Protests Hit Home For Whatcom’s Egyptian Students

by Matt Benoit

Horizon Reporter

As the revolutionary protests that have captured the world’s attention continue to rage on in Egypt, their impact is being felt at Whatcom Community College by the six students who attend the college as part of the Northwest Colleges Egypt Initiative.

The program, run through a grant from the U.S. State Department, brings a number of Egyptian students to several Washington community colleges each year to complete one-year professional development certificates.

Mary Mele, the adjunct faculty member who is in charge of Whatcom’s Egypt Initiative program, says following all the events in Egypt has made it difficult for the Egyptian students to concentrate on their schoolwork.

Mele said the students found it “very upsetting” when they were at first unable to communicate with their families due to the Egyptian government shutting down Internet and cell phone service for several days when the protests first began.

By the middle of last week, however, almost every one of the students had heard from their families.

The students have also had a lot of support from local officials, as an aide for Washington State Congressman Rick Larsen called Mele on Jan. 31 asking how the students were doing, and saying that Larsen expressed concern for the students and their families.

Whatcom president Kathi Hiyane-Brown, along with vice president for instruction Ron Leatherbarrow, also expressed concern.

Mele said one thing some of the students are concerned about is how minorities will be protected after a changing of the government.

Of the six students, two are men and four are women. Two of the six are also Christians and the other four are Muslims. Egypt’s population is about 80 to 90 percent Muslim and 10 to 20 percent Christian.

Mahabba Samir is one of those Christian students.

Samir, 24, is from Minia, Egypt, a city about a three-hour drive south from Cairo. She said that despite its distance from Cairo, her city has still been affected by the protests.

Samir said that one of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s relatives had a large house in Minia, and protesters destroyed it by burning it down. She says that police offices in the city have also closed, leaving things unsafe.

“Everyone is carrying weapons,” she said. “That is not usual in Egypt. It is very hard for me to know that there is no police in my city, and that my family is in danger.”

Samir’s family, her brother and sister, are still in Minia, and after two days of no contact she was finally able to speak with them via landline telephone.

In addition to the lack of police in the city, Samir said Minia has been impacted by a lack of transportation between it and larger cities, making things there more expensive to buy due to a lack of adequate supplies.

Overall, Samir said she was not surprised about the protests against the Egyptian government, but was taken aback at just how widespread they became. She has been watching many videos of the protests on YouTube, noting one where a car runs into several protestors and continues to drive away.

And what does she think of Mubarak?

“I completely agree with him,” she said of Mubarak’s Feb. 1 speech, in which the president said he would not run for re-election in September. “He did a lot of very good stuff for Egypt, and we confess that. But the last [few] years, [the situation] became worse and worse. So the people became very angry.”

Samir says Egypt’s economy began struggling 10 or 15 years ago, and in addition, the country’s police force became corrupt and over-controlling. As a Christian, Samir said she is especially concerned with police policy towards Christians, citing violence amongst police, Muslims, and Christians following a Jan. 1 bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 21 people.

Samir says she thinks that while Mubarak should certainly give the Egyptian people the chance to choose a new leader, she disagrees with those who think he should resign immediately.

Samir says she plans to go back to Egypt in August after finishing her business degree at Whatcom, where she hopes to get a job at an international bank. And maybe, by then, things will be better in her homeland.

“I hope,” she said. “I hope that people who protest against Mubarak now—please stop and think, please. Because there are a lot of victims. I hope [for] peace for Egypt.

-Editor’s note: There were several errors in the print edition of this story. They have been corrected here.

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