St. Thomas grad tells of escape from Lebanon

Editors’ note: Two 1999 St. Thomas alumni, Nnamdi and Karla (Massad) Njoku, have had more than a typical summer vacation.

The pair, who have been living in Switzerland for the past year and a half because of Nnamdi’s work for Medtronic Inc., expect to return to their home in Maple Grove at the end of September. So they and Karla’s parents – natives of Lebanon – enjoyed a trip this summer to the Massads’ home country to visit family and friends. Nnamdi left the group July 9 to return to work. Karla and her parents stayed, only to be caught in the bombings that erupted in Lebanon a few days later. Now out of the country and safe, Karla shared the following letter to friends at St. Thomas last Thursday, July 20.

Because Karla’s tale of her evacuation from Lebanon brings home the story of the thousands of people caught in the current conflict there, we asked to share it with you. She and Nnamdi graciously agreed.

Hello, everyone,

Some of you know about the excitement my father, mother and I have been in the last few days, but for those who are unaware, we were in Lebanon.   Before I get into details, I want you to know we are now out of Lebanon and safe.   I arrived in Switzerland yesterday and my parents are currently in Amsterdam waiting for a flight back to the States. They should be in Minneapolis sometime on Tuesday.  

Nnamdi and I met my parents in Lebanon about two weeks ago, my first trip back home in 24 years. Due to Nnamdi’s busy work schedule, he could stay in Lebanon only for a week, while I planned to stay five extra days until the following Friday, July 14. That first week was packed with meeting family members, who hadn’t seen me since I was 4 years old, and touring Lebanon.   It was filled with lots to eat, drink and more importantly, it was filled with laughter.

Family and friends took us all through Lebanon showing us how this previously war-torn country was rebuilding itself to once again become “the Switzerland of the Middle East.”   I saw a bombed-out building standing next to an architectural wonder; it was an amazing thing to see.   My father and mother pointed out where they were when the war broke out in the 1980s and how they lived.  

I always knew the stories, but to actually see everything in person was an amazing experience. Among many trips, we went to a statue of the Virgin Mary that stands on a mountain top overlooking the town of Zahle, which is my hometown. They say this statue of the Virgin Mary protected them during the war.   As I stood there by the statue looking down at my hometown, it all felt surreal to me.  I couldn’t believe I was finally in Lebanon, seeing it in all its wonder. I felt proud to once again reconnect with a country and family I only had mere memories of.

After an extremely busy week and saying goodbye to Nnamdi (he left on Sunday, July 9), things finally slowed down a bit.   I continued to meet more family and friends of my parents.   On the morning of Thursday, July 13, I was getting ready to meet my parents for breakfast.   There was a knock on the door and there was my mom.  I told her I was just about ready and she …   said,  “They just bombed the Beirut airport.”   I started laughing and said “Yeah right, that’s a good one, Mom.” She told me she wasn’t joking so I turned on the television to see it for myself.   I was stunned!

The first thing that went through my head was [that] I was actually supposed to be at the airport that morning to go back to Switzerland, but Nnamdi was going to be in London that day so we decided before the trip that I should stay until Friday instead.   My flight would have left at 7 a.m. that morning … the bombs went off at the airport at 6 a.m.  I then called Nnamdi to tell him what was happening; he had not heard the news yet.   I told him [that] …  I didn’t know much about what was going on and would keep him updated.

Family and friends flooded the hotel once the news broke to see us.   My parents were talking to everyone they knew to see what the situation was and what we were going to do.   At this point, no one imagined it would get to the point it is now.   Many people said it was no big deal, [that] they live with this kind of stuff all the time and it would blow over in a few days and things would be back to normal.   …   That morning we heard the airport would be shut down for 48 hours, then things were going to be up and running.   Our concern at that time was to try to get a flight out … all we could do was sit and wait to hear when the airport would be running again.   We felt very safe in Zahle because it is a Christian town and not a target of Israel.   My mom and I even went and got our hair done that afternoon.   …  

As many of you have seen on television, the situation escalated to the unimaginable.   I was hearing about the towns we just visited being bombed. Some places were minutes away from where we were.   We had mixed feelings about what to do. Do we lay low and stay where we feel safe, do we wait for the U.S. Embassy or do we try to get out of Lebanon ourselves? Many family and friends had their own opinions; I would only listen to two people: my parents. My father knew it was going to get worse; they had lived through this once before.   He said we had to get out now.

Israel was bombing all the bridges connecting Lebanon to Syria. At this point only two were left.   My father contacted a good friend of his who had connections and told him we needed his help. Friday morning we met with him and he said he would take care of us. I would like to mention that we had so many people trying to help us that I just felt so showered with love and support. That night we received a phone call from my father’s friend, [who said] we were going to leave the next morning at 10 a.m. We were going to take a bus with some of his colleagues and friends.   The only way to get out was through Jordan. This meant we needed to go through the Syrian boarder … .   That night, we heard that Israel was threatening to bomb that same border.  

[So] we began to pack for our journey … .   On the lighter side, while I was packing and putting aside the clothes for the next day, I paused and thought, What does one wear to dodge bombs while escaping to another country? For those of you wondering, jeans and T-shirt … .  

The next morning … I went [to] register myself and my parents with the U.S. Embassy.   As I was walking through the lobby, I saw my parents talking with a woman who I assumed was a family member I hadn’t met. Then I heard her say she had just left Beirut where her sister lived and came to Zahle where she and her three children would be safe. She asked if my parents could help her in any way.  All we could do was give her all the contacts we had who could possibly help her, and I helped her register with the U.S. Embassy.   Her husband called and she told him how we were trying to help her, [then] he asked to speak to me. [As] he was thanking me for all our help [and] his voice was shaking on the other end, my heart just sank. We wanted t
o do more for them, but it was not our call to make since it was my father’s friend who made all the arrangements. I spoke to my mom about it, [and] she than talked to my father who talked to his friend. He told him there was a woman and three small children with nowhere to go. His friend said, “Put her on the bus.”

At this time it was around 10:30 a.m., and we were waiting for a few more people to arrive so we could leave. We were standing outside with family and friends when we received news that another bridge to Syria had just been bombed, so now only one bridge was left to get us out of Lebanon.   Nerves were high and everyone was asking us not to go, but there was no other choice. We had to leave now if we had any chance. We all said our goodbyes with tears streaming down our faces. It was so hard to say goodbye to the family I loved so much. I [felt guilty for leaving them], but I knew in my heart that they would be safe.   We got on the bus with 13 other people and started a journey I will never forget.  

On the bus, I was trying to lighten the mood a bit.  I had the luxury of being a bit naive about the situation, but my parents were reliving some of the memories of the war … more than 20 years ago. About 15 minutes after we crossed the last bridge to Syria out of Lebanon, we heard a loud boom. We found out that the bridge we had just crossed was bombed by Israel, [and] now there was no way for anyone to leave Lebanon by car. We sat at the Lebanon-Syria border for a couple of hours with thousands of others waiting to cross. Unlike many who surrounded us, we were fortunate enough to be in an air-conditioned bus with others taking care of our passports and logistics.  

As we were waiting, we heard someone say Israel was planning to bomb the very spot [where we were waiting].   … You couldn’t help but look up to make sure you didn’t see any planes.  But because of my parent’s friends and their connections, we got through [the border] faster than many others.   An hour [later] we heard it was bombed and four people were killed.  

At this point, the only one we could keep in touch with was Nnamdi via text [messaging]. We couldn’t reach anyone in Lebanon to tell them we were OK. All they knew was that every area we were supposed to be had been bombed, and I cannot imagine what was going through their minds. I was also thinking about my sister, so I sent a text message to Nnamdi [asking him to] let her know that we were OK.   I later found out she woke up to hear that a bus with 20 people had been bombed while crossing the Syrian border and she thought it was us. Thankfully, Nnamdi called her to tell her that we were safe and on our way to Jordan. Later we were able to reach my mother’s cousin to tell him that we were OK, and they were all very relieved.  

We finally reached the Jordanian border after eight hours of traveling; once we crossed we knew we were safe.   Everyone in the bus cheered and there was a huge sense of relief.   My father went with his instincts and they were right – we were right to leave that day.   My father, mother and I looked at each other and just smiled, then gave each other high fives! I reminded my parents that the last time I was in Lebanon, which was in 1982, we escaped from a war by boat. Now, 24 years later, which was my first time [in Lebanon since then], we [escaped] by bus.   My mom said she wasn’t going to come to Lebanon with me anymore, then she laughed.   I like to think I am the guardian angel who gets them out of these situations (wink, wink).   My family will never be able to fully thank the people who helped us leave Lebanon ; their generosity to us was astounding.   I also think we had some amazing angels … guiding us through the streets to safety.

On my trip to Lebanon I got to see two different worlds.   I saw a country that had so much life and possibility, … filled with astonishing scenery and remarkable people. I then sadly saw a country being torn apart because it is caught [in] a war that is only harming innocent civilians trying to find peace in their homeland. I will not give the people harming this beautiful country the luxury of letting this situation overshadow the amazing memories I made in Lebanon. This experience has made me appreciate where I come from even more than before, especially now that I have a piece of my heart there with the family I got to know. I believe everyone’s prayer and love helped me and my parents get out safely, [and] I ask that you keep those prayers strong for everyone who was left behind. I also hope that once again the Virgin Mary keeps my hometown of Zahle safe from harm.   I thank my parents for being so strong throughout this ordeal; I believe their love for me was the driving force in getting me to safety AGAIN.