A Holiday From Hate : American Families Play Host to 16 Lebanese Teen-Agers for the Summer

Times Staff Writer

Two teen-age boys from Beirut, Lebanon, visiting this quiet Fresno suburb, are in a world they have never known.

A world without war.

"Playing miniature golf is much more exciting than hearing bombs," mused Mohamad Hakim, 16, a Sunni Muslim.

He and Georges Khoury, a 17-year-old Lebanese Christian, were walking along a sidewalk in the pleasant neighborhood of manicured lawns and single-story stucco homes.

They were returning from playing miniature golf, a game neither had heard of before arriving here two weeks ago.

Mohamad and Georges are spending six weeks as house guests of Kathy and Bill Morley and their daughters Erin, 16, Colleen, 18, and son Sean, 17.

Respite From Fear

In all, there are 16 Lebanese teen-agers on a holiday in the United States this summer, a respite from the fear and hatred in their homeland, a holiday sponsored by their American hosts.

While here, the youths are doing all the things that their American counterparts usually take for granted: sightseeing, roller skating, bowling, visiting shopping malls, fishing at nearby lakes.

Bringing teen-agers here from Lebanon for a few weeks of peace and tranquility is being tried for the first time this summer, a spinoff from a similar program, now in its fifth year, that brings Catholic and Protestant teen-agers from Northern Ireland into American homes.

Since its inception, that program has brought more than 1,000 teen-agers from Northern Ireland to the United States. The program is headed by Vincent Lavery, 50, a Fresno high school teacher.

'First Muslim Friend'

Eight of the youths are in the Fresno area, four are in Austin, Tex., two are in Atlanta and two are in Crownsville, Md. They are paired off, a Muslim and a Christian in each of the eight homes. In the group are Shiite, Druze and Sunni Muslims, Catholic, Orthodox and Maronite Christians.

"Mohamad is the first Muslim friend I have ever had, the first Muslim I have ever known in my entire life," said Georges as he grinned and placed his arm around Mohamad. Spontaneously, they gave each other a high-five.

In Beirut, the two teen-agers live less than 10 minutes from each other. But it might as well be halfway around the world. "We cannot cross into each other's territory for fear of being killed," Mohamad explained.

Georges has scars on his left arm and hand, the result of a car bombing in front of his home. "We live with this fear every day. We never know when we might be injured or killed in bombings, from cars being blown up, from sniper fire," he said. "Many times like this you don't know who did it. It was just part of the fighting that never ceases. My parents are glad to see me come to America to get away from the shellings and explosions."

Kathy Morley, 47, a nurse, said of her house guests: "They are a couple of gorgeous teen-agers, quiet, courteous. If any kids deserve a break, these kids from Lebanon do."

In another Fresno home, that of Realtors Dan and Betty Steinhauer, Walid Ghazzoui, 15, a Muslim, and Elie Mounsef, 14, a Christian, were playing cards with Marie Steinhauer, 13.

Elie's parents were killed in a Beirut bombing. He lives with his four sisters and three brothers. His oldest brother, 24, runs the family. For Elie, Walid is the first Muslim he has ever met. They now share a bedroom.

Betty Steinhauer said when the teen-agers moved in they were both very serious and seldom smiled or talked. "It took three or four days for them to warm up to each other. Now they are the best of friends."

'State of Mental Death'

In nearby Sanger, Adel Ouslaty, 16, a Sunni Muslim, and Nicolas Rebeiz, 18, a Greek Orthodox Christian, relaxed by the backyard swimming pool of their hosts, George and Barbara Wade.

Nicolas is the first Christian that Adel has ever met. But Nicolas said he has many Muslim friends. He lives in a Muslim area of Beirut. His father operated a restaurant in the Muslim area until it was destroyed by bombs.

"From talking to these two bright young boys, it is obvious people living in Lebanon are living in a state of mental death, with no hope for tomorrow, with a lack of optimism, a lack of trust, afraid to talk to their neighbors, afraid to walk across the street," said Wade, 46, who is in the construction equipment leasing business and whose parents and his wife's parents were born in Lebanon.

At the Clovis Mormon Church, Khaled Sabra, 16, a Muslim, and Paul Joukhadarian, 16, a Christian, were the recent guests of Boy Scouts of Troop 106.

Scout Jason Woolley, 13, wanted to know what teen-agers in Lebanon do for fun.

"Sit in the house most of the time," Khaled answered. "Go to the beach if we can get there when they're not fighting," Paul added.

Another Scout asked Khaled how he likes American girls. Khaled laughed and said that, when he saw some girls with a punk hairdo, he told Paul: "Let's go back to Lebanon."

"I sleep better here. It is much more comfortable in America. Your roads aren't full of holes from bombs. It is so clean here," Paul said.

It was Lavery who launched the program to bring Lebanese youths to the United States. While he was in Beirut last April making arrangements for the youths, a bomb went off a few feet from Lavery, killing nine people and wounding 80.

"We don't try to make any social behavior changes in the children. We just expose them to America and show them it is possible for people of different faiths to live together in peace," Lavery explained.

Two years ago, a television movie, "Children in the Cross Fire," was based on Lavery's program.

"At first we had our doubts," said Ibrihim Srour, 37, an executive with An-Nahar, a Beirut magazine that played a major role in selecting the boys and girls for the Lebanese program. "But it is working. For once in their lives these young people are not surrounded by death, by war, by destruction. They have missed the growing-up years enjoyed by boys and girls in other countries."

'Living Like Other Kids'

Srour, who accompanied the youths on their trip from Lebanon, added: "For a few brief weeks they are living like other kids, finding love--not hate--in the world, given an opportunity to meet and get to know one another, Muslim and Christian, in the peaceful setting of America."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°