University graduate students left Egypt amid unrest

Four students were conducting a field work project at an NGO in Cairo.

University graduate student Edwin Dorbor speaks about his stay in Egypt at his home on July 15th, 2013. After almost two months in Egypt, Dorbor and three other graduate students left early due to civil unrest.

Jaak Jensen

University graduate student Edwin Dorbor speaks about his stay in Egypt at his home on July 15th, 2013. After almost two months in Egypt, Dorbor and three other graduate students left early due to civil unrest.

Four University of Minnesota graduate students sealed themselves in their downtown Cairo apartment for four days while Egypt’s second revolution in two and a half years was happening right outside their window.

With enough food to last them a week, they rarely left the two-bedroom apartment, a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square, the epicenter for millions of protesters nationwide.

“We were just right there,” said Edwin Dorbor, one of the graduate students. “It strengthened our relationship. We got to learn more about ourselves and each other.”

The Humphrey School of Public Affairs students — who are all pursuing master’s degrees in international development practice — left Egypt on July 3, the day President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the nation’s military. Now, all University students wishing to study in Egypt must get approval from the school.

Amid escalating unrest, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning for Egypt on June 28. The students agreed to stay inside their apartment so the University would let them stay in the country. By July 3 — hours after they decided to return to the U.S. — the government issued a stricter travel warning that would have required them to come home.

The departure was more than two weeks earlier than the students initially planned.

There and back again

The students flew to Egypt on May 19 to work with a nongovernmental organization that prepares youth for the competitive job market.

The work was part of a field experience required for their graduate degrees, said Ragui Assaad, a public affairs professor who was in Egypt advising the students.

From the moment they arrived, Assaad said, all anyone could talk about was the approaching protests against Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president.

As the end of June approached, people started crowding in Tahrir Square to protest either for or against Morsi, Dorbor said. 

“But everything was peaceful,” he said. “People were just expressing their frustrations. But the numbers continued to grow.”

When the protests escalated and millions called for Morsi’s resignation on June 30, the graduate students couldn’t go to the NGO’s office because nearly all of its students and staff members were participating in the protests.

Dorbor said all the protests they witnessed were peaceful, but it was hard to tell if they would escalate to violence — or if it already had in places they couldn’t see.

It became difficult for the students to concentrate on anything besides news of the growing protests and the chanting and marching heard from the streets outside their windows.

They learned to sleep through fireworks and other demonstration noises that continued throughout the night.

But sitting in the apartment resulted in a mixture of boredom, fear and unpredictability.

“We were not sure what was going to happen,” Dorbor said. “We were not sure if we could find our way out if things [got] bad.”

Like all University students traveling abroad, the graduate students had insurance that covered an emergency return. They were in constant contact with the insurance company, the University, Assad and their own families.

“We explained we are safe,” Dorbor said, “but it’s always difficult for families to believe you when people are marching in Tahrir Square.”

He said families became very concerned after 21-year-old American student Andrew Pochter died at a protest in Alexandria, Egypt.

After Morsi was ousted, the students decided they wouldn’t be able to complete their work in Cairo and told the insurance company they wanted to leave.

Within 10 minutes, the insurance company arranged a return flight for the students. 

Because the State Department issued a stricter travel warning for the country on July 3, the students would’ve been required to leave anyway, said Stacey Tsantir, director of University international health, safety and compliance.

“It went really well,” Tsantir said. “It was a very impressive way that [the students] were able to manage such a stressful situation.”

Riding to the airport in a van provided by the insurance company, Dorbor said, they stopped constantly because streets and sidewalks were crowded with civilians, military and police as far as they could see.

Hoping to return

Although the graduate students left earlier than expected, Dorbor said they completed most of their fieldwork and are continuing where they left off from home.

Assaad and the graduate students will keep working with the NGO in Egypt and hope to return within a year to finish the work, which is part of their capstone project.

With the current travel warning for Egypt, Tsantir said students, including the four graduate students, will have to appeal to the University’s International Travel Risk Assessment and Advisory Committee if they want to travel to Egypt.

After witnessing a revolution, Dorbor said, he now feels a connection with Egypt and many of its people. He still worries about people he met in Cairo and wonders if they’re still OK.

“I always want to know what’s happening in Egypt right now,” Dorbor said.

Violence in Egypt has escalated in recent days, including an open fire by the Egyptian military on the Muslim Brotherhood, which Morsi is a part of, that left more than 50 dead. 

An emotional family reunion

Satta Dorbor, Edwin Dorbor’s wife, said it was “heartbreaking” watching the news and worrying if her husband was safe.

She emailed him up to seven times a day, but the minutes and hours between each reply were always filled with concern.

Satta Dorbor kept her children in the dark about the severity of her husband’s situation because she didn’t want to worry them.

“I knew it would be traumatic, so I tried to keep them out of it,” she said.

When he finally arrived at the terminal in Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Satta Dorbor brought along their three children and told them they were picking up a friend of hers.

When they instead saw their father for the first time in nearly two months, they screamed and ran to him.

Their youngest boy screamed, yelling “Dad” and jumping into Edwin Dorbor’s arms.

“It was so emotional,” Satta Dorbor said. “We really missed him. Really, really missed him.”