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August 19, 2013

Violence in Egypt derails study abroad programs

Due to escalating violence and the government-declared state of emergency in Egypt, the Middle Eastern Civilizations study abroad program in Cairo will relocate to Paris this winter, University officials announced on Friday.

Administrators made their decision bearing in mind the State Department’s revised travel warning for Egypt urging all U.S. citizens to avoid the country and to leave if currently there, Sarah Walter, associate dean for international education, said in an e-mail to the affected students.

The warning, issued on Thursday, prompted Walter, Dean John Boyer, Professor and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations (NELC) Theo van den Hout, and the program’s faculty to convene a meeting to determine the program’s fate. All expressed reluctance to continue with the original plans, given the volatility in the region.

“The consensus of the group is that the level of uncertainty for Cairo remains too high, and is unlikely to settle in time for us to plan a safe and meaningful study abroad experience there,” Walter wrote in the e-mail.

Students enrolled in the program were notified of the developments by e-mail on Friday afternoon. According to the e-mail, students will be able to study either French or Arabic and the program fee will remain the same. Students who no longer wish to attend the program can accept a position  in the Winter Quarter Latin American Civilizations program in Oaxaca or in the Spring Quarter Middle Eastern Civilizations program in Jerusalem, as both have a select number of spots open.

Rising fourth-year Jenn Lee said she was not surprised to hear the news, given the extent of the protests.

“I wasn't shocked because I was expecting this. I've been following the news, and my dad has been constantly updating me too,” she said, “He was worried about my program in Cairo.”

Lee said she still plans to participate in the original program, despite the relocation, as she has never visited Europe and looks forward to the prospect of living in Paris.

Earlier this summer, eight UChicago students assigned to various internships in Cairo through a Career Advancement program were evacuated from the city. Though they were originally supposed to stay in Cairo for ten weeks, until August 30, the students were only in the country for about a week and a half before leaving on July 4.

According to rising third-year Brooke Goren, one of the program participants, students had a sense that the protests were a possibility but did not witness any violence when they first arrived.

“A couple days before we went over, [Career Advancement] was made aware of the fact that there were protests that were scheduled, but no one knew what was really going to happen with the protests. We knew that they were about the current president, but we didn’t really know much else about it,” she said. “People in Cairo were talking about them, like the taxi drivers.”

The day they arrived, they were told to stay in their apartments as a precautionary measure. A week later, the protests that eventually led to the ousting of Mohamed Morsi began throughout the city. Goren said her internship at a non-profit was scheduled to start that week but due to the new round of protests, she never got to start working.

When Morsi was ousted on July 3, the State Department began evacuating all non-essential embassy employees and urging American citizens to leave the country. Goren said that this influenced Career Advancement’s decision to evacuate her group, as well as the fact that other American-based programs were also evacuating their students. Many were alarmed after an American student interning at the non-profit AMIDEAST was killed in Alexandria on June 28.

After returning home, Goren found another internship at the Heartland Alliance in Chicago, where she began working in late July, through the staff at Career Advancement.

“Obviously it was sad to leave Cairo, but they did a good job at making sure I got another opportunity,” Goren said. She added that since the internship program was funded by a donor, students kept their $5,000 stipends.

In the days and weeks following the evacuation, violence in Egypt swelled. Demonstrations and protests heightened even more this past week, when the military used force to combat sit-ins by Morsi supporters. According to the Associated Press, at least 638 people were killed and nearly 4,000 were wounded on Thursday, the single deadliest day in Egypt since the Arab Spring began in early 2011. The subsequent events have often turned into bloodbaths, with protesters firing gunshots and throwing rocks, and the military intervening with tear gas.

This is not the first time that violence in the region has significantly altered UChicago study abroad programs. The protests that marked the beginning of the Arab Spring in the winter of 2011 forced the evacuation of students from Cairo to the University’s Center in Paris. Additionally, the Winter 2012 Cairo program took place in Rabat, Morocco, after the program’s faculty expressed concern over anniversary celebrations that could trigger protests and violence.

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