College of Liberal Arts

War in Lebanon Strengthens Student's Determination to Promote Multicultural Understanding

Sociology grad student dedicates research to women's rights activism in Lebanon

Photo of Rita Stephan

Rita Stephan

When Stephan embarked on her trip to Lebanon in May 2006 to conduct research for her dissertation, she knew there was conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, but did not expect a full-blown war.

That all changed on July 12, 2006 as a war erupted between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon and led to massive destruction and loss of lives.

Stephan and her then 4 1/2-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter had to run for their lives.

"I panicked as I listened to the sound of Israeli fighter jets fly over my head, only to be followed in less than 10 seconds by loud explosions that shook the house," she recalled. "The long silence that followed the bombing was even scarier because of the uncertainty and calamity enfolded in it. The kids were crying and the American Embassy's phone was always busy."

Back in Austin, faculty and administrators at The University of Texas at Austin worked feverishly to secure her safe return.

"In addition to pleading in vain to Congress," Stephan said, "they contacted the International SOS and kept in close contact with my husband as I orchestrated my very dangerous route of escape."

On July 14, Stephan decided she could not spend another night in Lebanon, and called a taxi in an attempt to flee the country to her aunt's house in Syria. As she held her two small children on her lap, she decided if they were bombed, she would cover them with her body in hopes that they would survive.

"The decision to flee Lebanon after less than two days of the war was the most difficult decision I have made in my life," Stephan said. "The four-hour trip I made was dangerous even by Lebanese standards, as we were intermittently under heavy attack."

Despite the harrowing circumstances, Stephan held on to hope by thinking of the people at the university working so hard to bring her family home.

"In my mind," she said, "I kept thinking that the Sociology Department and UT are waiting for me, in addition to my family. Therefore, I did not give up or leave my research behind. I knew that they trusted me with this mission and that they were waiting for me."

Stephan did not know how or when she would finish her dissertation and become a Ph.D., as her experience had given her mixed feelings about Lebanon and the war. She eventually returned to her research on activism and found optimism and hope from her interviews with women whose lives had been shattered by war. Stephan's supervisor, Dr. Mounira Charrad, was also particularly supportive in encouraging the completion of her work.

She undertook new research, interviewing American evacuees to understand their experiences and to help her process her own. She has incorporated her experience into her research and career plans.

"Whether in scholarly research, activism, or teaching, my overriding motivation throughout my career continues to focus on increasing multicultural understanding in our global village," Stephan said.

Pursuing a tenure-track academic position, Stephan plans to teach as a lecturer at the university next year and will publish her dissertation as articles and a book. She plans to return to Lebanon this summer to participate in a project on election reform and women's citizenship rights.

Watch a video with Rita Stephan...