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Keeping the Brains in the Family

For Lebanon’s parents, a college education remains a top priority.

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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Ten years ago a visit to Beirut’s St. Joseph University would have been a life-threatening adventure.

Crossing Beirut’s Green Line – which divided Beirut into rival halves – was the first hurdle. Snipers or even the rumor of a sniper shut down regular pedestrian flow. Calling ahead to confirm an appointment was impossible – phone service was always disrupted and cell phones were still just a glimmer in some inventor’s eye.

Often there was no electricity to run university building elevators and even when they were working few people were willing to chance being held hostage by a metal box with no ventilation.

If your destination was at the end of a corridor you would have to feel your way along the wall; there were no lights and, in buildings facing the Green Line, there were no windows, as they were filled in with cement blocks for added protection against snipers. Shrapnel-studded walls in university rooms facing the Green Line demonstrated the importance of these barricades.

Walking from building to building required insider knowledge. There were safe routes and there were those that were not safe.

Today all those memories seem like bad dreams. Students meet, study and relax in security, cell phones jingle in purses and pockets. Buildings are now repaired and improved. Nightlife means what it means in the United States, not militiamen and battle.

For the Lebanese, there is no priority greater than giving their children the best education possible, and from preschool to Ph.D., Catholic schools have an excellent track record.

The Lebanese government imposes a series of standardized tests on students when they are 17 and 18 years of age. These exams act as “weeder” exams – only those who pass are eligible for admission to Lebanon’s institutions of higher education.

There are three Catholic universities in Lebanon. The granddaddy of the three is St. Joseph University, founded in 1875 by French Jesuit Father Ambrose Monnot. Last year marked its 125th anniversary.

For two years Father Monnot toured the United States and Canada, enlisting the aid of 80,000 donors whose contributions made possible the purchase of land and the construction of buildings and a church. The campus grew as faculties were added and student enrollment increased.

The second oldest Catholic university in Lebanon, the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, often called Kaslik, opened in 1950. Its main campus is 10 miles north of Beirut and sits on a Mediterranean bay. Kaslik was founded by the Lebanese Maronite Order; from the community’ foundation in 1695 until 1950, these monks taught philosophy and theology in their monasteries.

Today there are eight faculties for the two universities, including a Pontifical Faculty of Theology, the only one of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa. The Holy See appoints its dean.

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