Thursday, March 31, 2011

REJECTING RELIGIOUS DIVISION

I was a senior in high school when I participated in my first Model Arab League conference.  Of the countries available, my sister, then a college freshman, and I chose to represent Lebanon.  We took our work very seriously and very personally.  A participant of Arab descent struck a conversation with us one day.  After brief niceties, it was clear that her real intent was to find out whether we were Muslims or Christians.  This was during one of Lebanon's darkest moments, and only five years after we fled Lebanon's civil war, so memories of fear, destruction, and all the ugliness of the civil war were fresh in our minds.  We refused to answer the question about our religious background but she insisted.  We told her we were Lebanese and it simply didn't matter whether we were Christians, Muslims or any other sect.  Our response shocked her. 

You see my sister and I were Lebanese (not yet American citizens) who had witnessed the devastation of our country in large part due to religious strife.  We were slowly becoming disciples of the American way of separating religion from government and politics and realizing with each passing day that we were members of one big human family--not just our Maronite Catholic heritage.  But, it wasn't always this way--not in my family, neighborhood or native city and country. 

The Lebanese civil war started when our younger brother was just short of 2 years old.  His words on that “Black Saturday” sum it up.  He said, “Don’t be afraid HamoLaura,” using the hybrid name he made up for the two of us, “God willing, all the Fedayeen will die.”  (The Fedayeen were militant Palestinian Muslims who played a role in igniting the civil war.)  How sad that something like this would come out of toddler’s mouth, but anyone who has lived in the Middle East would understand how deeply ingrained, visceral and accepted the hatred was.  Nothing about my brother’s words was disturbing to us or our parents. 

In those days, religious affiliation meant everything.  Every Lebanese (regardless of which of the 17 religious sects he/she belonged to) identified with religion first and country second.  Just about every sect hated the others.  I don’t use this word lightly.  HATE was very real.  It meant we didn’t see the “others” as equal, which made it easy to commit all sorts of offenses against them.  For my more genteel American readers, I’m not referring to workplace discrimination, unequal pay, harassment or the like.  I’m referring to murder, and more often than not, massacres.  And, let me be clear:  Every religious sect in Lebanon was guilty of these crimes. 

Fast forward to 1984, the year our family immigrated to the United States.  As we worked hard to learn English, find work and adjust to a new culture, we noticed that Americans who helped us (and many did) did not ask what religion we were.  They were incredibly generous, kind and welcoming.

In school, we devoured everything we could learn about this country.  We fell in love with American history, and with each passing year, we realized how much we identified with the struggles and sacrifices of Americans.  We made friends at school and work with people from all walks of life—rich, poor, black, white, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and yes, eventually Muslims and many others.

Religious affiliation, ethnic background and skin color (although that’s a topic for another day) became irrelevant.  So, not surprisingly, the answer to “what are you?” five years after we arrived in this country was simply “Lebanese”.  Proudly and thankfully, the answer today is “Lebanese-American”. 

Thousands left Lebanon under similar circumstances and I suspect many of them had similar experiences.  I can’t fully explain my family’s transformation, but I know my siblings and I are grateful for every act of kindness we’ve encountered in nearly 27 years in this country.  Perhaps that’s all it takes:  Kindness.  Could it be that simple?

While I explore our reasons and influences, I want to know your stories.  Please write to me about your transformation.  Where did you start and where are you now?  Tell me about the people and instances that made a difference.  What hopes and dreams do you have for your family and your country and in this regard?  Either comment after this post or send me your story in an e-mail to laura.boustani@gmail.com.  And, please tell me if I have your permission to use your story in future posts.  I promise not to use names.  I look forward to responses.

(Thanks go out to both my sister and brother for their help with these posts, especially this one!)


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Insist on Good Leaders


Two readers recently expressed concern about who will lead the Arab countries should more dictators fall.  They fear that people will install new dictators—self-proclaimed saviors who will make promises only to prove to be no less ethical, moral or democratic than their predecessors.  I share their concern, and it’s terrifying to think that people may be dying in vain. 

As I pondered this, I realized the lessons I learned about leaders here in the U.S. from 20 plus years of political work can easily apply to leaders of cities and nations beyond U.S. borders.  So, I thought to share my perspective in the form of 15 characteristics I have compiled.

But first I should say that a small handful of leaders I've worked with may recognize some points as their own, and they probably are.  I have had the privilege of working for some incredible people and being in very instructive situations. I am so grateful for those lessons, and I hope they can be useful elsewhere.  Here they are.

A good leader must:

·         Want to do the job with every fiber of his/her being.  It must be a calling or a mission and not a step on the ladder of power. Too many leaders have grand plans for their own future and casual commitment to their current office or constituents.
·         Make decisions form a solid, mature “center”.  This is my word for having unshakeable values and beliefs that guide actions.  Most politicians operate without a center.  They lack focus and rarely accomplish anything of value.
·         Be honest with their supporters, staff and constituents at all times regardless of how difficult a situation or crisis may be.  To have and keep a mandate to govern at any level, there is no substitute for honesty.
·         Be courageous and take risks to do what is best for the community.  Making decisions based on results of opinion polls or the wishes of opinion leaders is not leadership; it is pandering.  Real leaders take calculated risks daily, and when the stakes are high, they must be willing to risk everything (personal comfort, popularity and even the next election) for their constituents. 
·         Have contagious passion. Motivating others to perform will require visible and sincere passion.  I am not suggesting constant cheerleading, but a leader should believe deeply in their cause demonstrate it daily.
·         Be humble and kind no matter how much power he/she accumulates, how large a budget he/she oversees, and how large the contracts he/she awards.  Power is intoxicating, but elected officials often forget that they are servants of the people. Forgetting this very thing leads to all kinds of missteps and bad decisions. 
·         Never ask staff/followers to sacrifice more than the leader is willing to give.  As one of my mentors once said, “A leader should be the first one in the office in the morning and the last to leave at night.”  This mentor practiced what he preached.
·         Inspire staff and constituents alike to live by the highest moral and ethical standards no matter the temptations and opportunities.  There is no substitute for leading by example.  A leader should never tolerate unethical or immoral behavior from staff at any level. 
·         Be guided by what is best for their community and its residents--not contributors, business associates, relatives or personal interest.  I believe this is one of the rarest traits of public officials.  Far too often, they are influenced by the agendas of others who are not committed to the constituents.  This goes along with having a “center” that I discussed earlier—never losing focus on core values and beliefs.
·         Act upon the belief that “the greatest exercise of power is to empower others who want to do good or have been marginalized, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, religion or any other differentiator,” according to one leader I worked for.  Bad leaders do the opposite to keep people under their tight control, but good leaders on every level of government encourage, develop, educate and listen to their constituents.
·         Surround himself or herself with the best and brightest, most committed and most honest individuals available. Those who will carry out a leader’s vision must share his/her passion and possess the intellect and ability to perform at the highest levels. They must also have the courage to give the leader honest feedback and bad news however unpleasant those may be.
·         Never accept mediocrity.  In 2011, excellence is underrated, undervalued and rare in many places.  A leader should feed the hunger for achievement in every undertaking. 
·         Be someone who unites people around solutions and positive efforts as opposed to others who thrive on using race, religion, party affiliation, geography or any number of other factors to divide constituents.
·         Work to reignite hope in their communities. I am convinced that at the core of many socioeconomic problems is the lack of hope and expectation.  A leader must pay special attention to this if a community is to have a bright future.
·         Be tenacious and relentless in pursuit of what is best for the community.  Once an important goal is identified, a leader should not accept failure or take no for an answer from stakeholders.  Many leaders fall short on this point and give up too easily.

So my message to those protesting against the tyranny of corrupt, criminal dictators is simply this:  Please don’t settle for any less than good leaders.  No one is perfect, but all people deserve to be led with integrity, commitment, passion and compassion.  Insist on those qualities at the outset and throughout the years.  You, your children and future generations deserve no less.

Godspeed!

Laura

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Dictators' Time to Go

A message from my 9-year old son -

As the people of the Middle East rise in protests, they and the world know that their dicators have lied, stolen and murdered countless people for decades.  The people are getting angrier every second.  Sometimes, dictators don't realize that their time is up, but I want the Middle East dictators to know that the time has come to step down, or they might get assassinated.  They are killing people who protest.  I really think this is wrong.  It is criminal.  Benjamin Franklin said, "Any society that would give up a little liberty for a little security will deserve neither and lose both."  I believe that is very true and the dictators are losing now.

James

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Syrian Women Detained, Tortured

As the world watches the people in the Arab world muster the courage and strength to rise up against their criminal, corrupt and dictatorial regimes, I want to say something about the plight of women in Syria. 
A prominent democracy activist, Suhair Atassi, was detained a few days ago.  God only knows what type of torture and humiliation she’s being subjected to as I write this piece.  Along with her is a handful of teenage girls. (Yes, teenage girls!)  Readers can just imagine what may be happening to these women. 
I will say more about this later, but I wanted to post some links to sites detailing a sliver of the Assad regime’s offenses against women over the last several years.  Here they are.  Please read, share with others who may care, and stay tuned for more on this later. 

Syria should release protesters

Lengthy Detentions of Women

Women detained, tortured, threatened

Young, female blogger sentenced to 5 years in prison

Women taken as hostages in exchange for their husbands

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Syrian Soldier

Before Lebanon's civil war began in 1975, my father's modest grocery store had enough business to justify hiring help.  One of his employees was a young Syrian man who had come to Lebanon to work.  My father took a liking to him.  He was hard working, respectful and reliable. When he needed a place to stay, my father offered a small room in our apartment.  My mother made sure he ate whatever she was making for the family.  I don't remember how long he worked for my father, but he eventually left to serve his time in the Syrian army and my parents lost touch with him. 

Fast forward a few years.  The civil war was raging in the late 1970s and the Syrian army (not a peacekeeping force at this point by any means) had taken control of key areas of the country, set up checkpoints and began detaining Lebanese Christians without cause.  One Sunday afternoon, as my family was heading to the Bekaa Valley, we were stopped at a Syrian checkpoint.  The soldiers told me, my siblings and my mother to stay put as they took my father for "interrogation".  This scenario was repeated thousands of times during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and more often than not, the man who was detained was never seen or heard from again.  We clutched each other's hands and prayed.  Inside, my father was indeed being interrogated.  His obviously Christian name was the only reason he was of interest to the soldiers.  They assumed he was active in the Christian militia fighting the Syrian occupation.  He wasn’t but his answers didn't matter; his religion was grounds enough for torture or whatever else was coming next. 

Then an unexpected thing happened and my father lived to tell us about it.  Most of the soldiers left the room and my father could hear them whispering.  Needless to say, he was terrified.  They came back and told him he was free to go.  Relieved, he stood up to thank the soldiers and walk away when a young soldier approached him and extended his hand.  My father paused and looked at him for a moment before shaking his hand.  You guessed it.  This was the same young man who once worked for him, lived in our home and ate meals with us.  The soldier said, "I told them Elias Boustani is a good man who wouldn't harm a fly."  The soldier added, "I told them you're not organizing against anyone and you probably don't even own a gun." 

The soldier was right.  My father didn't organize or carry weapons.  He was just a good man.  He treated the militia boys like his own children, sending them boxes of food as often as he could so they don't go hungry.  He knew their parents and grandparents and practically raised those boys who hung around the store from the moment they could walk to buy their own candy.  Even in their darkest hours (and they had many), they never looted the store or hurt our family in any way.

Back to the checkpoint... That Syrian soldier was once one of my father's boys too.  And, while his kindness at that critical moment says a great deal about my father, it says even more about him, his character, his upbringing and his decency.  Without question, he saved my father’s life. 

Wherever he is now, and I so hope he has survived the unholy missions of the Syrian army, I want him to know how grateful my siblings and I are for what he did that day.  He saved all five of us.  I want him to know that we are thriving in the greatest democracy in the world, we are successful in our careers and we have loving families of our own. 

And, as his fellow Syrians plan their uprising against the criminal regime, I hope and pray that he, and perhaps his children, are right there organizing with them.  Elias and Georgette Boustani are surely cheering him on from their perch in heaven and praying for his children to have as great a life as we have had.

Laura