What started as a six-week immersion program to learn Arabic turned into one long ordeal for Springfield resident Lindsay Congleton and her family, as she was evacuated out of Beirut on July 18.
Congleton, a 2001 graduate of West Springfield High School, studied international relations at the University of Georgia, enrolled in the Arabic program at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. She had no way of knowing that when she left for Lebanon on June 23, what would happen just a few weeks later.
“My parents and I had talked with so many people and everyone said that Lebanon was a very safe place,” said Congleton. “Beirut is a very European city, it’s nothing like you’d expect to see in the Middle East.”
While in the program, Congleton said she spent the first half of her day studying Arabic writing, learning how to read the language, and in the afternoon, she and her classmates would practice their dialogue. On weekends, they took trips to visit different places in the region, going to Tripoli and Syria.
LEBANON IS a small country, roughly the size of Delaware, Congleton said, so when the bombs started falling, “it felt like I was far away from it, but I was only about a mile from where the bombing was going on.”
The school’s campus is in a Christian part of Beirut, on the western side of the city, making it “the safest place we could be, on an American campus, but we still heard the bombings constantly,” she said.
From her dormitory, Congleton said she could see the flames from the Beirut airport when it was bombed, she could see red flashes from anti-artillery aircraft lighting up the night sky along the major road that followed the coast.
Some of her classmates “freaked out and tried to get out of Beirut the next day” after the bombing started, Congleton said. “They told us that this wasn’t all that unusual, that Israelis crossed the boarder all the time, but no one ever thought it would escalate to where it was,” she said.
The students were taken to Byblos, a port city about 30 miles away from the Beirut campus, which Congleton described as much safer. "It was in a Christian area, between Tripoli and another port that had been bombed by the Israelis," she said.
While the other students were being evacuated, a group of five young men stayed behind to finish the program. Congleton and the others were instructed to pack a small bag and prepare to leave. They were put on a Norwegian freighter to make the 120-mile trip to Cyprus, from where she was able to fly to London and then back home to Northern Virginia, one of the first students to arrive safely back in the United States.
“There was a lot of sitting around and waiting to hear from the State Department at first, but if we didn’t leave when we did, we had no idea when we might get a flight home,” Congleton said. Some of her friends who went to Damascus weren’t able to get a flight out of the country until September.
“I was really lucky,” Congleton said, adding that when she first arrived at the airport in London she was told no seats were available, but she managed to get a seat on the last flight of the day. “A lot of people got stuck there, but I managed to get home on the same day I left Cyprus.”
Congleton said she wishes she had the chance to finish the six week program, which was originally scheduled to be completed on Aug. 7 or 8. The short time she spent in Lebanon opened her eyes to what life is like in the Middle East.
“The areas where we went on trips are gone,” she said.
More important, however, is her belief that the people of Lebanon do not support Hezbollah, the organization responsible for the bombing of Israel which started the conflict. “The people there don’t want to be involved in this,” Congleton said. “Innocent civilians are being slaughtered because of this crazy militia group. Israel has the right to defend themselves, but hundreds and hundreds of innocent Lebanese people have died, but for what? This could have been handled very differently.”
IF GIVEN THE CHANCE, Congleton said she’d like to go back and resume her studies in Lebanon. “I felt just as safe traveling in Lebanon as I did traveling through Europe,” she said.
Her parents, on the other hand, are relieved to have her home, safe and sound.
“Initially, when she said she wanted to go, we were hesitant,” said Sherry Congleton, Lindsay’s mother. “When the war broke out, we were very worried.”
Lindsay’s father, Michael Congleton, said he was on the phone with U.S. Rep. Tom Davis’ (R-11) office "24 hours a day" trying to get information on his daughter’s situation and how soon she could get home.
Between 20 and 25 families contacted Davis' office for help in getting a loved one home from Beirut, said Robert White, a spokesman from Davis' Washington office. As of Wednesday, August 2, all of people in question have returned to Northern Virginia, he said.
“Everyone at his office was just wonderful, sometimes they would call us twice a day,” Michael Congleton said.
For a few days, Lindsay Congleton didn’t have Internet access, eliminating their main method of communication.
“We just wanted to know she was OK when we did finally get on the phone,” said Sherry Congleton. “It was so good to hear her voice.”
Of her daughter’s homecoming, Sherry Congleton said Lindsay slept a lot the first few days she was home, despite telling her mother “she was never worried,” she said.
The three of them have discussed what Lindsay saw in Lebanon a little, Michael Congleton said, but mostly they’re just happy to have her home.
“She had a difficult experience but she learned a lot,” he said.
Since her return, Michael Congleton has cut back from the “26 hours a day of CNN” he used to watch, and he praises the State Department and the Department of Defense for his daughter’s safe return.
And should Lindsay tell her parents that she wants to return to the Middle East anytime soon, “we’ll have to discuss it,” Michael Congleton laughed.