text and photography
by Layla Abbas
“Do you hear that? Julie AbiGhanem remembers whispering on gloomy nights when she was a little girl living in Lebanon. On the floor of her basement, she would ask God, “Are you scared like me?” Julie AbiGhanem grew up in war torn Lebanon and remembers having impassioned discussions with God. She would close her eyes tight in the pitch black underground room, a designated spot for dangerous times, and use her fingers to plug her ears shut, trying to drown out the piercing noise of children screaming and the flashes of bombs exploding.
Julie, now a sociology senior adjunct at the University of La Verne, was 3 years old when the multifaceted Lebanese Civil War began in 1975. It was a 15-year battle that ended with more than 100,000 casualties, including some of her close family members. She grew up west of the capital city of Beirut and lived a childhood with life adversities many in this country never encounter. Stepping outside and exploring the outdoors freely was never an option. Julie was on a stagnant, but “simple life” routine of attending school, burying her nose in textbooks, and playing with her siblings in the confines of her home. That was the foundation of her unique childhood that shaped her into the intelligent, brutally fearless and resolute woman she is today. “You do not live your childhood, because you see bigger issues than you,” Julie says. “You have to realize what is happening and find a way to cope and understand and learn.”
In the summer, Julie spent time with her grandma in northern Lebanon, where it was much safer. She calls these summer excursions at her grandma’s house the “village life” because it allowed her a chance to feel like a child and forget about living in a war zone. Julie roamed outside without trepidation alongside the village children and found sheer joy in the friendliness of the farm animals. “I used to get angry as a little girl because the village kids would call me city girl, and for them city girl means you are stupid; you do not know what they know. But I learned and behaved and did what the village kids did so I could fit in as we do in life.” Julie is grateful for the village life because it was an avenue for her to bond with others and to grow independently from the war back home. “My time in the village taught me to appreciate the beauty of a simple life and helped me develop appreciation to nature and God.”
Nevertheless, Julie’s mom never allowed the war to serve as a barrier in Julie’s life. Nothing prevented her from providing her daughter with a good education. “When you are a kid, you look at your mom, and she is smiling, laughing and giving. That would be enough to tell you tomorrow is a better day,” Julie says. “My mom would say, ‘Yes, you are fine; finish your homework because tomorrow you have to go to school. It is not like life stops.’ [The reality is] your house is hit by a bomb, and you wake up. You go close that hole, build that wall and continue living.”
Julie’s outlook on life was reflected by the actions of her mother. She remained very courageous in a time when those around her were losing hope. “I would hide under the bed; I would hide anywhere,” Julie smiles now. “It was scary for a long period of time. You grew up in fear, in fear,” she repeats more profoundly, pausing, as the war memories cross her mind. “You don’t know what’s going to happen; all you know is you need to do your best to continue living. It’s all about the people around you. In my situation it was my mom.”
Julie grew up with three brothers and a sister. She lost a brother “during the war,” and her house was burned by a rocket propelled grenade. The fire took everything with it including childhood memories depicted in the photos her mom captured throughout the years. Today, Julie wishes she could have a single childhood picture to look at. “Everything has value,” she says. “You don’t take anyone or anything for granted. Struggles are normal in life. It is by facing life’s challenges that we learn and grow.” When the bomb found her house, and it erupted into flames, no one was home, and the neighbors valiantly tried to stop the fire from spreading, but there was not much they could do. Her brothers started rebuilding the house while she away with her grandma; however, Julie still remembers seeing the black ash seared on the walls when she first stepped through the door. Regardless, she was still determined to live her life positively—undeterred by the turning points that aimed to dim her philosophical light of overcoming any adversity.
Julie remembers making it to school was a challenge. In her primary grades, there was a school bus. But when she started high school, there was no bus, so she would walk. She would take a shortcut through a grassy field to avoid walking through burnt down neighborhoods and seeing the houses that were unrecognizable because they dissolved into ash. “As a little girl I saw these round metal humps in the ground,” Julie says. “When I started to see them, I decided to play a game—not to step on them, but to step above. So I would run when I took the shortcut, because I was scared, and I jumped over these metal humps.” She later learned her game and intuition saved her life.
Julie says sometimes the bombing would start, and she would be at school. The teachers would open the gate and tell them to go home. The children were on their own and would have to hope they could make it safely. The bomb explosions served as familiar background music. Going to school in adversarial conditions was just part of life. “My mom would always say the war is going to end, and people are going to ask you, ‘What did you do; what did you study, and what are you going to say to them—I was scared? I didn’t go to school?’” Julie learned to be resilient, to fight and to have faith because of God’s presence in her life. “People who can forgive are stronger than the people who are just full of anger and revenge. This is the right attitude to continue living—to have faith and to be grateful.”
Flash forward, years later: Julie was working as an editor for the Ministry of Defense in Lebanon. As she was writing an article about the different kinds of land mines, she asked the photography department to send her photos. “I opened the envelope, and looked at the pictures they sent me, and, oh my God, I had unbelievable feelings like shock,” she recalls. “I’m looking at the photos, and I was able to recognize many of the pictures, because they looked the same as what I used to see in the ground when I was a little girl. That day, I realized the game I was playing could have killed me a long time ago. It was an unbelievable moment when I realized this.” She says after the initial feelings of utter shock swept over her, she was not surprised to be alive because God was always a strong presence in her life. “I always felt like God was protecting me because he was with me since I was a little girl. I used to fight with him and everything.”
Despite the armed conflict between the Muslim and Christian factions fighting during the Lebanese Civil War, Julie lived a harmonious relationship with her Muslim neighbors whom she grew up with. She recalls there was a friendly camaraderie amongst the two groups in her community. Julie’s Christian family lived downstairs from a Muslim family. “The neighbors were Muslim so during Ramadan they would wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. and eat for Suhoor,” Julie says. Suhoor is a time when Muslims indulge in a feast before they begin fasting from the time the sun rises to the time the sun sets for the Ramadan holiday. Suhoor is a moment to feast, appreciate and reflect. “I used to stay up to study but also wait to hear the noise coming from their kitchen preparing the meals for the Suhoor, so I would go up, knock on their door and share food with them,” Julie laughs. “We never allowed religious differences to put a wedge between us. I love, I love Lebanon,” Julie repeats for emphasis. “I love the nature, I love the people, I love the culture, I love everything about it—even with the bad things. I love it more and more and more. And it irritates me—and I feel really angry when someone says anything bad about this country.”
Julie had a strong passion for writing. At 12, while again spending her summer in northern Lebanon, her uncle, who lived next to a newspaper editor, encouraged her to submit her writings to him. Julie still has the newspaper clippings stored safely in Lebanon. “I wrote articles about war, life and revolution,” she says, “and the editor published them for me. This made me feel so happy as a teenager to see my work in a national newspaper.” Julie aspired to be a journalist and wanted to major in the field, but the route to the university was dangerous because of the unrest that followed the war. Her brother drove her to the university to take the entry exam, but she never returned to see whether she passed. “I ended up going to the nearest college, and they offered social sciences.” [Prior to enrolling], I never knew what sociology was, but you cannot stay home even if there was bombing, so this is how I continued my studies.”
Upon graduation, she fulfilled a major goal, which was to write a book. At age 24, and as part of her master’s degree research, Julie authored the content and designed the graphic production of a comprehensive book about the army’s role during peacetime. Contributing to her humble character, Julie did not work with a publisher since her motive was not in making a profit, but rather to get the word out about the important topic. “I had a big room filled with books after they were published, and I thought, ‘What am I going to do with all of these books? Come, anyone, take the books.’” Julie laughs at the memory. “We did two signature readings, and I found someone who took all the books for little money.” Julie describes these sessions as the one time she cried because of sheer happiness. “Later on, I was at a book exposition, and I found someone selling my book for $3, and I could not stop laughing,” Julie says. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is my book. If it is going everywhere so more people can read, it doesn’t matter to me.’ I was so happy even though it was so cheap.”
Julie was the last one in her family to leave Lebanon, and it was not because of the war. She left to be closer to her mother and siblings in the United States. Julie was a professor at the University of Akron before eventually marrying and moving to California. She now lives in a quaint old style Claremont home with her husband Andre. She has served as a valued adjunct professor of sociology at the University of La Verne for five years. Most semesters, she teaches four classes, including serving as a Campus Accelerated Program for Adults instructor. Aside from her classroom knowledge, painting serves as a complimentary creative passion. She is an accomplished acrylic painter who has exhibited her art in local shows. Some of her paintings depict her knowledge about sociology concepts. Julie is also a certified Oral Proficiency Tester, testing people for government jobs from across the world who use the Arabic language and dialects. For her job as a language expert, she creates and reviews testing material for different dialects. Julie’s goal to become a college professor was never on her “to do” list, but she says she is “beyond happy” to share her knowledge.
Julie commands a lively classroom environment as she focuses on each individual and makes sure that everyone is noticed. “I try to help them appreciate what they have,” she says, “to see how much they are blessed, and how much they can do. I do not let students be what they are comfortable with; you go to school to learn but also to be challenged.” Her teaching philosophy is not only about disseminating knowledge but also about changing lives for the better. She strives to create a safe place where students can share and learn from each other. “I invite all my students to be a part of the discussion and to share their opinions. If we do not do that at the college level, how do we expect students to become active members and change agents in society?” She turns off the PowerPoint class lectures when she notices that her students are more focused on taking notes than being actively engaged in discussions. In her class “Social Change,” Julie urges her students to voice their opinions with confidence.
Anthony Villalobos, joined her Social Change class during his first semester at ULV and says it was one of his best college courses. “She reminded me that being a student is not only to learn, but to apply the material to our real world. She was more than just a professor; she was a mentor, and that is something that cannot be achieved by many professors. She challenged us to question the status quo, speak up for things that our generation wants to change and to have the passion to be the change we wish to see in the world. And for that I will value her class for years to come.” James Wilson, a student of Julie’s for three years, says she has a unique style that incorporates intellectual thought on world current events. “She has helped me immensely in pursuing a master’s degree in Social Work and has given me insight in working at the veteran’s hospital. As a former Marine Corps staff sergeant, I felt her integrity to be unsurpassed.”
Says Julie, “I’m happy as a sociology professor because I am doing something worthwhile. Teaching is a mission, and it has meaning. I love it because I am able to share everything I have learned and experienced throughout my life to help my students look at the world from different perspectives and to believe in their abilities to make a real difference in their communities and in the world. Ignorance is our first enemy.”
Her sociology training has shown her that people are continuously searching for more. Students are blessed, she says. They must achieve to their full potential—and beyond—despite what is taking place around them. “People may be living and working in fear. But life is more than obeying the orders of others. Each day is a gift. Use it wisely.” ■