TED Talk Tuesday- May El-Khalil: Making peace is a marathon

I love it when people come together for peace, hope, and change; it just brings tears to my eyes. In this time of turmoil and darkness, it is wonderful to find a ray of light. In 2003, May El-Khalil and her husband founded the Beirut Marathon, which has become the largest event of its kind in the Middle East.

After suffering a horrific accident that kept her in hospital for two years, May El-Khalil drew inspiration from her pain deciding that if she couldn’t run than at least she could create the opportunity for others to do so. Enjoy this inspiring and uplifting talk that drives us all to dare greatly.

I used to be a marathon runner. Long distance running was not only good for my well-being but it helped me meditate and dream big. So the longer distances I ran, the bigger my dreams became, until one fateful morning, and while training, I was hit by a bus. I nearly died, was in a coma, stayed at the hospital for two years, and underwent 36 surgeries to be able to walk again.”

Organizing a marathon as a reaction to an accident may sound strange, but at that time, even during my most vulnerable condition, I needed to dream big. I needed something to take me out of my pain, an objective to look forward to. I didn’t want to pity myself, nor to be pitied, and I thought by organizing such a marathon, I’ll be able to pay back to my community, build bridges with the outside world, and invite runners to come to Lebanon and run under the umbrella of peace.

For almost two years, we went all over the country and even visited remote villages. I personally met with people from all walks of life — mayors, NGOs, schoolchildren, politicians, militiamen, people from mosques, churches, the president of the country, even housewives. I learned one thing: When you walk the talk, people believe you. Many were touched by my personal story, and they shared their stories in return. It was honesty and transparency that brought us together. We spoke one common language to each other, and that was from one human to another. Once that trust was built, everybody wanted to be part of the marathon to show the world the true colors of Lebanon and the Lebanese and their desire to live in peace and harmony.

In October 2003, over 6,000 runners from 49 different nationalities came to the start line, all determined, and when the gunfire went off, this time it was a signal to run in harmony for a change.

“The marathon grew. So did our political problems. But for every disaster we had, the marathon found ways to bring people together. In 2005, our prime minister was assassinated, and the country came to a complete standstill, so we organized a five-kilometer United We Run campaign. Over 60,000 people came to the start line, all wearing white t-shirts with no political slogans. That was a turning point for the marathon, where people started looking at it as a platform for peace and unity.”

“Between 2006 up to 2009, our country, Lebanon, went through unstable years, invasions, and more assassinations that brought us close to a civil war. The country was divided again, so much that our parliament resigned, we had no president for a year, and no prime minister. But we did have a marathon.”

So through the marathon, we learned that political problems can be overcome. When the opposition party decided to shut down part of the city center, we negotiated alternative routes. Government protesters became sideline cheerleaders. They even hosted juice stations.

BMA has become such a respected event in the region that government officials in the region like Iraq, Egypt and Syria, have asked the organization to help them structure a similar sporting event. We are now one of the largest running events in the Middle East, but most importantly, it is a platform for hope and cooperation in an ever-fragile and unstable part of the world. From Boston to Beirut, we stand as one.”

After 10 years in Lebanon, from national marathons or from national events to smaller regional races, we’ve seen that people want to run for a better future. After all, peacemaking is not a sprint. It is more of a marathon.

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