Return from Egypt
February 9, 2011 – It’s been a week since they were airlifted out of Egypt, and all five Middlebury undergraduates are back on campus trying to bring order to their lives.
A quintet of juniors – Hafsa Ahmad, Elsa Belmont Flores, Samantha Kaufman, Otis Pitney, and Pathik Root – were in Alexandria, Egypt, on Middlebury’s study abroad program when the country was thrust into chaos.
“I literally had five minutes to pack,” said Otis Pitney, 21. “I was in the supermarket buying some groceries [on Sunday, Jan. 30] when I got the call that my dorm was being evacuated. The guards were leaving, all the students were moving out, and so I had to go too.”
All five Middlebury undergrads, plus two staff members and 17 students from other colleges enrolled in the C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in the Middle East, left Egypt on a charter flight to Prague on Monday, Jan. 31, after a tense 36 hours in Borg el Arab airport.
“I got back to the States all disoriented and shell shocked,” Pitney explained, “but what has helped me out the most has been staying in touch with my Egyptian friends and staying fixated on the situation in Egypt.”
“I am watching a lot of Al Jazeera, I can tell you that!” he said. “I really want to be back abroad this semester.”
Hafsa Ahmad, an international politics and economics major from New Jersey, said the experience was both astonishing and life changing.
“I witnessed violence just a few hundred feet from me and there were times when I feared for my own life. When you are in such a vulnerable position and then you are rescued by Middlebury College and by your own government, it makes you realize how lucky you are to have had the means to be evacuated.”
Ms. Ahmad’s roommate, an Egyptian woman named Heba, escaped to the relative safety of “the countryside,” but her good friend Enas, a Kuwaiti, was not as fortunate. “She’s still in an apartment in Alexandria in the middle of the violence, and I pray for her safety every day,” the 20-year-old said.
Samantha Kaufman, from Boston, is back on campus now taking classes and living in an Atwater suite, but she keeps reflecting on the scene when the situation went from calm to confusion. While living with an Egyptian family near the Corniche, a main thoroughfare that runs along the Mediterranean, she heard the protests getting closer and closer. The demonstrators then “stopped on our corner for about 10 minutes to chant before continuing.” Kaufman, 20, is still trying to find the way to explain her feelings to others because, she said, the culture and politics of Egypt are so far removed from the United States.
Pathik Root, whose remarkable video footage and photographs (see left) of the protests in Alexandria have appeared on CNN and in regional news media, is going to classes at Middlebury this week but readily admits that he is “not mentally committed to being back on campus yet.”
When the violence on Jan. 28 and 29 approached the apartment where “Tik” was living, he and other residents formed a neighborhood watch to protect their lives and property.
“I am still very concerned about my friends in Egypt and about the political situation there,” Root explained, “and I really would have preferred to have stayed. But I also realize that we [i.e., American citizens] are kind of a liability in an unstable country in the middle of a revolution, so we can do more to help the Egyptian people from here.”
By “help,” Root means his activities on a number of fronts, including: his private meeting with U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders (I-Vermont) in Burlington on Feb. 7, his insistence in interviews that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak step down from office, and his electronic communications on both sides of the Atlantic including an extensive email list and Google doc that people are sharing. [Note: Google.doc no longer available.]
The fifth Middlebury student on the program, Elsa Belmont Flores, is also back on campus and living in a double with fellow Alexandria returnee Hafsa Ahmad. A resident of Mexico City, she got off the plane in her home city and was whisked to a television station for an interview. A few days later the Mexican citizen was back in Vermont under three feet of snow trying to put some normalcy to her life.
For all of the students, the College made last-minute rooming assignments and special arrangements so they could attend class in time for the start of spring semester. But at 9 a.m. on Monday morning, one of the returning students didn’t have a pen or a notebook. Another was trying to find a fourth class that didn’t have a huge waiting list. And two of the students, Root and Pitney, are actively trying to enroll in a study abroad program in Syria for this semester.
“I still can’t fathom being back here,” Pitney sighed. “My friends keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey man, great to see you. How was Egypt?’ But they don’t understand. It’s impossible in a dining hall conversation to explain what it’s been like and what I feel for the Egyptians, so I am staying close with people who went through the experience with me. And I keep hoping to go back there soon.”
Addendum: On February 11 Pathik Root and Otis Pitney started a blog to help share their perspectives and the perspectives of others. The blog is called Reports From Egyptians.
Addendum 2: In March 2011 Pathik Root obtained a visa from the Syrian government and traveled to Syria to study for the spring semester at the University of Damascus. According to sources, he was last seen on March 18 in Damascus near the site of a protest. For updates on the whereabouts of “Tik” Root, go to the special page created on the Middlebury College website. There is also a Facebook page dedicated to Root’s safety.
Addendum 3: On April 2 Root returned to the United States. He told the Boston Globe that he had been held in Syrian prison after being arrested for taking photographs at a demonstration in Damascus.