An American in Beirut: Trying to Be a Good Neighbor in a Time of Need

This is the twelfth installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native or New York who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.

August 6, 2006

Even if a ceasefire were to come tomorrow, there is a fast approaching humanitarian disaster in Lebanon. The 25 day-old air and sea blockade has been effective and regardless of politics, the fact remains, the entire country is squeezed. The last overland routes to Syria were hit by repeated air raids on Thursday night. Roads that connect the south and north to Beirut have been cut off. Many of the electrical and water lines that run underneath the roads have been destroyed. Food is short. At the current pace, even Lebanon's hospitals will have to close in a week to 10 days for lack of fuel. The situation is urgent.

The good news is the people of Lebanon are not sitting on their hands. In fact, millions of arms have been opened: 550,000 displaced Lebanese have found shelter with family and friends and in churches and mosques; 130,000 displaced Lebanese are currently staying in local schools converted into shelters. Youthful Lebanese have put their energy to work and have created non-profit organizations. Iman even attended a birthday party last week organized by one such group. It was in celebration of a girl's 11th birthday and it was celebrated in a shelter. Despite the drab circumstances, a volunteer actor's troop came dressed up as clowns and provided an hour's worth of entertainment and an hour's worth of smiles.

Last week, I received an e-mail that reflected this same spirit. It was written by an exemplary American named Carolyn Manning, a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona. Carolyn's brother-in-law, Terence Manning, died tragically while working in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. Carolyn's response to this indescribable loss is inspiring to say the least. She created The Welcome to America Project (, an all-volunteer organization that has since furnished 300 apartments for newly arriving refugees in Pheonix, Ariz. "The Welcome to America Project," Carolyn writes, "is about being good neighbors, good Americans, healing the past in a very tangible way." Carolyn didn't wait for a response from our government to the catastrophe of September 11th because she knew she wanted to send a message of her own. She got to work and went about spreading good.

I've also received many e-mails that express a feeling of distance and detachment from the conflict. I understand that sentiment. Sometimes I feel distant from all that is going on here and I'm actually living in it. And then others have emailed with a regrettable sense that World War III is approaching but that there's nothing much we can do.

Of late, this part of the world has been feeling a lot of American strength but not enough American power. There's a difference. American power is what I grew up surrounded by in New York. It's a limitless generosity and concern for the well-being of close friends, next-door neighbors and, indeed, complete strangers who find themselves in need.

To be sure, American politicians and the American military have an essential place in the ongoing dialogue between America and the Middle East. It's just that others do as well. Ordinary Americans can have a part in communicating with ordinary Lebanese, helping simply because there is an opportunity to help and sending a message that's free of politics and full of the best part of the American spirit.

After I post this installment of "An American in Beirut," I'm going directly to the Web site of Mercy Corps ( an Oregon-based charity with a history for doing good work in Lebanon. Before this conflict reopened, Mercy Corps had been working hand-in-hand to promote civic participation and the growth of economic opportunities in the southern part of the country. Efforts now are refocused on the much-needed delivery of food, blankets, medicines and infant needs — just the basics. Using Carolyn Manning's example, my donation to Mercy Corps will feed a family of five displaced Lebanese — people caught in the middle who may have lost their home, all their belongings and perhaps even loved ones — for two months.

In America, I was taught to be a good neighbor. In Beirut, I'm trying to apply that lesson.


If you've been reading these reports, I'd like to hear from you. Send your comments, suggestions and questions to

Part I: "An American in Beirut: As War Approaches"

Part II: "Much Has Changed Since That Family Photo"

Part III: "The New Beirut Nightlife, Airstrikes as a Snooze Button"

Part IV: "People Leaving War-Torn South Ask, 'Which Way is Safety?'"

Park V: "How I Got Here and Why I Haven't Left Yet"

Part VI: "Lebanon on a 'Helpless Walk Through Time'"

Part VII: "War Doesn't Stop For the Weekend"

Part VIII: "We Hurt Each Other, Then We Do it Again"

Part IX: "No 'Human Predisposition to Craziness' Found Here"

Part X: "Lebanon Readies to Run Out of Fuel"

Part XI: "Normal Moments Possible in Wartime, Normalcy is Not"