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An unexpected adventure: Macon County couple recalls evacuation from Israel

Although the Niskanens found themselves in a precarious situation in Israel, they still marveled at its natural beauty, like here at the Sea of Galilee. Donated photo Although the Niskanens found themselves in a precarious situation in Israel, they still marveled at its natural beauty, like here at the Sea of Galilee. Donated photo

When Hamas hit Israel with a massive terrorist attack on Oct. 7, there were an estimated 600,000 Americans in the country. While many were residents, there were also plenty who were tourists and had planned to head home within just a few days. 

Such was the case for Paul and Valerie Niskanen, of Macon County. Like many others, including some who are still stranded there, they found themselves struggling to find a way out, until a U.S. Congressman offered a helping hand.

A Dream Vacation

The Niskanens had originally booked a trip to Israel for May 2023 but had to reschedule to October. No big deal, they thought. All they had to do was simply move their deposit to a tour with a different date. They left from Atlanta on Oct. 2, and after a series of layovers arrived on Oct. 3.

They were supposed to fly home on Oct. 13, but that didn’t come to pass.

They’d booked their trip through Shoresh Study Tours, a company that offers travelers the chance to “understand the Jewish roots of the Christian faith” while becoming a “better informed, more inspired and faith-filled disciple of Jesus.” The tour brought the Niskanens’ group of 27 total visitors to sites mentioned in the Bible, including some where Jesus himself had walked. They called it “the trip of a lifetime.”

Along with floating in the Dead Sea and taking a boat across the Sea of Galilee, the group went to numerous archaeological sites. Paul reveled in the fact that the tour guides were experts in history, particularly Biblical history. They seemed to know every date and the background of every major event.

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“Some of our members were actually baptized or rebaptized in the Jordan River,” Valerie said. “It was just amazing.” The best memory for both of them seemed to come when they went to visit a historic church. As they were taking it in and learning about the building’s history, in walked a group of Korean travelers who immediately sat down and started singing.

“They sounded like heaven,” Valerie said. “They were singing in Korean, but I recognized that the hymn was ‘It is Well with my Soul.’” 

“It brought tears to almost everyone’s eyes,” Paul added.

The News

But the joyous travelers were abruptly thrust into uncertainty.

Hamas launched their surprise attack in Israel on Saturday, Oct. 7, a date that will no doubt live in infamy for the country. On that first day, Hamas lobbed thousands of rockets into Israel, and thousands of armed combatants breached a border security fence and began indiscriminately killing soldiers and civilians alike. Israel quickly retaliated by launching strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza. In a matter of days, thousands were left dead on both sides. 

Although the Niskanens weren’t able to watch much in the way of news, they still had some indications of how bad the situation was. 

“We were told by the people, like the guy that ran the guest house, that it was probably worse than what people were hearing in the news,” Paul said.

On the bus ride to their next destination, The Dead Sea, the group was supposed to make several stops at points of interest.

“Instead, we were just going flat out down the highway to get to inside the compound at the Dead Sea,” Valerie said.  

The Niskanens were able to continue some parts of their tour at the Dead Sea, where they said they were closest to the fighting. There, they could hear far-off explosions and see contrails from Israeli fighter jets crisscrossing the sky.

According to Reuters , Israel called up 360,000 Israeli Defense Force reservists in the wake of the Hamas attacks. Among them was the Niskanens’ tour guide.

“He was fairly newly married,” Paul said. “His wife was in Jerusalem, and we were at the Dead Sea then, and you could see the stress on his face.”

Eventually, the group got a new tour guide. After staying at the Red Sea an extra night, they passed through Masada en route to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the conflict dominated the news cycle, and people began to worry. A friend back in Macon County put up a post on Facebook that said the Niskanens were in Israel and asked people to pray for them. However, the Niskanens had been instructed by a tour leader not to post on social media anything that’d let people know where they may be. Their friend took down the post.

The Bomb Shelter

The Niskanens and their tour group made it to Jerusalem, where they stayed in another walled-in compound with a church, support buildings and housing.

“It was kind of cool,” Valerie said. “It was like old-fashioned hotel rooms, and there was a dining hall. The man who ran it was originally from Indiana, but he’s been in Israel for many years and raised his children there. His son was in the Israeli reserves, and he was worried about him getting called up. The second day, he was called up.” 

In Jerusalem, things seemed closer to what the Niskanens expected was the norm. There wasn’t any immediate cause for concern, with one key exception.

“One time I was scared,” Paul said.

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One of the most spectacular sights was Capernaum, a ruinous ancient city in northern Israel. Donated photo

When they’d arrived at the compound, the Niskanens were instructed where the bomb shelter was and that no matter what — even if the siren woke them up in the middle of the night — they were to drop whatever they were doing, bring nothing and get to the bomb shelter. They were told they should try to make it within 60 seconds.

Valerie said the first night everyone was vigilant and even a bit on-edge, but after that, they relaxed. One day, they were about a block away from the compound gate. The shops they were visiting were set up like shotgun homes, long and narrow, and when the siren sounded, Valerie was near the back of one building.

She said the locals didn’t pay much mind to the sirens since they’d heard them so many times, but she and her husband quickly got to the bomb shelter inside the walls of the compound. She said that although they never found out for sure what happened, there were explosions.

“It shook the ground, but it didn’t feel really close,” she said. “It was close enough to say it felt real.”

Things were somewhat tense. While the Niskanens said there hadn’t been a lot of emotion outward expressions of stress during everyone’s strange experience, in the bomb shelter, some people broke down.

“I think the only time I saw really emotion or fear from anyone was when we were in the bomb shelter,” she said. “Some people in there were crying and they were scared.” 

On The Road

In Jerusalem, the Niskanens worked hard to find a way home, but outbound flights were being canceled one after another, in some cases, right after the Niskanens had booked them.  

“We still saw some amazing things, but in the meantime, we were trying to get a flight out,” Valerie said, adding that Paul skipped the chance to go to some of the sites in that city because he was diligently searching for a solution. “I said ‘you’re not going to get any flights.’ The writing was on the wall at that point.”

Other people took their own extreme measures to feel safe in the uncertain situation.

“There were a couple of retired law enforcement officers, a husband-and-wife team; they had contacted one of these private security teams they found on the web or somebody connected them with,” Paul said.

The Niskanens sought other help. First, they reached out to Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon) who is also a good friend, and eventually they also reached out to Rep. Chuck Edwards’ office. They dealt primarily with one of his staffers, Lisa Wiggins, who they said went above and beyond to work toward getting them out of there.

“Every time I asked for something, she was right on the spot,” Paul said. “I think she was working around the clock.”

But still, there was only so much those parties could do. Edwards’ office connected the Niskanens with another House Representative, Cory Mills, (R-Florida). Mills, an Army veteran who’d deployed to Iraq, was uniquely equipped to take on the task of evacuating Americans, considering he’d been in the region before, speaks Arabic and had even aided in the evacuation of Afghanistan in August 2021.

Mills agreed to help.

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The Niskanens with Rep. Cory Mills [above] and visiting the Jaffa Gate in Old Jerusalem [below]. Donated photos

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It wasn’t long before the Niskanens got moving. Valerie joked that it felt like being a child on vacation. They were told when to get their luggage and which bus to board. Valerie said that like children, she and Paul had “total trust” in the people handling their evacuation. They left the compound on Oct. 12, one day before they would have originally flown home had the conflict not broken out. Their first night on the road was spent at a hotel in the western part of Jerusalem.

While they were at that hotel, Israeli refugees who’d fled Gaza poured into the lobby. Mostly women and children, many had just the clothes on their back, and the Niskanens recalled that some didn’t even have shoes on. However, other than that, Paul said they looked healthy.

The Niskanens were amazed by how well the refugees were cared for. So many donations poured in that the hotel lobby was full from wall to wall and officials eventually had to turn away further offerings.

“We were told those donations were coming from Israelis, not from the Red Cross, not from the government, but from Israelis,” Valerie said.

“We were kind of impressed that they have something in place to take care of people in a situation like this,” she added.

At the hotel, the Niskanens met Mills and a couple of his staffers. The next day, they joined their new host on a charter bus. Along with some people from their original group were other Americans who had been closer to the combat, including some who had spent several days in a bomb shelter at their hotel. 

They drove to Israel’s northern border, where they got on another bus and entered Jordan, a country the Niskanens figured they’d never see. Mills’ staffers went ahead of the bus with photos of everyone’s passports to make sure the crossing went smoothly.

“Every step of the way, everything was planned out,” Paul said.

In Jordan, the Niskanens boarded a smaller shuttle bus and others poured into minivans. The trip through that country wasn’t particularly eventful, but it was interesting, especially since they took some less-traveled roads. 

news Where Jesus walked

The Niskanens were able to go places where Jesus walked. Donated photo

“For a little while, we drove along the river, and then suddenly, they turned left and went up on this little tiny road, and you could look out the window and it was straight down,” Valerie said. “And it was just rubble in some places … there wasn’t rubble from bombs or something, it was just like there was something they’d built that had been there thousands of years.”

The Niskanens heaped praise on Mills for his professionalism and his calm demeanor during what was a stressful time for many evacuees. 

“He gave everybody his cell phone number, and he said, ‘If you need anything, if there’s a problem, you call me,’” Paul said. “I texted him a couple times and was like, whoa, he texted me right back.”

Coming Home

Eventually, the Niskanens got to Jordan’s capital and largest city, Amman. They were surprised with how big it was, how tall the buildings were.

“It was almost like being in Chicago on Michigan Avenue,” Valerie said.

They stayed at a nice hotel downtown for two nights. Valerie said the staff was on point, and although none appeared to be American, their English was impeccable. The contrast from their strange journey was uncanny. 

“We all agreed it was the finest hotel we had ever been in,” Valerie said. “I mean, at that point, I would have been happy if they took us to a Motel Six.”

The first night had already been paid for by Mills and everything was ready for them upon arrival. All the tired Americans had to do was go up to their rooms and try to process their experience as they came to understand the horrors that had occurred less than a hundred miles from where they had been. They spent the next day there waiting for arrangements to be finalized, a time during which Valerie fondly recalled eating good food, drinking good wine and conversing with other Americans eager to get home.

By 6 p.m. that next night, the Niskanens were wheels-up on a flight to Dubai. From there, they went to Newark and finally Atlanta. That return journey totaled 25 hours. 

“I don’t fly well,” Valerie said. “So I was glad when we got to Atlanta and got all those flights over with.” 

During their interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Paul said that he still hadn’t processed all that’d happened, especially in light of the rapidly developing conflict in Israel, but that he knew for sure he didn’t regret going.

“I just learned so much history, so much Biblical history,” he said.

“I would love to back again,” Valerie added. “I probably won’t, but I would hope my children go someday.”

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