“I Am Alive” app could help relieve worry about loved ones’ safety

Sandra Whitehead and her daughter, Aisha, pose for this photo taken in Lebanon in 2012. Aisha was a student at the university where her mother teaches and graduated from there in 2013. (Photo from Sandra Whitehead's Facebook page.)

Sandra Whitehead and her daughter, Aisha, pose for this photo taken in Lebanon in 2012. Aisha was a student at the university where her mother teaches and she graduated from there in 2013. (Photo from Sandra Whitehead’s Facebook page.)

Whenever I hear ominous news about another bombing in Beirut, I immediately think about the safety of my friend, Sandra Whitehead, who lives in Lebanon.

She is among my close circle of friends and for the past four years she has been the chairwoman of the Languages & Humanities Department at Rafik Hariri University in Mechref, Lebanon, just outside of Beirut.

So when I learned of an app that allows users to tweet out the message: “I am still alive! #Lebanon #LatestBombing,” I had to ask if she would consider using it.

To my relief, she said: “The app looks like it would be good.”

Sandra Hassan, a Lebanese graduate student living in Paris, developed the “I Am Alive” app. She told National Public Radio earlier this month that she initially intended it to be a joke, but it turned more serious and practical because of recent bombings.

“The idea behind the app was something that I had been thinking about for a while,” Hassan told Rachel Martin of NPR. “But when I heard the news about the last explosion that happened in Lebanon, I was very frustrated. And my way to express that frustration was to publish this app in the version that it’s in now, especially with the predefined hashtags as kind of a statement against what was happening, a statement of discontent, if you will.”

Sandra Whitehead and Karen Lincoln Michel speak via Skype on Feb. 9.

Sandra Whitehead and Karen Lincoln Michel speak via Skype on Feb. 9.

My friendship with Whitehead goes back to the late-1980s, when we were both graduate students in journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. In her polite and collected manner, she recently downplayed the threat of violence in her current location by saying the campus where she lives and works is outside of the danger zone.

She said the violence usually occurs in certain areas of Beirut where she would not travel when the political situation is tense. She compared it to Chicago, where certain neighborhoods are known for high crime.

“You just don’t go there,” she told me via Skype about a week ago.

A recent story in The Huffington Post about the “I Am Alive” app described the situation this way:

“So far this year, five bombings have targeted neighborhoods in Beirut and the town of Hermel in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. The attacks are widely seen as part of the struggle between Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite party that supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Sunni groups hoping to raise the cost of Hezbollah’s involvement in the war.”

The danger is real. Whitehead said the risk is usually “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” rather than being a target. However, in early September, Whitehead and other Americans were advised to leave Lebanon because President Barack Obama’s administration was talking about possible military intervention in Syria and that might result in threats of violence against Americans. She flew back to the U.S. to be with her husband and family members, but I missed her on that visit. She returned after a couple of weeks to Rafik Hariri University, where she teaches communications courses in addition to chairing her department.

Whitehead said she would need to get 3G service to use the app, although she would be able to tweet out the message via Internet access. Still, I hope she is able to download the app. But more important than that, I hope she will never have to use it.

Friends gather at the home of Sandra Whitehead and Aziz Aleiou in Brookfield, Wis., in April 2011. Pictured here from left: Maria Kirylo, Aziz Aleiou, Sandra Whitehead, Ken Reibel, Priya Barnes and Roberto Michel. These friends and others from our graduating class try to get together as often as possible, but it's difficult when some of us live far away from Wisconsin.

Friends gather at the home of Sandra Whitehead and Aziz Aleiou in Brookfield, Wis., in April 2011. Pictured here from left: Maria Kirylo, Aziz Aleiou, Sandra Whitehead, Ken Reibel, Priya Barnes and Roberto Michel. These friends and others from our graduating class try to get together as often as possible, but it’s difficult when some of us live far away from Wisconsin.

Follow me on Twitter @karenmichel.

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