Steve Kerr spent two separate school years in Cairo. There were summers in Beirut and Tunisia, another year in France, and road trips around the Mediterranean in a Volkswagen van. Steve “wasn’t always thrilled,” he admitted, to leave his friends and the comfort of California behind. He hated missing sports camps and football and basketball games at UCLA, where the Kerrs had season tickets.
Looking back, however, his family’s long history in the Middle East, which began nearly 100 years ago, shaped him in ways he only now realizes.
“It’s an American story, something I’m very proud of, the work that my grandparents did,” Kerr said. “It seemed like a time when Americans were really helping around the world, and one of the reasons we were loved was the amount of help we provided, whether it was after World War I, like my grand- parents, or World War II. I’m kind of nostalgic for that kind of perception. We were the good guys. I felt it growing up, when I was living in Egypt, when I was overseas. Americans were revered in much of the Middle East, and it’s so sad what’s happened to us in the last few decades.
Kerr was in high school when his father was named president of AUB in 1982. It was Malcolm Kerr’s dream job. But the appointment came as Lebanon was embroiled in civil war. The PLO of Yasser Arafat, expelled from Syria, had its headquarters in Beirut. Iranian Shiites, supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had settled in Lebanon and given voice to the impoverished Shiite minority. The Christian population was dwindling and Lebanon was in the middle of a standoff between Israel and Syria.
“I bet there’s a 50% chance I’ll get fired real soon,” Malcolm Kerr told his daughter, Susan, in March 1982, she recalled in her memoir, “A Family’s Response to terrorism”.
He accepted the job the next morning. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Iranian countermeasure to send its Iranian Revolutionary Guards there via Syria began in June 1982, weeks before Malcolm Kerr began the new job. In the chaos, Iranian-backed militants were organizing and would eventually become Hezbollah.
Malcolm Kerr was kept in New York until things were sorted out, but AUB acting president David Dodge was kidnapped in July and the AUB needed leadership. Malcolm Kerr arrived in August, expressing hope that the destruction and death that was approaching the campus could be kept outside its walls. (Dodge, who was freed by his captors after a year, died in 2009.)