Several Penn students studying abroad in Israel spent Friday afternoon in a bomb shelter.
Over the past week, Penn students in the region have had their semesters disrupted by the escalating conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. While these students remain on high alert, Penn Abroad has confirmed that all are currently safe and unharmed.
“We’re asking them to check in with us and their parents to keep communication going,” Penn Abroad Director Barbara Gorka said. “We’ve heard from all of our partner [universities] and what they’re doing, several students have checked in and everyone seems to be okay.”
However, the experience of keeping on alert throughout the conflict is one that students never envisioned becoming a reality.
“I’d always thought of the risks as something that would never happen to me,” College junior Shayna Golkow said of her decision to spend her fall semester studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
On Friday, as Jerusalem was hit by a missile fired from Gaza, Golkow and her classmates ran out of their rooms and hid in bomb shelters, which are located in every apartment in the university’s dorms.
After 10 minutes, the students returned to their rooms and checked the news, Twitter and Facebook to figure out what was going on.
“Now that it’s happening, it’s kind of scary,” Golkow said.
Since Friday, however, Golkow feels that life has for the most part returned to normal, despite the ongoing attacks.
“My roommates and I hosted a potluck Shabbat dinner just a few hours after the red alert,” she said. “I have a midterm on Sunday, and our normal lives are still continuing.”
The conflict has intensified since breaking out last week. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has intercepted more than 250 incoming rockets, both over southern Israel and northern cities like Tel Aviv, according to the Associated Press.
On Thursday night, College junior Marcus Mundy, who is studying at Tel Aviv University, heard the first siren warning of a rocket attack in the vicinity. He said that counselors from his program told students to stay calm and not panic, instructing them on what procedures to follow to stay protected and where to find bomb shelters.
According to Gorka, Penn Abroad has pitched in with additional advice to students like Mundy, emailing them and reminding them of resources like International SOS.
While Mundy remains at his university, others in his program have relocated to less dangerous areas.
“Several people have either gone to see family that live farther north or have traveled away from where rockets can reach,” he said. “Several Europeans have gone home for a week or so until everything calms down, but most people are sticking around and staying cautious.”
College junior Abby Worthen, who has spent the semester at Ben-Gurion University — which is located in the southern town of Beersheva, about 15 miles east of Gaza — said her program was relocated for a day to the ancient fortress of Masada. They then moved to BGU’s campus in Sde Boker, a small town that is not considered a target despite being within rocket range.
While Worthen has gotten used to periodic sirens near BGU throughout the semester, the rocket fire has worsened over the past two weeks, prompting the evacuation.
“On Wednesday night we had 15 rocket sirens within 12 hours, and there have been two direct hits on my city,” she said.
The Israeli Defense Force has mobilized reservists, many of whom are university students, to serve during the conflict.
“A lot of our friends are facing going back into combat right now, which is incredibly stressful,” Worthen said. “None of us are scared for our own safety but the situation is so impossible, and the stress of worrying about real civilian casualties and whether our friends are going to see combat is the worst part.”
Mundy added that safety has not been an issue for him personally either.
“I still feel like it was a good decision to study abroad in Israel,” he said. “I don’t regret coming at all.”