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How to Get Out of Beirut in a Hurry
When Yale sends students abroad, it also buys insurance for their safe return. Here’s how several students made it out of Lebanon when the bombs were falling last July.

When Eyad Houssami '07 picked up his fellowship check for a summer of study in Lebanon,= he received a pamphlet informing him of his membership in the MEDEX Secure Program. Yale had contracted with MEDEX on his behalf for emergency insurance abroad. The contract covered emergencies (except natural disasters) that would put him at “risk of death or imminent serious injury." If, for instance, he found himself in the midst of a “civil and/or military uprising… or other violent disturbance,” or if he were expelled or declared persona non grata, or if U.S. officials sent him “a written recommendation that You leave Your Host Country”—in all such situations, MEDEX would provide “evacuations, returns to residence after stabilization, and repatriations of mortal remains.”

The policy covered such an extreme and selective set of circumstances that Houssami bought additional insurance to cover more ordinary problems. At the time, he thought, “This is bad insurance. This MEDEX stuff doesn’t cover anything.”

In late June, the Lebanese had only one battle on their minds—the World Cup.

Like most of the rest of the world, Houssami didn’t anticipate that Beirut would become a war zone. When he landed in the capital in late June, the Lebanese had only one battle on their minds—the World Cup. They stayed out in the streets, honking their horns and setting off fireworks when their favorite teams won. But within days of Italy’s victory, the sounds had changed. When Houssami went out on the afternoon of July 12, he found crowds of people on the sidewalks, standing around parked cars with open doors: they were listening to a press conference by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on the radio. “The city froze to listen to that speech,” Houssami says. “The apprehension was tangible.” The next morning, Beirut was struck for the first time.

The bombs started falling when Sam Heller '08 was in his third week of Arabic classes at the American University of Beirut. He was sitting on the beach with friends when black specks started flying out of the sky. “One kid's like, 'They’re shelling us.' Another thought the particles were chaff to explode Hezbollah rockets,” Heller says. It turned out that the specks were Israeli pamphlets addressed to the Lebanese. Another shell landed in the soccer field outside Heller’s dorm, spewing forth flyers.

It was time to go. The question was how to get out.

Houssami and Heller belong to a growing cadre of students seeking educational adventures abroad. According to the Institute of International Education, more than 190,000 students from accredited schools traveled abroad for study in 2004—more than double the number a decade earlier. Faculty members are also on the move. As universities like Yale become more global, they are buying emergency travel insurance plans to protect their members against a range of disasters, from a case of the runs to, for the truly unlucky traveler, regime change.

“In the past, individuals—students and parents—would sometimes buy a policy,” says Allen Bova, president of the nonprofit University Risk Management and Insurance Association. “I felt that there was a better way to do it.” Blanket plans protect university students, faculty, and staff, Bova says, and the cost can be as little as $5 per person.

By 2001, travel was becoming a key component of the Yale experience.

Bova, who is also director of risk management and insurance for Cornell University, followed his own advice. Cornell began providing emergency overseas coverage to all of its students and staff in 2002. Many universities started buying blanket coverage around that time because of 9/11, says Laura Angelone, who handles scholastic clients for the travel medical assistance company International SOS. “Risk management started to take a much more active role,” she says. “They wanted to know, ‘What’s our exposure? What can we do?’” HTH Worldwide, a company specializing in health insurance for international travelers, now covers 30,000 U.S. students studying abroad—more than ten times as many as it did three years ago.

Yale contracted with MEDEX Global Group, Inc., for a travel assistance program in 2001, as travel was becoming a key component of the Yale experience. Two years ago, President Richard Levin pledged that by 2008, all undergrads would have the opportunity to spend time abroad during or just after their four years at the college (see Light & Verity, July/August 2005). In addition to providing financial aid for students who need it, the university hosts summer sessions for credit in twelve countries and internship programs in nine.

The Baltimore-based MEDEX, founded in 1977, expanded its security services in the wake of 9/11. In 2004, when MEDEX began offering coverage of “emergency security situations” abroad, Yale upgraded its policy. The new coverage coincided with a growth spurt in sales: in 2004, MEDEX reported $44 million in sales, but a year later the figure had jumped to $66 million. MEDEX says that it now has hundreds of corporate and university clients and that 30 universities have plans similar to Yale’s.

MEDEX has a dedicated staff of 90, and it contracts with a network of other companies to deliver its overseas services. “We’ve chosen not to build buildings or fly airplanes,” says David Mair, director of client relations. “We've chosen to partner with 'best-in-breed' groups.” For Yale, the war in Beirut was the first large-scale test of this strategy.

George Joseph, an assistant secretary of the university, started tracking down Yale students in Lebanon as soon as the missile strikes began. Joseph and colleagues at Yale found five students in a database of Yale-sponsored overseas programs. After e-mailing and phoning those five and surveying other Yale offices, they located two more, and registered them all officially with MEDEX to facilitate their evacuation.

Beirut had become a city of few exits.

Around the time the missile containing propaganda flyers landed at the American University of Beirut (AUB), MEDEX resolved to move the students to a safer location. But in the few short days since Nasrallah’s press conference, Beirut had become a city of few exits. The airport was shut down, the highways were nearly impassable, and the Israelis had blockaded the Lebanese coastline, cutting off sea access. On Sunday, a bearded man in a black polo shirt and jeans picked up Houssami at his great-aunt’s apartment in West Beirut. The bearded man was a contractor for Air Security International (ASI), one of MEDEX's partners. (He requested that his name not be published because he believes publicity hurts his effectiveness.) They swung by AUB’s main gate for Heller and another Yale student, Ranin Kazemi, a graduate student in history. The ASI contractor then drove a half-hour north to Le Royal, a five-star hotel in the seaside area of Dbayeh, where the students checked into a suite at $1,300 per night. Later, one of the contractor’s assistants brought Diana Schawlowski '08 and Valeria LopezFadul '08 to the hotel from a friend’s house.

The hotel was crowded with wealthy Lebanese families shopping. “We went from sitting in the dorms listening to the bombs drop to sitting in a Jacuzzi across the harbor watching the bombs drop,” says Heller. “It wasn’t really death-defying.”

Another Yale student, David Scales '10MD/PhD, refused to join the MEDEX evacuation at first—partly because he felt safe where he was staying in Beirut and was concerned about his Lebanese friends, partly because he didn’t like the “idea of staying in a five-star hotel while people were dying kilometers away.” In an interview, the ASI contractor stressed that he chose the hotel for one reason only: located next to the U.S. embassy, it was the safest place in Lebanon.

The contractor took his role as protector seriously. Some students were impressed by his professionalism and experience; he told them, for instance, that he does training in minefield clearance. Others were turned off by what one termed his “secret agent routine.” (MEDEX officials confirmed only that they believe the contractor and his three assistants, one of whom was his wife, were armed. The ASI contractor would not discuss logistics for this article.) “He was very knowledgeable,” Houssami says. “I don’t even want to know what he's done in his life.”

Yale’s students had the discomfiting experience of being the “haves.”

Not all universities buy blanket coverage that lands their students in luxury hotels with armed bodyguards. As students from all over the United States returned from Lebanon this summer, a theme of haves and have-nots sounded in the media. Betsy Barre, a graduate student at Florida State who was studying Arabic at AUB, told the Associated Press that she knew other Americans who were being evacuated because their schools had insured them with International SOS. Barre didn’t have emergency coverage, and she got out after her husband agreed to pay International SOS up to $4,000, not including $1,300 airfare.

Yale’s students had the discomfiting experience of being the “haves." When the ASI contractor picked up Heller and Kazemi at the AUB gate, another student was waiting with them: Andrew Hennessey, a recent graduate of Boston University. Heller had told him about MEDEX, and he hoped to join the evacuation. But the contractor refused to take him. Heller didn’t want to “ditch" Hennessey, as he put it, but he had promised his family he would leave if the opportunity presented itself. The Yale students and the contractor left Hennessey, upset, at the gate.

“He was an unknown. He was not a Yale student,” the contractor explained later in an interview. “My task is that you don’t take any strangers along when you’re there to take care of somebody.” He said, however, that he was concerned enough to call Hennessey the next day and give him the number for Air Security International. (Hennessey, who made it back home safely, emphasizes that he has “absolutely no hard feelings.”)

But as the days went by, the U.S. students from Yale also found themselves watching others leave while they stayed on. LopezFadul has Italian citizenship, and she left first; the contractor drove her to the Italian embassy for an evacuation. She saw bombs drop and buildings collapse as they drove through the empty roads. Two days later Schawlowski, a German citizen, left with the Romanians on a bus to Syria. The remaining Yalies were four in all, including Scales. (Bilal Orfali, a graduate student who was coordinating the Arabic program at AUB, opted to remain in Lebanon.) U.S. officials had promised to contact them when an evacuation was going out, and they waited at the hotel with the contractor for word from the embassy.

Meanwhile, International SOS was driving its clients out of Lebanon. Tim Daniel of SOS says the decision to use the roads to Damascus was made in consultation with the Israeli Defense Forces and UN officials. SOS claims more than 4,400 employees stationed around the world and its own fleet of aircraft; it has an office in Dubai and on-the-ground employees in Lebanon and Syria. “Western nations had political constraints that limited their ability to do over-ground evacuations,” Daniel says. “But we were able to identify which route was safest.” SOS, which has contracts with many of the world’s Fortune 500 companies and more than 100 universities, began evacuating its clients before most of the evacuations run by Western governments.

The waiting took its toll on the students.

The contractor was convinced that an official U.S. evacuation would be the safest route out in the chaos of the conflict. But the waiting took its toll on the students. They began to question his approach, especially after learning that AUB had evacuated some of their fellow Americans, including Hennessey, on a Norwegian cruise ship. “There had already been two days of evacuation where something like 2,000 people out of 5,000 people had gotten out,” Heller says. “Something was obviously amiss. We couldn’t count on whatever system the embassy was running.” When they learned that AUB was arranging for another ship, the students returned to campus. But the trip kept getting postponed. Heller spent two days in a nearly empty dorm, playing solitaire and checking his e-mail for an order to evacuate.

The students called the contractor and went back to Le Royal. They had ordered room service and were halfway through lunch when the contractor’s wife burst into the room, shouting, “It’s time to go!” The contractor had driven to the official evacuation point for Americans at Dbayeh Bridge and arranged to get them on a ship leaving that night. Everyone loaded into his truck, and they sped to the departure point. The line was closed, but they pushed through.

Late the next day, Houssami awoke to the sound of music. It was July 22. After a 20-hour voyage on a cruise ship manned by U.S. Marines, they had arrived at Cyprus. That evening, another MEDEX contract employee would help the four Yale students settle into a hotel, and later send them on their way toward London and home. Despite the complexities of their escape from Beirut, all the students expressed gratitude for the efforts of MEDEX, and the long hours that Yale’s employees had devoted to them. Yale, for its part, was satisfied with MEDEX’s performance. “There were things that need to be ironed out but we've been pleased with MEDEX over all,” Marjorie Lemmon, a university risk manager, said. “They’ve always gone above and beyond.”

When he woke up on the cruise ship, Houssami followed the music and saw that the Lebanese-Americans on board had pulled out a drum and started a traditional dabke line dance. “It was this wonderful moment of solidarity and national identity,” he says. “And a very bittersweet celebration of the fact that here we are, we’ve landed.”  the end


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