Seeking higher ground: American students avoiding Arab Spring violence

Study abroad programs for American students in North Africa and the Middle East are growing in popularity. These students seek universities that provide a more unique experience than the traditional study abroad locations of Europe and Asia. Students who had wanted to study abroad in the Middle East went in large numbers to Cairo, Egypt and Damascus, Syria. However, with the uptick in violence in both of these countries in the past year, American and other western students are electing to study in safer locations.

One of such locations is the city of Beirut, Lebanon. Recently, Beirut has been seen as a safer alternative than a large number of other Middle Eastern and North African cities that have experienced protests and violence. Lebanon appears to be particularly stable following its war with Israel in 2006. Because of this stability, American students, who had been studying in other countries where there has been violence, have decided to switch to institutions in Lebanon.

American University of Beirut

A popular institution for westerners in Lebanon is American University of Beirut. As of earlier this year, 700 U.S. citizens and near 2,000 other westerners were studying at the university. These numbers are a fifty percent increase from the number of western students who attended the university in 2007. An administrator at American University of Beirut said that fifteen students transferred to its institution from Egypt following the outbreak of violence last spring. One student from Syracuse University, an American institution, was asked to return to the U.S. after the violence erupted in Cairo. However, he wanted to continue his study abroad experience. The university compromised and sent him to Beirut to study.

Despite the increase in popularity in studying in Lebanon, not all American universities are convinced it is safe to send their students there. Many universities refuse to send their students to countries in which the U.S State Department has issued a travel warning. Currently, the U.S. State Department maintains a travel warning for Lebanon. The warning advises U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon due to safety and security concerns. The warning states that “the potential in Lebanon for a spontaneous upsurge in violence remains” (from the U.S. Department of State website).

Car bomb attack in Beirut on October 19, 2012.

This warning has been completely justified by the recent car bomb attack that took place in Beirut on October 19, 2012. The explosion killed a high-ranking Lebanese intelligence officer in addition to causing great damage to the surrounding road and buildings. The attack is also a source of alarm because it may be a harbinger of future violence that may spill over into Beirut from Syria. This attack will definitely deter western students from studying in Beirut. Beirut, which had been viewed as a safer alternative to cities such as Damascus and Cairo, is now no longer going to be able to tout its record of safety. The violence in Syria is extending its reach into Lebanon and will undoubtedly keep western students from studying in the country. Maybe American students should stick to studying abroad in traditional places like Spain because, at least in there, their gravest concern will be about what type of paella they will try next.

Do you think that the U.S. State Department’s travel warning is justified? To read the full warning, go to What would you say to American students who are interested in studying abroad in the Middle East or in Beirut?

One thought on “Seeking higher ground: American students avoiding Arab Spring violence

  1. I think that it is justified for the U.S. State Department to issue warnings to students interested in studying in regions of concern, but I by no means think that they should steer clear of these areas entirely. Many of the problems in the Lebanon have to do with its neighboring countries and less to do with the United States. I think that if American students have a desire to study in Beruit then they should. In my opinion you are at risk anytime you travel, and since the uproars in Beruit were not against the United States then I think it is safe to say studying there would be a once in a lifetime experience that students should take advantage of. Having said that my friend was teaching english in Bangladesh a few weeks back, only to wake up one day to death threats and American flags burning outside of his bedroom window. In this case I feel it would be stupid to travel to countries that see Americans as enemies, but in the case of Beruit, I would tell fellow peers to travel with caution and to culturally immerse themselves as much as possible. Sure it would be comfortable to study in Spain and go to the beach everyday, I am a prime example in Ecuador, but I also think that it would amazing to see the history of the Arab Spring unfold.

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