Community spirit overcomes war

Palestinian refugees help U of T student escape war-torn Lebanon

Toronto university student Gus Constantinou, caught in the crossfire of the recent war in Lebanon – and led to evacuation by the very Palestinian refugees he had gone there to help – says despite the violence he experienced firsthand, “ I feel safe there.”

For five weeks of fighting between Hezbollah and Israeli forces, graphic images of war-torn Lebanon flooded every news station. Amid the violence, the chaos and the heartbreak of a country in war lies a community of people devoted to making the best of every day even though the prospect of their tomorrow hangs in the balance.

Constantinou, a senior University of Toronto at Scarborough student, made his second trip to Lebanon with the Canadian-Palestinian Educational Exchange, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to educating Palestinian refugees in Lebanon since 1997.

Giulia El-Dardiry, CEPAL vice-president and director of overseas programs, says the organization’s mandate is based on community needs and public awareness.CEPAL sees English-language training as a fundamental need of these communities in their pursuit of basic human rights.

El-Dardiry said CEPAL’s program benefits Canadian volunteers as well.

“It is a cultural exchange to get Canadians to go over and experience a completely different setting and set of problems,” El-Dardiry said. Another goal “is awareness-raising in Canada about the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and of course having volunteers who have been there is an asset for that.”

The program spans two months, in which Constantinou was responsible for teaching English to four classes of students ranging in age from 11 to 30.

Empowering refugees

Stationed in the Bourj el-Barajneh camp, in southern Beirut, Constantinou travelled to the Middle East hoping to teach English to empower Palestinian refugees.

But an ironic twist of events would turn the tables. After only two weeks of the summer program, Israel attacked Lebanon in response to Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers and the deaths of three others. Even before an official evacuation was announced, Bilad*—a Palestinian from Bourj el-Barajneh who’s name is protected for security purposes—insisted CEPAL should end the program for the safety of the volunteers.

On the morning the first bombings were heard, Constantinou said although his classes were cancelled he found it necessary to show up for his students. He said he believed his presence was a sign of allegiance to them.

“I just [wanted] to say ‘Hey I’m not scared, you guys are probably going to get bombed but I’m going to stand with you’…because diplomatically in the international community they don’t have anyone,” Constantinou said.

That afternoon Bilad woke Constantinou from his nap and told him to quickly gather some important belongings, assuming he would eventually return. By nightfall, under the advice of local NGOs, he was sitting in a cab on his way to Syria.

“We left without saying goodbye,” Constaninou said. “They cared more about our safety than their own safety.

“I feel like we abandoned those people and I’m really disappointed and upset that all of Lebanon is getting destroyed again,” Constantinou said. “It’s really hard because we left a bunch of people that needed us.”

Tables turn

Constantinou credits his safe evacuation out of Lebanon to the very community he was initially sent to assist.

Constantinou’s last images of Lebanon, are now of a country in flames. These same people had welcomed him from the moment of his arrival and cared for him after he was hospitalized for drinking contaminated water. Children wouldn’t let him pass the alleyways without a quick game of soccer.

“I regret the manner in which we left…my intention was to go back. Of course you’re scared, you see bombs going off [but] I have this idea because I’m young and stupid and I’ll be OK,” he said. “But you have to have your wits about you, right?”

For a student majoring in both Political Science and International Development, Constantinou considered this conflict an opportunity to live out his dream as a foreign correspondent. But evacuation ultimately shattered that dream.

Yet in that brief moment of egotism was a greater understanding of the Middle Eastern conflict. It became clear to him the advantages of a Canadian passport, and the strength and spirit of the Palestinian community in the face of adversity.

“I had the option of hopping on a boat, I had the option of a helicopter, I had the option of having money set aside, I had a whole bunch of options,” Constantinou said. “The people in the refugee camps didn’t have a single option. The whole area around them was rubble, and they were stuck.”

Although Bourj el-Barajneh was not targeted, for most Palestinian refugees the only option was simply to sit and wait for the worst to occur. And, Constantinou said, they did just that.

“These people have nothing and they’re willing to open their door and give you everything,” he said.

Though Constantinou still feels the burden of abandonning the Palestinians he met in Lebanon, he is trying to find solace by vowing to tell their story here at home.

“You can’t crush a people,” he said. They had the worst conditions and they made the most of it. No one is going to crush their spirits and I don’t know how they do it, I really don’t.”

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