhere, firing at each other with rocket launchers and machine guns. The clashes prompted leaders to reach a truce, which was brokered in Qatar.

Conflict remains deeply ingrained in Lebanon’s social fabric, adversely affecting older and newer generations in equal measure. In diverse cities, such as Beirut, home to half of the country’s 4.2 million people, neighborhoods tend to be inhabited by predominantly one religious community or another. Streets dividing historic neighborhoods often served as battle lines during the civil war.

In mixed public schools, students often socialize along confessional lines.

Ms. Ismael, for instance, distinctly remembers the importance students placed on their political and religious affiliations. During the war, her father moved the family to Saudi Arabia, where she was born and attended French and American international schools. At age 16, she and her family returned to Beirut. On her first day of high school, a group of students approached her and asked, “What are you?”

“I thought to myself, ‘What do you mean?’ I told them ‘I’m Muslim,’ but I didn’t know which community I belonged to,” says Ms. Ismael. “So I came back home and I asked my mom, ‘What am I?’ Surprised, my mom said, ‘You’re Sunni Muslim. Why? Who asked you?’ ”

At universities, student associations often base membership on political party membership. The political affiliation of a candidate for student government often heavily colors voting trends among the student body.

Ms. Ismael says that when she entered college, some Sunni students hassled her for not “being Sunni” enough.

“I was confronted by some Sunni students. They said, ‘Come on, you know you are a Sunni, you have to face it, you have to be with [Prime Minister Saad] Hariri,” she says.

“If you don’t stick with your own, you won’t get anywhere, nobody will help you,” laments Ms. Ismael.

In Beirut’s poor neighborhoods, young people often join gangs, who frequently engage in violent disputes with other gangs, usually over neighborhood turf. One such flashpoint is the area surrounding Horj Beirut Park on the city’s south side, where the Sunni, Shiite and Christian neighborhoods of Tariq el Jedideh, Cheyyah and Ain el Roumeneh intersect.

“If you take a small walk along the street near us, you will see the Christian youth sitting on one side of the street and on the other side of the street there is the Shiite youth,” says 28- year-old Muhammad Ayoub, general manager of Nahnoo, meaning “we” or “us” in Arabic, a nonprofit organization that works with at-risk youth from all confessions. “If something happens, you don’t know when, suddenly they will come and start to fight each other.”

Mr. Ayoub belongs to a declining but active group of Lebanese youth committed to remaining in and improving their country. He and two friends founded Nahnoo as college students, organizing small outreach projects that brought together youth from Beirut’s disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“Even with the divisions, you have the same problems; you share the same goals and dreams. So why don’t you work together?” he says about the organization’s mission.

Today, Nahnoo coordinates some 60 volunteers, who tutor and mentor youth across the city. It also holds workshops for young people, aimed at teaching them the importance of tolerance and how to express themselves and solve their problems without violence. The workshops often include activities involving critical thinking, which, Mr. Ayoub says, help youngsters to better understand the complexity of the situations they encounter and that people may have different perspectives.

Mr. Ayoub says frustration often begins at home. Most Lebanese families retain traditional structures and values, which many of today’s youth find oppressive and out of touch with the secular, consumer culture inundating their daily lives outside the home.

Compounding their frustration are inadequate public schools and a corresponding lack of skills and mental tools to deal constructively with the many challenges and temptations they face, such as delinquency and drug use.

Drug use, in particular, has become a serious and increasingly common problem among Lebanese youth. Of Lebanon’s estimated 8,000 drug users, the percentage of those under the age of 23 has jumped from 7 percent in 1990 to 42 percent in 2007.

Ibrahim Hourani, who lives in Cheyyah, also mentors youth. For the past two years, he has been working with Gam3, a Danish nongovernmental organization that brings together youth from different confessions through sports.

Gam3 has helped build and operates eight basketball courts in underprivileged neighborhoods throughout Beirut and has created local basketball leagues with teams made up of members from different communities. Currently, some 800 youth, ages 10 to 18 from, play in its leagues.

“Some kids from Cheyyah never went to play on a Christian playground and never played against Christian kids,” says Mr. Hourani. “We’ve held many tournaments in different areas, and there we — Muslims and Christians — were playing together, not having any problem, just playing basketball. This creates change.”

He describes one game where teams from Tariq el Jedideh and Cheyyah played against one another on the court in Cheyyah. “One of the kids was named Omar, which is a name that identifies him as a Sunni. There was a kid from outside, who was not playing, who started to curse at Omar and the Sunnis,” recounts Mr. Hourani. At that moment, another youth from the Cheyyah team named Muhammad walked over to the young man who was cursing and smacked him. “After he hit him, the guy who was talking bad asked him: ‘Why are you hitting me? He is Sunni, you should hit him!’ and Muhammad told him, ‘He’s now playing with us. We are one team.’

“This sort of stuff happens, and you know people are changing,” continues Mr. Hourani.

For Kinda Hassan, a 26-year-old artist and founder of the music label Eha3, the lack of hope among Lebanese youth is the biggest obstacle to improving the country.

“If you cannot dare to dream, it is very problematic — just dream! That’s how things happen.”

Based in Beirut, Canadian Spencer Osberg covers the Middle East for numerous publications.

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