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Out of Egypt: Students find themselves in the middle of revolution

Photos: Ian Weller

??As he looked out from the roof of the apartment, Ian Weller could see black smoke billowing over the skyline of Alexandria, Egypt. The Drake University junior had spent the afternoon roaming the side streets of the city, taking photos of the emerging protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

The uprising started on Jan. 25, three days earlier, when thousands of people filed into the streets to demonstrate against poverty, rising food costs and government corruption. The Egyptian government attempted to quell some of the resistance, shutting down the Internet and phone service. Mubarak announced the formation of a new government. But his plans did not include him stepping down immediately—the one demand demonstrators have expressed most fervently.

The sudden disorder erupting in the Middle East was unpredicted by most political authorities. It’s hardly surprising, then, that it was also unforeseen by Weller and two other Drake students planning to spend the spring 2011 semester at Alexandria University. Amina Kader and Ashley Crow are also juniors. Kader is from Urbandale, Iowa, and Crow from Truro, Iowa. All three are learning Arabic, and had chosen the Institute for Study Abroad-Butler University program at Alexandria University as the best site for their studies. Their flight to the Middle East left O’Hare Airport  Jan. 19, but just over a week later, their careful planning would be completely disrupted.

In a blog entry dated Jan. 27, Weller wrote: “The two days of protests seemed to have subsided, leaving both sides asking ‘now what?’ For me the answer is simple; go to the coast, learn Arabic, and take good pictures.” The Waunakee, Wis., native expressed little concern, writing, “Things happen here just like the rise and fall of the Nile; it is part of life.”

But just three days later, he and 11 other students would spend a day and half stuck in an airport restaurant protected by armed guards. By Monday, they would be displaced by more than 1,500 miles, sitting unhurt in Prague, Czech Republic, examining options and wondering what would happen next.

Friday, Jan. 28

On Friday afternoon, as Weller makes his way through the Alexandrian streets, he passes burning vehicles, the smoke rising to join the haze already in the air. At one point, he finds himself in the midst of protestors gathered in front of a police station, also on fire. He uses what Arabic he knows to communicate, even persuading one family to let him up on their apartment balcony to get a wider shot of the crowds.

Several of the Egyptians he encounters are concerned, urging him to leave the area and telling him he is unsafe there. One man even gives him a ride part-way back to his apartment when it appears Weller won’t make it home by the time the government’s new curfew takes hold.

“They didn’t want Americans to get hurt in this sort of thing,” Weller says in an interview, noting that he was never fired at or targeted by any of the people in the protests. Later that evening, as he stands on the roof of the apartment, Weller begins to cough. Even after slipping past the increasingly volatile situation outside, he is unable to evade the tear gas and smoke wafting through the city air.

Saturday, Jan. 29

In 48 hours since their arrival in Alexandria, the political unrest in Egypt has escalated dramatically.

On Saturday night, Weller can hear gunfire from inside the apartment building where they are staying, and their neighbors have barricaded the street and stairwell. He identifies the Molotov cocktails as the most frightening part of the scene, calling them, “primed and ready to be dropped on any attackers.”

But Kader writes in an e-mail that she doesn’t think the Alexandria protests are as bad as some of the things Americans may be seeing on the news. She describes Saturday as going “smoothly, besides the burnt police cars and trucks we saw on the roads along with posters on the walls of buildings with President Mubarak’s face torn off.”

She writes about what she and a couple of the other female students can see from their apartment window. After waking in the middle of the night to women screaming, they hurry to peer out onto the street below. Kader writes that, “what we found was amazing and inspiring. The men from our neighborhood had formed a watch group of sorts. They all had clubs, 2x4s, knives, and other forms of weapons in order to protect us and the rest of neighborhood from looters.”

In an e-mail to her mother, Crow also mentions this scene. “The Egyptian people are so amazing,” she writes. “The men banded together and stayed up all night on the streets with knives and clubs to protect their families, property and honor.”

Crow tells her mother, Pam, about the evenings leading up to the students’ evacuation, reiterating Weller and Kader’s unruffled sentiments. She assures a worried Pam of their relative safety. “There was even an Armenian man outside my apartment protecting us Americans in Egypt,” she writes, adding, “They stayed up from 4 p.m. during curfew to noon the next day. As we left, we gave them all of our groceries in thanks.”

Amid a situation in which as many as 300 people are reported to have died, Kader writes, “I have never felt more safe in my life. Just seeing these men outside for the entire night gave us the assurance we needed to feel safe at such a scary time.”

However, in a blog post dated 6:36 p.m., Weller finally writes that he believes they will probably have to leave the country.

Sunday, Jan. 30

Back in the U.S., their parents have seen the riots on TV. Pam Crow says the first phone call from her daughter after the protests began comes early Sunday morning. Ashley Crow tells her they are safe in an apartment in the city. Just hours later another call brings word of entirely different plans.

Weller, a Navy officer candidate, receives word Sunday morning that they are being instructed to evacuate. They gather their belongings, and the students and their peers from IFSA-Butler join 13 others crammed into an 11-passenger bus.

Kader notes that this will be an especially memorable experience for her. Today is her 21st birthday.

Monday, Jan. 31

The students have told their parents a plane chartered from Cairo will pick them up at a small airport in the desert outside Alexandria. They are being taken to Athens, Greece.

The aircraft never arrives.

“The plane scheduled for take-off from Cairo left three hours ago and we were informed that the aircraft was denied permission to land in Alexandria,” reads the e-mail the parents receive from Joanna Holvey Bowles,?executive vice president and chief operating officer?of IFSA-Butler.

Instead, the families learn, the students are boarding a plane bound for Prague.

After spending well over 30 hours in the airport under the watch of plain-clothed guards with pistols, Weller, Kader and Crow arrive in the Czech Republic late Monday night.

“It’s really weird that last night I was sleeping next to gunfire and now I’ve got these nice little floral things in my room,” Weller says in an interview before heading to his room at the Holiday Inn the students are staying in tonight.

What comes next

“One thing I have learned,” Crow wrote her mother, “is that this world is unpredictable.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the students still sit in Prague, weighing their options.

“I’m in international limbo, as well as academic,” Weller said. Drake is helping them look into other study-abroad options. Weller and Kader are tentatively planning to move their semester abroad to Muscat, Oman. Crow is still determining whether she will join them there, or go instead to Morocco.

“Drake has been fantastic,” Weller said. “The study abroad folks just really helped out.” Although faculty at the university were working to make necessary arrangements to get the three students enrolled in classes back home, Weller said, they’re pretty determined to stay.

“My priority is staying in the Middle East and learning my Arabic,” he said firmly.  He added that he doesn’t feel like he’s in any danger, and that he’s appreciating the piece of history they were able to witness.

“Every time you walk around with an Egyptian flag on your backpack, people say ‘Whoa,’” he said, talking about when the group landed in Prague. “People, they ask, ‘You showing solidarity?’ And I say, ‘No, I was there.’”

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