Duke students return home from Egypt as civil unrest peaks

Jul. 14, 2013 @ 08:29 PM

Duke University rising junior Courtney Murray remembers watching crowds of protesters march toward Tahrir Square from her apartment roof in Cairo.

The next day, she, along with 10 other Duke undergrads, left the hot, hazy city rife with political unrest and started their journey home.

The DukeEngage Cairo summer program was cut short after the university’s International Travel Oversight Committee restricted travel to Egypt starting July 3, the day Islamist president Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian military. Thousands protested in Tahrir Square just minutes from their Garden City apartment next to the American embassy.

This was Murray’s first opportunity to travel to the Middle East. She is double majoring in Arabic and international comparative studies with a focus on the Middle East. After she and the rest of the team returned home July 6, Murray said it all felt like a dream.

They had arrived in Cairo June 7 after an 11-hour flight and hit the ground running. Murray explored the landmarks along Al Kasr Al Aini street that would lead her back to her apartment. She ate her first Egyptian meal, koshary, made with lentil, rice and chick peas.

Their goal was to help non-governmental organizations with their day-to-day operations and take Arabic classes. But Murray said she and the other students knew there was the possibility of political turmoil once they crossed into Egypt. Before they left, they had talked with a Duke student group who visited Egypt last year, right around the time Morsi was elected. The group was put on lockdown for a week due to protests.

“We were all generally cautious,” Murray said. “We knew that it wasn’t a completely stable situation because it had been about a year since the revolution.”

This was rising sophomore Maura Guyler’s second trip to Egypt. Her first cultural immersion experience in Cairo was in February, when she interviewed Iraqi refugees about their families and way of life. She said she saw more violence that February, when police descended upon protesters with tear gas.

“You leave, you’re a refugee and you’re seeking to be safe, and now you’re in this place where there’s so much political instability,” Guyler said about the families she met.

This June, the students ran summer classes at Ana Elmasry (I the Egyptian) Foundation, which provides educational programs and medical support to street children. They helped the al Kiyan Society, which focuses on people with developmental disabilities, with capacity building and networking. The third organization they helped was Resala, where they taught English and American culture classes.

Guyler said they would have conversations with students who were also 18, 20 years old, and they asked the Egyptians about their views of America.

“We don’t necessarily agree with Obama’s decisions, but we like Americans because we’ve met you,” they’d say.

Murray said the Egyptian friends they made during English classes became their tour guides. One friend took them to Dar El Salam, about 10 minutes from Cairo, where hundreds were celebrating an Egyptian wedding. In the alleyway, they taught the Duke students how to dance to Egyptian music and even played American songs for them.

“We were just surrounded by Egyptians who wanted us there, who wanted to show us their culture, their ways, their experiences, and I didn’t really feel American then,” Murray said. “I felt a part of it.”

At the end of June nd o early July, however, the protests began to grow. The Egyptian military threatened put an interim administration in place. Students heard pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi sentiments from their friends and passersby. Others wanted the democratic process to play out and allow Morsi his full term.

“Egyptians are very helpful and protective of foreigners,” Guyler said. “We would have to walk through a protest or a demonstration or a gathering and there would always be someone who would clear the way or help us get through. …. There’s a difference between anti-American government sentiment and anti-American sentiment.”

The students left for Sharm el-Sheikh June 28, to gain some distance from unstable Cairo.

“As time progressed, we all could kind of see that people were definitely angry but we had no idea what was going to happen,” Guyler said. “I don’t think anyone could predict that the military was going to step in.”

The trip was supposed to be two months long, but their time in-country was cut in half.

The DukeEngage students kept blogs during their travels in Egypt. Guyler wrote final reflections in her blog July 3, the day Morsi was ousted.

 “We’ve seen people gather in the streets to demonstrate their opposition to Mohammed Morsi,” she wrote. “We’ve seen the graffiti, telling Morsi to get out. In the Metro, we’ve seen countless young Egyptians pacing the subway platform asking people to sign the Tamarod petition. We’ve experienced things that no one else ever will.”

Despite so much uncertainty within the country, both Guyler and Murray plan to go back.

“We loved our trip,” Murray said. “We loved the people we had met. We were ready to go back, ready to finish what we had started.

“Rationally, it makes a lot of sense why we came home, but emotionally, our hearts are still in Egypt.”