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American evacuees from Lebanon greeted with helping hands
27 July 2006
by Chris Yakaitis

Nazmie Taleb (right), 70, looks around as her son, Hussein Taleb (centre), talks to volunteer Pauline Jones (left), who helps them with travel plans. (Photo: Karl Merton Ferron/ Taleb (right), 70, looks around as her son, Hussein Taleb (centre), talks to volunteer Pauline Jones (left), who helps them with travel plans. (Photo: Karl Merton Ferron/
"Boogie," says Pat Ash, a Red Cross volunteer, as she points down the terminal for two new arrivals. "[To] the way other end of the airport."

Moments later, Hussein Taleb, 32, and his 70-year-old mother Nazmie Taleb, fresh from the Lebanon evacuation, hustled from the international arrival terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to a hoped-for connecting flight.

Accompanied by an interpreter and another Red Cross volunteer, Sal Culotta, who pushed Nazmie Taleb in a wheelchair, they raced to the Southwest Airlines ticketing counter at the opposite end of the airport.

They were trying to make a 9:50 flight to Hartford, Conn., but the flight departed as they got to the counter.

"Well, we tried," Culotta of Catonsville said. "At least we can walk back."

It was one more example of the efforts of state officials and volunteers to get evacuees from Lebanon back to their homes as quickly as possible.

As the tide of evacuees from Lebanon continued arriving Wednesday at airports in Baltimore and Philadelphia, Congress passed a bill ensuring funding for the huge repatriation effort. It raises the $1 million cap on federal repatriation programme funding to $6 million for the current year.

"Congress has done its business," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families in the US Department of Health and Human Services, Wednesday evening. "We are very, very appreciative of the Congress taking up this issue."

The measure was introduced Monday by Rep. William M. Thomas, a California Republican, and by late Wednesday afternoon had been approved on voice votes by the House and Senate and sent on to the White House.

Repatriation centres were set up last week at BWI and Philadelphia International Airport to ease the journey homeward for evacuated Americans.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. visited the repatriation centre set up in the international terminal before Wednesday night's flight arrived, and praised the job being done by the state workers and volunteers. "It's the way the country's supposed to work ... it's seamless," he said.

Another 190 arrived at BWI at 8:45 Wednesday night - the Talebs among them - and were greeted by case workers, interpreters and volunteers from as far as Centerville, Va.

"Everyone's owning the process, the repatriation," said Michelle T. Stallings, director of the office of field resources for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "It's been phenomenal."

Before that flight, about 3,750 people had returned through BWI and more than 4,000 others had landed in Philadelphia since last Thursday, with still more flights scheduled at both airports later this week.

Maryland state officials estimate the total cost of the repatriation process will be $600,000.

John Droneburg, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said the money will be reimbursed by the federal government.

"That's very modest for what you see here because most of it's volunteer," Droneburg said.

The state has reserved hotel rooms for incoming evacuees, provided emergency cash and staffed the international terminal since last Thursday.

In addition, the Central Maryland chapter of the American Red Cross has provided food for the arrivals, and care packages for children.