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Inside the Gate
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Lebanese Expectations; Teaching in Tehran; A May Explosion
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Summer 2008 Vol. VI, No. 4

Inside the Gate

Lebanese Expectations; Teaching in Tehran; A May Explosion

During the general strike called by the General Confederation of Labor for Wednesday, May 7, a simple protest against the high cost of living and the low minimum wage soon turned violent. By late afternoon burning tires and earth and stone barricades blocked many roads-including the route to the airport. The Hariri International Airport was closed for seven days.

Neither as deadly nor as destructive as the July 2006 war, the bullets, shells, and devastating conflicts of early May were much closer to campus. Immediately AUB's Crisis Team swung into action, meeting daily to take important decisions on holding classes, arranging housing for vital hospital and security personnel, and communicating with the far-flung AUB community. As soon as decisions were taken, the Office of Information and Public Relations' Dina Abou Salem made sure the word went out on the AUB website and by email. Individuals could call AUB's hot line, and through a recently implemented service, those who had registered their mobile phone numbers with AUB received updated SMS messages.

AUB's priorities were the safety of all students, faculty, and other personnel, and for the ongoing function of the hospital. Operating according to an in-place emergency contingency plan, hospital service never faltered. According to Dean Cortas, "AUBMC cared for 40 casualties while maintaining an almost normal occupancy. Its physicians and employees were, as always, on the job with adequate attendance reaching up to 75 percent on the fourth day. One hundred and forty beds/mattresses were provided at Dale Home and AUBMC for individuals who could not get home. In addition 114 meals were provided for employees."

"Student safety, of course, was my major concern," said Dean of Student Affairs Maroun Kisirwani. With many students unable to reach campus on Thursday and Friday, most classes simply did not meet. During the next week, although the University remained open, classes were suspended on a day to day basis. International students, particularly those from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait were urged by their families and embassies to return home.

On the morning of Saturday May 10, some 100 students from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan gathered for evacuation by the Jordanian Embassy. But plans went awry. The anxious students, watched over by Dean Kisirwani and VP Jim Radulski, waited all day long near the Main Gate. "We were worried about stray bullets," said Kisirwani. "The students were edgy and scared. And so was I." Scheduled for 9 am, the transportation finally showed up at 5 pm. But the students' long journey home had only just begun. Transferred in Baabda to Jordanian buses for the trip to Tripoli, the students were denied entry to Syria and had to return to Baabda, where they spent the night at the embassy. Officials negotiated throughout the night, and in the morning what turned into a 33-hour journey continued.

Another priority was the completion of the academic semester. "From the very beginning we made it quite clear that no credit could be given if the semester's work was not completed," Kisirwani pointed out. When the decision came to resume classes on June 19, students outside the country were given a one-week grace period to return to campus, but many returned as soon as the airport opened. The Reading Period was eliminated, allowing examinations to begin as scheduled. Most spring activities fell victim to the truncated semester. The annual Outdoors event, the Folk Dance Festival, several lectures, and a concert organized by student clubs-all cancelled. The Job Fair, set up for the doomed Thursday, attracted only a trickle of job seekers. But students took exams on schedule and the semester finished on time.

Luckily, casualties among the AUB community were minor. One professor living close to the targeted Future TV Building was hit in the leg by a small piece of shrapnel. Another moved his family on campus when heavy arms and ammunition were stockpiled in the apartment immediately below his own. Others received the odd stray bullet. A bed in the off-campus apartment of two American visiting students burned when ignited by a bullet. (The two never thought of leaving the country, according to Rania Murr, coordinator of International Student Services.) A staff member living at the western end of Hamra fled to Chouifat to avoid the fighting, only to find battles surging in the mountains.

Everyone had a story to tell. Lena Hallabi, associate editor of the student newspaper, Outlook, remembered looking outside her window and "seeing gunmen and being, for the first time in my life, really scared, scared that my life and the lives of everyone in my family, everyone in Beirut, people I know and don't know, were all in jeopardy." She learned a new vocabulary: "terms for weaponry became a part of my life, and it was so unfair." Back on campus with the resumption of classes, she reported real tensions among student groups. "I've always thought of myself as neutral, politically, but I almost got into a fight with my best friend. We'd always thought of Hezbollah as our defenders against Israel, but it was just really weird to see their weapons turned inward."

Whatever tensions might have emerged on campus were admirably controlled. Lena observed, "I think the students got through it really well, although it might have been the hardest thing we had to overcome-to be quiet about something [we're] so passionate about... Weapons and war are not the way."

AUB survived yet another period of upheaval. With the resumption of classes on May 19, President Waterbury sent the following message to all students:
Needless to say the events of the past several days have raised the political temperature in the country significantly. We all understand that political passions are running high. But this is not the first time that AUB has aspired to function normally in a difficult political environment. In fact we have done so several times across our 141 years of dispensing education and medical care. At this critical time for Lebanon and for AUB, we ask you to remember that great legacy because you are now responsible for it.

In my ten years as president I have admired the way in which students have handled their political beliefs and sentiments. We have held our student elections every year in an exemplary fashion. Students have expressed their views and organized their protests responsibly and always with respect for the rights of others in the AUB family. You, the students, have set a great example which unfortunately is not always reflected outside our walls.

We know we can count on you to continue to set that example, and in so doing you will be showing what the future may and should be like. Welcome back and let's look forward.

Six honorary degree candidates received doctorates of humane letters on Graduation Day. President Waterbury conferred 1,800 degrees at Commencement held for the first time on the newly refurbished Green Field. That night hundreds of new graduates and their guests danced till dawn at the Oceana Beach Resort in Damour. Summer school began on schedule on June 23. The new president moves to campus on August 17. Plans are moving ahead for the 2008-09 academic year. As ever, AUB is looking forward.

JMC