Thursday, April 26, 2007

One life can touch so many

One life can touch so many
By Dennis Campbell
Published in the Daily Star

First person by Dennis Campbell

The tragedy at Virginia Tech last week demonstrated, among other things, a diversity of nationality and ethnicity that defines the modern American university. Among the fatalities were citizens of several foreign countries: Canada, Peru, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel/Romania and Puerto Rico. The killer was from Korea. Of the Americans, one was a Chinese immigrant and another lived in Germany for several years and had a German wife. Two had strong ties to Lebanon. One of these, Reema Samaha, was my neighbor.

So it was that I decided to extend my weekend and attend her funeral service today. I didn't know Reema, but I have learned a lot about her over the past few days. She was the youngest of the Virginia Tech victims, two months shy of her nineteenth birthday, finishing her freshman year. Her passion was dance of all kinds, and she was actively performing in both high school and college. Ironically, she was stranded in a war zone in Beirut last summer while visiting relatives, and was among those evacuated by the American military. She spoke Arabic and was conversant in French, which her mother teaches at a local high school. That explains her being in an intermediate French class last week when the killer burst in, shot the teacher point-blank, and proceeded to mow down Reema and 10 of her classmates, the highest death toll of any classroom. Five students survived.

There were hundreds of people at the service this morning. One life can touch so many. I got to the church early and managed to get a seat in the back, but lots of people were left standing. There was a large overflow outside, along with many police and news cameramen. Luminaries were present. I recognized Virginia's ex-governor, Mark Warner, sitting behind me, and I later conversed with a correspondent for an Arabic-language newspaper whom I have seen on television. The religion of the church is Christian Melchite. They practice the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church. They pay some fealty to Rome, but it mostly leaves them alone. The church has been described as something of a bridge between the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity, but is much smaller than either. A majority of the members of this particular congregation have Middle Eastern backgrounds. I have never before met so many Arabic-speaking people. Many congregants are from Lebanon, but Syria, Egypt, Armenia and perhaps others are also represented. At the funeral today, of course, there were many non-congregants, including Arab Muslims. The older priest who performed the funeral ceremony also baptized Reema and married her parents. The Samaha family is very active in this church.

I rode one of the buses that were provided to the cemetery. I hesitated about going because of the size of the crowd, but I am glad I decided to go because the weather was beautiful and I ended up with a good vantage point. There were nice gestures along the route: American flags at half staff, Virginia Tech colors and shirts. At the gravesite another religious ceremony was performed, followed by a walk-by of the casket by all present. Many of the women placed a flower on the casket and kissed it. Reema's immediate family members were the first to leave. Back at the church we were served a "mercy meal," excellent Middle Eastern fare. Then we watched a slideshow of photographs depicting the life of Reema, from her birth to young adulthood, put together by extended family members. It was accompanied by music, songs mostly in English but some in Arabic. Very touching - there was not a dry eye in the place.

Joe Samaha is Reema's father. He is a Lebanese American who studied at the American University in Beirut. That is where he met Mona, Reema's mother, a native of Lebanon whose accented English reflects that. They had three children, two girls and a boy, with Reema being the youngest. Reema was very pretty, as is her mother. In fact, all members of the family, male and female, are strikingly good-looking. Joe has been thrust into the media limelight, but has handled himself very well. Sunday's Washington Post featured an article about the family on the front page, and I saw Joe interviewed this past week on CNN and NBC. Both Wolf Blitzer and Brian Williams were struck by how articulate and composed he was. That was also true today. He told us that "Reema" means "fawn" in Arabic, and "Samaha" means forgiveness. He asked for sympathy for and remembrance of the families of the other victims, and the Cho family, whom he noted had also lost a son. Other family members also spoke about Reema: her cousins, an uncle, her brother and sister. Her godparents described the Samahas as deeply devoted to their children. Even if Reema had only a short life, she was very much loved, something not true of every child. All in all, it was a class act. I introduced myself to Joe as his neighbor, and he welcomed me. I told him I admired his strength of character.

I trust I will never have to bear a burden as heavy as that of this family, but if I do I hope I can find the strength to conduct myself with the grace and dignity it has demonstrated these past few days. Tomorrow I go back to work. In a few days the emotions of the past week will begin to fade. For the Samaha family, the loss will be felt for the rest of their lives.

Dennis Campbell is a financial advisor based in Fairfax, Virginia. His e-mail is

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