Hard Lessons in Studying Abroad: Turmoil in Egypt, Australia affects students worldwide6 min read
By THOMAS BOWMAN and LINDLEY ESTES
Political crisis in Egypt and dangerous weather phenomena in Australia have prompted concerns about Americans abroad.
Students that studied in Egypt during the fall semester saw signs of political unrest, while study abroad programs in Australia worked to preserve the safety of students during massive flooding and the recent cyclone.
These emergencies have raised questions about the university’s responsibility for their students overseas, in addition to the United States’ role in international turmoil.
UMW Students Worry from Afar
The civil unrest in Egypt has had a direct effect on several UMW students, although there are none currently studying abroad there.
Sophomore Riham Osman has family in Egypt.
“When I hear they’re not allowed to leave their homes, I get worried,” Osman said. “It’s like a lockdown for them. When the Internet was shut down, I couldn’t talk with them—I couldn’t have contact with my cousins.”
Osman considers the revolution positive, but acknowledges the tragic loss of life that accompanies it. Roughly 300 people have been killed since the unrest began, according to the Associated Press.
“Many of the people in Egypt are hiding in their homes because they are scared to leave due to thugs on the street,” sophomore Drema Khraibani, president of the Islamic Students Association (ISA).
“Many of the areas are running out of food and people are unable to get to a safe location to buy food.”
According to Khraibani, “The people that are causing violence are not the protestors but instead the prisoners. They were able to escape because the policemen that were guarding the prisons disappeared.
We do not know the location of these policemen. The military is keeping many of the people safe.”
Khraibani wanted everyone to understand that this movement has been occurring for a long time.
“People are starving and are unable to buy tomatoes from the local shop because they do not have money,” Khraibani said.
Even those that have graduated from college and have master’s degrees have limited or no job opportunities, Khraibani said.
Many Egyptians are concerned the government is not helping the people, according to Khraibani.
Change was inevitable, according to Khraibani.
“I mentioned at the ISA meeting that this event is like America when it went through its revolution,” Khraibani said. “The same is happening in the Arab countries—each one is re-evaluating their roles and the actions they have taken and wondering if they need to take action now or later.”
Studying Abroad in Tumultuous Countries
According to Jose Sainz, study abroad program director with the International Academic Services (IAS), the program works closely with the on-site directors of those programs, universities or institutions where they send UMW students.
Close contact with them through e-mail, phone or via Skype allows them to be aware of the whereabouts of students at all times.
“The real test would have been this semester had we had any UMW students in Egypt, which we did not, unlike last fall when three UMW students were attending American University in Cairo,” said Sainz.
“That situation would have really put our crisis response systems to the test.”
However, students are not sent abroad without first being briefed on academic and safety concerns.
“At pre-departure orientations, we cover health and safety regulations, and we make students aware of the seriousness of being in another country when it comes to safety issues,” Sainz said.
The UMW study abroad program has not encountered serious crisis situations in the past.
However, in light of the recent floods in Australia and the political unrest in Egypt, IAS is currently reevaluating their emergency protocols.
“We are also adding an emergency contact number to our office that students, parents or faculty abroad can call in case of an emergency abroad,” said Sainz.
The department closely monitors the travel warnings issued by the State Department.
There are currently over 30 countries on the list of countries with travel warnings. Mexico and Egypt are the most recent ones to make the list.
“Yes, there are destinations where we do not send students for safety reasons,” Sainz said. “If the country is on the travel warning list, students are encouraged not to go, and certainly, no UMW programs are allowed to run in those areas.”
UMW does not currently have any students in these travel warning areas.
However, if a student were to attend a program where there is a travel warning, they would go through a third party provider, and that third party provider would be responsible for their preparation and subsequent safety.
Australian Cyclone Yasi Pummels Coast
According to the IAS, there are four UMW students currently studying abroad in Australia.
Cyclone Yasi was the most powerful storm to ever hit the northern coast of Australia with winds close to 200 miles per hour when it made landfall in Queensland.
“All students are now hosted by the receiving institutions in Australia, so they are all safe and sound,” Sainz said.
Since the Australian academic calendar is different from the calendar in the U.S., no classes were affected at the time the cyclone hit.
U.S. Tries to Find its Place
The United States’ response toward the civil unrest in Egypt has been moderate so far.
Egypt’s current President, Hosni Mubarak, is facing intense pressure from protesters and the international community to resign and allow for a democratic transition of government.
President Barack Obama must walk a fine line between supporting an ally and supporting the people’s right to demonstrate against the government. Offending either party could have disastrous consequences to the U.S.’s policy goals in the Middle East.
In a statement on Feb. 4 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. condemned attacks on reporters, peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, foreigners and diplomats.
The statement was made in response to reports of violence against the demonstrators and journalists reporting on the events in Cairo.
“There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the army, to protect those threatened and to hold accountable those responsible for these attacks,” Clinton said. “The Egyptian people expect a meaningful process that yields concrete changes.”
This is the strongest response to date by the U.S. to the civil unrest in Egypt.
Jason Davidson, associate professor of political science and international affairs, said, “the U.S. is implicated in this conflict because of its history of military, political and economic support for Mubarak’s regime.”
Some critics and supporters expected Obama to proactively embrace the opposition movement, but the White House has instead been reactive, according to Davidson. It has been focused on national interest rather than operating on ideals.
“How can we not be involved, even via inaction, when American military hardware may be a significant factor in the outcome,” Davidson said.
Adil Quraish, senior and member of the Islamic Student Association, said that while he respects the U.S. for being a strong advocate of democracy, it must remain neutral on the Egypt’s civil unrest.
“I strongly believe that a government is an institution for the people made by the people,” Quraish said.
Journalists in Crosshairs
Clinton joined many members of the international community in criticizing Egypt for harassing several journalists covering the events unfolding in Tahrir Square, where the protests are taking place.
According to Egyptian state-run newspaper, Al-Ahram, one Egyptian reporter was killed after allegedly being shot by sniper fire while filming a particularly confrontational portion of the protests.
After reports surfaced that the Egyptian government had detained and interrogated foreign journalists, the criticism prompted the newly appointed Egyptian Finance Minister, Samir Radwan, appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight.
“I would apologize to any journalist or any foreigner or any Egyptian for that matter that has been subjected to this harsh treatment,” Radwan said.