Just as spring semester was starting for the 53 American undergraduates enrolled in AMIDEAST programs in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco, events intervened to give them a lesson in history that they’ll never forget.
Of course, the history lesson was most vivid for the 21 students in Egypt. Drawn to “Um al-Dunya” — or “Mother of the World,” as Cairo is known to Egyptians — to study Arabic and take courses in a variety of Egyptian and regional studies topics (including Egyptology), they were settling into their new lives in Cairo’s Dokki neighborhood when the popular uprising in Tunisia spread to Egypt.
As a precaution, the students were asked to stay home Tuesday, January 25, when demonstrations were planned for “National Police Day” in Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere. Demonstrations continued into the following days, and by Thursday evening, they were instructed to gather Friday morning in the largest of the student apartments. The two-story unit on Mesaha Square, about a mile from Cairo University and across the Nile from Tahrir Square — ground zero for the popular uprising that would soon sweep the country — would be their observation point until their evacuation from Egypt three days later. From its 17th-floor balcony, they were able to witness from a safe distance history unfolding in the streets below.
"“Who knew that my decision to study abroad this semester would be a story to tell for the rest of my life?” —Study abroad student Allegra Skukra."
“Who knew that my decision to study abroad this semester would be a story to tell for the rest of my life?” study abroad student Allegra Skukra, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, remarked as she shared her experience in her blog days after she was evacuated and had begun to digest the magnitude of the changes she witnessed “locked in an apartment with 20+ people, watching the beginnings of the people's revolution unfold in Egypt.”
As the students observed and learned from their 17th-floor perch, AMIDEAST staff in Egypt and Washington, DC, maintained contact using the apartment’s landline after the Egyptian government cut Internet and cell phone services. Local staff secured food and kept them occupied with board games in Arabic and a selection of DVDs with English subtitles, while the mother of staffer Salma El-Naqqash volunteered to teach them how to cook Egyptian food.
Meanwhile, staff at AMIDEAST’s headquarters worked around the clock to arrange for their evacuation and placement in AMIDEAST’s programs in Jordan and Morocco, where they could complete their study abroad experience in the region. The decision to evacuate was taken on Saturday afternoon and put into motion by that evening, as students watched tanks roll through Mesaha Square and gunfire could be heard in the distance. But it wouldn’t be until Monday noon that secure transportation took them and their belongings to the airport to catch a charter flight to Athens. All but three of the students chose to stay in the region and attend other AMIDEAST programs already in operation.
“Hopefully we won’t have to evacuate students ever again, but even though this went relatively smoothly and we were very pleased that everyone worked extremely well as a team, we learned lessons that will improve our preparedness should we ever need to take such action again,” said Jerry Bookin-Weiner, director of AMIDEAST’s Education Abroad programs.
Although the region is passing through turbulent times, interest in study in the Arab world keeps growing. “We are committed to continuing to meet this interest by providing high quality programs, but with student safety and security remaining a paramount concern, as this episode shows,” Bookin-Weiner added. “At this point we hope to be up and running in Cairo again in the fall.”
― Appeared in AMIDEAST Impact Newsletter, January/ February 2011
To learn more about AMIDEAST Education Abroad programs, check the AMIDEAST website at /abroad/home.