Tony and Monika Esseily and their three children were winding up a vacation in Lebanon when Israeli airstrikes began July 12.
They spent a week waiting for word from the U.S. Embassy, and listening to nightly bomb strikes that shook the windows and scared the children.
Their ship came in — literally — on Thursday. The Esseilys were part of a group of about 1,000 Americans evacuated with the help of U.S. Marines, who escorted evacuees to a landing craft that shuttled back and forth between the port of Beirut and the USS Nashville, which will take the evacuees to Cyprus.
Getting out wasn’t easy. The family registered July 13 with the American Embassy to get on the list to evacuate but heard nothing, Monika Esseily said Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the Esseilys decided they could wait no longer. They went to the port of Beirut, had to register again, and were told to report Thursday morning, when they might be able to get on a ship.
Thursday morning, the situation did not look promising. “I didn’t think we were going to make it,” Monika Esseily told CNN.
“There were four checkpoints everyone had to go into. The first was just totally chaotic.”
They waited at the second checkpoint for six hours, and at the end of the wait, it was chaotic as well.
“Everyone was pushing and shoving, women were crying, saying, ‘Here’s my passport, here’s my children, take my children, just take them, take them,'” Esseily said. “It was absolutely horrendous.”
The Esseilys barely got through.
“My husband had the baby on top of his shoulders, to show that we had a baby,” Monika Esseily recalled.
“It was hot, it was humid, and we just kind of squeezed in. I squeezed in with one of my children at the gate, and I said, ‘Listen, my family’s on the other side,’ so they had to bring them in.”
Then, suddenly, things got much easier. “Right when we passed the second one, we were met with the Marines,” Esseily said.
“The Marines were just so sweet, they said, ‘Here, I’ll take your bags … you’re going to be on board pretty soon, you’ll have food, you’ll have a place to sleep, you’ll have a shower.'”
“They were just so wonderful and so sweet,” she said. “All of my emotions and all my anxiety — I just lost it there.”
There was another moment of high emotion when the landing craft packed with evacuees pulled away from Beirut and chugged toward the USS Nashville.
“Beirut was in the background, and I just looked around,” Esseily recalled, “and you could see all the tears in everyone’s eyes, looking back at Beirut, thinking, ‘What is going to happen? What’s going to happen to this city, this country?'”
The Nashville left for Cyprus on Thursday evening. Monika Esseily said she has no idea what the the family will do once they get to Cyprus, or how they’ll get home to Dana Point, California, but, she said, “We’re hanging in there.”
The State Department estimates about 25,000 Americans are in Lebanon. It’s not clear how many of them want to evacuate. With the departure of the Nashville, close to 3,000 have left.
Tony Esseily is Lebanese-American, and Monika Esseily is American. They made the trip this summer so their 9-month-old son, T.J., could be baptized in Lebanon.
Monika Esseily first saw Lebanon in 1990, three months after the country’s 15-year civil war ended, as a new bride going to meet her husband’s family.
“It was devastation. I cried driving out of the airport,” she remembered.
The family lived in Lebanon from 1993 to 2001 and watched the country recover from years of war.
The scene now, Esseily said, is a “flashback to 1990.”
“I’m very saddened, and I’m very, very scared for not just the Lebanese people, [but] for the foreigners who still have not got out,” she said.
Esseily said she can’t wait to get the family home to California, but she still has mixed feelings about leaving Lebanon.
“I will have a heartache leaving,” she said, “because I will leave all of these wonderful Lebanese people behind in sorrow and heartache.”