Students caught up in Hezbollah conflict

Like many of his fellow Yalies, Moshe Sarfaty ’08 planned to spend the summer working in finance. For the first part of his summer at home in Tel Aviv, he filled his days (and many of his nights) working for a local hedge fund.

But in mid-July, Sarfaty’s plans suddenly had to change. The Islamic militant group Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and began shooting missiles into northern Israel from Lebanon; Israel quickly gathered its forces and responded with missiles of its own. Within a week, Sarfaty, an Israeli citizen who served in his country’s army before coming to Yale, found himself on a train to the Lebanese border. The Israeli army had called up its reserves, and for Sarfaty, the rest of the summer would be spent not in finance, but at war.

Sarfaty was just one of many students caught on either side of the war between Israel and Hezbollah this summer. Approximately 20 students spent their summers in Israel, while seven Yalies lived and studied in Beirut. At the beginning of the summer, conflict in the Middle East was something the students had studied and debated but rarely experienced. But come July, their first-hand experiences of the violence extended far beyond the classroom.

Escalation

Like Sarfaty, Rachel Bayefsky-Anand ’09 and Stuart Prenner ’07 were in Israel when the war began. Bayefsky-Anand, an American who has spent many of her summers in Israel, had just begun studying Arabic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at the outset of the fighting. Prenner, a pre-med student, had been in Tel Aviv for two weeks volunteering as an ambulance worker for Magen David Odom, an Israeli affiliate of the Red Cross.

On the other side of the border, Diana Schawlowski ’08 and Valeria Lopez Fadul ’08 were two weeks into their advanced Arabic course at the American University of Beirut when the bombs started dropping. Eyad Houssami ’07, who had been in Beirut researching a Lebanese theater duo since mid-June, was living with his aunt in a suburb of the city.

The students who studied in Beirut said they remembered the pre-war city as a vibrant and beautiful Mediterranean capital characterized by lively street life, excellent food, and welcoming people. Schawlowski said she spent a month before her Arabic program working for a Beirut-based non-governmental organization and made many Lebanese friends who showed her around the city.

“It was amazing, just in terms of nightlife,” Schawlowski said. “The downtown was completely new, which probably doesn’t stand anymore.”

Houssami said that when he heard about the potential conflict with Israel, he was not initially worried. Because of the frequent “small skirmishes” that have occurred in the South, he said, no one thought it would escalate so dramatically.

But a few days later, Houssami said, he recognized the gravity of the situation when he was taking a walk in Hamra, a historic district of Beirut. Turning down one street, Houssami saw that every car had come to a halt and parked on the sidewalk. Virtually the entire city was motionless, listening to Hassan Nasrallah give a speech on the radio.

“The city had stopped,” Houssami said. “Everyone in the world was listening to the speech because they were terrified for their lives and for their families.”

Conflict

Back in Israel, the beginning of the war meant a deviation from life as usual for Yale students. As an Israeli soldier, Sarfaty’s experience of the beginning of the war was more immediate than most. After he was called up by his reserve officer, Sarfaty was sent to a training camp in northern Israel for six days of combat practice. When training ended, he was sent into Lebanon as part of a “clean-up” crew that went from village to village in the wake of the Israeli airforce and tanks. Because Hezbollah soldiers were often scattered in groups of two or three among Lebanese civilians, fighting was complicated, Sarfaty said.

“We had to do the job of fighting one to one,” he said. “We tried all the time to not hurt the civilians.”

Israeli ambulance dispatch stations moved into underground bunkers for the duration of the war, Prenner said, and ambulances were equipped with shrapnel-proof vests and helmets. Upon returning to her university one day, Bayefsky-Anand said, she was met with the sight of rows of people carrying suitcases. They were students from Haifa University who had been evacuated to Jerusalem.

“A third of Israel’s population was in shelters,” Bayefsky-Anand said. “All across Israel, people were taking in guests even if they didn’t know them.

While most students in Israel were not directly confronted by the fighting, students in Beirut suddenly found themselves to be civilians in a city under attack. While Houssami said he was not often concerned for his personal safety, the overall atmosphere in Beirut was decidedly unsettling.

“Every single bomb rattled the entire city,” Houssami said. “No one really knew what was going to happen.”

Within days of the beginning of the war, most of the students in Beirut began to look for ways to leave Lebanon. Schawlowski and Lopez Fadul, who had been living together in an apartment near the American University campus, said the scarcity of available information at the beginning of the war made it difficult to know what steps to take.

“You don’t want to over-react,” Schawlowski said. “You don’t want to be too naive and stay there. You kind of have to rely on other people that know better, and it’s a weird feeling not to have that power.”

Eventually, Schawlowski and Lopez Fadul decided their first step would be to move into on-campus housing. The American University’s water and electricity systems were self-contained, they said, so if the systems in the rest of the city were bombed, they would still have access to basic services. But after an Israeli flier bomb malfunctioned and smashed to the ground on campus, creating a small crater in front of the boys’ dorm, the pair realized they needed to find a safer situation.

“That was when we said, ‘We’re out of here’,” Schawlowski said.

Evacuation

Shortly after making their definitive decision, Schawlowski and Lopez Fadul began receiving e-mails and phone calls from Yale administrators trying to help students in Beirut get out of the country. Houssami, who had also decided to leave Beirut, said he was contacted by Yale “nonstop” once the war started.

“I was very impressed with how committed they were to contacting their students,” Houssami said. “I felt very secure.”

Within days, Schawlowski, Lopez Fadul, Houssami and two other Yale students — Sam Heller ’08 and Ranin Kazemi GRD ’11 — were placed in a luxury hotel north of Beirut. After a few days of sharing a suite in the hotel, the students, who hold various citizenships, were evacuated by the Romanian, Italian and American embassies.

Assistant Secretary of International Affairs George Joseph, the students’ main contact during the evacuation, said Yale used Medex, a private service used by many universities to remove students and faculty from harmful situations, to evacuate the students in Beirut this summer. While Medex is automatically available to all Yale students and faculty traveling around the world, it had mainly been used for medical evacuations before this summer, Joseph said. He added that this summer was among the first times Medex has been used because of a political situation.

Because fighting in Israel was limited to the North, most Yale students in the country decided to stay out their planned trips. Prenner said that of the approximately 150 American and Canadian volunteers in his program, only five or six left Israel. Though he experienced slight pressure from his parents to return home, Prenner said, he was glad he remained in the country.

“The war made me feel like what I was doing was more important,” he said. “Americans being in Israel during a time like that sends a message that we support what Israel’s doing.”

After the cease fire, Sarfaty was released from duty and returned home to Tel Aviv and eventually to Yale. While Sarfaty is happy to be back at school, he said returning to an environment so different from the one he lived in this summer has made him feel somewhat disoriented. Though many of his friends from Yale frequently sent concerned e-mails over the summer, Sarfaty said it can be difficult to explain his experience to those who did not witness the conflict first-hand.

“People here really cared, but I don’t think I can explain in words what’s going on there,” Sarfaty said. “Even if I tell them, I don’t know if they’ll understand because there’s such a huge difference between what’s going on at Yale and what’s going on in Israel.”

Schawlowski and Lopez Fadul said their experience in Beirut was similarly “life-changing”, not because they felt that they were in extreme danger, but because they witnessed violence done to others.

“We both study liberal arts and humanities like literature and history, and you think that those things can change the world,” Lopez Fadul said. “But when these conflicts start, in the beginning it’s like, ‘are words worth anything?’”

Looking ahead

Although this summer has shown that Yale students traveling in the Middle East can sometimes end up in dangerous situations, Joseph said Yale has several programs in place to make sure that students studying in all parts of the world are safe. Yale’s “first line of action,” Joseph said, is a database of student locations and emergency contact information that all Yalies traveling abroad are encouraged to update. In addition, Joseph said University officials do their best to understand the political situations in all countries to which Yale students travel.

“We do very strongly try to assess the safety issues before students go abroad,” he said. “There is a list of countries to which travel is currently restricted on Yale funds. There is a list of countries that are being closely monitored.”

Despite the risks they faced, almost all of the students who studied in Israel and Lebanon this summer said they strongly support allowing Yale students to study in the Middle East. Bayefsky-Anand, who remained in Israel for the duration of the war, said she thinks Yale should continue to allow students to travel to Israel and surrounding countries.

“Yale should make decisions based on what’s happening on the ground,” she said. “I don’t think Yale should be wary about students studying there.”

Still, Houssami said, war-torn cities do not necessarily offer the sort of education students are seeking when they travel abroad.

“Cities die during wars,” he said. “Cities freeze, and that’s not really conducive to learning.”

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