A Sense of Belonging: Lost, Then Found

At the American University of Beirut’s graduation ceremony, two students spoke about  their undergraduate experiences. First here is Yasmine Walid Saker, a candidate for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, who had a double major in political studies and media studies in the faculty of arts and sciences. The students’ remarks were lightly edited.

Two years ago I lost my sense of belonging. I no longer had a home to go back to in my war-torn country. I was forced to be away from my family, friends and everything that gave me an identity. However, it wasn’t long before I realized that I DO belong somewhere. I belong to this campus where I spent countless nights studying between the stacks of books at Jaffet library. I belong to my favorite bench overlooking the sea, where almost every cat in AUB tried to steal my lunch. I belong to the Green Oval where I spent hours with my fellow students preparing signs and stands for Outdoors.  I belong to the dozens of homemade cupcakes I sold in charity bake-sales at West Hall to help refugees. I belong to the political studies and media studies student societies where I learned to work as part of a team. I belong to the lifetime friends I made in the halls of Nicely and Jessup. I belong to my dear professors who not only taught and advised me, but also took time to sit with me and help me plan my future, and who day after day gave me sympathetic glances whenever Syria was discussed in class.

I belong to the American University of Beirut, where I experienced democracy firsthand in the student-body elections. I belong to the only place where I have been equal with my male colleagues, a right often confiscated by our patriarchal societies. I belong where I could fully exercise my freedom of expression through class discussions and assignments where I could safely say what I think, away from the culture of fear instilled in the region. A place where I would not be investigated with over a story I’ve written—and I truly wish I was not speaking based on personal experience when I say this.  I belong here, where I found my passion in journalism, to give people the voice that AUB has given me, where I was—and always will be—a part of the most diverse community in the Middle East. This is a place where tolerance, integrity and cooperation stand in contrast with the prejudices and narrow-mindedness spread widely across the whole region. If a place that empowers people to reach their full potential is not a home, then we are all eternal refugees.

My AUB journey took me to Salzburg, Austria, and Aarhus, Denmark, where I studied journalism and media literacy in a foreign context, with many international students—some of whom became lifelong friends. It was the tolerance that AUB instilled in me that allowed to me to accept and respect others’ cultures, backgrounds and opinions, even those very far from my own. It was the open mindedness I acquired here that allowed me to shatter the stereotypes my foreign colleagues had about the Middle East. It was the training I received in AUB that allowed me to perform well and compete with experienced students from around the world.

As I walk up the chemistry stairs for the last time after the commencement exercises, I take with me much more than the shortness of breath I am sure many of you suffered today. I take a sense of gratitude for being able to stand here as a graduate of this esteemed institution. I take a sense of assurance for having already secured a job that I love, in a region where youth’ unemployment rates are among the highest in the world. I take with me hope that Syria’s coming generations will not be deemed “lost generations” with no access to education. I take with me a responsibility to do my best for these generations to find their way as I did.

I remember the first time I was on the Dean’s honor list in my freshman year. My parents almost called everyone they knew in my hometown Homs, only to find out to their disappointment that, no, my picture will not be posted on a huge canvas on campus. Four years later, they are here today and they had no idea I would be speaking. I hope they’re not still as disappointed—and that they haven’t started with the phone calls already—I would not be standing here today if it weren’t for their love and support over the years.

Thank you all for being here tonight, celebrating our achievements.

Raed Riad Al Kontar, a candidate for the degree of bachelor of engineering in civil engineering from the faculty of engineering and architecture.

A very clever person brought a board to the graduating students’ photo shoot with a title “I graduated now I’m ready to retire.” This got me to think

about all the things I’ve done in the past four years and all the experiences I can look back on, I truly feel I’ve done the work of a lifetime here at AUB. I’m not only talking about all the homework and all the tests and projects, though these were certainly enough. I’m talking about the entire experience of living at AUB.

I’ve heard AUB alumni describe AUB as a “little secure bubble” in which a person can forget all about the challenges of the country and the region. I’ve heard alumni say that AUB taught them idealism and open-mindedness, gave them a space to think radically, to really dream of positive change.  AUB welcomed people of minority populations and minority opinions and inclinations and gave them a space to express their opinions without fear. After four years in this bubble, I have to agree.

I will always remember the AUB elections I participated in this year. In a country that is almost ripped apart each time an election comes up, I saw students of different ideologies and beliefs, students of different backgrounds, students with very strong opinions, campaign against each other using every trick in the book of democracy. I saw these students debate for hours, and appeal to their peers for support. I heard them in the dorms, smoking areas, in West Hall, in Jafet and the Green Oval and on Bliss Street. I heard and participated in heated and passionate arguments. I experienced the anxiety of election day, the fierce competitiveness for votes. I experienced the thrill of the winners and the disappointment of those who came so close. But most importantly, an image I will never forget:  Students from different sides walking calmly towards each other, congratulating each other, hugging each other and remaining friends despite everything. This is AUB, our bubble in a world where elections are tense, dangerous and uninspiring.

Nor is this generosity of spirit unique to elections in AUB. In the past years, I saw AUB students fight for their causes and their beliefs. I watched AUB students donate their valuable belongings and their time to help their Syrian brothers and sisters. I saw them organize fund-raising events and hold seminars in order to relieve the desperate suffering they could see. I heard voices raised in support of the Palestinian cause. I’ve seen the Lebanese-Armenian community in AUB commemorate the painful events in the history of their people, our people. AUB students raised their voices against the rise of censorship in Lebanon.

We supported bloggers and activists. We bravely discussed and debated controversial topics such as civil marriage and the domestic-violence law. We called for a secular state and defended and promoted women’s rights and the rights of minorities. In the Beirut Marathon, AUB students ran for the environment, for the children cancer center and for children with heart defects. Every single AUB student fought for something bigger. We even caused our administration a fair amount of trouble this year with our refusal to abandon our idealistic views.

Is it a wonder then that after years of looking forward to this moment, it remains a bittersweet moment? Life is hard. Today, we leave our warm bubble to a place where voicing a dissenting opinion can be dangerous. We leave a place where anything is possible to one where optimism, if it exists, has to be very cautious. But Lebanese society is in a state of revolution now. Everywhere, women and workers are demanding their rights. The Lebanese are demanding better salaries, better internet connections, better infrastructure, better laws, more extensive freedoms. The Lebanese are demanding a higher standard of life.  They need us and our experience of fighting for our causes. And, hopefully, we will not fail them.


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