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Lebanon’s civil war shaped her studies in counseling

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Smyrna Khalaf was 5,620 miles away from New York when she heard the shocking news of Sept. 11, 2001. But as she sat watching the news on television, memories of war in her own country of Lebanon were vivid in her mind.

“When [9/11] happened, we just went to the TV and we were watching, and it was such a tragic thing,” Khalaf said. “Everyone was sad.”

Khalaf, who is in her first year of studies for a master of arts in marriage and family counseling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said one of her initial responses to the events of Sept. 11 was the fear that the destruction would stir “fanatics” in Lebanon to war again.

Lebanon was plagued by civil war for approximately 15 years, and Khalaf, who was on the Texas seminary campus last fall for memorial services commemorating the one-year mark since the terrorist attacks, said that when she grew up memorial services would have been necessary daily.

“Muslims would kill Christians [during the war] just because they are Christians, because they have the Christian name. Even Christians killed Muslims as well because this was huge fighting. We don’t want that to start again in Beirut,” said Khalaf, Southwestern’s first international student from Lebanon.

The fighting in her native land did not stop until she was 14 years old.

“No one knew what time you were going to die,” said Khalaf, now 25.

The war became somewhat routine, she said. The impact of mortar shells was just another sound in the day.

“I was brought up hearing all the noises, being in [a] shelter,” she said.

Fear began to set in as she grew older. She became more afraid because, she said, “You start to know what life is about and the meaning of life and that you want to survive.”

As she sat with her mother one night in 1984 in the middle of the war, her mother asked if she knew where she would go if she died — an all-too-real possibility.

“I said I don’t know, and that night she explained the whole salvation story, and I committed myself to Jesus that night,” Khalaf said.

Lebanon still bears the scars of civil war, but Khalaf also has witnessed some of the nation’s healing. Muslims and Christians remained mostly in separate parts of Beirut during the war, but today those same lines are no longer drawn, she said.

Khalaf attended college after the war in a part of Beirut that was considered a Muslim area during the hostilities.

“It wasn’t difficult for me to interact with them [Muslim students] or for them to interact with me,” she said. “It was a new generation.”

Khalaf said many Americans mistakenly believe Lebanon is a Muslim country. Although Islam has a strong presence in Lebanon, Christianity does as well, she said.

“It’s a free country,” she said. “You have Christians and you have Muslims.”

Still, not every person who bears the name Christian in Lebanon — much like in America — actually has a personal relationship with Christ. Individuals in Lebanon who bear Christian and Muslim names, she said, need to hear the gospel.

Khalaf said she seeks to share Christ with whomever God puts in her path, rather than seeking to share Christ exclusively with Muslims.

“I think God has given us a great opportunity [in Lebanon] because we can spread out the gospel easily and you can talk wherever you want. You can have churches wherever you want.”

Khalaf recalled a Muslim friend from college who attended church meetings with her and the opportunities God gave her to share Christ with her friend.

“Even with Christians I always do the same,” she said. “If I was friends with someone, they would know me and how I lived, and I would be able to share more,” she said.

Khalaf also found that a major part of sharing her faith was simply listening to the hearts of others, especially young people.

While Khalaf was teaching English as a Second Language to a group of young people last year, God allowed her to serve as a counselor to them. Many of the young people had not finished high school and were from predominantly low-income families, she said.

Youth in Lebanon struggle with many of the same issues as American youth, she said, but one unique issue is the “generation gap” between young people and their parents. The gap is seemingly made larger due to the effects of the civil war, she said.

“The younger generation has been brought up thinking more modernly. Our parents lived in the war. It was different and they were very protective because there was war,” she said.

“I think there has to be a kind of awareness for parents … to know how to deal with their children as they grow up … because they don’t know how to listen,” she said. Many parents in Lebanon mean well, she said, but “they don’t know how to express it to the kids.”

Khalaf began to realize the need for individuals in Lebanon to be heard and to have someone listen to them. She had a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and graphic design, but she soon sensed God leading her into a ministry of Christian counseling.

“That experience [with the young people] helped me in making this decision, and I asked around about a counseling school, and they said that Southwestern has one of the best programs in counseling,” Khalaf said.

Though Khalaf had to leave her parents behind in Lebanon, it helped that they were already familiar with Southwestern.

Khalaf’s father, Ghassan, is president of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. He came to Southwestern in April 2001 to sign an “agreement of fraternal relationship” between the seminaries. ABTS is the only Baptist seminary in the Middle East-North Africa region.

“I talked around,” she said. “I did my research, and then later I told Dad. I told him I think I’m going to do counseling … at Southwestern Seminary. He said, ‘Oh great, we know those people.'”

Khalaf said she would like to return to Lebanon once she completes her studies at Southwestern, but she is open to ministering wherever God might lead. She is hopeful that her degree in marriage and family counseling will help her relate not only to the younger generation but to entire families as well.

“I wanted to do something that relates to all kinds of ages,” she said.

Meanwhile, Khalaf continues her pursuit of being who God wants her to be. The pursuit is sometimes complicated by who one’s parents are, she said. Her father, in addition to serving as president of the seminary, also has served as pastor of the same church for the past 27 years.

Khalaf is ready to meet the heavy expectations of being the child of a pastor, but she has learned ultimately to seek out God’s approval, she said.

“I have my own personality. I have my own character,” she said. “I want to be who I am and be what God wants me to be.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: SMYRNA KHALAF and WAR MEMORIES STILL VIVID.

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  • Lauri Arnold