Demonstrators set a pickup truck on fire near the hotel where UD professor Audrey Helfman was staying in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo courtesy of Audrey Helfman

Events in the Middle East

University students, faculty discuss experiences in Egypt

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10:20 a.m., Feb. 2, 2011----Brooklynn Hitchens' trip to Egypt was “amazing and fun” with visits to the Sphinx, the Pyramids, the Cairo Museum. But then “things took a dark turn,” says the 19-year-old University of Delaware sophomore from Wilmington, Del.

Hitchens was one of 22 UD students evacuated from Egypt on Sunday. She was on a study-abroad program in Black American Studies/Psychology led by Prof. Yasser Payne and involving 10 students.

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On Jan. 25, their adviser at the American University of Cairo (AUC) alerted the group that a demonstration would be held in El-Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) and that they shouldn't meet for classes downtown.

The demonstration escalated, and the next day, the Internet and phones were shut down.

“It was unnerving, to say the least. No Facebook, no Skype, no phone calls,” Hitchens says.

From their dorm roof at AUC, the UD group could see the black smoke rising and feel the sting of teargas. They could see police and civilians running down the street. The next day, the group was moved to a hotel near the U.S. Embassy, but there were frightening moments there, too, Hitchens says, when they had to go to their rooms and turn off the lights, fearful of nearby rioters.

Meanwhile in Alexandria, Prof. Audrey Helfman, faculty director of the study-abroad program in leadership, and her husband saw a protester climb the flagpole at the police station near their hotel, grab the flag, and set it on fire. Then the rioters got a Toyota pickup and pushed the vehicle into the fire. The police station burned.

At one point, Helfman says, they heard more screaming and didn't know whether to run from the hotel. A volleyball team from Algeria staying at the hotel advised them to stay in their room.

“We just sat on the bed, holding hands and listening intently,” Helfman says. “My only fear was that our building was going to burn.”

Helfman credits tourist guide Hany Tawfik, whom she has worked with for years, for getting her and her husband to the Alexandria airport for the flight to Sharm-el-Sheikh, a resort on the Red Sea, where she reunited with her 10 students, who had gone there in advance for their first free weekend of the trip.

“We really owe him a lot,” Helfman says of Tawfik. “He's just a super guy. He usually works with big cruise lines, and we are the only younger group he works with because he believes in what we are doing. It's about leadership and listening to the people.”

Helfman praises UD's Institute for Global Studies (IGS) for its support throughout the ordeal.

The UD team, under the direction of Lesa Griffiths, associate provost for international programs, worked around the clock to bring the students and faculty safely home and to keep in touch with concerned parents.

Program coordinator Lukman Arsalan served as the point person for communications with the hotels in Egypt and the University's travel assistance and evacuation company there because he is a native speaker of Arabic.

“I don't think he slept Friday or Saturday night because we could get through on phones much better during the night,” Griffiths says.

While Griffiths and Arsalan communicated with parents of the students and Griffiths kept the UD administration informed, Lisa Chieffo, IGS associate director, worked with travel agents to change flights and with UD Procurement to make sure the study-abroad leaders had enough funds to deal with the evacuation.

“We literally had to respond to almost every CNN story parents saw -- and give them the latest information we had about what was happening from people there,” Griffiths says. “Stephanie Countess's mom had just returned from Cairo, and she offered all the other parents her assessment of the airport environment, which eased a lot of concerns. So we had parents helping us out, too!”

But the real people to admire, Griffiths says, were Yasser Payne and Audrey Helfman.

“They calmed the kids, kept them reassured, and did their best to try to get calls out even if they were constantly cut off. They were fantastic!” Griffiths says.

Paul Coleman, parent of Julia Coleman, who was on the Cairo trip, wrote University President Patrick Harker a letter of thanks “for the thoroughness of the planning that went into this trip (especially plans for dealing with unexpected emergencies) and for the professionalism of all involved. The University should be proud.”

Comments from other UD study-abroad students:

Stephanie Countess, a senior environmental engineering major from Moorestown, N.J., says: “My heart goes out to the Egyptian people, who have suffered for years from poverty, unemployment and the lack of basic human rights. I only hope that these protests remain peaceful and that the demonstrations result in these citizens being granted the fundamental rights that they deserve. I have never met a group of people more motivated for change or so deserving of it.”

Lauren Praedin, a sophomore from Allentown, Pa., who is majoring in human services with a minor in leadership, notes: “When we were in Morocco, we heard what was happening in Tunisia and were told it could spread through North Africa, but we never thought it would spread as fast as it did. It's kind of exciting to see what's going on. I support what the people are doing. They have a right to protest. Personally, I've never been interested in world politics, but I plan on staying informed with everything now. I'm glad that we all were able to get home safe. Overall, it was a great experience.”

Article by Tracey Bryant

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