Q&A: In Their Words

Lebanon, September 5, 2006

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Three college students - Nabir, Maysam and Makram, from left to right - discuss the future of Lebanon outside a Beirut cafe. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

With the massive population boom in the Middle East, Mercy Corps has made the engagement of youth - defined as people aged 15-25 - a top programmatic priority for the region. Middle East regional director David Holdridge wants to give Middle East youth "the opportunity to modernize" through job training, access to technology, business opportunities, and civic engagement, and the agency is already making investments to that end.

Mercy Corps communications director Jeremy Barnicle brought together a diverse group of college students - male, female, Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Druze - to find out. Please note that these are the opinions of the students and don't necessarily reflect the position of Mercy Corps as an agency.

The ceasefire has stopped the fighting for now. Do you think peace is here for good?

Maysam: Most people I know agree that we have seen the worst, but then again we have said that before.

Amir: Lebanon is the only Arab democracy, and the war shows the price we pay for freedom and democracy in this part of the world. In most Arab countries, more than 50 percent of the people want to fight Israel, so if you have democracy, you have conflict with Israel. I don't see how that will change.

Nabir: It's the poor Shia who live in the south, on the frontlines, that will continue to have a hard time. Have any of you [to the group] been down there? No. We've never been kicked out of our houses so we don't know how they feel about living under these circumstances.

How has this conflict changed Lebanon?

Maysam: We're more divided, unfortunately. There are people I sit next to in class who used to agree on most things, but then took completely opposite sides over the war. Also, lots of people who used to believe in U.S.-style democracy have stopped believing it. We thought the U.S. supported us, but then when we needed them most [during the recent conflict], they went deaf.

Makram: The decision to go to war should have come from parliament, but it came from one group [Hezbollah] instead. I think now we know how important it is that only the government - the whole government - makes a decision and understands the consequences.

Nabir: I think it shows religious democracy doesn't work. This wasn't the fault of outsiders - it's that we have elections based on religion. We need better choices, but the government doesn't allow new parties, so I feel helpless.

You all say you care about peace and stability in Lebanon, but what will you personally do in pursuit of that goal?

Nabir: I want to build awareness, starting on a small scale. We need to think about the future, to talk about what we want. I can start that by talking to my friends about these issues. I also think we can be smarter about the people we elect. We haven't had [good] representation in 30 years.

Maysam: But that's all we ever do is talk. I want to work in the media when I graduate. We need to tell the story better. There is so much propaganda, like al-Hurrah [a U.S. government-funded television station that is broadcast in the Middle East]. You can't say we in the Arab world are corrupt and then open your own propaganda office.

The international community just committed $960 million to Lebanon's reconstruction at a donor conference in Stockholm. How do you think that money ought to be spent?

Jad: Education. The guys in school now are the future of the country. We should give more people the chance to study abroad - it will make people more open and give them a better perspective on the world.

Makram: You need to invest in NGOs and government institutions, not in individual political leaders or parties, as it has been in the past. The money should go to the government of Lebanon, and then directly to the people who need it.

Maysam: I think it would be smart to wait on spending the money. We have a chance to build something better out of this crisis, but we don't agree on what to build. The deputies in parliament are supposed to represent us - they should start the dialogue and be leaders. The key is that the money gets to the right people, and I am afraid we will never see that happen.

Nabir: The money needs to go to the people in the south, to help start small industries for the people down there.

Right now you're all 20-somethings enjoying your student years, but 10 years from now you might be parents. What kind of Lebanon do you see your kids living in?

Jad: There has been conflict like this for 200 years, so I don't know. I want to see a separation of religion from the government institutions.

Amir: People leave, but I will never leave. This is a great country with too much potential for me to go.

Makram: It feels like we live in a sand castle: we build it, it gets destroyed, we re-build it. We can't continue like that. Our political system feels like a swamp, but at least we have a fairly elected democratic parliament. I think the key for us is not losing hope.