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Looking Back at Lebanon With Anger -- at the U.S.

A Lebanese American couple who fled strife say America should have intervened in fight.

July 19, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

They survived the bombings near Tripoli. They braved an escape from Lebanon through the Syrian border.

But those weren't the most traumatic moments for Laguna Niguel residents Kanan and Hanan Hamzeh, who Tuesday described their six-day ordeal fleeing the raging battle between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The worst moment, the couple said, occurred last week when they clustered around a TV set watching the news with family and friends in Tripoli, Lebanon. The group of middle-class, mostly college-educated Lebanese, who support the disarmament of Hezbollah and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, all were convinced that the U.S. would broker an immediate cease-fire to stop their homeland's destruction, the Hamzehs said.

Instead, the United States blocked U.N. plans for a Middle East cease-fire resolution.

"All of my family looked at me and said, 'Look what your country has done. How could this be possible?' " said Hanan Hamzeh, 50. "I just said, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry.' I was in shock.

"I felt embarrassed" to be American, she said.

"Betrayed," her husband added.

While the Israeli bombing has demolished much of Lebanon's infrastructure, the American failure to stop the fighting destroyed something far deeper in the Hamzehs' hearts. It has, they said, shattered their pride as Americans, altered their politics and left them with hard questions for their president.

Kanan Hamzeh, 63, a Republican who twice voted for President Bush, said he will not be supporting the Republican Party this fall. "They let the use of excessive force happen," he said somberly. "It's time for a change."

The disillusionment could not have occurred to a more all-American family, a textbook immigrant success story.

A native of Tripoli, Kanan Hamzeh came to America in 1962 to study engineering at Cal Poly Pomona. He returned to Lebanon to launch an electronics business, then fled to Saudi Arabia with his wife to escape the civil war in 1975.

A desire to pursue the American dream brought the Hamzehs back to Southern California in 1981 -- this time with three young children: sons Rabih and Rida and daughter Zeina.

"The opportunities in the United States are limitless if you are prepared to work hard," Kanan Hamzeh said.

The family first lived in Pasadena, then settled in a spacious home in Fountain Valley featuring five bedrooms and a pool.

The children were raised "as American as apple pie," Rida Hamzeh said, and they took up baseball, drums, piano and guitar. But they never lost touch with their ethnic heritage, speaking both Arabic and English at home and making annual summer visits to Lebanon.

All three children eventually graduated from UC campuses; two became lawyers and one a pediatric cardiologist.

Meanwhile, the Hamzehs had launched a computer sales and maintenance firm, along with a second business. They sold their interests in 2001, clearing the way to focus on what has become their greatest passion: bringing together the region's religiously and politically diverse Lebanese American community.

About 24,000 Lebanese natives live in the five counties of the Greater Los Angeles area, according to the 2000 census. Nationwide, Lebanese Americans make up 39% of the nation's 3.5 million Arab Americans, by far the largest subgroup. The waves of early 20th century Lebanese immigrants were mostly Christians fleeing from war, drought and famine, and were drawn in particular to California for its Mediterranean-like climate, said Gregory Orfalea, a Pitzer College professor and author of a new book, "The Arab Americans: A History."

Southern California's Lebanese American community, Kanan Hamzeh said, reflects the motherland's mix of Christians and Muslims, with diverse views on hot-button issues like the relationship with Syria. The same tensions that cleaved Lebanon during its civil war erupted in Los Angeles, he said.

Hamzeh said he wanted to bridge those divides and that he found a way to do so in 2000. Along with others, he launched the Lebanese American Foundation to unite the scattered community, celebrate Lebanese history and heritage and raise money for a Los Angeles community center. So far, the group has raised $2.3 million, about one-third of its goal.

Most recently, Kanan Hamzeh has helped spearhead the new Los Angeles-Beirut Sister City program, along with City Councilman Dennis P. Zine, a fellow Lebanese American.

It was the program's July 1 inauguration that sent the Hamzehs to Beirut.

Though Zine returned to Los Angeles before the bombing began, the Hamzehs stayed on to see family.

When Israel began bombing southern Lebanon last week, the couple said they initially shrugged off the attacks, accustomed to border clashes between Israel and the Shiite militia.

Even after Israel moved north and bombed the Beirut airport, the couple felt sure the U.S. would broker a quick cease-fire.

Once that hope was lost, the Hamzehs decided to act rather than wait for a U.S. evacuation.

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