LIGHTER SIDE OF LEBANON | Food & Fireworks

Whenever Lebanon is mentioned in the news, it’s usually about a few things: terror attacks, an unstable government and the Syrian refugee crisis.

But that’s only half the story.

It’s also filled with picturesque beaches, religious history, mouthwatering cuisine and a wild nightlife that brings in more than a million tourists each year, according to Databank.

I came here to report on the refugee crisis, but I’ve also been soaking in the beauty of this country — which I’m going to share in a series of blog posts, starting today! Today’s blog is about two things Lebanese people love: food and fireworks (just ask the kids in my village, who set off fireworks every night).

On Saturday night, my friends and I went to Jounieh, a city on the coast of Lebanon, for a huge fireworks display over the Mediterranean Sea. The 11-minute show, with more than 50,000 fireworks, kicks off the week-long Jounieh Summer Festival.

We booked a table at Amor, a restaurant with outdoor seating and a stunning view of the Jounieh Bay. For $50 a person, each table got a bottle of alcohol, a traditional Lebanese four-course meal and impeccable service (when I tried to pour a glass of sparkling water, the waiter ran over, intercepted the bottle and continued pouring for me). The series of dishes are known as “mezza,” which means appetizer in Arabic.

The first course was a variety of vegetarian dishes — fattoush, tabouleh, basil-pine-nut hummus, labne, classic hummus, mozzarella cheese over smoked eggplant and stuffed grape leaves. The second course included some meat: fried sausage, grilled potatoes, kibbe, sambousek, and a Lebanese-style mozzarella stick (phyllo dough stuffed with cheese). The third course is known as “mashawi,” which means barbecue. There were three meats: kafta (ground beef with parsley and spices), beef kabobs and chicken kabobs. The fourth course was dessert: ashta, a homemade cream, topped with strawberry jam, as well as fresh watermelon and cantaloupe. 

By 10 p.m., everyone at the restaurant got up from their tables and watched the show together. People from across Lebanon — of all religions — were there to watch. In a way, during a time of tension and turmoil in the Middle East, the fireworks brought everyone together.

A Leap of Faith

I’m standing in the same spot my dad had a stroke last summer.

It's right in front of the church in Mazraat Al Toufah — or Orchard of Apples, a tiny town hidden in the northern mountains of Lebanon. My dad and his family left this village 40 years ago to escape Lebanon’s civil war. He moved to Buffalo with nothing in his pocket, determined to give his future kids a chance to live the American Dream. The funny thing is, everything he taught me led me right back to this place.

On the side of the road leading into Mazraat Al Toufah, you can see a beautiful view of the town. The church in the center is located right next to our home.

On the side of the road leading into Mazraat Al Toufah, you can see a beautiful view of the town. The church in the center is located right next to our home.

My dream is to be a news reporter. When I met Diane Sawyer during my internship at ABC three years ago, I cried. I was starstruck — not because she’s famous, but because she gets to dedicate her life to going in-depth on stories that shed light on real people, their struggles and their triumphs. She shows the world what others are going through. We relate to them. We cry with them. And we’re better because of it.

So last month, I took a leap of faith.

I quit my job as a TV news producer to temporarily relocate to one of the most dangerous areas in the world — one that's filled with stories. The ongoing war in Syria continues to spill into Lebanon, a third-world country already suffering from an unstable government, terrorism and poverty. But those aren’t the only stories Lebanon has to offer.

My dad and I standing on the porch of our home in August of 2013

My dad and I standing on the porch of our home in August of 2013

My dad and I came here together in 2013, and it changed my life. I instantly felt a connection. I’d wake up every morning, tie my sneakers and head out for a run — completely entranced by the green mountains, red roof tops and apple orchards around me. I’d get goosebumps every time I went ATVing up those serene mountains, or took a dip in the clear-blue Mediterranean Sea. I literally became more spiritual, not only from learning about the many saints who came from Lebanon, and touring the cedar trees Jesus once walked through, but also by meeting some of the most loving and warm people you’ll ever find: people who barely knew me, yet stayed with me bedside when I had a stomachache. People who barely make enough money to survive, yet offered me everything they had when I walked through the door.

A towering view of northern Lebanon after ATVing up the serene mountains. (photo credit: Lucien Khoury, July 2016)

A towering view of northern Lebanon after ATVing up the serene mountains. (photo credit: Lucien Khoury, July 2016)

My love for this Middle Eastern country brought me back last summer. Once again, my dad and I bonded over the beauty of the land he and my mom came from. He ended up having a stroke right in the middle of the village — between our home and church. He survived, thank God, but is limited both mentally and physically.

He's still good old Victor Khoury, though. The man who literally fears nothing. The man who has always been in my ear, saying, “You can achieve anything you put your mind to."

So here I am, right back in the Mazraat, to pursue my dream of telling stories.

To be honest, taking this leap of faith was terrifying. Not a day goes by that I don't question my decision — not because of the tense situation in the Middle East, but because leaving a stable job to report alone in a foreign country is overwhelming.

But as my dad taught me, I must put my mind to it. If I fail, at least I know I tried. I hope to shed light on the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as show the beautiful side of this country that doesn’t always make it on the news.

I hope you join me on this adventure by following along :) 

Jamie Zimmerman’s Life Lessons After Death

This story was first featured on Huffington Post in October 2015

I was pouring my heart out in the cafeteria of ABC News.

What am I going to do after this internship? What if I don’t find the right job? Do I have what it takes to achieve my dreams?

Sitting across from me was Jamie Zimmerman.

Jamie was a doctor and medical reporter at ABC. But that barely defines her. She was also an aspiring life coach, a meditation guru and a compassionate, caring friend to every person with whom she came into contact — from big-time ABC World News reporter Bob Woodruff to a young intern like me.

I witnessed Jamie singlehandedly change the tone of our newsroom during my seven-month internship at ABC. She was on her way to changing the world until she suddenly passed away on Oct. 12 when she slipped on some rocks on a mountain in Hawaii and was swept out to sea.

When I started at ABC, Jamie just so happened to start a meditation session with the medical unit, just three days a week. It soon became every day. By the end of my internship, people all across ABC — from veteran cameramen to reporters and anchors — fled to Jamie’s session to try to get a seat. She ended up holding a second daily session in another part of ABC’s building because it was so popular.

She lived by this quote: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose that response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

What many don’t know is Jamie’s father died before she was able to meet him. As a teen, she set out to find her dad but found out he was struggling with personal issues that led to his death.

She took that tragedy and used it as motivation to change the world. Jamie dedicated her life to teaching mindfulness and spreading positivity. She believed that if her dad would have found that space between feeling and responding, maybe his life would have turned out differently.

And boy, was she succeeding.

Jamie’s career was skyrocketing. She was writing a book, giving talks and presentations across the country — including a TED talk. She was a contributing writer for Huffington Post, Yoga Journal and Sonima and working on her own online show for ABC News called “Make Your Passion Your Paycheck.”

If there’s one thing she taught me, it’s that we’re all on earth for a reason. Life is about finding your purpose and making an impact — no matter what challenges you face along the way.

As successful as Jamie had become by the young age of 31, it wasn’t what she accomplished that we’re all left struck by. It was how she treated us all.

If we can take Jamie’s death the way she took her father’s, and try to be better people because of her, then maybe her premature death won’t go in vain. Maybe she’ll have accomplished exactly what she set out to do in the first place.

As I sat in that cafeteria, complaining to Jamie about the challenges I was facing in becoming a journalist, her crystal blue eyes remained focused on mine. She listened intently. She gave me advice I’ll never forget.

“You know exactly what you’re supposed to do,” she said. “Stop being scared, and go do it.”

No matter what you do, hard work "stands out"

Growing up, the only times I felt like a "standout" were when I was an 8-year-old tomboy on an all-boys hockey team, or the Lebanese "foreign" kid at an all-white high school.

I didn't necessarily feel cool in the eyes of others.

So when College Media Matters called me a "standout" yesterday, it felt, well, really cool!

College Media Matters, a site that partners with Associated Collegiate Press, wrote this story about my career so far and my advice to young journalists. In the Q & A, I lay out how I didn't attend a fancy journalism school but found a way to beat students at some of the best journalism schools in national competitions.

I've realized that if you find something you love, like I found journalism in college, and you really dedicate your time to it (yes, even weekends), pour your heart and soul into it, and endure the stressful, scary moments your passion can often bring, it pays off.

I think in life, that's how you stand out. By being yourself and doing what you love wholeheartedly.

PS: Shameless plug -- if you want to check out the other articles College Media Matters has featured me in during the past few years, here they are:

"Year in Review: Most Viral Student Media of 2012, Part 1"

"The Ultimate Student Journalists’ Guide to Avoiding & Surviving an ‘Internet Drubbing’"

"Student Newspaper Investigation Pierces Silence Surrounding Illegal Frats"