Mideast crisis worrying locals

Rayan Elamine spent hours on the phone Tuesday trying to secure his father’s safe release from southern Lebanon.

As tensions in the region continue to flare, Lebanese-Americans are frantically trying to stay in touch with their loved ones back home and help them get out of harm’s way.

There are an estimated 25,000 American citizens in Lebanon, according to the United States Embassy in Beirut, and many are trying to get out of the country. On Tuesday more than 300 Americans evacuated the country by sea.

Elamine was in Deir Kyfa, a village where he grew up in southern Lebanon, just three weeks ago. He said there were no signs of the looming violent conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah group when his 78-year-old father held a wedding ceremony for him and his wife in the village. But, on Monday, the San Francisco City College teacher began calling the U.S. Embassy.

“After 12 hours of phone calls and figuring things out because they didn’t really have a plan [they] told me my father, his wife and my stepsister will get on a boat at 7 a.m. tomorrow,” he said. “The problem is they can’t guarantee anyone’s safety on the road.”

Elamine said his father, who is an American citizen, was given a place on a boat because he has a heart condition. Americans with medical problems are being given preference over other citizens trying to flee. He said his family is also required to pay for the trip to Cyprus, where they will either wait for things to calm down or join Elamine in San Francisco.

Communicating with the U.S. Embassy and relatives in Lebanon has been difficult, according to Ghada Saliba-Malouf, a San Francisco lawyer who travels to Lebanon every summer but was unable to go this year because she could not get a ticket.

“It’s been very hard to get a phone line,” she said, adding that relatives told her cell phone towers have been cut. “For the last 20 years we have been dialing direct.”

Buthina Rashid also had trouble staying in touch with her two children, who were visiting Lebanon for the first time with their father.

Rashid said the 13 hours it took her son and daughter to travel by bus from Saida, in southern Lebanon, to Syria last Saturday were agonizing because she heard about a bus being struck by a bomb but had no way to get a hold of her children. The trip usually takes five hours, she said.

“I freaked out. I lost it and I thought I was a strong person,” she said, adding that she finally heard from her children the next morning. “The first few days I was able to call them or they would e-mail me.”

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