Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – A year after graduating, I returned to my university, to see for myself the size of the refugee problem that Israel’s month-long war on Lebanon has created. As Israeli planes targeted Beirut’s southern suburbs, more than 150 helpless civilians sought refuge in buildings owned by the Lebanese University.
If it weren’t for a sign announcing the “Faculty of Mass Communication”, visitors would be forgiven for not knowing they were entering a university campus. The squalor was evident as soon as I stepped into the main building.
When I completed my degree, I was in a hurry to leave university. I never could have imagined I would return a year later to find the familiar hallways and classes now home to destitute families. I walked around campus is a daze, I found myself staring at the walls of the ageing building and its windows… A washing line had been hung and next to it, elderly men sat in silence.
Underground shelters are no longer safe, as weapons have developed and can now target what’s under a building, as if death was so special that methods to achieve it had to be continuously improved. Bombs nowadays are given names; everyone is capable of killing tens of people. More than 1000 Lebanese have died in the previous month.
As the conflict dragged on, the worries and fears of the displaced increased. Will they have a home to return to? What does the future hold for their country? Despair might have taken hold were it not for young volunteers who came to the campus, as bombs rained on the capital’s southern suburbs to assist with the relief effort. “The efforts of the Higher Relief Committee are limited. We’ve only received a few food portions and the rest we have paid for ourselves. The Committee doesn’t coordinate with us,” Hani Imad said.
In the parking lot, which used to be crowded with students on their way to classes, I herd children playing. “They were promised sweets,” a young female volunteer said.
The cafeteria appeared a ghost town. It stood by the entrance, eerily empty. I enter the campus and soon discover that the director’s office is now being used as a storage room. A young man from the Free Patriotic Movement sat behind the desk, managing the relief effort. Empty boxes were piled up all around him. He recorded each family’s needs in a small orange notebook. To his right, the teacher’s letterboxes are now being used to divide food before it is distributed, tins are in one box and pulses in another. A black box was placed nearby containing bread, so as to hide it from view. The limited availability of food demanded a cut in personal consumption.
I walked the stairs up to the second floor and memories flooded back… I spent here my last hours at university, sitting an exam and consumed with stress. I entered a classroom where four families are now living. Desks were transformed into closets or makeshift bed rests. Foam mattresses were piled across the room and sometimes placed horizontally, between desks, so as it give its owner a semblance of privacy. As for the teacher’s table, it was now a dining table. His chair was turned upside down and used to hang drying clothes.
I remembered walking in the hallways and meeting friends and teachers. They were now mostly empty, with the displaced huddling together in its corners to keep abreast of the latest Israeli strikes via local and international news channels, as children ran around, playing together, somewhat oblivious to the tragedy unfolding all around them.
When I entered the Assembly Hall, where I spent my first two years, I remembered being taught about the role of the United Nations and its Charter which recognized the right of self-determination. I found a couple with their young daughter having lunch. A pie dipped in thyme with two cups of tea. They offered to share their meager ration but I declined. “Thank you,” I said and walked off.