While most saw the recent political unrest in Egypt unfold in newspapers or on television screens, a few Yale students experienced the mounting tension on the streets of Cairo — until the escalating violence forced them to leave the country.
On June 30, the first anniversary of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s inauguration, nearly 500,000 people gathered at Tahrir Square in the country’s capital to protest the ruler’s leadership and demand his resignation. Three people, including an American citizen, had been killed during protests in Alexandria on June 28, and death counts would rise in Cairo later that week.
As conflict in Egypt escalated, Yale administrators checked in with the handful of students who had registered their travel plans to Egypt this summer, and the two students registered at the time were able to safely leave the country without a formal evacuation.
Justin Schuster ’15, who expected to stay in Cairo doing non-profit work until mid-July, flew to Jordan on July 2 to finish his internship in Amman. Erin McDonough ’14, the other student who had registered travel in Egypt at the time, could not be reached for comment, but Dean of International and Professional Experience Jane Edwards said McDonough did not require evacuation assistance. Cynthia Deng ’14, who had registered her May but not her June visit to Egypt, left Alexandria in an overcrowded train to Cairo on June 26, from where she boarded a flight out of the country the next day.
As the June 30 protests were unraveling on the streets of Cairo, Schuster stayed indoors upon direction from AMIDEAST, the American non-profit organization at which he was interning. AMIDEAST ordered the lockdown after another intern, 21-year-old Kenyon College student and American citizen Andrew Pochter, was stabbed to death in the coastal city of Alexandria while witnessing a protest two days prior. Schuster said AMIDEAST organized his departure from the country.
“After Andrew’s death, something definitely changed,” Schuster said. “To know that an American had been targeted, the situation around me may not have changed, but internally I definitely found myself looking over my shoulder more than beforehand.”
On July 3, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Egypt, citing Pochter’s death and advising American citizens to defer all travel to the country. Don Filer, executive director of Yale’s Office of International Affairs, said University policy dictates that when the State Department issues such a warning, undergraduates must also leave the country, and Yale will not fund or offer credit for any undergraduate study in the region.
During the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, over 20 Yale students and faculty required evacuation from Cairo aboard chartered planes coordinated by the University. This year, the two undergraduates who registered travel in the country in late June were able to board commercial flights out of Cairo, Filer said, and the University did not need to coordinate any extensive evacuation plans.
Two graduate students are currently working in Egypt, and Filer said the University has determined that the areas where they are working are relatively safe, adding that Yale policy requiring undergraduates to leave when the State Department issues a travel warning does not extend to graduate and professional school students. Filer also said additional students or faculty who did not register travel could be in Egypt.
Edwards worked directly with Schuster and McDonough to ensure their safe departure. She was also in touch with other students who had already visited Egypt this summer or were planning to travel there in the coming weeks.
Deng, who left Alexandria two days before Pochter’s death, said it was difficult even to get to the airport, because the taxi company she used had run out of gas in its entire fleet of cabs. Deng had been in Cairo in May and decided to return to Egypt at the end of June, though she did not register her second visit with Yale.
Assistant Director of Yale College Fellowships April Ruiz sent Deng, Schuster and a third student who planned to travel to Egypt later this summer an email in the wake of Pochter’s death, offering the three students support. She reminded them to stay informed through the U.S. Embassy and State Department, enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and use the FrontierMEDEX services Yale students have access to in the event of emergencies abroad.
Deng and Schuster said they were both struck by the University’s attentiveness and regular contact throughout and after their evacuations. Both said they plan to follow as the situation in Egypt unfolds, and Deng added that many of the friends she had made there participated in the protests.
“I made a lot of very close friends in Egypt, and it was difficult to say goodbye — to say goodbye so suddenly,” Schuster said.
The last evacuation of Yale students from Egypt happened in January and February 2011.