Jobs, school and programs cut short

Fleeing violence

July 20, 2006|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

The rocket sounded like a distant firecracker, but the explosion was deep enough to make Miriam Malnik shake.

Startled, she looked outside her dormitory window and saw ash and debris choking the air. The adjacent town was in flames. Later, another rocket screeched overhead.

"I just started shaking," said Malnik, a Clarksville resident who had spent the summer studying Judaica at a seminary in Safed. "I told myself, `Stop shaking, stay in control.'"

That was last Thursday, when the Islamic militant group Hezbollah launched a barrage of short-range rockets into northern Israel, including Safed, a town Malnik describes as typically serene.

For the next three days, she would endure a harrowing journey trying to escape the seemingly random eruptions of violence around her. Malnik, 20, traveled to Jerusalem and flew home to Clarksville on Monday, to the delight of her frantic parents.

The deadly fighting in Lebanon and Israel has forced thousands of Americans like Malnik to suddenly flee jobs, schools and summer vacations, including an estimated 800 who are being evacuated from Lebanon and are expected to arrive over the next few days from Cyprus at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Local Jewish organizations have cut short their summer in Israel programs for American teens, shuttling participants on the first available flights home. And study-abroad programs in Beirut operated by American universities have been shut down, their students forced to make a frenzied escape, while fretful parents wait for word of their safety.

Area groups have also announced their support for victims of the attacks. In Baltimore, local Jewish leaders will hold a rally to support Israel on Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Holocaust Memorial on Gay Street. The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc. announced yesterday that it would donate $5 million for humanitarian aid to Israeli victims.

Meanwhile, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that assistance to those arriving from Lebanon would include cash, overnight housing, health care and transportation.

"Some of these folks have had a very quick disruption to their lives," Ehrlich said. "They're coming here with next to nothing. They need help."

The first of six State Department chartered flights is expected to land this morning. The rest will arrive by Saturday.

Kimberley Farha of Hunt Valley has been waiting to hear whether her son will be evacuated by then. Ryan Farha, a junior at Vanderbilt University, had been in Beirut for only three weeks of what was supposed to be a yearlong program, before Israeli retaliation attacks began. His mother called him frantically, but the phone lines were down.

"I'm watching all this on TV, and I can't get through to Ryan and I was crazy," said Kimberley Farha.

She never wanted her 20-year- old son to accept the study-abroad program in Lebanon. But he was eager to master Arabic and experience a part of his culture while attending the American University in Beirut, the institution from which his father, Maen, earned his medical degree.

By last Wednesday, the Farhas had gotten hold of their son as well as Maen Farha's aunts, uncles and cousins who live throughout the country. Everyone was unharmed. Ryan Farha pleaded with his mother to stop watching the news, but she couldn't.

On Monday, Ryan Farha boarded a French ship to Cyprus and is expected to catch a flight to the United States this week, his mother said.

"All he said was, `I'm just happy I'm somewhere where there aren't any bombs going off,'" she said.

Jan Schien, of Pikesville, felt a similar pang of fear. Her 17-year-old twin daughters, Chelsea and Johanna, had spent the summer with a volunteer program in Israel operated by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

The group volunteered in a day camp for children in Ashkelon, on Israel's southern coast near Gaza, the day this month when Palestinian militants fired a rocket from Gaza striking the heart of the city.

Schien was thankful the girls called home right away. Everyone was OK, and the twins sounded calm, she said.

"Hearing from them by phone was the most reassuring," she said. And she believed the group was in the good hands of its chaperones. Even so, when the program organizers announced that the teenagers would return a week early, Schien breathed a long sigh of relief.

The teenagers returned home yesterday, although they were reluctant to leave their new Israeli friends.

The ripples of crisis are felt strongest perhaps by local Jewish and Lebanese communities whose loved ones are left behind.

Elias Shaya, head of psychiatry at Good Samaritan Hospital, came to the United States from Lebanon in 1985, but his aging parents reside in Beirut.

He has spoken to them on the phone, although service has been sporadic. Shaya is most concerned about their health. His father had open heart surgery several months ago and needs medication to control high blood pressure. His mother has diabetes.

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