Inside Higher Ed: Getting out of Egypt

By Sam Petulla, for Inside Higher Ed

January 31, 2011

Study-abroad programmes across Egypt are scrambling to protect, feed and evacuate their students while mass protests rock the country.

The American University in Cairo, Middlebury College, AMIDEAST and the Butler University-affiliated Institute for Study Abroad have all announced plans to evacuate their students from the country this week. No students from any of the programmes have been injured. (While American University in Cairo has several hundred study-abroad students, most of the student body is from Egypt and other countries, and while the university has cancelled classes this week, it is hoping to soon resume normal operations, most of which are at a new campus well outside the centre of Cairo.)

On Sunday night, AMIDEAST’s 21 students studying in Cairo were waiting in an apartment in the Dokki neighbourhood for word from On Call International, a contracted worldwide evacuation company, about when to expect the arrival of an armed security van to take them to the airport. A 7 plane was supposed to arrive from Athens and pick the students up that afternoon. They would then fly to Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, where students from Middlebury and the Institute for Study Abroad were to board the plane, which would fly back to Athens. (AMIDEAST is a non-profit group that promotes study abroad throughout the Middle East.)

“We have candy bars, potato chips and water,” said Christie Harrison, the Institute for Study Abroad’s director for student services, speaking from inside Alexandria International Airport last night at 9.30 EET. Both Middlebury and the Institute for Study Abroad’s students slept in the airport on Sunday night while waiting. Students did eat more nourishing meals during the day after Middlebury staff put a taxi driver to work gathering traditional Egyptian food from a nearby restaurant. More food is supposed to arrive for the students this morning.

The Institute for Study Abroad has 12 students in Alexandria and one in Cairo. Middlebury has 23 on its programme, although only five are Middlebury students. Others are from Cornell, George Washington, Tulane and Yale Universities, and Connecticut and Davidson Colleges, among other institutions.

“The military knows we’re here,” said Harrison, who said Middlebury’s residential director, a fluent Arabic speaker, had approached the military “to explain who we were and why we were here” and that the military was looking after the group. Harrison added that the airport is on the outskirts of Alexandria and that neither she nor her students had seen any violence in the area between then and the early afternoon, when they arrived.

The past few days have been eventful, to say the least. Just to get to the airport, the students had to pass through multiple army checkpoints.

In the days before that, the students were just out of reach of the upheaval in Alexandria. “We’ve seen burned-out police stations and the aftermath,” said Harrison. “The Egyptian people have gone out of their way to protect us from any kind of problems. Every time we’d see them, they’d want us to get inside, so we’d be safe and get out of the way and not be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

In the event that the plane does not arrive to evacuate the students today, Michael Kelly, On Call International’s chief executive officer and founder, said the plan is that “everyone will stay put where they’re at. We’ll probably try to bring a plane in the evening. We have 120 people we’re taking out. The second option is to bus them, but it’s not a viable option with the number of people we have.” Kelly said he had hoped for the plane to arrive on Saturday but that the appropriate clearances could not be obtained. He believes that the airport is a safe place for the students in Alexandria to be right now.

The American University in Cairo is pursuing an exit strategy for its study-abroad students with the assistance of the US State Department after the US government announced that it was making the largely charter plane-based evacuation option available for those who wanted it. The State Department has advised Americans in the area to leave “as soon as they safely may do so”.

“We’re collecting names now,” said Morgan Roth, the university’s director of communications for North America, who expects many students to opt for a flight out of the region. She expects that the first American University in Cairo students will depart Tuesday night or Wednesday, but it is likely that more students will fly out later in the week. AUC has roughly 500 American students in Cairo, of whom about 350 are study-abroad.

The State Department’s offer is open to all American citizens, which means that some faculty members may take them up on it as well.

Because of the unpredictability of the situation in Cairo and Alexandria, it is not yet clear whether students will return to Egypt and resume classes or begin in other programmes elsewhere. American University in Cairo still says classes will begin next Sunday, 6 February. AMIDEAST has other programmes around the world and says those students who do not return home will likely study in Jordan and Morocco. Middlebury says that it is unsure where it might relocate its students but that it expects to decide before they arrive in Athens.

For the American study-abroad programmes, the past few days saw a shift from assuming that the protests would be brief to viewing them as so significant that students needed to evacuate.

Most of AUC’s students just arrived last week for a spring semester abroad that was supposed to start on Sunday. On Friday, as the situation escalated and Egyptian authorities cut off internet access, Roth (who works for the university from the US) was one of the sole resources and contact points for hundreds of parents. She called Cairo for updates and shared the information. The university bought phone cards so students – whose mobile phones were blocked – could use land lines to call home, although at first students were limited to one minute of phone time.

“There was a little bit of panic,” she said. “A lot of the parents were desperate for information. They needed to hear where their students were, whether the military was evacuating kids, if we were going to be evacuating kids.”

Even before starting evacuation plans, AUC advised students to stay indoors. The university provided free pizza Friday night. The AUC Facebook page has been periodically updated with announcements and a place for parents to express their appreciation and air their grievances. At noon EST Saturday, one parent wrote: “Heard from my student today. Can’t call back into Cairo at the moment though.” A few hours later, another voiced her frustration: “When do you say, enough is enough, and evacuate the students? My son did not see any military outside the dorms.” Then, at 3pm on Sunday, another parent wrote: “Spoke with my daughter this morning but have been trying since 2pm ET to get through with no success. Seems things are quiet where they are but they are running out of supplies, no access to money as banks/ATMs are closed. Some of them including my daughter are sick because they are eating food their system is not familiar with.” Some parents of children studying in AUC spoke glowingly about the staff’s handling of the situation. “We (my wife Susan and I) feel the school’s responsibility is for local security, and AUC did a sterling job,” wrote James Holt, whose daughter, a James Madison University student, is staying in the Zamalek dorms, in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “We know they provided security when students were bussed to the dorms on the first day, and they have kept strong security around the dorms in town, as well as working closely with locals from various countries including the US, to follow proper procedures.”

The parent who wrote the comment about her daughter getting sick on AUC’s Facebook page re-evaluated her stance in an email: “AUC has been wonderful both with my daughter in Egypt and the NY office here has been in constant communication with the parents since this whole situation has unfolded. I couldn’t ask for more than they have been doing in both places.”

The University of Michigan has five students abroad studying at AUC this semester. John Godfrey, chair of the university’s international travel oversight committee, said he had been talking to AUC throughout the day on Friday. “We have established that the students have spoken with the parents,” he said. “The New York office has been in fairly regular contact [with Cairo]. We think we have an idea of what’s going on right now.”

Some students caught in Egypt were not on study-abroad programmes. The band of Augustana College of South Dakota was finishing up a tour of Egypt when it could not leave as flights were cancelled. Forty-six students in the group were able to get on a flight to Amsterdam on Sunday; the remaining students are scheduled to leave Cairo today, the college reported.

At several universities in the United States, Egyptian students and others have rallied to back those protesting for change in Cairo and elsewhere. At Iowa State University, students carried signs that read “Rise Up Egypt”, according to WHO News. Students at a rally at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities chanted “Down with Pharaoh” and “Oppression must stop”, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

And while Egyptian authorities cut off internet access to much of the country, an Ohio State University student turned to the internet to document the sympathies of students supporting the movement pushing for the ouster of Egypt’s government.

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