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Fund-raiser Calls for ‘Peace by Piece’ in Middle East

Arab Student Association at GMU puts together event to raise money for humanitarian aid in Israel and Lebanon.

When Fairfax resident Bassam Haddad was arrested in front of the state department building last month, he said it was the least he could do to send a message to the American government on behalf of the people dying in Lebanon.

Haddad, a Fairfax resident who managed to get out of Beirut just days into the fighting, and several other Middle Eastern-Americans demonstrated against the international community’s handling of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group founded in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The organization holds several seats in the Lebanese government, and is also on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Ever since Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers last month, and reportedly killed several others, Israel has been responding with an ongoing military offensive that has killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians, including women and children, according to media reports. The Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon have also been firing missiles and rockets into northern Israel, causing both military and civilian deaths there as well.

Haddad, a political science professor who escaped Beirut just days into the attacks, spoke out at a George Mason University fund-raiser for Lebanon, Saturday, Aug. 5. Haddad was in Beirut filming a documentary on the "War on Terrorism," and was living in an apartment in southeast Beirut when the attacks began. He captured footage of the first days of the Israeli offensive, alternating between filming the destruction outside and filming the news reports coming in on his television.

His main question at the GMU event was how the international community, led by the United States, has been able to remain “silent and unable to declare an immediate cease-fire.” Haddad said he has also been outraged by the dehumanization of Arabs since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and called for Arab-Americans to speak out in order to change the way they are viewed by Americans.

“We can no longer afford to sit by and wait for someone else to determine our future in this country,” said Haddad. “This is a cancer, and it will keep on spreading if we don’t stop it.”

The “Peace by Piece” fund-raiser, organized by the Arab Student Association at GMU, attracted more than 300 guests. A tax-deductible suggested donation of $20 and the sale of hundreds of raffle tickets raised funds for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Lebanese Taverna, a Lebanese restaurant with locations in Washington and Virginia, donated food for the event. The majority of the guests were Arab-Americans, but many others showed up to support the cause as well.

Bill Merchant, of Reston, said he’s been following the news and knows about Lebanon’s past conflicts with Israel. While he has no personal connection to the current situation there, he heard about the fund-raiser on National Public Radio and wanted to attend.

“I wanted to come hear the speakers, donate some money and try Lebanese food,” said Merchant.

GMU President Alan Merten stopped by to show his support for the students who put together the event on such short notice. Merten said he was thrilled with the turnout, but wasn’t surprised because of GMU’s large Arab-American student body.

Merten said he is touched by the events in the Middle East personally, because of strong professional connections to Lebanon in recent years through professors, students and friends.

“My hope is that this group and other groups can help the Lebanese people get control of their country,” said Merten.

Jumana Farah lives in Lebanon, and is stuck in the United States until the war stops. She lives in the northern part of the country, away from the fighting, but said she is still stranded because of the damage done to the airport, roads and bridges throughout Lebanon.

“I will go back when Israel will stop the aggression so they [Lebanon] can restore the [Beirut] airport,” said Farah.

Students organized the event in less than two weeks, and got the word out by sending e-mails, going door-to-door and posting bulletins on MySpace.com and Facebook.com, two networking sites popular among young adults.

Word of mouth helped the turnout tremendously, said Rabia El-Hage, one of the event’s organizers. After dinner was served, Chawky Frenn, a Lebanese-American professor at GMU, was the first of five speakers to address the room.

“I came here [to America] with an insane passion to find out how anybody could kill anybody in the name of religion,” said Frenn. “If you’re going to use your faith or beliefs to discriminate against others, then you are part of the problem.”

Simon Schorno, spokesperson for the ICRC, thanked everyone for their support and generosity. Schorno said the ICRC is the only humanitarian organization present in the war-zone right now. Without the financial support from individuals and states, the workers would not be able to provide the necessary support to war victims in Lebanon and elsewhere, he said.

And because of the severe damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure, Schorno said the “humanitarian cost of this war is huge.” And Schorno said another roadblock has been getting both Hezbollah and the Israeli military to coexist with humanitarians trying to provide support to so many displaced civilians in the region.

“Civilians continue to bear the brunt of this war,” said Schorno.

Haddad spoke passionately about his concern and support for the Lebanese people and government. He received warm applause when he called on the American government to demand a cease-fire. Following his speech, Haddad showed footage from his recent protests at the state department, edited by his film production company, Quilting Point Productions.

The three-minute film showed many Arab-Americans affected by this conflict, and it showed Haddad’s arrest. The point, he said, was to let the government know that an immediate cease-fire is the only short-term solution to the war.