|Amid the roller coaster of protests, the nation’s expatriate communities faced difficult decisions By Kate Durham
| Belle Gironda did not even stop to unpack. Returning from winter break in the United States, the 48-year-old assistant professor in the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Rhetoric and Composition department arrived in Cairo on January 29. At her Garden City apartment, she dropped her bags and went straight to Tahrir Square.
“I think [it was] a combination of interest and curiosity and feeling very strongly about the cause, what people were doing and wanting to support that somehow,” Gironda says about why she went to Tahrir almost every single day of the protests. “And since in some ways it seemed it was a numbers game […] one thing that one could do was show up.”
As protests and regime responses progressed at a dizzying speed, Egypt’s foreign expatriate community was tugged in multiple directions: stay and watch history, leave for a sense of security, stay for the sense of community, go or stay because the job requires it. For foreign residents who left, the decision was not made lightly.
After a gun battle took place just meters from her Maadi residence on January 29, Lyn Lightell, a part-time tour director in her 50s, headed to the airport four days before her previously scheduled flight to the US. After being wait-listed for a US government-chartered evacuation flight, she took a commercial flight to Athens on January 31.
“I decided to leave early because the situation was unpredictable,” Lightell recalls. “It was changing so rapidly.
“I dearly love Egypt and its people. But this was not the Egypt I know and love,” continues Lightell, who has lived in Egypt at least part of each year for the past decade. “[T]his was the first time I did not feel comfortable being there, maybe even at risk, if nothing else, from stray bullets flying through the air. The main reason I decided to leave early […] was my family back in the States and the granddaughter who I adore. Need I say more?”
A dearth of tourists — official estimates say more than one million left the country during the protest — means Lightell is likely to have no work in the short term. Still, now that the security situation has calmed down, the tour director says, “I can’t wait to get back to my second home and all my good friends.”
Despite government speeches raising the specter of xenophobia, all the expats interviewed say they never felt personally threatened as foreigners.
Anjana Das, a 39-year-old Indian writer living in Mohandiseen, is no stranger to political unrest: As a child she lived in Ghana during one of its many military coups. When the protests started, however, her elderly father was in town for what was meant to be a six-month visit. Das and her husband Anil Jayachandran left for India with Das’ father on February 1.
“I was worried medical services may be affected,” Das explains via email. “Also, there was talk of the possibility that Cairo airport may be closed, which would make travel out of Egypt difficult. But I must add that except for that one night when looters took to the street, I had no fear for security.”
Jayachandran, 44 and head of strategy planning for a local ad agency, flew with his family to make sure his father-in-law arrived safely, then returned to Cairo a few days later.
“I thought that there are 80 million people living here who really can’t go anywhere else, and I have stayed [in Egypt] with them for about 12 years,” he says. “To leave at the first sign of trouble didn’t really feel like the kind of thing you should do.”
Das, who returned at the end of February, and Jayachandran say that on the personal level, Egypt is still the place they want to live. The political situation, however, has them concerned. “I feel an uncertainty I have not felt before about how the new government will see foreign workers in Egypt,” Das says. “[It is] something we will know in the coming months.”
In some cases, evacuation was mandatory. Study-abroad programs recalled students to their home countries; at AUC, officials confirmed that 316 of its 340 study-abroad students left. In an online February 6 article, the international publication University World News reported that countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia evacuated thousands of students, many enrolled full-time at local universities.
Many embassies evacuated non-essential staff and their families, prompting international companies to follow suit. Ted, a quality assurance manager in his 60s at the Cairo branch of an American business, was ordered to evacuate along with 30 other Americans by his employer. (He asked that his last name and company name not be used because of company policy against speaking to the media.)
“My company follows [US] Embassy guidance but can make a determination more stringent than that of the embassy,” he explains by email, adding that several other “customer companies” sent their workers home. After decades of working in the Middle East, including more than 10 years in Egypt, Ted is not worried about living here. “I am ready to return as soon as I am allowed.”
While precise figures are unavailable, Americans comprise one of the largest expatriate communities in Egypt, with tens of thousands of US citizens living in the country. According to Elizabeth Colton, press attaché for the US Embassy in Cairo, 2,300 US citizens were evacuated on 19 US government-chartered flights between January 31 and February 4, including embassy personnel, tourists and expatriates. Colton explains that the decision to order non-emergency embassy personnel and their families from a country is based solely on security and not political issues.
On February 18, the US State Department had eased its travel warning from “avoid all travel” to “defer all non-essential travel” to Egypt but still cautioned, “Due to continuing uncertainties regarding the restructuring of Egyptian government institutions, the security situation remains unresolved.”
Ukranian Andrew Tkachenko, 28, stayed because of his job at Suez Steel, an Egyptian company. He and about 70 other Eastern Europeans live in Ain Sokhna about 25 kilometers away from Suez and didn’t witness the violent clashes in the early days of the protests. The scariest moment, he says “was when police completely disappeared from the streets.” For two nights, until the army arrived, Tkachenko and the other expatriates joined Egyptians in guarding their neighborhood against looters.
The steel worker says that almost none of the Eastern Europeans left the country. When he called the Ukranian embassy for guidance, he says they told him, “There’s no point in going home now […] No reason to leave this country.”
Tkachenko came to Egypt more than 10 years ago for university and stayed after he found work. While this is his first experience with civil unrest, he has no qualms about staying. “I mean, yeah, we have bad days and then they finish,” he says. “And the situation gets back to normal once again. […] I didn’t feel life became worse or better.”
In the tourist cities, expatriates reported calm. Jeannette Preston, a 48-year-old German dive instructor who has lived in Dahab for nearly nine years, says that she did not consider leaving.
“I think this whole revolution was not against foreigners, it was not a religion thing, so we had nothing to do with [it],” she says. “So I felt safe.” Like many others in the diving and tourism industry, her income comes from the local economy, not a multinational business. Preston reports that Dahab is now “a ghost city.” But as long as she can continue to support herself, she has no immediate plans to leave, saying, “I hope [Egypt] changes for the better.”
In Mohandiseen, the Swiss Club stayed open throughout the entire period of protests to offer a haven for members who might not feel safe in their own neighborhoods. It also offered a different sort of haven for the club’s neighbors.
“[W]e opened our car park for the cars of the neighbors so they had a safe place for the cars,” says Andrea Schaefferlein, the club’s executive manager. Despite reports of looting and violence from certain neighborhoods, Schaefferlein says there was surprisingly little violence near Midan Kitkat, where the club is located. The Swiss Club membership includes 100 Swiss and other foreign families, and Schaefferlein guesses that about half left the country during the unrest. Of those who stayed, she says no one sought refuge at the club.
Schaefferlein continued to show up at work, however. “The staff and the neighbors here at the Swiss Club, they were pretty happy to see my face actually, like ‘Oh, you’re still here! You’re sticking through with us’.”
A 32-year-old German trained in the hospitality industry, Schaefferlein came to Egypt three years ago and decided to stay indefinitely. The fall of the Mubarak regime actually reminded her of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Schaefferlein was 10 years old living near Munich when Germany was reunited, and she saw many ecstatic East Germans come through her village. “Luckily, both happenings were kind of peaceful.”
The political situation has not changed Schaefferlein’s love for Egypt, although she does have concerns. “I would seriously consider leaving the country if a fundamentalist regime would come up or if a second Iran would happen or something like that. Then I guess I would pack my things and go. Other than that, I’m pretty hopeful and pretty anxious that the Egyptians will manage to pull their act together because everybody is hoping for the best. And so am I.”