Learning in Lebanon

June 1, 2002

 

Halfway through a course on modern Arabic literature and culture last fall, Danielle Squires, a senior, made a joke. "Let's go to Beirut," she said. Professor Miriam Cooke responded: "If you write up a proposal, I'll make it happen."

Already the class had been like no other. Terrorist attacks last fall supercharged the discussions. They talked about September 11 in each class, discussed worrying news events, and hashed out their own ideas about the Middle East. Even after seeing hours of films, postcards, and other images, the students felt they wanted--needed--to see the land themselves.

So, at a time when many Americans were afraid to fly within their own country, a group of Duke undergraduates began planning a trip to Lebanon. In the end, seven students, most from that fall course, traveled to Lebanon for nine days during spring break. They visited Palestinian refugee camps, met the prime minister and his sister, visited Roman ruins, and learned about the ancient culture and modern conflicts in the Middle East.

"It is the first time since I've been here that students have said, 'Oh my God. I'd love to go,'" as a group, says Cooke, who has been teaching Arabic literature and culture at Duke for twenty-one years. "What the students are doing is taking the multicultural content out of class."

Each student had written a proposal for a project and, with Cooke's help, they went around campus, eventually getting more than $18,000 from sources such as President Nannerl O. Keohane, Dean of Trinity College Robert Thompson, Vice Provost for International Affairs Gilbert Merkx, Rob Sikorski of the Center for International Studies, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta, and the Comparative Area Studies Majors Union. One student raised a separate fund to buy books for Palestinian students, including Harry Potter books in Arabic.

One month before their March 7 departure, the project that began with an offhand remark still seemed unreal. "It was just one of those comments," Squires says: "'Let's go to Beirut.'" But it was real enough once they arrived. They traveled together to places such as the Bekaa Valley and the Roman ruins in Baalbek, then split up to do individual projects.

Squires worked with fellow senior Justin McBride interviewing college and high-school students about the events of September 11 and their attitude about the United States. They have been following up with similar interviews with Duke students and local high-school students.

Squires says she was impressed with the Middle Eastern students. "Everybody wanted peace. Everyone agreed that September 11 shouldn't have happened." She was less impressed, however, with the people she interviewed here. "It surprises me how little they know."

For several students, visits to the Shatila and Ein-el-Helweh Palestinian refugee camps were the most moving experiences of the trip. Sophomore Tori Hogan worked with refugee children, evaluating their development. She found that, although very young children could wow them with their knowledge of politics, the deprivation and lack of education in the camps meant they lagged behind in basic skills.

She also spent the night with a family in the Shatila camp, which she says gave her a sense of the poverty and loss with which families there live. The matriarch of the household had had twenty children--fourteen of whom she said died in the 1982 massacre at the camp when Phalangist militia killed an estimated 800 residents.

Because of the trip, Hogan--who says she was the least informed of the group--has decided not to go to medical school to pursue a career in genetics, but instead to help refugee children around the world. This summer, she has an internship with Save Our Children in Africa. "When I would sit with those kids and play with them ... nothing was better," she says. "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life."