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.