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WEB UPDATE: Students studying in Lebanon flee

Posted Tuesday, July 25, 9:15 p.m.

Heather Bentrum traveled about 7,500 miles to get a break from her California hometown and D.C. the summer before her senior year at the Elliott School.

With a concentration in Middle East studies, a penchant for traveling and some Arabic classes under her belt, she enrolled in a program at the American University of Beirut in mid-June. Only a few weeks into her stay in Lebanon’s capital – which was once nicknamed the “Paris of the Middle East” – Bentrum found herself minutes away from a war zone.

“Israel bombed the airport and I heard it all from my room. The airport is very close to AUB,” Bentrum said in an e-mail interview earlier this week. “This was the first moment that I realized it would only get worse.”

On July 12, Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two, according to CNN. Israel destroyed targets in Southern Lebanon and escalated its response by bombing Beirut’s airport and blockading the capital’s port July 13. The two have continued to trade fire over the past two weeks.

Speaking of the escalating violence, Bentrum wrote: “I did not sleep due to the bombs shaking the building and windows and, of course, the loud sound . and when I stepped outside, the air was thick with smoke.”

Bentrum is one of more than a half dozen GW students who had been studying in the region before the conflict broke out in mid-July.

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

Since none of the study abroad programs are affiliated with GW, the University only has limited details on the students’ statuses.

“We continue to monitor the situation as it evolves,” Schario wrote in an e-mail last week. “If there were a GW program in Beirut, the response would be similar. However, there would be more information available through registration records and faculty/staff involved in the program.”

Rising senior Brennan Berry studied at AUB for the spring semester and planned on staying in Beirut through the summer to intern at a consulting firm. When the airport a few miles away from his residence was bombed, he knew his time in Lebanon was up.

“I have never been in a situation where I have been a part of the news or in a place that people are watching so avidly,” Berry wrote in an e-mail last week. “I think we had a unique perspective because we would hear from our family and friends in the States and heard how worried they were.”

Maintaining communication with GW friends through e-mail and Facebook, Berry kept his peers informed of his evacuation plan. He said he was disappointed by how “passive” the American military response was.

Many critics have attacked the administration’s sluggishness in evacuating Americans as well as for billing the evacuees for the rescue operation.

Between a 13-hour ride on a Norwegian cargo ship and multiple flights, Berry said his journey from Beirut to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, took about 36 hours — a trip he said should have taken three and a half hours.

Chris Bowman, a first-year graduate student in the Elliott School, opted not to 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 earlier this week. “I think everyone was caught by surprise with the speed of escalation, and the embassy had no plan to speak of.”

Bowman left Lebanon on 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.

“I heard that Kuwaitis were being charged around $500 to get to Damascus, so I guess it wasn’t that bad,” he said about other evacuees going to Syria’s capital. After meeting up with his friend’s family in Syria, Bowman left for Cairo, Egypt, where he currently is staying.

The three students interviewed said they were distraught by the situation in the country they had grown to love studying in.

Bentrum, who fled to Cyprus and now is traveling through Europe, reminisced, “Beirut went from a buzzing city with things to do at all hours, to a ghost town of closed shops and a vacant

CNN reported Monday that, according to military sources on both sides, nearly 400 Lebanese have died and more than 700 suffered injuries; while about 40 Israelis have died, and more than 350 were injured.

According to GW’s Office of Institutional Research, there were 18 Lebanese undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at GW last year and 10 students from Israel.

Schario, a GW spokesperson, said that as of Monday the University has not received any reports of its international students in the region being among the casualties.

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