Egypt deemed unsafe for student travel

Students studying abroad have been evacuated from Cairo in the past.

by Hailey Colwell

University of Minnesota junior Nailah Taman hoped to study abroad in Cairo this spring, but recent national travel warnings could prevent her from going.

In response to ongoing conflict in Egypt and Syria, the University is monitoring its study abroad programs in the region.

Its program in Egypt, offered in partnership with Butler University’s Institute for Study Abroad, has been cancelled for the fall and could be cancelled next spring.

“Cancelling a program is a serious matter,” said Joanna Holvey Bowles, executive vice president and chief operating officer of IFSA-Butler. “We don’t take it lightly.”

IFSA-Butler had 12 students enrolled in the fall 2013 Egypt program.

Egypt and Syria are both on the U.S. State Department’s travel warnings list due to violent instability. To go for academic purposes, students would have to apply for special permission from the University.

The University isn’t aware of any students, faculty or staff in Syria for University purposes, Stacey Tsantir, director of international health, safety and compliance at the University’s Global Programs and Strategy Alliance, said in an email statement.

No study abroad programs in the surrounding countries, including Israel, have been cancelled, the statement said.

A variety of criteria are taken into account before putting a program on hold, Holvey Bowles said. These include embassy activities, political stability and ground conditions in the country.

When University political science alumnus Gunnar Dancer studied abroad in Egypt two years ago, his trip was cut short by violence connected to the Arab Spring uprising.

Dancer recalled not being able to leave his apartment for days as protesters gathered in nearby Tahrir Square to hold demonstrations against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year authoritarian rule.

A number of schools in Cairo will start later than normal because of the violence, Holvey Bowles said.

A decision on whether to cancel the spring Egypt program will be made in a few weeks, but she said it doesn’t seem likely that students will be studying there next semester.

Art and communications major Taman said violence abroad partially influenced her decision not to travel to Egypt.

Taman, whose family is from Cairo, said the curfew in place there would prevent her from going out with other students and would limit her experience.

But the situation in the Cairo area is improving, according to Mohamed El-Komi, a resident director for IFSA-Butler who lives in Egypt year-round and works with students studying abroad. Curfew hours have been reduced and most businesses are back on their normal schedule, he said in an email interview from Egypt.

“What is encouraging is that most Egyptians now feel the need and responsibility to do their best so that the country moves towards stability,” El-Komi said in the email.

‘Wrong place at the wrong time’

Dancer said he felt safe for the majority of his time in Egypt, but he and his friends were occasionally “stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

He explored the streets to watch protesters on a number of occasions, sometimes running from police and the military as they tried to stop the demonstrations.

“The sidelines were a little bit blurred most times,” said Dancer, who was often caught right in the middle.

One of those times, he and his friends ducked into an alleyway during a protest to avoid tear gas. A line of soldiers came down the alley holding shotguns, and Dancer ran to seek safety in a tailor shop right as a shot was fired. His pants ripped as he ran, and the tailor fixed them.

Three days before Mubarak stepped down, Dancer was evacuated to Istanbul.

Though he said he thinks it’s safer for no one to study in Egypt this fall, Dancer said it should ultimately be up to the individual to decide whether to go.

Dancer now works as a health care liaison with Middle Eastern embassies and said his time in Egypt figured heavily into his career.

Looking back, he said he thinks more of the overall cultural experience than his dangerous last months there.

“It really opened up an avenue of communication methods that I never really realized were important,” he said.