Sharbel Salameh in his Hadera home: I don’t want Israel to stop the war against Hizbullah.”Should I take my math books with me?” were the last words that 24-year-old Sharbel Salameh remembers asking his mother the day his father called and told the family they had to leave the south Lebanese village of Klayaa.
It was the only home Salameh, then 18, ever knew. He was in the middle of studying for university entrance exams when the news came.
The Israeli army had withdrawn their protective line from the South Lebanese border the night before. On May 23, 2000 Salameh’s father, an officer in the South Lebanese Army (SLA) – and an ally to Israel peacekeeping forces – knew the family would be soon imprisoned by renegade Hizbullah forces they had been trying to disarm.
With nothing more than a couple of pictures and a small bundle of clothes in his hand, Salameh and his Maronite Catholic family quickly said goodbye to their friends. Neighbors were crying, he recalls. They joined over 7000 Lebanese refugees and allies to Israel – among them Catholics, Christians, Druze and Muslims – who eventually fled to Israel for safety from Hizbullah,
Today, Salameh and his family comprise a unique tribe in Israel: they are among some 2,500 Lebanese refugees who no longer have a home in Lebanon because they stood up against Hizbullah and fought for democracy and a free Lebanon.
However, being a stranger in a strange land, didn’t deter Salameh from making his dreams come true. Six years after adopting Israel as his home, Salameh has earned a first degree in biology.
He owes thanks to Tel Aviv University (TAU) and backing from a selection committee member – Professor Michael Ovadia – who accepted Salameh’s plea to learn despite not having the right grades – or any grades at all – to show for his academic performance.
“They took a chance on me and I didn’t disappoint them,” Salameh told ISRAEL21c in fluent Hebrew, the language in which he studied.
TAU granted Salameh a full scholarship – The President’s Scholarship – at the discretion of university President Itamar Rabinovich. The worthy students chosen receive full tuition and additional financial backing throughout their undergraduate studies. Selection is based on socio-economic background; preference goes to those with difficult and complicated life circumstances.
Joining about 70 students in the Scholarship program, and after four years of study, Salameh is on the way to becoming a medical researcher. This fall, he starts a second degree at the famed Weizmann Institute in Rehovot where he will study molecular genetics.
With the shining support of the TAU, neighbors and friends, Salameh has become a model Israeli citizen, despite the fact that he is still waiting for Israeli citizenship papers to come through.
“In Israel, I am in the best place in the world now with studies at the Weizmann Institute. I thank everyone for that and also for the fact that I got to learn at the best university in the world,” Salameh said in a phone call from his Hadera home, where he lives with his parents.
Salameh’s appreciation for Israel hasn’t wavered. “Israel gave us a big chance. In the beginning it was hard. I didn’t come here as a young kid. I had to learn a new language, find new friends, adopt a new mentality.”
Salameh describes life in Hadera among Israelis as a normal, supportive environment. He doesn’t even mention news reports of the Katyusha rockets sent to the Hadera region.
Salameh’s success in Israel likely comes from fact that he is a big giver to his community. For the past three years he has worked as a guide for autistic and mentally challenged children in the nearby town of Pardes Hanna. There, he rides bikes with kids, goes swimming; takes them on trips – for nominal pay.
Still in contact by email with about 100 Christian Lebanese friends in Lebanon and abroad, Salameh says that people are suffering from lack of infrastructure in Lebanon. Yet, none of his friends support what Hizbullah is doing to their country.
“I don’t want Israel to stop the war against Hizbullah,” says Salameh when asked if there should be a cease-fire. “We need to knock out [them] once and for all. Israel has definitely sent a powerful blow to the morale of Hizbullah. They are less strong and less sure of themselves now.”
Salameh has adopted his father’s view that Hizbullah are terrorists taking advantage of poor innocent people in Lebanon. “My dad was fighting against them. For me they are terrorists.”
One has to remember, explains Salameh, that back in 1982 when Israel entered Beirut to help dismantle Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Forces, Christian and Muslim Lebanese were overjoyed. They sang songs and showered Israeli soldiers with flowers.
Recalling the traumatic events of six years ago which uprooted Salemeh and his family from their village, he speaks like it happened yesterday.
“I didn’t believe it was happening. It was like someone telling me I’d be dropped in a strange place – like in the middle of California – and I’d have to manage.”
After an endless night in Tiberias, where the family slept in a park near the Sea of Galilee, they were then shuttled by the army to a hotel in Netanya, until an apartment could be arranged.
Looking back on the last six years, Salameh is more than pleased on what he has accomplished.
“I think that I’ve gotten it together beautifully.”