Locals with friends, relatives in war zone ‘glued’ to news


“If I’d be there, I don’t know exactly what I’d do to help” says Abby Carmel.

For many Americans, the deaths and destruction 6,000 miles away in the countries of Lebanon and Israel might be little more than a report on the evening newscast or in the morning newspaper.

But for those with relatives and friends trapped in the war zone, they’re personal reminders of the violence that surrounds their loved ones.

The connection has kept local residents of Lebanese and Israeli descent drawn to news reports.

“They’re glued,” said Monsignor William D. Bonczewski of the parishioners at St. Anthony/St. George Maronite Catholic Church in Wilkes-Barre. “Many of them have the satellites (so) they can see it from Lebanon. They’re watching the Lebanese news.”

They’re concerned “as much if not more” than most Americans were on Sept. 11, he said.

Attorney Ferris Webby, a St. Anthony parishioner, is anxious, not only about the safety of his family in Lebanon, but about the continued existence of the country he was born in.

His American family has been able to contact his Lebanese family twice since the fighting began. He said they’ve all taken refuge in villages in the northern mountainous region, roughly a two-hour ride from Beirut.

“They’re very scared,” he said of his Lebanese family. “They know how powerful Israel is. … (It has) the power to destroy Lebanon. … The country of Lebanon may not survive this conflict.”

American Maronites generally don’t share his apprehension, he said, because they were born and raised in the comparative safety of the U.S.

“I’m first generation; I was born there. … You don’t have that fear here. It’s real over there,” he said.

Tony Thomas Jr., a Wilkes-Barre city councilmember and St. Anthony parishioner, has had limited contact with his Lebanese family. They, too, have fled to the mountains to the north.

“My family’s been trying to contact them on and off. It’s hard to get a hold of anybody over there right now,” he said. “It’s a very, very tough situation where the Christians and the Muslims, they don’t get along very well.”

The danger is more immediate for Abby Carmel, another Wyoming Valley resident who relocated from the troubled region on the Mediterranean Sea that several religions consider sacred.

The former member of the Israeli army moved to Kingston about four months ago with her three children. She’s waiting restlessly to be joined by her husband, who lives the “life-threatening lifestyle” of a law enforcement officer in Jerusalem. Just three days ago, she said he helped foil a suicide bomber who had targeted a location in the heart of the city.

Then there are her in-laws, who live just south of the embattled city of Haifa and refuse to leave.

“They do have this kind of approach (where they feel) ‘We’ve lived through so much,’” Carmel said.

That undaunted commitment to the country makes Carmel yearn to be there.

“If I’d be there, I don’t know exactly what I’d do to help. There is that sense that my country is in distress and maybe I should be there to do something. … It’s really a feeling that you don’t abandon ship; you see what you can do,” she said.

But she came to America for specific reasons, not the least of which was peace of mind about the safety of her 10-year-old son, and twin 6-year-old son and daughter. When her eldest son wrote a creative work in first grade about a terrorist breaking into the family’s home, she cried. It became just another reason to move to the U.S.

“I feel so strange that I’m far from there now, but I don’t regret that I’ve come,” she said.

Lebanese Christians, caught in the middle of a fight that is not their own, just want the conflict to end. It’s a sentiment echoed by Muslims and Jews, but their reactions to the attacks clearly differ as well.

The lives lost and destruction wrought causes “great sadness,” said attorney Murray Ufberg, but Israel has been attacked by terrorists, just as America was. Why should it not also be allowed to defend itself by rooting out and neutralizing its enemies in the name of national security?

“This is very troublesome to everyone, but unfortunately we have to deal as America did and does,” said Ufberg, the Community Relations Council chairman for the Jewish Federation of Greater Wilkes-Barre. “Every country is going to have to deal with terrorism in a fashion it deems advisable, but terrorism needs to be dealt with.”

No religion could condone the violence in the region, agreed Ebraham Almeky, a physician and spokesperson for the Islamic Association of Northeastern Pennsylvania. And, true, members of the militant Islamic group Hezbollah attacked first, he said, but that doesn’t excuse Israel’s excessive response.

Turn the situation around, he said. If Muslims retaliated against an Israeli attack with such overkill, “would it be accepted; would it be looked at as balanced?” he asked.

“If something happened to Israel, the world would be standing on one leg to solve the problem,” he added, criticizing the international community, and America in particular, for not yet taking action to bring peace to the region.

But even if the White House refuses to become too involved, he said, “the beauty of this country” will remain.

“America is going to stay; George Bush is going to go. The United States is going to live, and I’m sure it’s going to prove to the world that this is where all faiths can live together.”