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February 4, 2011

Egypt evacuation encounters troubles with travel, security

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Students participating in the College’s first-ever study abroad program in Cairo, Egypt were evacuated to Paris the weekend of January 29 as widespread protests broke out in the country’s capital.

Sixteen undergraduate students, along with faculty member Sooyong Kim and graduate student and program assistant Tanya Treptow, are currently at the University’s Center in Paris, where they will finish their quarter abroad.

To get to Paris, however, required a carefully orchestrated plan between Director of the Study Abroad program Martha Merritt, study abroad staff in Cairo, the Center in Paris, other University administrators, and the State Department’s Egypt Task Force.

Choosing to evacuate

Merritt and Dean of the College John Boyer were in Cairo just before protests began and visited students on the night of Sunday, January 23. The next day, Boyer flew back to the United States and Merritt flew to Paris, where she conducted business at the University’s center in Paris through Thursday.

On Tuesday, January 25, the first protests began. Though Merritt and her staff monitored the situation, the relatively orderly nature of the protests led them to believe that they would compliment the students’ experience abroad without raising safety concerns.

Classes were held inside the student apartments beginning on Tuesday because of the protests, and continued until Thursday.

As the situation in Cairo continued to deteriorate, Merritt, by now back in Chicago, convened a meeting Friday of the Study Abroad Risk and Safety Assessment Committee. That committee, made up of representatives from the Office of Risk Management, Audit, and Safety, the Legal Office, the Office of the Dean of Students, and the Study Abroad Office, began outlining scenarios.

Evacuation was considered fifty percent likely at the time, and the team began to make the required preparations.

Merritt opened communication with Academic Director of the Center in Paris Philippe Desan as part of these preparations, telling Desan that students in Cairo might need to be evacuated, and that they would ideally be sent to Paris.

In Egypt, students continued with earlier plans. A program trip had originally been planned for the South Sinai region of Egypt, where Mount Sinai and Sharm el-Sheikh are located. A group of nine students left Thursday after class for the region, expecting the remaining seven students, their professor Sooyong Kim, and their program assistant Tanya Treptow to join them Saturday. Later, when it became clear the two groups would be evacuated separately, the students dubbed the groups “The Sharm Nine” and “The Cairo Nine.”

At three in the morning Chicago time Saturday, Merritt received a phone call from Sara Abou Bakr, the on-site administrator for the Cairo study abroad program. Bakr felt that protests were becoming too unruly, and that the situation had become more urgent.

Merritt, feeling that evacuation was now seventy percent likely, began creating contact sheets listing the exact locations of each student. With nine students in Sharm el-Sheikh and Internet access cut throughout Egypt, there was pressure to account for all students before they might lose all communication.

Merritt called Assistant Director for Finance and Administration Juliana Gaither and Assistant Dean for International Education Sarah Walter at 7:30 a.m.. She also spoke with Boyer; and they decided to evacuate the Cairo program. Boyer then notified the University's top leadership.

The Evacuation

Two students had passport issues. One student had lost her passport, and was expecting to pick it up at the American Embassy in Cairo Sunday. Another student, a dual-citizen of the United States and another country, had with him his other passport, not the American passport with which he had entered Egypt. Both students had left early for Sharm el-Sheikh.

Merritt’s team began contacting the State Department Egypt Task Force and the American Embassy in Cairo in order to place all students on flights, as well as to determine whether the two students without passports would be able to evacuate with the rest of the group.

The Study Abroad team also contacted the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) faculty and members in Jerusalem for assistance in finding housing and support for any students who stayed behind, in the event that they were not allowed to leave the country.

Saturday afternoon, on-site administrator Sara Abu Bakr received word that the bus she had arranged to take the remaining students in Cairo to the airport could no longer be guaranteed.

With buses being commandeered and no taxi company guaranteeing the next day’s travel, program assistant Tanya Treptow contacted a taxi driver she knew personally. The driver agreed to transport the students with the help of two other drivers.

Merritt had also contacted a university affiliate that provides evacuation protection. That group also made some support available, but Treptow’s contact with the taxi driver and the responses from NELC faculty with local resources made it unnecessary.

By Saturday evening in Egypt, University Travel had secured 18 plane tickets on commercial flights: nine out of Cairo and nine out of Sharm el-Sheikh.Sunday morning, Treptow arrived at the student apartments in Cairo and the students, carrying the Sharm Nine student’s luggage in addition to their own, loaded onto taxis and began travelling to the airport.

University Travel confirmed with Merritt that nine students had successfully checked in at Sharm el-Sheikh, the first and only indication that the passport issues had been resolved. The group left at 1:35 p.m., bound for Vienna, since no direct flights to Paris were available.

Merritt’s team contacted the American Embassy in Vienna, along with an on-site administrator in Vienna, in case the two students without passports had trouble leaving Vienna for Paris.

The students from Sharm el-Sheikh arrived in Paris at around 10 p.m. Sunday, and were met by staff from the Center in Paris.

Meanwhile, Merritt’s team lost communication with the group of students in Cairo as they travelled to the airport. This time, University Travel notified Merritt that no one had checked in from Cairo. The commercial flight that the students booked was scheduled to leave without the students.

Merritt placed students on commercial flights for the next day, but without a guarantee that the flights would take off. With no guarantee, Merritt contacted the State Department and received confirmation Sunday night that the students were on the list for U.S. evacuation flights.

As the Cairo Nine were added to the list for evacuation flights, another complication arose: One student in the program is a Canadian citizen, and was potentially ineligible for U.S. evacuation flights. Merritt’s team placed calls to the American Embassy and the Egypt Task Force.

Merritt was told the student would not be able to take a U.S. flight with the rest of the group, and the student was placed on the Canadian list instead. Despite the complications, all seven students, Kim, and Treptow made it onto flights.

By Sunday evening, the Cairo group was in Athens, except for the one Canadian student in Frankfurt, Germany. Unable to find connecting flights, the eight people in Athens and the one student in Frankfurt spent the night in hotels, with flights scheduled the next morning.

Restarting in Paris

All the Cairo Nine arrived in Paris on Monday.

After checking into hotels, students on the program were taken shopping in waves for cold-weather clothing, which they did not bring to Egypt.

At 5 p.m. Monday, all sixteen students, Treptow, and Kim met with Center in Paris administrators to discuss various needs and arrangements.

Tuesday, Merritt and chair of NELC Theo van den Hout held a group video conference with all eighteen people evacuated from Egypt. At the meeting, Merritt told students van den Hout had decided they would have the option of studying either French or Arabic for the remainder of the program. About half of the students chose to continue with Arabic; the other half have started French.

The students met again that evening for another meeting to continue the discussion of needs and living arrangements.

The students met on Wednesday for their first class since the evacuation, in an informal two-hour session that integrated their experience with their current course, which is focused on Islamic traditions of journies as the way to knowledge.

When the students showed interest in learning about contemporary politics to contextualize their experience, graduate student and lecturer Rohit Goel agreed to teach a course on contemporary Middle-Eastern politics.

The students are currently housed in hotel rooms; rooms at the Cite Universitaire, an international student village where U of C students are housed in Paris, are being made available to them, and should be available in a few days. Those students from the Sharm Nine who paid for a night of housing in Sharm el-Sheikh out of pocket will be reimbursed by the University, according to Merritt. All other evacuation-related expenses were paid for by the University.

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