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Dialogue

A Long Road Home

Salim NajjarTrapped in Lebanon during the recent period of intense fighting, Salim Najjar, a sophomore engineering major, was one of 25,000 Americans trying to flee the war-torn country. This fall he returned to Rensselaer with an unparalleled story about his summer vacation.

What were you doing in Lebanon?
For the past 11 summers my whole family has traveled to Lebanon to visit family and friends that live over there. It’s usually a relaxing trip — we go to the beach, and we just spend time hanging out and catching up — it’s like a big family reunion.

What was your reaction when the fighting started?
We were aware of the fighting as soon as it began, but fighting in Southern Lebanon is common and we were in Kfarhazir, a generally safe village up north. We thought Israel had bombed the airport to prove a point.

Was there a defining moment when you decided you needed to flee?
As the fighting continued the bombings started getting closer and closer to us. When the Beirut airport was hit again and more bridges were bombed, we knew we needed to find a way out of there before my fall semester of college started.

You left Lebanon on the last day the U.S. Embassy evacuated Americans; it must’ve been chaotic.
It was. We knew this was our only chance to get home. We got to the evacuation port two hours early because we knew many families that tried to leave days before, but were turned away because the boats were so overcrowded.

How many Americans fled Lebanon with you that day?
There were 1,700 Americans on board the U.S.S. Trenton. People who got to the boat first slept in bunk beds, but there were about 700 people just sleeping on the ship’s deck. When we got to Turkey buses took us to the Turkish Air Force base where we could stay until we got a flight home.

You ended up spending six days at the Air Force base. What was there to do during that time?
Because of the heat, we slept most of the day and tried to stay up at night — the trip was exhausting. There was little else to do but talk to people so we met many other Lebanese-Americans. We’re still in touch by phone and e-mail.

How did you finally get home?
My family got the last flight out of Turkey, which took us to Atlanta, Ga. From there we took a flight to New York. On the boat in Turkey they promised us that in 48 to 72 hours we’d all be home. But it actually took us eight days to get back to our house in Wappingers Falls, N.Y.

It must’ve been a frustrating process.
It was in the sense that we thought we’d get home much sooner than we actually did. But we were so grateful to the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Air Force who did a great job helping us get out. They got us boarded on the boat, helped carry luggage, and reassured us that we’d all get home safe.

How is your family in Lebanon holding up?
A couple days after we made it home the main road my uncle takes to work every day got bombed — luckily he was unharmed. Now, instead of a 50-minute commute to work, it takes him three and a half hours. Other than that, though, everyone is safe and holding up great.

Will you go back to Lebanon next summer?
I’d love to go back — and I know the rest of my family wants to as well. If everything is OK there next year and the airport is rebuilt, then yes, definitely.

Photo by Mark McCarty

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