PUC Students Travel To Beirut To Aid In Relief Efforts

By Dana Negro on September 15, 2020

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On August 4, a huge blast struck the Lebanese capital city of Beirut, killing at least 135 people, wounding more than 5,000, and leaving more than 300,000 people homeless. Across the world, Pacific Union College students Alex Nelson and Gilund Fayard were spending their summer working as guides for the outdoor adventure company, Way to Moab in Moab, Utah, and had no idea their lives would change in just a short few days. When given the opportunity to join relief efforts in Beirut, both young men jumped at the opportunity. 

Fayard admits the decision to travel to a foreign country with little planning and notice was a bit reckless. They were unable to confirm accommodations before they departed and arrived in Beirut in the middle of the night and slept on the airport floor but both students called it providential as they watched answers to their many challenges fall into place one after the next. Before even leaving the airport they were offered housing from a friend of a friend and met strangers who offered rides, wifi, food, and lots of prayer.

What made you decide to travel to Beirut?

Gil: I decided to go based on my personal connections, my skill set, and my flexibility. This summer, I worked as a guide for an outdoor adventure company called "Way to Moab" in Moab, Utah. My employers, Micheal and Susan Duehrssen, have connections to a nonprofit organization called Gideon Rescue Company which has responded to nearly every domestic and international disaster for the last several years. They invited the Way to Moab guides to go to Beirut with them. I was inspired to take this opportunity. I knew I would get to use my skills in emergency medical care and technical rescue. Additionally, as a full-time student, I don't live a very flexible lifestyle during most of the year so it being summer, allowed for me to leave my life for a week to serve. The final factor in my decision to go to Beirut was God. I felt a calling to risk my comfort and security for others so I could show God's love through service to a struggling nation. 

Alex: Many circumstances aligned providentially to allow us to go to Beirut. This summer Gill and I have been working in Moab, Utah, as rafting and rock-climbing guides. We work for a company called Way to Moab, which is owned by a legendary adventist ER doctor named Michael Duehrssen. Dr. D is the founder of Union's International Rescue and Relief program and has lots of experience working in disaster response and emergency services. Two of Dr. D's students from Union, Kory Meidell and Brock Mayer, started an organization called Gideon Rescue Company (GRC) which sends response teams to pretty much every major disaster to provide physical, mental, and spiritual support wherever it is needed. Kory and Brock invited the Duehrssen family to join the response to Lebanon, and that invitation was extended to all of us guides who work for their company. The Duerhssen family was not able to join us on the trip but they were willing to let Gill and I take a week off work and join the GRC team. We were very excited to have an opportunity to head to Lebanon with GRC to offer help!

Have you responded to other disasters or was this your first experience?

Gil: The explosion in Beirut was the first disaster I responded to. 

Alex: Not exactly, but my family was living in the Dominican Republic at the time of the massive Haiti earthquake in 2010. We felt it where we lived, and my dad, who is an orthopedic surgeon, was on the ground in Haiti (which borders the D.R.) just a few days after the quake. I came over a few months later and the country was still in ruin at that time. As an 11 year old I wasn't very helpful in the disaster recovery operations, but that experience peaked my interest in disaster relief.

You're in the emergency services program at PUC, do you have any other training/certificates?

Gil: Through PUC's emergency services program, I've been training as an emergency medical technician (EMT), along with technical rope rescue, swift water rescue, search and rescue, and emergency vehicle operations. I've also been trained as a firefighter through Napa County's CALFIRE volunteer fire academy. I'm an active member of the Angwin Volunteer Fire Department as a firefighter EMT during the school year.

Alex: Through the PUC emergency services program we get our EMT licenses and training in technical rope rescue, swiftwater rescue, and search and rescue, as well as some certifications in ICS (incident command system). Gill and I are also trained as firefighters through the Angwin Volunteer Fire Department, which is officially separate from PUC and the EMS program but the two are very connected. 

What made you decide to be an EMT?

Gil: When I was an incoming freshman at PUC, I wanted to learn a new skill that was service oriented, practical, and exciting, so becoming an EMT seemed like an appealing opportunity. As a pre-med student, I was also eager to gain medical skills and experience to make myself knowledgeable of my future professional field and to build my confidence in working with patients. The excitement and intensity of pre-hospital care was also appealing to me. 

Alex: I was interested in becoming an EMT because it sounded like an exciting way to help people and I thought it would be a good fit for my personality and interests. Getting your EMT license is a great stepping stone to becoming a paramedic, nurse, or doctor, and it has enabled me to get work experience and medical experience while in college.

What were your days in Beirut like?

Gil: We spent most of our days working in a mobile medical clinic. We would take a taxi from our apartment to Makassed General Hospital, then we would hop on our bus and drive to ground zero. We worked with two recently graduated Lebanese nurses. They were crucial as we didn't speak the language. On Sabbath, we traveled to the North Eastern regions of Beirut and met Rick McEdward, the President of the North Africa and Middle East Adventist Union. He gave us a tour of the Union's headquarters and told us many incredible stories of how God is working in the midst of religiously and politically tense countries. On Sunday, our team worked with ADRA. We cleaned up rubble, glass, wood, and trash scattered across streets, alleys, and residential buildings. 

Alex: Almost every day was different. The first two days we worked in the mobile clinic with Makassed General Hospital. On Friday I worked with an organization called AlMakan, a grassroots relief organization that was started immediately after the explosion and is run mainly by Muslim women. They assess community needs and help families by providing aid such as clothing, hygiene supplies, rubble cleaning, repairs, and financial support. Sabbath we spent at Middle East University, an Adventist University in the middle of Beirut. We had lunch with the president of the Middle East and North African Union, Rick McEdwards, and he told us about the incredible things God is doing in that part of the world. Sunday we worked with ADRA to clean up streets filled with rubble and broken glass from the explosion. Monday was our last day and we spent the morning making food bags for families and then handing them out in the neighborhoods. In the afternoon we visited a woman we had met on the street the day before. She heard one of our team members, Cesar Silva, speaking in Spanish and connected with us because she had lived in Venezuela for many years. We connected with her over our ability to speak spanish and were able to visit her and share Jesus. 

Can you share with us a moment, person, or experience during your time there that made an impact on you?

Gil: On our very first day, Alex and I took a walk to see the blast damage. On our way back, once we reached the base of our apartment building, a woman approached us and introduced herself. Her name is Solauf, she is a Lebanese woman who lived in San Diego for many years and recently moved back to Lebanon. She lived in the apartment complex across the street from us. After we told her what we were doing in Beirut, she offered to do anything for us. Throughout our time there, she drove us around, let us come to her apartment for WIFI, she helped us exchange our American dollars to the Lebanese currency, and she even took us out to eat real Lebanese food on our last night in town. I am confident God used Solauf to help guide us in Beirut. 

Alex: When we booked our tickets to Lebanon we didn't have a place to stay in Beirut and we had no idea what we would do when we got there. The philosophy of Gideon Rescue is to respond quickly and trust God to work out the details, and that's exactly what we did. When we arrived in Beirut at 1 a.m., God provided us with a nice, comfortable tile floor to sleep on at the airport for the first night. After that he provided us with a nice, comfortable tile floor in an empty apartment owned by a friend of a friend of a friend. Although we had a place to stay, we still needed help with transportation, food, and logistics. On the morning of our first day in Beirut God provided these things through a kind woman named Soulaf. She introduced herself as we were walking along the street in front of our apartment. She spoke perfect English and said she lived across the street. She gave us her phone number and offered to help us with anything we needed. Then she took us into the small convenience store across the street and to the restaurant next door, and told the owners of both those places to give us anything we wanted the whole time we were there and to put it on her tab. Throughout the week Soulaf drove us around whenever we needed, let us use her wifi and washing machine, bought and made us lots and lots of food, and even worked with us to make food bags on our last day in Beirut. She was such a blessing to us and it was amazing to see how God sent her to provide for all of our needs. 

Was there anything you learned in your classes or from professors at PUC that you were able to utilize?

Gil: I was able to use multiple skills taught to me by my EMT professors, Jeff Joiner and Matt Russell. I specially used knowledge and skills taught in our EMT classes like wound care, pharmacology, and patient assessments. Most importantly, when working with the Lebanese patients, I had confidence in my decisions regarding their treatment. Confidence is a quality taught to me by Jeff and Matt through hours of lectures, studying, and training. 

Alex: Yes, very much. We certainly used our EMT training as we worked in the medical clinic, and all of our training in disaster management and team management was valuable. It was also very educational to see how the relief response was organized and which parts of it worked well. It was like a field trip to observe all the things that we talk about in class.

Do you feel your experience changed you at all?

Gil: Responding to the explosion in Beirut made me realize the potential of my skills. As we traveled, we were prepared and willing to offer medical, rescue, and clean up services as long as the government allowed us to do so. As we served day by day, my confidence in my skills increased since I was using them in real life scenarios. Serving in Beirut was exciting for me. I enjoyed using my skills, meeting people, and doing God's work. Because of my experience here, I know I'll definitely be open to more disaster relief in the future. I saw God work his blessings right before my eyes. International travel often requires months of planning. Where will we stay? What will we do? What will we eat? What will we do for transportation? When Alex and I bought our plane tickets to Beirut, we had answers to none of these questions. However, these questions were answered over the span of a few hours, during our layover in Qatar, we were connected to people who had work for us to do. When we landed in Beirut, we were given a place to stay. To me, this is evidence God was guiding our trip. During our week, He provided the answers to these questions on numerous occasions. 

Alex: Every experience changes you. Going to Beirut was a great spiritual experience, as we were forced to step out in faith and trust God to provide, which He certainly did. It was awesome to meet the members of GRC who are passionate about helping people and sharing God's love. From an educational perspective, it was fantastic to be part of a disaster response and put into practice all of the things we learn in class.

You responded to a disaster in a different country during a worldwide pandemic. What necessary precautions did you take to ensure your own safety as well as others?

Gil: Responding to Lebanon during the pandemic was at times concerning and challenging. We flew from Los Angeles to Beirut through Qatar Airways, and in order to board the flight, we had to present negative COVID-19 tests to the check -in attendant. We made sure we wore face masks and plastic face shields pretty much the entire time. Once we landed in Beirut, and passed through customs, we were immediately tested for COVID-19 again. As we worked and traveled in Beirut, we always wore face masks. 

Do you feel your experience changed you at all?

Gil: Serving in Beirut was exciting for me. I enjoyed using my skills, meeting people, and doing God's work. Because of my experience here, I know I'll definitely be open to more disaster relief in the future. I saw God work His blessings right before my eyes. International travel often requires months of planning. Where will we stay? What will we do? What will we eat? What will we do for transportation? When Alex and I bought our plane tickets to Beirut, we had answers to none of these questions. However, these questions were answered over the span of a few hours, during our layover in Qatar, we were connected to people who had work for us to do. When we landed in Beirut, we were given a place to stay. To me, this is evidence God was guiding our trip. During our week, He provided the answers to these questions on numerous occasions. 

Alex: Every experience changes you. Going to Beirut was a great spiritual experience, as we were forced to step out in faith and trust God to provide, which He certainly did. It was awesome to meet the members of GRC who are passionate about helping people and sharing God's love. From an educational perspective, it was fantastic to be part of a disaster response and put into practice all of the things we learn in class.

Alex: We took the usual precautions of wearing masks and staying 6 feet from others when possible. Luckily Lebanon has fewer cases and everyone was very good about wearing masks and taking precautions. 

Did the pandemic limit your ability to help in any way?

Gil: The pandemic did not necessarily limit my ability to help, but it required me to be more resourceful and prepared!

Alex: I didn't feel very limited however some team members had a very difficult time getting quick Covid-19 tests before we left the U.S. and were almost not able to come, but God provided! Once we were in Beirut we took precautions while we were working but it did not hinder our ability to work. 

Learn more about PUC's emergency services program at puc.edu/academics. Our team of admissions counselors can answer any questions you have about these programs, or the other majors the college offers. Call (800) 862-7080, option 2 or email admissions@puc.edu to get connected with a counselor now and start learning about all the options available to you!