Lebanese Vermonters Saddened by Renewed Violence
BURLINGTON -- It's been 27 years since Charlie Handy left Lebanon, but you'd never know it had been that long, looking at the walls of his Burlington Exxon service station. Stickers and photos from the Middle Eastern country hang inside the entrance, and a large photo of Beirut dominates a wall in back. The city on the wall looks as bustling and cosmopolitan as any in the West. The photo doesn't show the smoke now rising from fires at Beirut International Airport.
The eyes of the world are now on Handy's native land. The Israeli army began air strikes in Lebanon on July 12 in response to the militant group Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, and has also sent ground forces into southern Lebanon. The Middle East democracy is home to Hezbollah, though the Shia Muslim militia also receives support from other nations such as Syria and Iran.
The violence has escalated, with Hezbollah firing missiles into Israel. In an attempt to silence rocket launchers in the Lebanese village of Qana, the Israeli army hit a shelter Sunday, killing 54 people, including 37 children.
Handy sits on a stool in front of the photo Friday afternoon and talks about the fighting. "We just barely finished with the civil war," he says, shaking his head, "and now we gotta end up with this again."
Handy's immediate family members all live in the United States, but he still talks with and sends financial help to an uncle in the Christian section of Beirut. They last spoke two weeks ago. "It's quiet there," Handy reports.
The war has hit a little closer to home for one of his employees, Mohamad Samara, who manages Simon's Mobil in Winooski -- one of Handy's dozen gas stations and convenience stores. Samara has lived in the U.S. since 1993, but his mother, two brothers and their families all live in Sidon, a town in southern Lebanon. Samara's wife Sohail has family there as well.
Sohail and the couple's two children traveled to Lebanon to visit these relatives at the end of June, and were staying in Sidon when fighting broke out. "They were stuck there until the 22nd," Samara says, a tremor in his voice. "They watched 10 days of the war."
He kept in close contact with his family after the Israelis bombed the Beirut airport. "I was worried," he says. "I used to call there three or four times a day. I want to know, 'Are you scared? Are you safe?'"
Samara's wife and children were finally evacuated by U.S. Marines, who put them on a cruise ship that left from southern Beirut and traveled to Cypress. "They flew from Cypress the next day to Baltimore, and from there to New Hampshire," he says. "I pick them up from there Thursday."
Samara says he "really appreciates" the Marines. "They were very helpful, my wife told me."
But he also says he wishes the U.S. would try harder to stop the fighting. "They're supporting Israel 100 percent," he complains. "The people they killed yesterday in Qana village, they were hungry for five days. They had no food, no water. I know the U.S. is a great country. I want them to help these poor people."
That sentiment is echoed by Burlington resident Bill Aswad. The six-term state legislator -- and former city councilor -- was born in the U.S., but his father moved here from Brummana, Lebanon, a resort town a few miles from Beirut. Aswad still has cousins in Lebanon. "They see the bombing in Beirut," he reports. "Their house and windows shake."
One of his cousins was visiting his son, a college student, in Montreal, and is now stranded there until the airport reopens. Aswad visited with him last week.
He doesn't mince words when discussing the U.S. government's response to the conflict. "The administration in Washington is so pro-Israel," he complains. "They give Israel $4 billion a year, no questions asked. They give them the best trucks, the best artillery, and they won't call for a cease-fire."
Aswad claims the United States is undermining its support of democracy in the Middle East by not working harder to end the fighting. "They run a very, very delicate balance to keep that country democratic," he says of Lebanon. "For the U.S., a leading country of the world, to take a position like that is unconscionable."
Charlie Handy is also critical of the Israeli attack on Lebanon, but his response to the hostilities is less incendiary. "In wars, nobody wins," he says. "Everybody loses."