Back to School—Via a War Zone

Issue Date: 
September 11, 2006

Ph.D. candidate Shoghag Panjarian-Balian of Lebanon braved the Hezbollah-Israel war and U.S. immigration snags to come to the University


Sitting together in their hotel room in Thailand this past July, watching, horrified, as BBC-TV beamed images of Beirut International Airport runways in flames, Pitt Ph.D. candidate Shoghag Panjarian-Balian and her husband, Alec Balian, finally accepted the awful reality: Their native Lebanon had become, yet again, a war zone.

While honeymooning in Asia, the newlyweds had mapped out their future together: Return for brief visits with their parents in the Beirut suburb of Zalka, complete their immigration processing, and relocate to Pittsburgh in time for Shoghag’s orientation at Pitt in mid-August. Shoghag, a gifted researcher with a passion for fighting cancer, had turned down more than 20 postgraduate opportunities for the chance to study here. Shoghag’s field is cutting-edge: She studies how signal transduction—the process by which a cell converts one kind of signal or stimulus into another—might be used to moderate and control the behaviors of cancer cells.

But the Hezbollah-Israeli war that began July 12 threatened Shoghag’s dream. Certainly, there appeared to be no way she would reach Pitt in time for her orientation.

When John Horn, director of the Pitt medical school’s Interdisciplinary Biomedical Graduate Program, learned of Shoghag’s plight, he bent the rules for matriculation. Noting her excellent academic record and admirable resourcefulness, Horn gave Shoghag until Sept. 5 to begin her studies.

Even with that extension, though, Shoghag would be at a disadvantage. In the fast-paced Ph.D. program in which she was enrolled, every day requires extensive reading, analysis of case studies, and review of data. Every day’s absence would mean missed lectures, experiments, and preparation.

When the Malaysian airline that initially sold them their tickets home to Beirut refused to fly Shoghag and Alec to the war-torn city, they flew instead to Damascus, Syria, where they hired a driver to take them to Beirut via Lebanon’s northern border. While most Beirut residents were evacuating the city, the lane into Beirut was clear. In fact, it seemed to Shoghag and Alec that they and their driver were the only people heading toward the city.

When they finally reached the suburb of Zalka, their parents welcomed them warmly—and then begged them to leave. Nothing good would come of staying in the city, the parents pointed out. Nobody foresaw a cease-fire anytime soon.

The next morning, Shoghag and Alec drove to the U.S Embassy in Beirut to present their immigration papers. But the embassy’s officers were all at the city docks, helping to evacuate U.S. citizens. Eventually, one officer returned to the embassy, only to point out that the embassy had shut down its nonimmigrant as well as immigrant visa sections.

One delay followed another, and soon it was August. Shoghag and Alec decided that their best bet of reaching Pittsburgh soon would be to return to Damascus to get their U.S. visas from the American embassy there.

The couple spent a large part of their savings to pay a driver to take them and seven pieces of luggage, mainly through back roads, to Syria. When Shoghag and Alec arrived in Damascus, U.S. officials at the embassy there threw up another roadblock: Because Shoghag was planning to enroll in a Ph.D. program in biomedical sciences (deemed by U.S. Homeland Security as a field that posed security risks), she was told that she would have to wait for a security clearance, which would take from three weeks to 60 days.

Returning dejectedly from the embassy to Damascus’ St. Paul’s Monastery, where they were lodging, Alec said to Shoghag, e-mail everyone you know. Shoghag promptly found an Internet café and began e-mailing people at Pitt who might be able to help.

A few days later, David Clubb, director of Pitt’s Office of International Services, heard about Shoghag’s situation. At the time, Clubb was coordinating new arrivals of Pitt foreign students from all over the world. He had orientations to coordinate and paperwork to complete. But when a member of his staff told Clubb about Shoghan and her husband, Clubb phoned the medical school to discuss her difficulties. He wrote, faxed, and e-mailed a plea on Shoghag’s behalf to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, sending copies to his contacts in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Public and Diplomatic Liaison.

“I am fully aware of the importance of the [immigration] process and the critical role it plays in ensuring the security of the United States,” Clubb wrote. “Therefore, I typically would not write such a letter, but would instead let the process run its course. In this case, however, I have taken the exceptional step to write to you because of the unique and unprecedented circumstances in this case.”

Clubb went on to recount Shoghag and Alec’s story, concluding: “It would be such a tragedy on top of tragedy if all of her efforts to risk her life to get to Syria from Lebanon ultimately result in the visa being issued too late for her to start her program for this fall. …Please do not let that happen.”

In addition to contacting the Non-Immigrant Visa (NIV) unit at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Clubb also petitioned the embassy’s American Citizen Services (ACS) unit. After receiving Clubb’s letter, the ACS unit coordinated with the embassy’s NIV unit, and the latter quickly responded: Shoghag and her husband would be granted their visas.

The night before the good news reached the couple at the monastery in Syria, Shoghag couldn’t sleep for worry. Finally, at around 8 a.m., she dozed off. Soon after, the phone rang. Despite the stress and disappointments of the past month, Alec grabbed the phone with a surge of optimism. The embassy officer on the other end of the line broke the news. Alec hung up the phone and closed his eyes. The bells of St. Paul’s began ringing at 9:30 a.m., and as they did, Alec nudged Shoghag.

We made it, he told her. We’re going to America.

When their plane arrived at the Pittsburgh International Airport on Aug. 24, Clubb was waiting there to drive them to Oakland. When Shoghag and Alec found that five of their seven pieces had failed to reach Pittsburgh, they shrugged and laughed; after what they’d been through, misplaced luggage didn’t seem all that important.

Pitt’s Office of International Services had worked with the International Hospitality Mission (IHM) to find a place for the couple to stay here. IHM helps international students acclimate to Pittsburgh by providing temporary housing and sponsoring social and cultural activities for them, among other services. The IHM arranged for Shoghag and Alec to reside with a participating family in Highland Park while they arranged for permanent housing.

Eventually, the Balians’ missing luggage reached Pittsburgh from layovers in Jordan and London.

Shoghag and Alec attribute their safe arrival here to help they received from Pitt—and from God. “I always believe that God is with us,” says Shoghag, who, like her husband, is a Christian of Armenian descent. “Throughout our journey, God protected us. We are so thankful.”

As for their new home, Shoghag says, “We love Pittsburgh. We love the people, the environment, everything. I don’t know if it runs in the culture, but the people here are very hospitable.”