Beirut
Beirut. Photo credit: VOA/V. Undritz

The University of St Andrews has told students hoping to study abroad next semester in Lebanon that the programme has been cancelled, citing concerns about instability in the country and the risk to students.

Ten students studying Arabic had intended to go to Beirut and study at the Lebanese American University (LAU), but will now have to return to St Andrews instead.

In an email to the affected students, Samantha Lister, the Collaborations & Study Abroad Manager, explained the decision:

“The University’s first priority is the safety and security of all students participating in Study Abroad programmes. In view of the instability in Lebanon and the current travel alerts posted by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office [FCO], withdrawal of the programme, whilst regrettable, is necessary.

“I appreciate that this is disappointing news, but I hope you can understand the University’s position, and our concern for your safety and welfare.”

The FCO currently advises against all travel to the northern and eastern parts of Lebanon, which border Syria. It also advises against all but essential travel to wide swathes of the country, including the southern border with Israel. Beirut, on the west coast, is well within the ‘green zone’ (where the FCO does not suggest travel restrictions) although it is advised not to travel to the city’s southern suburbs unless essential. The FCO notes that Lebanon has a high threat from terrorism and that kidnapping, crime and civil unrest are common.

Tasmin Swanson, one of the students who planned to study in Beirut, said: “I called and spoke with someone [at the University], the reason they gave me is that the airport is in the south of the country, where there’s been some recent violence. There’s only one major road between the airport and Beirut, so if anything were to happen in the south, there’s a chance that we could be cut off from the airport and end up stranded in the country.”

Laurie Dobson, another affected student, expressed her frustration with the lateness of the announcement. “Whilst I appreciate that the University has our best interests at heart when it comes to safety and security abroad, it is quite disappointing that despite the long term unrest within Lebanon, they have waited until 8 weeks before we were due to depart to inform us that we would in fact no longer be going. Naturally this is very disappointing news, the year abroad is one of the attractive factors of a language degree, and something I have been looking forward to since that start of my course two years ago.

“I don’t quite understand why the University chose Lebanon as a suitable country for studying abroad after removing Damascus, Syria as an option for study abroad only a few years earlier due to high risks and safety concerns. This is just across the border from Lebanon! It is a shame that there isn’t a back up plan other than ‘return to St Andrews’ for when something like this happens.

“If the University hadn’t waited so long before cancelling, I could have arranged my own study abroad options during the summer, but I have already signed contracts and started summer employment, and it would be too late to arrange anything abroad now anyway.

“The whole situation is every language student’s nightmare. Being told you aren’t going on your year abroad is devastating, especially when you are told only weeks before you were meant to be departing. I really hope the University finds some better Arabic study abroad options for future years so others don’t have to go through this.”

In its email, the University said it was looking into other options for the second semester.

“The Arabic Department is investigating alternative Study Abroad options in the Middle East, and we hope that we will be able to make a programme available in Semester Two. We will update you on this project later this summer and, if we do go ahead with a new programme, we will try to accommodate students who were selected for Beirut, where possible.”

Some students will be abroad elsewhere during the second semester, however. “I already have arrangements in place to study in Vienna during semester 2, so this is of no use to me. I will have to arrange time abroad studying Arabic next summer myself, and will also have to cover the costs myself,” said Dobson.

The email advised that any students who had already booked travel to Lebanon should contact the University, which would make enquiries with its insurers.

The Saint understands the students will be housed in University accommodation if they request it. Swanson said: “We’re all guaranteed housing in halls, but we don’t have any sort of say in where we end up.”

Dobson commented: “The lateness of the cancellation has made it very difficult to arrange accommodation back in St Andrews … The only real option is to go back into halls of residence … Having contacted [Student Accommodation Services] several times all I know is that there are rooms, and that they will get back to me at some point before term begins. This really isn’t what I want to hear during this stressful time.”

Sinead Leach, who studied in Beirut during the first semester of last year and who has recently returned to the city to intern at LAU, told The Saint: “I would say it’s a real shame that these students wont get the opportunity to experience Beirut, which is a really great city, and a fantastic place to learn about the Middle East. I understand [the University’s] fears for Lebanon’s stability, but know that the news of what’s happening in Lebanon often sounds a lot scarier from reading the BBC than it does in Beirut.”

At the time of publication, the University had not replied to a request for comment.

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