Stuck in Baltimore, students can only worry about home


Suha Ballout is haunted by the images she sees on television and the ones her family can only describe from thousands of miles away: accounts of bombing victims in Lebanon lying amid rubble.

And by the voices of her loved ones over the phone, describing the deafening roar of Israeli warplanes dropping bombs in Beirut's southern suburbs, forcing thousands to flee their homes.

If only she were there, Ballout says, she would be working in a hospital, saving lives of her countrymen caught in the fighting between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah. And more important to her, she would be close to her extended family.

But Ballout and four other nursing students from the American University in Beirut are stuck in Baltimore.

The group began a seven-week clinical residency program for master's degree students with the Johns Hopkins University's School of Nursing - the first to do so - in early June, but because of the war that broke out near the end of the program, they have been unable to return to their homes.

"As nurses, we feel helpless here," says Ballout, 26. "When you see a picture and you see children getting bombed and women getting killed in a barbaric way, it's very sad."

Hopkins has rented the students an apartment near campus and is allowing them to take courses toward their degrees and participate in rotations at Hopkins Hospital. They have also helped them extend their visas.

"Despite the tragic situation, each of these dedicated nurses now can turn this time of waiting into a highly productive experience," says Martha N. Hill, the nursing school's dean. "We're ready to help them receive the maximum educational benefit and to support them during this crisis."

But the fright and the anxiety about the future looms. America is an unfamiliar country - this is the first time any of the students have visited. They cannot have jobs here. And they miss living with their parents, which is customary in Lebanon. They wonder when they will be able to return. And what will be left.

While they have attended seminars and worked on research projects, they spend most of their days and nights in futile attempts to reach family members by phone and instant message - forms of communication that have grown increasingly difficult as the war rages on. The bombings have not reached their neighborhoods, sparing family members any injury.

"It's very hard to concentrate," says Rida Gharzeddine, 28. The families "can hear the bombs everywhere. But it's not in our areas yet."

Sara Abboud, 28, who is studying to care for patients with HIV and AIDS, says: "I think we are able now to hold on and keep coming to the university and learn something because no one from our families has been hurt. But if someone from our family is hurt, I don't know what I will do.

Then, with a laugh, she says, "I will swim there."

Rafika Zaatari, 24, was set to meet her fiance back home. Now, he waits for her in Saudi Arabia. One of Ballout's best friends was set to marry. The wedding has been postponed, and another of their friends who is from Australia is stuck in Lebanon.

They have watched and read news accounts of American citizens whisked away from danger, arriving at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport after being evacuated from Lebanon.

"We wish we could be evacuated the same way," Gharzeddine says. "If Americans can be evacuated, why can't the Lebanese be evacuated?"

Yet the students say they have been amazed at the generosity of the students and faculty at Hopkins.

"We have no problem at the people level," Abboud says. "It's a government thing. Some of the first people offering their houses to us were Jewish people."

"Israel has a right to defend herself," Gharzeddine says. "But we really have a humanitarian crisis going on. There are people displaced, living in schools. They need medicine. No one in this world would like to face such things to their family, to their country. Let there be a cease-fire."

This weekend, the group plans to go by bus to New York City for a march across the Brooklyn Bridge protesting the military action.

Gharzeddine, the lone male in the group, said he has lost 10 pounds since his arrival in Baltimore - despite eating pizza, burgers and Chinese takeout.

It's part anxiety, he says, and partly a longing for a home-cooked meal.

As Ballout, Abboud, Gharzeddine and Zaatari left the nursing school for a quick ride on the Hopkins shuttle bus to their apartment, they talked about what they should eat.

"Let me know when you guys go to D.C.," offered Lynn Schultz-Writsel, a spokeswoman for the nursing school. "I know a few good Lebanese restaurants there."

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