Yesterday I spent much of the day talking with students. I held one-on-one conferences with my English 204 students to discuss their progress on their research papers. I interviewed several more Night School instructors and went out to lunch with the student who coordinates Night School. (Night School is a program where students teach English to working adults, and the subject of one of my research projects.) Throughout the day, the subject of civic life in Lebanon kept coming up.
One of my students is writing a research paper on the working conditions of domestic laborers in Beirut. She told me that in one of the dorms where many of her friends live, there is a debate over whether the cleaning woman should be permitted to ride the elevator. Currently, she can ride the elevator as long as no students are currently using it. If the cleaning woman is already in the elevator and it stops to pick up a student and they are all going to the same floor, the cleaning woman must get off immediately. Most students are okay with that arrangement but some are arguing that the woman should never be allowed on the elevator. The building has eleven floors.
Most domestic laborers come to Lebanon on multi-year contracts, leaving behind family in Sri Lanka or Ethiopia, for instance. According to most human rights groups who monitor such things, many of these workers are not permitted to have contact with their families (including their young children) during those years. Many have their passports withheld from them. They have few legal rights under Lebanese law. Many are abused sexually and otherwise. Some try to escape without their papers and face brutal consequences. Suicide rates are skyhigh. Nicole and I regularly see families out with their domestic who must remain standing at cafes while the family eats.
Another student told me about a month she spent working with children at a refugee camp close to Beirut. She told me the camp serves mostly Iraqi and Palestinian children, but also the children of divorced domestics. Most domestic workers leave their children behind in their native countries, but some, this student explained to me, have no choice but to bring their kids and surrender them to a refugee camp for the duration of their labor contracts. Like domestics, refugees at the camps also have few legal rights here.
This particular student who spent time at the camps is one of many of my students who spends and/or has spent a considerable amount of time performing community service, one of several students who has told me she wishes AUB had a mandatory community service program. She is studying political science and wants to go into development work, part of her motivation for getting involved with Night School, a program she thinks has the potential to lead to social change.
Another student is writing about gay/lesbian life in Beirut. Another is writing about the Lebanese Jewish diaspora, as well as the lives of the few Jewish people still living in Beirut. Many are writing about westernization and the effects of capitalism, western military, and fast food on Lebanese life. The student who took me out to lunch--extremely smart, extremely civic-minded, expressed much dismay about social problems in Lebanon. Like others I've talked to, he's disappointed that so much student organizing happens at the level of sect and/or party (e.g., student clubs that do community service but have a political affiliation, which he feels is by definition exclusionary).
Despite the pessimism that some expressed, it's hard not to feel optimistic about so much intelligence and empathy among young people at the University. Is it naieve to think maybe they can reverse some of the unethical trends and practices that affect life in Lebanon? Many students I've met are open, liberal (in the most inclusive senses of the word), and aware of both the world in which they live and the larger world too. And most of them love Lebanon very much. I hope some day, back in the states, I open up a paper and hear about the great things they've done.