After a hazardous journey home, all the Yalies who were in Egypt have safely evacuated.
All 20 students and faculty who were spending the semester in Egypt have left the country, in which tens of thousands of people are protesting the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. Some of the Yalies have already arrived in New Haven and will enroll in courses, but many have remained overseas, hoping that the political unrest will resolve itself so they can return to Egypt.
Though they have now escaped danger, one student saw flames in Cairo and police firing rubber bullets, and several witnessed stampedes of protestors.
“I was not safe, really, at any point until I was out of Egyptian airspace,” said Jess Belding ’13, who was studying in Alexandria, and is now home in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Belding said the situation deteriorated quickly once the protests began last week.
By Saturday evening, Alexandria had become too dangerous for students in Belding’s program, operated by Middlebury College, to remain in the country, and they were told they would be leaving on Sunday.
“We could hear demonstrations all the time,” Belding recalls. “We could hear them chanting; we occasionally caught a glimpse of huge protests … the dorm supervisors came running into our dorm on Friday and told us to get away from the windows, turn off the lights because there were people with guns coming down our street.”
But a plane scheduled to pick them up from the Alexandria airport never arrived, and Belding and her fellow students remained in a state of limbo at the Alexandria airport. Another plane slated to take them to safety failed to show up Monday afternoon, but late Monday night, a plane chartered through a Middlebury alumnus finally brought the students to Prague, she said.
Belding said she was never contacted by Yale administrators, but she does not fault them, given that Internet in the country had been down since Thursday and there was very little phone service. She made contact with one Yale administrator, whose phone number had been provided by insurance company Medex, while she was in the Alexandria airport, but did not speak to any others until Wednesday, she said.
Don Filer, associate secretary and director of international affairs, said administrators attempted to contact all of the Yale affiliates during the ordeal, and initiated the removal of all but Belding, who they knew was being evacuated with her Middlebury program.
“Frankly, the communication with everybody the first couple of days was very limited because cell service was shut off … and the Internet was cut off,” he said.
Yale worked in conjunction with Medex, which chartered a flight to Amsterdam on Tuesday for a group of Yale students, including Erin Biel ’13, who was studying at the American University in Cairo. Biel said 12 divinity school students, who were about to begin a new program at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and two graduate students joined her on the flight.
Before leaving the country, Biel had joined protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo to show “solidarity” with the Egyptian people, she said, but when a mob of protesters began storming in her direction, she assumed the police were pursuing them and sprinted for three blocks in the other direction. Biel described this as the most frightening part of her adventure.
“There was a big fear of stampedes, of people running in different directions,” said Biel, who is now back in New Haven.
As she and her friends walked around Cairo last Wednesday, Biel said they tried to keep their distance from crowds and the police, who would run down alleyways shooting rubber bullets “for no apparent reason.” Returning to her dorm room that night, she decided to stay out of downtown Cairo, since the government had shut down cell phone reception and she would no longer be able to find her friends if she got separated in the crowd.
Biel spent Friday night in a friend’s apartment near the American University in Cairo campus, where she could distinguish fires in the distance and saw sniper lasers enter the room.
Back at her dorm early Monday morning, she heard a siren at the university, and resident fellows ran through the hallways yelling, “Lock your doors!” Biel said she rushed into her room and slid furniture in front of the doorway.
“It was nerve-racking because we didn’t know why sirens were going off,” she said. “It wasn’t until the siren was lifted that we knew it was a false alarm.”
Looters came within a couple blocks of her dormitory, she said, though none ever tried to enter.
Biel said she was grateful for the University’s support, adding that Yale sent a private driver to pick her up at JFK Airport in New York Wednesday night.
“Yale has been phenomenal in getting us out of there,” she said.
The divinity school students will wait in Abu Dhabi until the turmoil subsides, Gustav Spohn DIV ’73, director of communications and publications for the Divinity School, said in a press release. They had only just arrived Jan. 26 at Al-Azhar University in Cairo to study Arabic and Islamic thought.
Both Biel and Belding will take classes this semester, they said, though they will have to receive permission from professors to enroll in classes.
Biel said she has just begun to look through the Blue Book, and she expects to begin attending class on Monday. Belding has been in contact with several professors who have agreed to allow her to enroll in their classes. She said she plans to take three or four credits this semester.
“It’s very daunting because I’m limited in what courses I can take,” Biel said. “I need to really evaluate what my options are.”
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced Tuesday night that he will not run for re-election.
Correction: February 3, 2011
An earlier version of this article misattributed a statement of Erin Biel ’13, who said choosing courses will be daunting because she has a limited number of choices.