February 9, 2011

Student Returns to U.S. After Struggle to Leave Egypt

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After spending last semester working as an intern at a United Nations agency in Cairo, Egypt, Alexandra Woodhouse ’12 said she fell in love with the Middle Eastern country. When the U.N.’s International Labor Organization offered her a full-time position for this spring, Woodhouse jumped at the opportunity, taking a leave of absence from Cornell to pursue the experience of a lifetime.That experience, however, was abruptly turned on its head last month when mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, attracting the world’s attention, throwing Egyptian society into chaos and forcing Woodhouse to evacuate the country.“The Egypt that I came to was not the Egypt I left. It was not the same place. That was the hardest thing to realize,” Woodhouse told The Sun in an interview last week, after arriving back in the United States. She recounted a harrowing story of trying to flee Egypt amid political turmoil — and without a passport.Within a matter of days in the middle of January, Woodhouse found herself in a situation that was “changing every five minutes” and quickly spiraling out of control, she said.Woodhouse’s office at the United Nations had been following the earlier uprising in Tunisia closely and subsequently began keeping an eye on the peaceful demonstrations breaking out in Egypt.  “We were getting nervous that something was brewing” in Egypt, she said.On Jan. 26, the second day of the riots, she traveled with her two roommates and an Egyptian friend to Tahrir Square to see the situation first-hand.

“I felt like I was in a movie,” she said. “Tahrir Square, where I had had coffee every day, was now a war zone. There were insane amounts of policemen wearing black helmets and [riot gear]. It made me sick to my stomach.”

Woodhouse said she then left the square, only to read updates on Twitter 20 minutes later that gunfire was being exchanged in the area.Over the course of the next few days, Woodhouse said she was struck by “how unnecessary the amount of tear gas was: about five shots per minute.”“The air was filled with tear gas,” she said, which especially concerned her because she is asthmatic.  After the first few days of the protests, Woodhouse said the International Labor Organization cancelled work because its office was seen as a target. U.N. officials urged her to stay locked in her house with enough food to last for several weeks, she said.“Every single day we would see a different chain of events,” she said. “It was almost as if we had to plan out only the next five minutes — things were changing by the minute.”ATMs were shut down and communication — including Internet and cell phone service — was completely cut off, though some landline service was eventually restored, she said. “It was difficult because I couldn’t be in touch with my family.”Looting quickly became a problem, forcing Woodhouse and her roommates to barricade the entrance to their first-floor apartment in the Zamalek district of Cairo.Woodhouse said her 19-year-old Egyptian friend was being taught by his father how to use a rifle to defend against looting in his neighborhood. Another friend was guarding his house and protecting his grandmother with the only weapon available, a kitchen knife, she said.“It was like a video game,” she said.As she and her roommates worked around the clock to secure a way out of the turmoil-ridden country, Woodhouse said she was extremely disappointed by the U.S. State Department.“One person from the State Department told me, ‘Sweetheart, there is nothing we can do for you. You’re going to have to go the U.S. embassy in Tahrir,’ which was where all the protests were happening,” she said.Woodhouse’s attempt to leave Egypt was complicated because she was not in possession of her passport, which was being held at an Egyptian government office that was working on her visa application. In addition, Woodhouse had no other forms of photo ID since she lost her wallet at a restaurant the previous week.  Without any other options, Woodhouse said she enlisted the help of a male Egyptian friend to escort her through the heart of the violence and the protests in Tahrir Square to get to the U.S. embassy.“I walked through an area with three military tanks on each side,” she said. “I was walking up to these men with guns on their shoulders asking for directions to the U.S. embassy. It was surreal.”  After she received a “temporary passport” — which she said was merely a photocopy of her old passport and looked makeshift at best — Woodhouse then went to the airport, where she had the challenge of passing through the immigration checkpoint.“The immigration police are very rough around the edges in Egypt,” she said. “They, rightfully so, thought I had made the passport in my home and said, ‘We can’t help you.’”Woodhouse said she had to resort to begging and acting out — behavior that is not culturally acceptable for women in Egypt.“I got on my knees and I was crying,” she said. “It was like a movie. I got crazy.”Her strategy eventually worked, though, and she was allowed to board her EgyptAir flight to the U.S. She arrived in New York on Feb. 2.Woodhouse said she wanted to tell her story to “get the word out” about what is happening in Egypt.“I’m trying to spread the word that they need us more than ever.”Even before the protests, she said it was evident from interactions with everyday Egyptians how much the people distrusted their government.“These people are fighting for basic rights that should be universal,” she said, adding that, while she had campaigned for President Barack Obama, she was disappointed in his administration’s response to the crisis.“When a nation wants democracy, we shouldn’t walk away from them,” she said. “Here is a country screaming out for it.”Woodhouse said she hoped to return to Egypt as soon as it’s safe to return, but in the meantime expects she will be able to work out of the United Nations’ New York office. She also said she planned to return to Cornell in the fall.

Original Author: Michael Stratford