Monday, July 19, 2004

HIV awareness takes tentative public step

From the Daily Star 

BEIRUT: Saad Solloum sat with his guitars on the St. Nicholas stairs in Gemmayzeh and rapped in Arabic about daily life in Beirut, love and Lebanon's dreams. It was not the first time that the 27-year-old musician played on the streets - he did so last time at the Fete de la Musique last month. Yet this Sunday he played for a good cause.

InConcert, the organizers of the Fete de la Musique, and Helem (dream), a group concerned with the rights of homosexuals, had organized music events under the theme "Music versus AIDS - Silence is Death" in four locations Sunday evening to raise awareness about the deadly disease and HIV - the virus that spreads it.

Simultaneously in front of the American University of Beirut's main gate, on the Place de l'Etoile in downtown, at the Lebanese American University's lower gate and on the St. Nicholas stairs, musicians were luring passersby, while Helem's volunteers handed out flyers informing about HIV in Lebanon.

Officially, 756 people are reported to be HIV positive in Lebanon. However, this figure is far from correct. NGOs concerned with the issue estimate the number at 3,000, said a Helem volunteer at the St. Nicholas stairs. The 27-year-old volunteer did not want to give his name because he works as a teacher and said he would lose his job if it were known that he worked for such an organization.

It was the first time such an event was organized by Helem - an acronym for Hemaya Lubnaneeya lil-Mithliyeen (Lebanese Protection for Homosexuals). "We want to raise awareness and maybe get some funds for other bigger projects," the volunteer said. "It is also to make Helem more visible."

The group regularly shows films at Zico House in Sanayeh related to its aim and will soon open a center with a library and offer counseling sessions for homosexuals and HIV-positive people. So far, they went public with a stand on Saturday's organic food market on Sofil's parking lot, where they sell lemonade, which they call LemonAIDS. They also work with male street prostitutes in Beirut, informing them about the dangers of AIDS. "The problem is that other organizations working on AIDS such as the (Catholic charity) Caritas don't know anything about homosexuality, so they have a problem dealing with one of their main clientele," explained the Helem volunteer.

He himself was not so sure about his mission, here on this Sunday. "You know my parents are conservative, they would kill me," he said. Thus, he probably wasn't too disappointed that the stairs were deserted.