Campus News

A Maine Yankee in the Middle East

Story posted March 16, 2000

Richard Robarts speaks softly and modestly about his work in political hotspots of the past and presentóplaces like Lebanon and Iran. His personal manner is an appropriate reflection of the organization for which he serves as executive director, Near East Foundation.

It is, according to Robarts, one of a group of organizations that "quietly go about their work helping people." The mission of the Foundation is to work through local institutions to help disadvantaged people in the Middle East and Africa build better lives for themselves and their communities.

Robarts graduated from Bowdoin in 1955 and helped people with the Ford Foundation before moving to the Near East Foundation. At a recent business breakfast, he shared his thoughts on his work and a few opinions about the Middle East.

"It struck me that
people who spend a lot of time overseas often have more than a sentimental attachment to the first culture they encounter
it always serves as a reference," Robarts said.

His first experience was in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Lebanon, and you can hear Robartsís affection for the country in his voice when he speaks about it. At the time the government was stable and the economy strong and Beirut was the home to world class universities and a rich cultural life. Eventually the country was ripped apart by a drawn out civil war, but when Robarts was there, Lebanon provided a wonderful home, and an education that would serve him throughout his career.

It was his first introduction to the role of minorities and the influence of foreign and external powers in a developing country. He also encountered the plight of the Palestinians, which was similar to the plight of the Jews before the creation of Israel.

"In Lebanon I first experienced the phenomenon of people with passports and a national identity, but without a state. The Palestinians Robarts encountered were mostly wealthy Christians who purchased Lebanese citizenship after 1948. (Only Jordan offered citizenship without a price).

The struggle of the Palestinian people to have a state and the price of oil are among the most important issues to Americans who follow the Middle East. The Palestinians are one of the only remaining groups in the area seeking a state whom are likely to get one, he said.

Since he left Lebanon, Robarts has seen the country ravaged by war. He has also seen corruption and oppression in other countries in the region, but he continues to monitor advances toward democracy and work to help people in the Middle East and Africa achieve better lives.

The Middle East is filled with ironies. There is more room for political freedom in the Monarchies or Jordan and Morocco than in the Republics of Tunisia and Egypt, Robarts said. And two decades after the fall of the Shah, the free-est elections in the region, outside of Israel, have been in Iran.

"In the long run of history," Robarts said, "the feeling is that the reformers in Iran will prevail, but the struggle has just begun."

Much of the hope for the future of the Middle East lies with the younger generations, he said (for example, in Libya, 60 percent of the population is under the age of 20) and as technology increases knowledge of other nations, the youth are likely to push for change.

"Itís difficult to spend any time in the Middle East and still remain optimistic," Robarts said. "But it would not be in the Yankee tradition to have no room for hope."

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