DATE: February 2003
SUBJECT: The VanFossens flee Israel as Bush declares war on Iraq
Tel Aviv, Israel - There are many victims in war, but among the ones accounted for in the media are the thousands of US civilians living in the Middle East who choose to stay or flee as US President Bush declared war on Iraq. Lorelle and Brent VanFossen were among those, choosing to leave their life and jobs behind in Israel as Bush brought the American Forces to bear on Iraq.
Since September of 2002, the VanFossens have been prepared to either flee or “batten down the hatches” in Tel Aviv, Israel, the site of many Iraqi scud missiles in 1991 as Iraq attacked Israel in retaliation to the US’s attack on it. While there were no direct casualties from the missiles in Tel Aviv, the damage was extensive. With the alleged threat that Iraq might use biological weapons against Israel, and the instability in the area that could occur as a result of the US attack, the VanFossens decided that if they had time to get out, they would.
Over the next six months, they attended emergency evacuation and treatment programs, learning how to use their gas masks and how to give themselves inoculations against common biological and viral agents. They stocked up on food and water, with some even in the car in case they were caught “on the road”. Evacuation routes and emergency shelter outside of Tel Aviv were planned and studied. And the media was studied and rumors listened to as they tried to predict “when” war was coming. In early January, they learned that the US and British Embassies were quietly instructing all of their workers to get their families out of the country by January 20, and the VanFossens realized that it was now just a matter of a few weeks. Making flight arrangements and then changing them at last minute, waiting and watching the news, they finally left two weeks ahead of the actual starting date of the war.
“We lived every day wondering if today was the day, or maybe tomorrow, or the next, or the next,” Lorelle VanFossen laughed weakly. “I would joke that I had been trying to have a little chat with my buddy, Bush, and that I didn’t want to take up much of his time, I just wanted to know ‘when’. Not a conversation but just a date. Not much to ask. After all, we’re having to rearrange our whole lives around that one date – so what trouble is a little hint?”
They few with their cat, Dahni, to Spain, rented a motor home, and traveled the northern coast, listening to the shortwave radio for news of war and of their friends in Israel. What began as a three week “vacation” was stretched out as Bush’s prediction of “a quick defeat” lengthened on and on. After six weeks, they were running out of money so they flew home to the US to wait with family until the war was over and the US State Department said it was safe to return to Israel.
“Dahni survived the whole refugee thing better than we did,” says Brent VanFossen. “In the motor home and for most of the time in the States, the cat had our attention twenty-four/seven. He loved flying on the airplanes and riding in vehicles. Who wouldn’t? But I think we grew a lot of gray hairs waiting and wondering and worrying.”
In Israel, after the first few days of war, with no missiles or biological weapons raining down upon their heads, most civilians stopped carrying their gas masks everywhere, feeling fairly safe. Palestinian and Arab terrorists continued with their attacks, both big and small, against Israel, and Israel struck back, but it was life as usual, just a lot more stressful, waiting and wondering what was going to be the end result and how was this all going to affect Israel.
By the first week of May, Bush announced that the “war was over” and that Iraq was now under the control of the US and its allies. Brent returned to Israel while Lorelle stayed in the states a bit longer to deal with some family issues, and then rejoined her husband in Tel Aviv.
“It’s been strange to live in a ‘war zone’, as Israel has been for the past three years that we’ve lived here during the current Intifada. You get used to living among the increased security and the threat of terrorism. But Bush’s attack on Iraq, especially without a worldwide coalition and united opinion, was something different and very frightening,” admits Brent. “Even though ‘nothing’ happened in Israel, I’m glad we were able to get out. But there are a lot of people here, and in other countries without that freedom when it comes to being a refugee.”
Brent VanFossen has returned to his job as a contract structural engineer with Israel Aircraft Industries and Lorelle has returned to her writing and running their photography business and working hard to make up for the money they spent living as “refugees” for several months. While Israel basically remained unaffected by war, the loss of income and toll from stress on the VanFossens, two of the 4 million US citizens living overseas also affected by this war, the psychological and financial damage will take longer to recover from.