Interview: 'Academic Refugees' from Egypt Adjusting to Israel

After a harrowing experience in Egypt, 12 US students are adjusting to academic life at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. INN spoke to two of them.

Contact Editor
David Lev, | updated: 08:52

The Academic Exiles
The Academic Exiles
Hebrew University

In a sort of academic “ingathering of exiles,” Hebrew University last week took in 12 American students who were studying at schools in Cairo but could no longer continue due to the unrest in the country. And while the situation in Egypt has calmed somewhat, the students will be remaining at Hebrew U until at least the end of the academic year.

The new students are all enrolled at Hebrew U's Rothberg International School, and hail from Princeton, Vanderbilt, Michigan State and Allegheny universities and the University of California Schools.

All were enrolled in overseas extension programs sponsored by their schools and chose to study in Egypt. After it became clear in late January that it would be impossible for the students to continue to study there, their universities made hasty arrangements to relocate the students – and 12 of them chose Hebrew U, which came through with emergency placement for all of them.

So how are they doing after their first full week in Israel? For Sloane Speakman of Vanderbilt, it's been a bit of an adjustment. “This is my first time in Israel,” he told Israel National News. “So far, it's been nice. There were a lot of adjustments to make, though. For one, it's drastically more expensive than life in Cairo, which has been hard because I had budgeted for six months in Egypt. It's also dramatically colder. I did not even own a jacket in Egypt, so I had to buy one once I arrived in Israel.”

Sloane was interested in the Middle East, so he welcomed the opportunity to come to Israel, although, he says, “to be honest, I did not know much about Israel before coming to Jerusalem.” In fact, the first place he was evacuated to was the United Arab Emirates, but after informing some of his Egyptian friends that he was moving to Israel for the duration, “they were happy for me when I found out I still had an opportunity to stay in the Middle East, because they knew that's what I was interested in studying.  The fact that I was going to Israel was not of any concern to them.”

Sophie Tahran of the University of California at Berkeley tells a similar tale. She left Cairo January 31 and was evacuated first to Barcelona, where she was given the choice of continuing her year abroad in Israel, Korea, or Germany. “I chose Israel because it is in the Middle East,” she said, “and I'm majoring in Global Studies with an emphasis in the Middle East, and because it was a country that I had considered studying abroad in originally. I chose Egypt because it is an Arabic-speaking country, and I'm studying Arabic as well.

“Once I decided to apply to Hebrew University, I told all of my friends, and the news was generally met with positive reactions. My friends in the States were a little upset that I wouldn't be returning home, and my Egyptian friends were disappointed that I wouldn't be returning to Egypt and that we didn't have a proper goodbye. I never heard any negative comments about my choice to go to Israel. Most of the Egyptian students just asked if and when I would be able to return to Egypt to visit them,” she adds.

Both Sloane and Sophie say that their experiences in Egypt, especially during the final days as the protests mounted, left an indelible impression on them. “The lines at the supermarket were hours long, full of people trying to purchase whatever was left,” said Sloane “All of the ATMs were empty and none of the stores were open to where we could buy more credit for our phones. We were well taken care of in the dorms, which provided us at least one meal a day, though the portions were diminishing as time went on. Most of us who lived off campus had just stocked up on food before being evacuated, leaving hundreds of dollars of food behind,” she adds.

Perhaps surprisingly to Israelis, both Sloane and Sophie say that Israel is generally very far from the minds of most Egyptian students. “No one really mentioned Israel while I was there,” Sloane said “I usually had to prod them to get them to talk about Israel, and usually it was from a political perspective after that. The majority were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but this issue came secondary to their domestic concerns. Their high rates of unemployment, increasing price of foods and lack of personal and political freedoms that affect their daily lives took priority over their problems with Israel.” Sophie said that she never heard Egyptians “just discussing Israel in passing.”

For now, both are in Israel – and intend to make the most of the experience. “I have quite a few American friends who had visited Israel in the past, either on personal vacations or on Birthright,” said Sophie. “All of them insisted that I had to take advantage of the Israel study abroad opportunity because they loved visiting Israel themselves. I'll be exploring Israel until the end of May.”

And Hebrew U is just as happy to have the students. “When the universities asked us to assist their students, we did not hesitate,” said Prof. Mimi Ajzenstadt, provost of The Rothberg International School. “Our devoted staff made sure that the students would feel welcome and would be able to enjoy the warm and rich environment the Rothberg International School provides.”