A version of this article originally appeared on Beirut News Network.
International students at the American University of Beirut found themselves in a precarious position on October 19th when a car bomb ripped through the city’s bustling Ashrafieh district. The first of its kind in Beirut since 2008, the explosion targeted and killed top security official Wissam al-Hassan and triggered some of the worst sectarian violence the tiny Mediterranean country has seen in years.
Gunfights broke out across Lebanon, including in the capital city of Beirut on Monday, while major roads were blocked with burning tires and unofficial checkpoints.
The American University of Beirut campus remained open, and classes continued normally despite the violence in the city. Though the normally bustling Bliss Street was relatively empty on Monday, traffic levels in Hamra and the surrounding areas have returned to normal within days of the violence.
Atticus Hoffman, an American undergraduate student at the American University of Beirut, began his studies last year at the American University of Cairo, and moved to Beirut as tensions in Egypt flared during the revolution. Hoffman, now a veteran of the kind of instability that can rock the Middle East, stated that he “chose Beirut because it’s an easier and probably a safer place to live than Cairo. There are definitely more comforts of home here despite all the differences.”
“I wouldn’t say that [the bomb] has impacted my life all that much, I mean, maybe I’ve been stuck at home a little more, but I think that just comes with the territory of being in the Middle East no matter where you are. Things can just happen unexpectedly. And my experience with these things is that they tend to smooth out. I think everyone’s just hoping for the best at this point.”
“I have no plans to leave Lebanon at all. Definitely staying here.”
Jordan Silverman, an exchange student spending a semester abroad in Beirut from the University of Pennsylvania, says that “[The bomb] was really shocking, and I realized I had never been in a city where something so bad happened while I was there. So it was really different when suddenly you’re on Facebook trying to make sure your friends are okay. You’re actually affected by it in a much more real way.”
Silverman also stated that living with Lebanon’s instability has helped her understand the uses of Twitter and other real-time social media tools: “I never understood Twitter until I came here. And now after [the bomb] I started checking it to find out if it’s safe to leave my apartment.”
Sitting in a crowded and trendy café off of Hamra Street around dusk, the deadly explosion and its long term implications seem far away.
“I have no plans of going back, if my school tells me to go back I might just tell them no.”
Silverman also expressed interest in participating in the peaceful “White March” that was held in Ashrafieh a week after the bombing.
“I’d definitely like to show my support and that I care about Beirut, since it’s become my home too.”
Mira Bou Matar, a fourth year architecture student of Lebanese descent who grew up in the United States, says that while her course fieldwork was temporarily put on hold, she now feels safe to venture out into the city.
“I was supposed to go to Burj Hammoud over the weekend for an architecture site, but after the bomb, my parents called and told me not to leave campus, or to stay as close as possible. But now, everything’s fine, I’m probably going to go tomorrow or this weekend.”
Bou Matar says that her decision to live on campus was directly related to the security situation in Beirut.
“Everyone knows AUB is the safest place to be in Beirut and that nothing happens here. Even during the war, it was safe on campus.”
Bou Matar says the bomb has not affected her feeling of security in Beirut: “Maybe seeing Bliss completely empty the day after it happened was a bit spooky. But I think I’ve been introduced to the Lebanese mentality that things happen, and you have to live around it. You just have to roll with the punches and see where it goes.”
“I’m making sure to be cautious about where I go and what I do. But leave Lebanon? No.”