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Franciscan University students describe fleeing ‘devastating’ Israel-Hamas conflict

‘We had an hour to pack up camp,’ ‘ran around like mad,’ student recalls

Thirty-eight students and a staff member from the Franciscan University of Steubenville are safe at the university’s Austria campus after suddenly having to flee Israel in the wake of Hamas’ deadly attacks earlier this month.

The group had traveled to Israel just a day earlier from the university’s campus in Austria as part of a pilgrimage and mission sponsored by the Catholic religious order Community of the Beatitudes, according to John Romanowsky, Franciscan University director of marketing and media relations.

They arrived in Nazareth on Oct. 6, according to a student on the pilgrimage who requested The College Fix to refer to her as Rebekah.

“We went to bed in Nazareth on Friday night anticipating an ordinary pilgrimage experience,” Rebekah told The Fix. “But on Saturday, we gathered as a group and were told the devastating news that a war had begun in the country we were standing in.”

On Oct. 7, the Islamic terrorist group Hamas launched short-range rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israeli cities and commenced a ground invasion of southern Israel, killing approximately 1,300 civilians and injuring thousands more.

An exact number of U.S. students studying abroad in Israel at the time of the attack is unknown. However, according to the U.S. Department of State, 1,893 U.S. students studied abroad in Israel during the 2019-2020 academic year, The Hill reports.

Since the attack, other colleges and universities also have been working to help evacuate U.S. students in Israel. Four days after the attack, USA Today reported some universities “confirmed students had safely left the area. Others said students and staff remained in the region while their institutions monitored the situation and put in place new safety protocols.”

Romanowsky told The College Fix the Franciscan students were not near the danger.

“When hostilities broke out near the Gaza Strip in Israel on Oct. 7, the students were in the northeastern part of the country near the Sea of Galilee where it was quiet and safe,” Romanowksy said.

Rebekah said the group continued with their original plan through Sunday, but on Monday, the pilgrimage leaders decided that the students should leave the country for their safety.

Sophomore Maria Brown said they found out very quickly that they had to leave.

“We had an hour to pack up camp,” she told The Fix. “So, we ran around like mad and managed to pack everything up.”

The students traveled from Tabgha to Magdala in Midgal, Israel, where they spent the night, according to the university.

Rebekah said the students first camped “on the beautiful shore of Galilee” and then stayed “at a beautiful Catholic hotel in Magdala with the goal of ensuring our safety.”

“Attached to the hotel was a first-century synagogue where Jesus most likely taught,” Rebekah said.

The following day, the group left Magdala and traveled to the Jordan border and waited hours at customs until finally making their way to the capital city of Amman. After spending the night in Jordan, they took flights to Vienna throughout the day, students and the university told The Fix.

All the students arrived back at the Gaming, Austria campus Oct. 11, according to the university spokesman.

“When we got back to Vienna and the sisters and some others met us, we were so relieved to be back,” Brown said.

She told The Fix the university offered group and individual therapy sessions to all students affected by the situation and paid for all the expenses related to the escape.

“They were great at getting us out, and I am so grateful,” Brown said via email.

Thomas Wolter, director of Franciscan University’s Austria study abroad program, compared the rapid evacuation to the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.

In that case, “the organization required to move 180+ students with the level of communication required for all those involved (parents, students, faculty and staff, local authorities, and transportation) was truly an all-hands effort,” Wolter said.

The Franciscan students will continue the semester of studies in Austria before returning to the U.S. in April, according to the university spokesman.

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MORE: Waking up to horror: An American student recounts October in Israel

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Peter Baugher is student at Franciscan University of Steubenville where he studies political science. He is also a writer and the distribution manager for the Troubadour campus newspaper.