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Students safely home from Egypt

Labora ’12 and Dawkins ’12 recount their experience

This article has been updated to include comment from Michael Geisler, vice president for language schools, schools abroad and graduate programs at Middlebury.

After an ordeal of several days, the two Brown students studying in Egypt have returned safely home. For the people and the state of Egypt, the ordeal continues.

Amanda Labora '12 and Michael Dawkins '12 arrived back in the United States Tuesday after being evacuated from Alexandria, Egypt. The Brown students departed from Egypt along with the 20 other students studying abroad in Alexandria through a Middlebury College program, ending more than a week of uncertainty after protests broke out Jan. 25 against President Hosni Mubarak.

"Egyptians have saved my life," Labora said in a phone interview from her home in Miami. "They are in their streets, in their neighborhoods, defending the block."

Labora said the situation is still very grave for the Egyptians. "Nobody knew how serious this was," Labora said. "If this had been anti-American, we would be dead."

The protests against Mubarak's regime were largely organized by Egyptian youth, even though government-controlled media in Egypt tried to pin the protests on the actions of the main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, Labora said.

The uprising is a protest of the Egyptian people against Mubarak's regime and the police state, with ordinary citizens coming together despite factors such as religious tensions between Christians and Muslims, Labora said.

While protests began Jan. 25, the largest protests came three days later.

"I just remember everyone praying on the streets," she said. To pray, Muslims must take off their shoes. She said police were attempting to steal the shoes of the people in order to hold off the protests. Christian women began to come forward and block the police from taking the shoes, she said.

"It was everyone taking care of each other," Labora said. "People came together in extraordinary ways."

She said that much of the protesting was peaceful and that "police unleashed incredible displays of violence."

At the onset of the protests, an evacuation of the students was not even discussed, Labora said, mainly because the program directors initially believed the protests would be crushed due to the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian government.

Students were told not to travel to Cairo following the beginning of the protests. Then classes were cancelled with the possibility of resumption the following week. When the volatility of the protests increased, the program deemed evacuation to be necessary. The decision to evacuate came after the violence in Alexandria continued to spread, Labora said.

The police were targeting citizens who were not even involved in the protest, Labora said.

"An Egyptian women in my dorm had been tear-gassed," she said. "A girl on her way to an exam was clubbed."

"The police in Egypt are absolutely horrible," Dawkins said in a phone interview from New York City.

 

Preparing to evacuate

When the decision to evacuate came Saturday, all of the women in the program were brought to the large dorm where Labora lived, which security had left unguarded, Dawkins said.

Dawkins was at the market stocking up on food in preparation for a recently imposed government curfew when he got a call saying that the dorm where the men were staying was no longer considered safe. He was told all of the American men in the program would be relocated to a program apartment until they could be evacuated Sunday.

"At night is when things got really volatile," he said. Police stations had been firebombed, and the police had largely retreated. Prisoners had escaped, stealing weapons from the stations.

"All night, you could hear machine guns and screams," he said. The Egyptians set up a neighborhood watch using implements such as bricks for weapons. "They protected us," he said.

Labora said she would never forget the conversation she and the other female American students had with a professor when they were being readied to evacuate. The professor usually addressed the students in Modern Standard Arabic, a more academic form of Arabic not spoken on the streets. But when Labora asked him how he was doing, he responded in English. "Me? I don't know. I've lost everything," the professor said.

 

Delays and complications

To get to the airport Sunday morning, the Middlebury program intended to take an armored car provided by HTH Worldwide — an insurance organization designed to provide evacuations in the event of an emergency exactly like this, in which the police system is essentially dissolved, Dawkins said. The drivers told the program coordinators they were coming, but the transportation did not show up Sunday morning. The service still reported to Nehad Heliel, director of the program, that the students had been retrieved.

The organization had been "extremely reliable in the past, finding medication for our students in some strange corners of the world and organizing some very tough medevac scenarios for us, including one from Alexandria, some time ago," wrote Michael Geisler, vice president for language schools, schools abroad and graduate programs at Middlebury, in an e-mail to The Herald.

Dawkins said he does not know if the service lied or picked up another group. Two program coordinators — Elizabeth Huntley, a Middlebury alum who works for the study abroad program, and Shurouq Swaitti , who organizes schedules for the program's participants — were able to track down and pay for a tour bus to bring the group to Borg el Arab airport, where they had been told an HTH-provided flight would evacuate them from the country to Athens Sunday afternoon.

But once there, the flight kept being postponed, and HTH went to Cairo first to pick up another group. Though the students realized they would not get a flight out of the airport Sunday night, Heliel told the students not to return to Alexandria, saying that the airport was likely the safest place to be at that point, Labora said. Dawkins said he found out eventually that the flight had gone back to Athens without ever going to Alexandria.

"We were starting to get really terrified that no one was going to get us," Labora said. The students and coordinators were in contact with the U.S. State Department, but they were told that they would need to go to Cairo to get a flight — even though there were looters attacking cars at that point, and curfew was approaching, Dawkins said. "I just don't have words to explain how that feels," Labora said.

Labora said she noticed a large difference in the way the U.S. State Department dealt with the issue compared to other countries' departments. For example, a Mexican student in the program got in touch with Mexico's consulate, and they were arranging a private car to transport her to Cairo should the group not be able to fly out together, Labora said.

 

The evacuation

Middlebury began to consider other options, including "a possible evacuation by sea," Geisler wrote. But they received word from Boston-based carrier Global Rescue — run by a Middlebury alum — offering help.

"At this point, I had a hunch, based on the scarcity of information I was able to receive about how Plan A was proceeding, that maybe Plan A might not succeed," he wrote. Through Global Rescue, Middlebury arranged a flight to Prague for Monday. Within three hours, security agents had arrived at the airport for the students' protection.

Once they arrived in Prague, the students were met by a U.S. embassy official, and plans for their arrival home were solidified.

Labora is currently home in Miami with her family. Dawkins is in New York City staying with a friend and hoping to return to Brown within the next few days to begin taking classes here this semester.

Dawkin
s said the situation is still very volatile in Egypt, but that in his appraisal, the Egyptians are persistent and will not settle for the current regime. "God bless them," he said, "I support them completely in their goal."

Labora also expressed support for the protests. "The U.S. government cannot waffle on this," Labora said. "This is going to change the face of the Middle East."




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