A handful of university students who were studying abroad in Egypt returned safely to the United States yesterday after hundreds of Americans chose to evacuate the country, which has been consumed by pro-democracy protests throughout the past week.
Although the university's Education Abroad office had been monitoring the upheaval in Alexandria, Egypt, where the students were staying, for updates from the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council, Associate Director for Study Abroad Michael Ulrich said the decision to bring the students home was made when it appeared their safety may be jeopardized.
"The students in Alexandria have left Egypt and are making their way back home," Ulrich wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "It was mutually agreed by all that it was in the best interest of the students to leave Egypt."
Egypt erupted in protest after citizens took to the streets, calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country for three decades. As major cities grew more and more ungovernable, Mubarak shut down the Internet and several phone lines in an attempt to down the Internet and several phone lines in an attempt to halt communication and ordered the military and local police officials to intervene in the demonstrations. Although reports vary from Egypt's major cities, such as Cairo and Alexandria, it appears looting and police brutality have begun to stain what began as peaceful demonstrations.
Students familiar with the program guessed there were about a dozen students studying abroad in Egypt, but The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday that seven students were in the country. Nearly all of the students were in transport back to the U.S. yesterday; one undergraduate remains in Cairo. Ulrich said the student who had not yet been evacuated was enrolled at the American University in Cairo in a separate program, but said he is scheduled to return to the U.S. soon.
Ulrich said the students, who were immediately contacted when the protests began last Tuesday, were initially reached by e-mail and phone. The Study Abroad Office was able to maintain contact — even after the Egyptian government shut down phone lines and Internet on Friday — through "alternative phone methods."
"We communicated information several times each day to emergency contacts for each student so that they were informed of any developments," Ulrich wrote. "The students in Alexandria gathered together with on-site staff once the situation became more difficult and minimized any travel outside of the apartment."
William Cullen, father of junior government and politics major Charles Cullen, who has been studying in Alexandria since the beginning of the semester, said despite the reported chaos in Egypt's major cities, the university and the U.S. Consulate have handled the situation exceptionally well.
"It was worrisome, but so far things seem to have gone fairly orderly given the size and potential for what could go wrong," he said. "It's taken up a disproportionate amount of time — parents are sending e-mails back and forth and people from the program are sending things back and forth — but people have dealt with it pretty well."
Parents of students abroad aren't the only ones concerned: Students with family in Egypt said their emotions have varied from pride for their country to constant worry about relatives.
Freshman neurobiology major Sagah Ahmed, whose father is currently in Alexandria, said the past week has been filled with anxiety over his safe return.
"Everybody in our family was just nervous, and my mom called my dad right away to make sure he was okay," she said. "If people don't get hurt, though, they'll definitely feel that they witnessed something worth going down in history."
Other students agreed the university — and the nation — were right to encourage and enable Americans to evacuate as quickly as possible.
Sophomore environmental science and technology major Ana Perez said students' safety should outweigh any desires to learn or experience Egyptian culture.
"[The university] should bring them back home because there's no point in having [the students] stay there," she said. "Yes, they're trying to accomplish something by studying abroad, but there's no point in staying there if it's going to get them killed."
Ulrich said even though the week's events were unprecedented in the study abroad program's history, getting students home has been a fairly smooth process, given the current conditions. He noted the students may return to Egypt later this semester if the uprisings calm down.
"We are all grateful for the strong support and assistance of colleagues in Egypt," he wrote. "Their determination to provide safety for our students throughout the process has been admirable, and we wish them well during a very challenging time."