Last year, as the Israeli army laid siege to Beirut, a small freighter, the Liban, set sail from Egypt for Jounieh in north Lebanon. 'Among the passengers crowded together in the hold," recalls David L. Guyer, "I immediately noticed three young children, who seemed to be traveling alone. The eldest was a girl about seven who was taking care of her two little brothers."
"The children were obviously terrified and clung to each other, accepting cookies now and then from the crew," says Guyer. "The little girl, Rashima, was doing her best to care for her brothers, Mahmud and Ali, who were five and three years old. She protected them from getting too near the rails, took them to the toilet and offered what reassurance she could."
Guyer learned from the crew that the three young children had been sent to Egypt to escape the Beirut conflict, but, having been refused entry because they did not have the proper papers, had been kept on the ship to return to Lebanon alone. So when the ship docked at Jounieh, Guyer took the three youngsters by the hand and personally led them ashore. "You can't save the whole world," says Guyer, himself the father of six, "but sometimes you can save a little piece of it." In this case, Guyer was just the man to do it - for what Rashima and her brothers did not know then was that he was in fact president of Save the Children, one of the many relief agencies attempting to ease the suffering of the beleagured inhabitants of Beirut.
Together with Andre Karam, Save the Children's director in Lebanon, Guyer took Rashima and her two brothers to a hotel, got them a room, gave them a bath, clean clothes and food and brought in Lily Bouldoukian, the agency's health and nutrition coordinator. By talking to them at length, Lily learned that their house at Hay-Es-Sullum near the Beirut airport had been bombed and that they had fled with their mother to a village in the mountains where an uncle, a gardener named Tawa, lived.
"Lily named many villages," says Guyer, "and finally the little girl recognized the name of one near Baabda. We loaded the children into a car and drove up into the mountains - but nobody in the village knew a gardener named Tawa. Just as we were about to give up, a woman said, 'Oh, yes, there's a gardener about half a mile from here and I think that's his name.' A short way down the winding road, Rashima's eyes lit up and she cried, 'There's the gate! There's the house! There's the car.!"'
"Sure enough, there was the gardener, their mother's brother, who had taken them under his wing," recalls Guyer. "There was a tearful, joyous reunion. They hugged each other and invited us in for coffee and fruit. But the mother was not there. She had heard on Radio Lebanon that Save the Children had found her children so she had rushed to the port. Finally, however, we found her - and the family was together again."
Reuniting that family Guyer said, was a miracle. "Thousands of children were lost in Lebanon. They happened to be lucky" Other Lebanese youngsters, however, were not so fortunate - many were killed, many were maimed and many were orphaned during eight years of civil war, invasion and the renewal of civil conflict. But for some of these children, there is now new hope - as international organizations, governments and individuals around the world join hands in an effort to heal the wounds of war.
In the United States, for example, some 2,500 Lebanese expatriates in America - and other Arab-Americans as well - crowded into Washington's magnificent Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts last spring and raised nearly $50,000 for the victims of war in Lebanon. Across the nation, other fund raising events and donations have netted an additional $333,800, and, as a result, some 40 or more Lebanese and Palestinian children have been brought to the United States and treated for particularly awful wounds of war - the bone-deep phosphorus burns, the amputated limbs and, deep in the mind, the hidden psychological scars.
The Washington concert was arranged under the Save Lebanon project of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which, since Israel invaded the country in 1982, has reunited families torn apart by war, placed orphans with U. S. families, set up a referral service for students needing housing and income, identified prisoners and, most importantly, brought 40 maimed and burnt children to the United States for specialized medical treatment - most of it given free either by the physician the hospital or both.
The stories of these children are heart-rending. Three-year old Mariam Shahla suffered an eye injury as she and her mother fled gunfire -and the cornea turned opaque; Ahmad Dbouk, 13, and his brother Ali, 11, both suffered severe burns trying to extinguish a fire that swept through their home - and even after plastic surgery doctors are not sure if the children will ever regain the use of their hands; and Sa'id Slim, 14, who picked up an unexploded bomb while playing with his friends; it went off in his hand and he had to have it amputated.
Such stories were obviously in the minds of the personalities who starred at the concert. As the host, Lebanese-American Casey Kasem, star of TV's Top Forty, told the audience: in war it is always the children who suffer most - not only the physical pain but the often deeper pain of having to grow up without parents. And Danny Thomas, another famous Lebanese American, and a popular TV comic said that the concert was a duty. "To be here," he said, "is a responsibility. I feel that I - we - owe it to these children, to our fathers' country, and to our own country to be here."
In a profoundly moving scene, Thomas also introduced 14-year old Amahl Qadi, who came to the United States to receive a new leg, and 15-year-old Fayizeh Amin, whose right leg was paralyzed when shrapnel from a cluster bomb shattered it. Both were being given rehabilitative treatment at nearby Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, and both received with shy dignity the thunderous applause accorded them by the audience.
Arab-Americans and Arabs are not alone in their efforts to help such youngsters. The U.S. State Department, for example, directed personnel in Beirut to speed up visas for the wounded.
Other help came from the Monsour Medical Center in Pittsburgh, which acted as a center to receive and evaluate the wounded. Meanwhile, 50 other medical facilities across the United States offered free treatment, including the Shriner's Burn Institute in Boston.
All around the United States, in fact, people were trying to help. Some examples:
– In Syracuse, New York, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard, medical history was made at Upstate Medical Center by a spinal fusion operation performed on Ali Ghossen, one of the first cases to arrive in the United States.
– In Boston, doctors at the Retinal Institute carried out a laser operation that partially restored Ahmed Tourmus' sight.
– In Richmond, the Richmond Children's Hospital offered to care for 10 children, and hospitals in Columbia, South Carolina; St. Louis, Missouri; Flint, Michigan; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Tampa, Florida; Chicago and Detroit, gave free medical care.
– In Madison, Wisconsin, an "Arab" banquet raised $17,000; in Boston, a fund raising drive netted $14,000; in Detroit, a $50-a-plate dinner at Detroit's Islamic Center raised $10,000; and in New York City, the Manhattan Islamic Cultural Society contributed $2,500, and a dinner at which $1,000 was raised.
– And on the night of the Kennedy Center concert, the Antiochean Orthodox Church of North America added $30,000 to the total.
Expressing the feelings of many of those present that night, Danny Thomas said, "We can't know what these children have gone through. We can only guess the horrors they have experienced and must live with the rest of their lives. They must now be offered something which should not be denied the young and innocent: the chance to heal."
According to Janan al-Awar, a Lebanese-born-and-raised psychologist from John Hopkins University, and national coordinator of Save Lebanon project, getting the children to the United States is just the beginning of a long, hard process. "At first, they are very excited about being in America, and about their overwhelming welcome and response from the American communities. But after that they start to get homesick and a little apprehensive, a sort of 'whats-going-to-happen-now?' attitude. And some, of course, have a...long hard road ahead. They'll have to have new limbs fitted and learn how to use them."
Entire communities have been supporting the children since their arrival. In Pittsburgh, the response to them included letters, cards and money, and from every county in western Pennsylvania came declarations of support. In Utica, N. Y., support came from the Italian and Polish communities, the Black Pastors Association, the National Council of Churches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Teamsters' Union. There was a raffle in New Orleans, an austerity dinner in New Castle and an auction in Detroit.
As for the Washington concert, it was a sell-out, its 55 sponsors including numerous well-known Arab-American names; included were Dr. Albert Attiyah, William Monsour, Abdeen Jabara, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Said, Archbishop Michael Shaheen and the Most Reverend Metropolitan Philip Saliba plus other celebrities and notables.
To "reflect the different emotions people have felt about Lebanon in the past year" to quote former Senator James Abourezk, founder and executive director of ADC, the musical portion of the all-Beethoven concert was divided into three sections: Creation, Destruction and Affirmation. For the last section the Ode to joy from the Symphony No. 9 in D Minor was sung by the massed 200-member Paul Hill Chorale group - who donated their time and talent. It seemed an appropriate salute to the children of Lebanon who have suffered much, but have now been given new hope. As Danny Thomas said, "By saving the lives and limbs of Lebanon's children, whatever their race or creed maybe ... we can restore Lebanon so that those who once lived together in peace and prosperity can, God willing, do so again.".
Aileen Vincent-Barwood, a veteran free-lance writer, has covered Europe and the Arab East for magazines and newspapers in Canada and the United States.