Mideast conflict: study abroad students weather attacks

Heather Bentrum and Rachel Weismann are both undergraduates with a similar interest: studying the Middle East. This summer, one chose to go to Lebanon and the other Israel.

The two students return to Foggy Bottom this week with similar stories about their time abroad: bracing for rocket and bomb strikes exchanged between Hezbollah and Israel and hoping to make it back to the United States alive.

Bentrum and Weismann were two of more than a dozen GW students studying or working in the two war-torn countries when the border conflict broke out in mid-summer. Although no one from the University was injured, according to GW, many students interviewed over the past two months vividly recall the death and destruction they witnessed firsthand.

“What I experienced was an unexplainable life-changing event,” Weismann, a sophomore studying at University of Haifa in northern Israel, wrote in an e-mail earlier this week. “To articulate my emotions and how bad it all actually was would be impossible.

“I remember the first night the missiles began. I remember looking out over Haifa, and watching it get destroyed. The bombs fell extremely close to the campus. It was like watching a movie. I almost didn’t believe it had happened.”

Bentrum, a senior studying at the American University of Beirut until she evacuated the country, said she could hear Israel’s air strikes in Lebanon’s capital from her dormitory.

When the United States and European countries evacuated their citizens from Lebanon in July, Bentrum and fellow Elliott School senior Brennan Berry left the country on a Norwegian cargo ship headed to Cyprus.

“I did not plan to leave Beirut . I wanted to stay (and) continue my studies and volunteer to help the refugees,” Bentrum said. “I only decided to leave for my family’s sake; they thought that if I missed the one window of opportunity to leave I might not have that chance again, and I would be in Lebanon indefinitely.”

Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers July 12 and kidnapped two in a raid within Israel’s borders. Israel launched air attacks in southern Lebanon and escalated its response by bombing Beirut’s airport and blockading the capital’s port July 13. Hezbollah forces responded by launching katyusha rockets into northern Israel. Fighting continued until the United Nations imposed a cease-fire August 14 – after about a total of 900 lives were taken in the conflict, according to the Associated Press.

Tracy Schario, director of Media Relations, said the University had contacted at least seven students who were enrolled in study abroad programs in Beirut. There were also at least five GW students in Israeli academic programs and six students who were on an archaeological dig with professor Eric Cline in the country.

According to GW’s Office of Institutional Research, there were 18 Lebanese undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at GW during the 2005-2006 school year; there were also 10 students from Israel. Schario said that the University hasn’t received any reports of its international students in the region being among the casualties.

Chris Bowman, a first-year graduate student also studying in Beirut, didn’t wait for the U.S. government’s help in leaving Lebanon.

“My parents were a wreck and really wanted me to get out, and since the situation was escalating pretty fast it was pretty unpredictable,” Bowman wrote in an e-mail in July. “I think everyone was caught by surprise with the speed of escalation, and the embassy had no plan to speak of (earlier on).”

Bowman left Lebanon July 14 with the help of a Syrian-American friend from American University Law School. They paid $100 for a taxi to get to the north of the country and another $20 to cross the border into Syria.

Anne Gilberg, a senior who studied at Tel Aviv University for six weeks over the summer, said that despite warnings of possible Hezbollah rocket attacks in Israel’s second-largest city, business went on as usual.

“I can honestly say that I was never concerned for my own safety,” Gilberg wrote in an e-mail earlier this week. “I was struck by Israeli’s attitudes toward the situation; for them, life continues as usual and I adopted this mentality.”

Gilberg, like many other GW students throughout Israel in Lebanon over the summer, kept in touch with friends and family through e-mail and Facebook.

“While I appreciated all of this consideration, the constant messages of ‘are you alive over there?’ got old very quickly,” she said. “It’s very easy to get carried away from the United States watching the news, reading the papers and following the situation from minute to minute on news sites like CNN.com.”

Senior Amy Rothberger’s program in Haifa was moved to Jerusalem due to the fighting.

“I am apprehensive of the lasting power of this cease-fire, personally, but I also am glad that it happened – anything to stop the violence and cease the killing of people, no matter to which religion or nationality they subscribe,” Rothberger wrote in an e-mail earlier this week. “Regardless of which side of the border you were on, the amount of violence, destruction and fatalities is staggering and sad.”

Bowman, who fled Beirut to continue his summer abroad in Cairo, Egypt, had mixed feelings, saying that both Lebanon and Israel were to blame.

“I think that both sides need to realize that after almost 60 years of Israel’s existence, the continued fighting really accomplishes nothing.”

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