23 Years To Prepare For My Work in Lebanon

by Thomas Oakland

The noise from the plane’s landing gear signaled our final decent into Beirut, Lebanon.  My two sons, ages 12 and 14, and I boarded the plane four hours earlier at Heathrow Airport, London.

Today’s newspaper headlines, June 8, 1982, heralded the meeting of the Knesset in Jerusalem to decide how best to resolve Israeli’s difficulties with its northern neighbor, Lebanon.

My sons and I were excited. This was our family’s first trip to the Middle East. I was to teach classes on child development that summer at the American University of Beirut. The University of Texas at Austin was my academic home. My specialty was working with children with developmental disorders.

My sons and I traveled abroad most summers. I wanted to introduce them to the world and to work along the way. Previous travels in Australia, Central America, Europe, and New Zealand were excellent yet less eventful than what we were about to experience.

Instead of landing, the plane swung abruptly upward. We sensed a problem. The captain informed us the airport was closed suddenly as a result of unsafe landing conditions created by the Israeli planes. He was advised to circle the city at a safe distance.

Using a small portable radio, we listened intently to broadcasts telling the beginning events of this war. Other passengers, mainly reporters, were anxious to get to Beirut to cover this war.

After circling the airport for three hours, we returned to Larnaca on the island of Cypress. Most everyone hoped the Beirut airport would reopen in a day or two. It reopened four months later.

I often feel my religious faith helps create a protective bubble around my family and me while traveling. However, I knew I could not take my sons into a war zone. Thus, after three days, we flew to the Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. I was disappointed at not being able to do the work at the American University of Beirut that I felt was needed.

We traveled in Israel for two week, feeling blessed to visit important historic, culture, and religious sites. Jerusalem was our favorite.

Earlier that spring I met Dr. Hatem AbuGhazahel, an eminent surgeon trained at Cambridge University. He was establishing a program for Palestinian children with mental retardation and asked me to stop to see him if I were in Gaza. Although I was sure I never would be there, for some reason I put his card in my passport.

When possible, I like to travel by train and bus rather than plane. Thus, in planning our trip to our next destination, Egypt. Our only option was to go by bus. There was no plane travel between Israel and Egypt at that time. A bus would take us only to the Israeli-Gaza border. Thus, I called Dr. Abu Ghazaleh to ask him to drive us the remaining 25 miles across the Gaza Strip to the Gaza-Egyptian border.

Dr. Abu Ghazaleh graciously agreed and invited us to stay with him and his family for a few days. During the day my sons played with his two sons of similar ages while he and I discussed his important efforts to bring services to children who are mentally retarded. There were no services for them throughout Gaza and few services for them in the 22 Arab countries.

I always have felt a calling for my work, one that began in the Methodist church I attended in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I sensed I was asked to serve children by being a good father and finding work that would benefit children. I found my experiences in social work and public school teaching were not my calling. I felt my work as a professor, researcher, and consultant to school districts was more consistent with what I was being asked to do.

I admired Dr. Abu Ghazaleh’s passion for his work. I sensed it too was driven by his religious beliefs. He asked for my help. There we no doctoral-level trained child psychologists in Gaza. Other consultants refused to come to Gaza, given its turmoil during the Intifada.

His request evolved into a 12-year commitment to work with him. I returned to Gaza two to three times yearly, on holidays and always during summers. I also did work for him while in the US.

Dr. Abu Ghazaleh’s work, supported largely by the US State Department, initially involved establishing day schools and home-based programs for children with mental retardation as well as programs for children with speech and language handicaps. Later he established undergraduate and graduate programs through the support from Milwaukee’s Marquette University. The scope and impact of his programs increased each year. He soon employed more people than any other non-municipal agency in Gaza.

I taught various classes, consulted with staff on designing and implementing programs for children with developmental disabilities, evaluated programs, and conducted research. When working abroad in developing countries, one does what one is requested and able to do.

I attempted to respond to Dr. Abu Ghazaleh’s every request for assistance and thus experienced considerable personal and professional growth. I am sure I learned more than I contributed. I learned about the Palestinians, most of whom were refugees waiting to return to their ancestral homes and land in Israel. My knowledge of children with mental retardation and related disabilities grew enormously. My confidence and desire to serve others also increased.

Whenever I landed at Ben Gurion Airport on my way to Gaza, I remembered my first landing there and my failed attempt to get into Beirut in 1982. I felt somewhat unfulfilled at not being able to work there, knowing my calling is to serve children.

My work in Gaza attracted the interests of the Cairo-based Arab Council on Childhood and Development. The Council asked me to assist them in developing programs for children with developmental disabilities in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

On December 15, 2005 I finally flew into Beirut, thus fulfilling a 23-year desire. On Christmas Day I began similar work in Saudi Arabia.

During this work in 1995 I discovered that I was not prepared in 1982 to do the work that was needed. I needed more experience working with children with developmental disabilities and their families, especially those from Arab families. I now knew the diversion of our plane back to Larnaca created a pathway for my development in Gaza that never would have occurred if we had landed in Beirut in June 1982.

Oh, my children benefited from their experiences as well. For example, my youngest son wrote his dissertation on education in Gaza while a graduate student at Cambridge University, the first scholarly treatise on this subject.

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