Rebecca Jay has been in Chile for less than three months, but the Susquehanna University junior said the South American nation has quickly become home.
That home is on fire, but she is safe in a hotel in the northern part of the nation. On Monday, hundreds of protesters defied an emergency decree and confronted police in Chile's capital of Santiago, continuing disturbances that have left at least 11 dead and led the president to say the country is "at war." The protests were triggered by a relatively minor increase in subway fares of less than 4 percent. Analysts said they were fed by frustration over a long-building sense that many Chileans were not sharing in the nation's advances.
Jay, a New Hampshire native who graduated from Milton Hershey High School, is spending the semester abroad as part of the Susquehanna University Global Opportunities program, which requires students to study off-campus for several weeks or an entire semester. Reached via messenger on Monday from a hotel in Calama, Chile, nearly 1,000 miles north of Santiago, Jay said she is safe, but saddened by what she sees. She is staying in a hotel with her program director and university officials are checking in with her three times a day.
On Monday, university spokeswoman Amanda O'Rourke said "The university remains in contact and is monitoring the situation." She said Jay is the only Susquehanna University student in Chile.
"Fires are being started, tear gas is being thrown, supermarkets are being closed, water is being cut off. My heart is broken," Jay said. "Chile has become my home in such a short time and I have found myself crying more tears this week than I have all year. People are hurting, people are dying, people aren’t returning home to their families."
Jay said she flew to Chile to begin her semester abroad in late July. She is scheduled to return Dec. 14, but was hoping to stay for several more weeks after the conclusion of her semester to work with a children's foundation she has been volunteering with during her time in Chile. "However, as of right now, I am not sure if that is going to happen," she said.
The Spanish and Education major's program is located in Santiago, where she attends the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. After graduation, she wants to "work with underprivileged children and give them a chance for a better life. Whether that leads me to translation, teaching English, being an immigration lawyer or teaching Spanish, I am not sure. I just know I want to help children that grew up in some of the same conditions as myself.
"My main focus while being abroad is helping people and learning about the world. I grew up in the foster care system and without family most of my life," she said. "I fought for so many opportunities in my life, especially this one, and I won’t stop fighting until there is peace spread in more parts of the world. I’ve been praying for healing more and more every day."
Police used tear gas and streams of water to break up the march of students and union members on one of Santiago's main streets Monday, but demonstrators later reformed elsewhere. Meanwhile, police and soldiers guarded Chileans who formed long lines outside supermarkets before they reopened after many closed during a weekend that saw dozens of stores looted or burned.
"The entire country is basically on fire. Santiago cannot function without the metro," she said. "I have Chilean friends who live an hour or more away on the metro from our campus. Our drive from the airport to the hotel yesterday was so long because people were running all through the streets away from the military. Although the protests started in Santiago, things spread very quickly. In our little free time throughout the day, we were focused on watching the news instead of getting rest for the next day."
Jay and those in her program are scheduled to fly back to Santiago on Wednesday. They had return flights canceled Sunday and Monday.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.