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February 15, 2011

Cairo students discuss time abroad

Second-year Isamar Villasenor will always remember the events that took place three weeks ago by the sounds of the cell phones ringing.

“I think I had the ringtone recorded in my mind—the ringtone of the phones—because we all had the same ringtone, and the phones would ring every five minutes. Even on the plane, when phones are not allowed to be turned on, I could hear the ringtone. That’s how much we were communicating,” she said.

Villasenor was one of sixteen students who, along with program assistant Tanya Treptow and faculty member Sooyong Kim, were evacuated from Cairo the weekend of January 29 as a populist protest movement spread throughout the Egyptian capital.

After protests broke out on January 25, classes were held in student apartments. On Thursday, January 27, classes were held in the classroom again. According to second-year Dory Fox, it didn’t seem like cause for concern.

“There was hardly anything going on on Thursday, it really seemed like everything was sort of calming down,” she said.

Fox, along with eight other students, set out via overnight bus at midnight Thursday for an excursion to Egypt’s Sinai region, including visits to Mt. Sinai and the town of Dahab.

The other seven students remained in Cairo, planning to meet up on Saturday afternoon. By then, protests had stepped up and the students in Cairo were unable to leave the city. The students making up the “Dahab Nine,” as they came to call themselves, went snorkeling, with the plight of the “Cairo Nine” in the back of their minds.

“It was so weird to have so much in your mind, and then be snorkeling and looking at pretty little fish,” Villasenor said.

Fox agreed. “We’d be happy for thirty seconds to five minutes, then someone would be like, ‘Wait a second. What’s actually happening?’ And then we’d get all depressed and not talk,” she said.

When the decision to evacuate came down later that day, two students’ passport issues rose to the forefront.

One of those students, second-year Richard Pichardo, is a dual-citizen and had the wrong passport with him. “I only had my Dominican passport with me, and the American passport was in Cairo. In order to come to Europe, you need a Visa if you’re Dominican. So that was the main problem.”

Fox had lost her passport earlier in the week and was expecting to pick it up on Sunday. “I had ordered a new passport and everything, and it was supposed to be ready that Sunday,” she said. “I don’t know how it happened, but I managed to do transcontinental travel without a passport.”

Treptow attributed the clearing of passport issues to Director of the Study Abroad program Martha Merritt and her staff. “It’s because the people in Chicago called every single embassy or state department staff that they could.”

After Pichardo and Fox had their passport issues cleared, the Dahab Nine were able to fly out on Sunday afternoon and arrive in Paris that night.

“The important thing to know about the Dahab experience was all along the way we were really, really wondering what was happening in Cairo,” Fox said.

“We had no idea what was going on on a personal level for them, and we had a hard time, when we got out of Egypt and they were still in the airport. We were very concerned about them. When we were in Paris and they were still in the Cairo airport, it was just awful and weird, and I kept on saying, ‘I’m not going to be happy until they’re here, and they have jackets because they’re going to be cold.’ Even though when we got to Paris I was really unhappy, I just said to myself, ‘I’m not going to complain about being in Paris until they can no longer complain about still being in Cairo,’ which helped me shut up a little bit more,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Cairo Nine were attempting to evacuate but huge crowds prevented them from reaching their scheduled flight on Sunday, according to fourth-year Sara ElShafie.

“There were thousands and thousands of people trying to escape the country at once. So first of all, the traffic was backed up leading to the terminal for at least a mile. Cars were just not moving. Then when we actually got to the terminal, there was a swarm of people just trying to pack into the front door. And they were trying to limit the number of people that they let in at a time, so it took us about forty-five minutes just to force our way through the front door with our suitcases. It was really unpleasant. Once we got inside the terminal it was just complete chaos. Utter chaos. For me, being in that terminal was probably the most harrowing part of the entire ordeal because it was a sea of people,” she said.

“The terminal was packed with people and you literally could not move. It was really like every person for themselves, every family for themselves, people were just trying to force their way through the crowd. Passing their luggage over their heads, passing kids in strollers over their heads, it was really crazy. And people were passing out because it was so hot. There were nine of us, but we had eighteen people’s worth of stuff, because we were bringing luggage for all the people in Sinai. By the time we actually got through the first security checkpoint, it was like ten minutes before our flight was supposed to take off or something, they wouldn’t even check us into the flight, the plane took off without us,” ElShafie said.

After their next flight got cancelled, the Cairo Nine were placed on a list for U.S. evacuation flights, but they ran into their own passport issues when it emerged that third-year Ming Liu is a Canadian citizen.

“Ming was supposed to be on that flight with us by permission, but they just said, ‘Too many U.S. citizens,’ they couldn’t even do it,” Treptow said.

Merritt was able to get Liu on a Canadian flight to Frankfurt, Germany, where she spent the night before being reunited with the other students in Paris.

The students are now studying at the University’s Center in Paris, where their classes have changed to allow them to reflect on their experience.

Six of the students have elected to continue language instruction in Arabic, while the remaining ten have chosen French instead.

For ElShafie, learning French has helped her with the transition.

“I’ve actually always wanted to learn some French and I decided there’s no better time to do it than when I’m living in Paris for a month. Also, I think starting to learn French definitely helped me feel less alienated, because I went from being in a country where I could communicate pretty fluently, and then I came here and I didn’t know a word. So, learning French has helped with getting over culture shock,” she said.

The third class of the quarter, which was originally scheduled to be taught by faculty member Donald Whitcomb, has been changed from focusing on Islamic archaeology to the politics of the contemporary Middle East. Graduate student and lecturer Rohit Goel agreed to teach the course.

Reliving the experience, the students interviewed said that the kindness of the Egyptians was a constant theme throughout.

“The best moment was when we landed in Greece, and the flight attendant, what did she say? She was like, ‘We hope you enjoy your stay in Athens. Thank you for choosing Lotus air,’” Treptow said.

The moment was striking, said ElShafie. “We were just like, ‘Oh my god, you’re serving us, and you’re getting us to safety, and your families are in Cairo where there are robbers on the streets.’ It was really moving, that’s all I have to say,” she said.

According to ElShafie, the experience of evacuating was memorable not only for its chaos but for the kindness and compassion she saw.

“Despite how inconvenient and frustrating everything was, it was actually a really incredible experience because to be there with all the other American tourists and citizens that were being evacuated, we were starting to hear some of their stories, because up to that point it had only been us together. And they all unanimously were saying that they were incredibly impressed and humbled by the Egyptian people, and they all had stories of tour guides, security guards, risking their lives to get them out safely. It was really amazing. And it seemed like everybody had been inspired by the Egyptians basically banding together to help each other out. So everyone was sharing water, sharing food,” she said.

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