Trapped in Lebanon, Sudanese Students Find Refuge at Seminary

Image: Courtesy of ABTS

While Liberty University came under criticism for allowing students the option to stay on campus during the coronavirus outbreak, many other schools were also faced with a dilemma concerning the 1.1 million students who came from abroad.

According to a Quartz survey of 36 universities who host a third of the United States’ international students, 26 told those students to leave campus.

Penn State gave three days notice. Harvard gave five. Duke, among others, offered emergency financial aid to help international students return home. Princeton allowed their residency to continue—until the end of the semester.

But Sudanese students at Lebanon’s Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) did not have a choice—even with tickets in hand.

Lebanon was one of the first nations to implement COVID-19 restrictions. Its first case was recorded on February 21, and by March 9 schools were shut down.

Four days later, at a regularly scheduled seminary picnic, Bassem Melki prepared to break the news.

“It was a joyous atmosphere,” said the ABTS dean of students, “but I had sadness in my heart because I knew what I had to say.”

Founded in 1960 and located in the mountains overlooking Beirut, the seminary has a total enrollment of 160 students. Twenty-six are Lebanese, and the majority of ABTS students pursue distance learning in its online certificate program from as far afield as Iraq, Algeria, and Chad.

Campus dorms host only the school’s 34 international students pursuing bachelor of arts or master of arts degree programs in theology. Melki told these residential students that it was time to fly home.

Many cried.

“I felt my dream was canceled,” said Noha Kassa, a 28-year-old first-year student from Khartoum.

“It was a wise decision by the seminary, but it didn’t feel right or fair.”

Having only arrived in Lebanon last October, Kassa’s life was once again thrown into chaos. An active participant in the Sudanese revolution the year before, she had enrolled in ABTS—the seventh in her family to do so—to prepare for ministry back home.

The transitional government in Sudan has granted new freedoms, Kassa said, that include sharing the gospel. And despite the patriarchal culture even in the church, the prominent revolutionary participation by women has created new pioneering opportunities.

She hoped to be a role model.

Now, she would have to return to work, and with her part-time ministry at the Bahri Presbyterian Church, she would have little time for theological study.

“‘Okay, God, what’s next?’” Kassa asked. “‘When will this be over?’”

On March 15, Lebanon announced a state of medical emergency. Among its provisions was a complete sealing of the nation’s borders—at midnight three days later.

If anyone wanted to leave, the clock was ticking.

The ABTS international student body on campus included 6 Egyptians, 5 Syrians, 2 Moroccans, a Palestinian, a Yemeni, 18 Sudanese, and 1 South Sudanese.

No one expected the Yemeni student to go home. The seminary worked with each of the other nationality groups to determine the best course of action. But the weight of preparation fell on the largest contingent.

ABTS paid the change-ticket fees to advance students’ return date from the end of the semester to March 16. Quickly the Sudanese students packed their bags, loaded the bus, and prepared to run the gauntlet through Beirut International Airport.

They didn’t even get to leave campus.

With no advance notice, Sudan closed its borders also. Fortunately, the students had not yet boarded the plane. With a layover planned in Addis Ababa, they would have been stuck in Ethiopian quarantine.

But back on campus, they were a health risk. Single students shared a small dorm room with two twin beds. Married students lived in a communal house with 16 apartments and a shared kitchen.

And the Sudanese are very social.

“Living together, they became like a family,” said Elie Haddad, ABTS’ president.

“The only thing we can do is care for them and keep them safe.”

In the end, only the Egyptian students and the South Sudanese student were able to return home in time. The rest were put on strict lockdown.

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Source: Christianity Today