Saturday, February 16, 2008

Some Thoughts on Refugees

Her name is Huda, approximately 40 years old with bright eyes and a warm smile. The pastel blue hijab wrapped around her head and covering her shoulders tells me she’s Muslim. Her light skin tone stands out from the rest of the dark-skinned African refugees queued up in the courtyard of the Falaki building on the campus of the American University in Cairo. “Where are you from?” I enquire politely as I process her paperwork, but my question really isn’t a question at all; I’m merely seeking confirmation. “I’m from Iraq, but I live in Cairo now.”

Huda is a refugee, a person either forced or voluntarily removed from a country for political, economic, or social reasons beyond his or her control. Cairo, with its central location to many refugee crises, is home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Situated in the center of the Arab world and located in the northeast corner of Africa, Cairo is a safe haven for people from such countries as Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Chad, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Palestine, and more recently, Iraq. During the last week, I met people from all of these countries.

Grading the placement tests reveals small details in the personal lives of some of these students. When asked to define the word “job,” one student replied (and this is a paraphrase), “I live in Cairo one year. There are no jobs here.” Another student, while describing his family, wrote, “My father was killed by the Ethiopian government.” One student left her 70-year-old mother in Baghdad and escaped to Egypt. Reading these responses is shocking—they are brutally honest.

Working registration tables has its stories, too. Whenever a student comes to the table, I ask for a passport-sized photo, and inevitably they pull out a small packet full of photos. The image is a sad one. How many times have they been asked to give a photo? How many times have they waited in line? How many times have they reached the front of a line only to be told to go to a different one? How many times have they been rejected? Refugee management is bureaucratic but necessarily so. How else do you manage hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homeland?

As I sat at the registration table last week, I could not stop staring at Huda’s ID. I was captivated—captivated by guilt. As an American, I knew that it was my country that was responsible for the Iraqi refugee problem, and that the U.S. has taken in a pathetic and embarrassing number of refugees (somewhere around 1,500 if I remember correctly). An informal estimate approximates that there are at least 30,000 Iraqis in Cairo. A sickening feeling filled my stomach, and I just wanted to go up to Huda and apologize and say to her that everything was a mistake, that I wish it were different. When I help other refugees, I do so out of kindness and a desire to help those who are less fortunate, but I have no feelings of guilt. I don’t feel any personal responsibility to these people. Iraq is different.

The situation is full of irony. America was the catalyst of a civil war that has sent tens of thousands of Iraqis to Cairo. Now it is the Americans that are trying to alleviate the situation of the Iraqis by providing English language skills and refugee awareness. None of this should have happened, and yet it did. May lessons be learned.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Week One

Usually the first week of classes at any university is short and mild, what I would call “syllabus week.” You don’t have much to do, and you aren’t given anything to do either. You can procrastinate without regret and, if you feel motivated enough, chip away at internship applications for the summer. I wish this was the case for me this semester. I jumped right into things as both of my Arabic teachers wasted no time diving into the material. This left me scrambling the first couple days as I was trying to finish my homework in addition to solving some start-of-semester business matters.

I’m taking a lot of Arabic. My accelerated intermediate Arabic class meets for 10 hours a week and moves rapidly through the al-Kitaab textbook. There’s no messing around. I’m also in a media Arabic class that meets three hours per week and covers vocabulary and styles commonly found in written and oral news media. Although the class will be challenging, it will definitely pay off in the end as I’m most interested in using Arabic for professional purposes, not for colloquial conversation.

My other two classes are in the political science department. One is titled “Arab Political and Social Thought” and covers topics such as Arab nationalism, 20th century socialist movements, and the resurgence of Islamism. The professor is the chair of the political science department and seems very good. My final class is a development seminar that meets once a week for two and a half hours, but unfortunately the class was cancelled on the first day, and we will meet next Wednesday night.

I look forward to a great semester. Based on my first impressions, my professors will be much better than last semester, and it will be reflected in an increased command of the Modern Standard Arabic and a better understanding of Middle Eastern politics.

The first week went by very quickly, and I think the semester will be over before I know it. It feels good getting back into the swing of things. I have a lot of friends here from last semester, and we already had a get-together to celebrate a birthday. Semester two has proven infinitely easier than semester one, and that is a huge relief.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Back in Cairo, and Nothing Much Has Changed

Greetings from Egypt! For all of you that read my blog regularly, I want to let you know that I am back at the American University in Cairo for the spring 2008 semester. My blog will once again be updated regularly with new thoughts, observations, and commentary on everything Egyptian—politics, society, economics, and anything else that intrigues me. Of course, in a country like Egypt, it doesn’t take long to come up with something new to write about. Just walking across the street can be an adventure, registering for classes a nightmare, and convincing a cashier to take a large bill is nearly impossible. But I’ve already described all of these topics in previous blogs. I look forward to new, exciting material every week.

Returning to Cairo was much easier than my first trip here last August. The culture shock that I experienced was not an issue this time around, although not everything was easy. Setting up my apartment was a hassle, and readjusting to Cairo’s pollution and overcrowdedness took some time as well. But overall, the transition has gone relatively smoothly.

One thing was different. I journeyed across the Atlantic with my dad, and we traveled around Egypt for two weeks seeing all the sites from the Pyramids of Giza to Karnak Temple in Luxor to the Roman ruins of Alexandria. We had a great time together, and I was so glad he was able to make the trip. I’ll have pictures up soon.

If you want adventure, come to Cairo, because this place is like no other. My dad and I laughed a lot about this. Everyday brings something new. One night, after returning from Port Said, our taxi got a flat tire, and the driver jumped out of the car and repaired the thing while we were sitting inside. In Alexandria, a strong wind storm knocked a boat lose in the harbor, and it banged against the rocky shoreline for two days, smashing into smithereens with each crashing wave. Twice, restaurant waiters tried to rip us off and charge extra, and one time they succeeded despite my pleas in mixed Arabic and English. You win some, you lose some. Such is life in Egypt.

Classes started on Sunday, and I’m ready to get in the full swing of things. I like the schedule and routine of school, and I thrive in a structured academic setting. I look forward to a good semester, and I will see many of you again in four months time. Until then, I’ll be blogging.