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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Peacemakers Progress

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Peacemakers Progress

May Elian explains to students how hunger can lead desperate people to acts of violence. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
May Elian explains to students how hunger can lead desperate people to acts of violence. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By LISA BRITTON

Of the Baker City Herald

May Elian was born the same year her country entered war — in 1975.

Elian grew up in Lebanon, a Middle Eastern country bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Syria.

For 16 years, war was all she knew.

At one point, her family was even forced out of their home.

"Others lived in our house. Other people had their memories there," she says.

Elian's family relocated to northern Lebanon, a less violent area of the country.

But her life was still immersed in war.

"We had to pass 12 checkpoints on the way to high school," she says. "It took four hours to get there and four hours to get back."

The war ended in 1991.

Elian, 29, is now a journalist, working at a Beirut newspaper called "An-Nahar" — "The Day" in English.

"Our symbol is the rooster," she smiles.

She is also a Presbyterian Peacemaker, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She travels through the U.S. sharing her story about growing up in Lebanon and raising awareness for the need for peace.

Elian was in Baker City on Tuesday, visiting high school geography classes during the day and speaking to a gathering at the First Presbyterian Church Tuesday evening.

She spent a great deal of time describing the war for the high school students.

The fighting started because of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Elian said, when the Palestinians began fleeing to Lebanon in 1975.

In 1982, Israel invaded the country.

"So (the Lebanese) decided to fight back. Believe me, it wasn't a very easy thing to grow up with," Elian said. "In the news, it was Muslims killing Christians in a civil war.

"To me, it wasn't civil."

And, it wasn't all about religion, she said, because by the end Christians were killing Christians.

Though the fighting ended in the early 1990s, the last Israeli occupiers left Lebanon in 2000, she said.

"We now live in a very peaceful country," Elian said.

And she wants to keep it that way.

Elian serves on the Committee of the Kidnapped and Disappeared People.

During her talk at the high school, she told the students that many kidnappings occurred at checkpoints, where members of the opposing faction were sometimes abducted.

Elian's involvement, in part, is due to the kidnapping of her uncle and his family.

They were never found.

The Committee works to search for the kidnappers and find those who have disappeared.

"We want to know the truth — where they are buried if they were killed," Elian said.

The Committee is also working to establish April 13 — the official start date of the war in Lebanon — as "a day of mourning to remember the victims," she said.

Another project is to erect a monument for the victims.

"So we can go and pay our respects," she said.

Elian's need to seek the truth comes from her mother's influence, she said.

"She always said you should take both sides of the story."

Journalism was always her career of choice.

"I always loved the truth and looking for the truth. I'm intrigued with that — it's in my blood," she said.

So she shares her perspective from Lebanon with the rest of the world, trying to distill misconceptions about the Middle East.

"Not all Arabs are terrorists," she said.

But her experiences abroad have had an unexpected effect — she began to recognize that her own conceptions were a bit skewed.

On her first trip to the U.S. in 2000, she saw people living on the streets.

"I never thought that some Americans are poor," she said.

She took her newfound knowledge of America home to Lebanon.

When someone made a disparaging remark about Americans, Elian had a ready answer.

"Do not generalize, do not put tags on them," she told them.

"It's good to share and it's good to know more," she said Tuesday.

People are the key to understanding, she said, and many media portrayals leave out this vital piece of the culture.

Like a news program that shows a picture of Iraq's buildings lit up at night, with not a soul in sight, instead of footage of day to day life as lived by Iraqis.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were similar, she said, as the news mostly focused on the demolished buildings.

In 2000, Elian stayed in a hotel beside the World Trade Center, and witnessed the life of New York City.

She watched footage of the attacks in 2001 when she was at home in Lebanon.

"I couldn't stop crying because I saw the people inside. I feel the people, I feel the pain."

She's convinced that peace is an attainable goal.

"I like peaceful solutions — it can happen," she said. "It happened in Lebanon."

More info: (on Presbyterian Peacemakers) www.pcusa.org

On Lebanon:

www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/le.html

www.lebanon.com

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