Egyptian protests send USD student home

When protests broke out in Egypt earlier this month, Jessie Milstead had no idea they would progress at such a rapid pace.

Milstead, a Boren scholar and student from the University of South Dakota, had been living in Cairo since August and attending the American University as part of an Arabic intensive immersion study.

�The Tuesday that the protests first started, it was unexpected, obviously,� Milstead said. �We knew that the small protest started through Facebook would be happening, but that it would actually progress into anything, we didn�t know about.�

�She was keeping an eye on things,� said Tim Schorn, J.D., Ph.D., associate professor and director of USD�s International Studies Program. �She was really looking forward to staying and starting her second semester. She was enjoying the chance to immerse herself both in Arabic studies and in Cairo and the region, so for her it was an opportunity to watch something very historic occurring.�

Milstead said the first indications that the protests had progressed arose when she stood on the balcony of her apartment and could see helicopters flying overhead and smoke rising in the distance.

�Up until the time I actually left, the helicopter was still circling every day,� she said. �It�s pretty clear to see the smoke from the buildings that were started on fire, and the police cars. At night especially you could see the smoke rising from all these different places.�

Milstead said she underestimated the level of unrest in the nation, as did her neighbors, middle- and upper-class Egyptians.

�At that point, they had more to lose, so you didn�t sense anything from them. If you go to the outlying areas of Cairo and the poorer neighborhoods, I don�t know. Part of me says there had to have been, but we weren�t expecting this. Talking to Egyptian friends that I have, one of them even involved in the government, and even he was saying, �We never expected this.� �

�You don�t expect things to progress to the point where the entire regime is overthrown. That�s incredible.�

The outbreak of violence and eventual overthrow of the Egyptian government forced her to return home to Sioux Falls on Feb. 9.

While she said she felt safe in the interim, there were some tense moments, such as when the men from her block armed themselves and went into the streets to protect their homes.

�Starting that Friday night, you just take chairs and shove them against the door and put up black T-shirts trying to cover up the door if protestors came along,� she said. �We didn�t know what was going to happen. We didn�t know how people were reacting. And at the time there had been nothing said against Americans. It was very much an Egyptian issue. They weren�t against Americans. So you didn�t feel unsafe for that reason.�

Milstead said the biggest cause of worry was a lack of communication between her and her family resulting from the Internet and phone lines being taken down for two days.

�We didn�t know that was coming, so that was more of an issue,� she said. �Leading up to these protests I was in Alexandria and I had picked up some really nasty bug and was very sick leading up to that, and so they were calling more for that reason, to make sure everything was OK. They didn�t even know these protests were going to be happening.

�So all of a sudden when things escalated and they cut off cell phones and Internet my parents couldn�t get a hold of me. They definitely were even more concerned,� she said.

The situation made her feel �helpless,� she said.

�I wasn�t concerned for my safety at the time,� Milstead said. �It was more, �I need to tell them that things are OK.� I didn�t know what they were hearing on the news, I didn�t know what they were seeing on CNN and Fox, but there was no way for me to reach out to them and say, �Hey, things are OK.��

Milstead was forced to leave the country when the State Department upgraded its travel alert to a warning.

�It�s university policy that if this happens, there�s evacuation insurance and I would be picked up, taken to the airport and sent off on a charter plane,� she said.

She flew to Barcelona before making her way back to Sioux Falls.

�The original plan was to go to Morocco, but there were a few news reports going about Feb. 20, protesters calling for a big day of protest,� she said.

This may be the first instance of a USD student needing to leave the country in which they are studying due to political unrest, Schorn said.

�This is the first time that I am aware of that we�ve needed to worry about getting a student out,� he said. �There maybe have been medical cases that have arisen or family emergencies, but not instability.

�The university has a policy. The rule is we don�t send students and faculty or programs to countries that are under State Department Warning,� he said. �Egypt was not under a warning when she went, and in fact it was well into the protests when the State Department finally issued a travel warning. And that�s what kicks in our response.�

Schorn said he doesn�t think Milstead�s experience in Egypt will affect further immersion studies.

�In some ways, everything worked the way it was supposed to work,� he said. �We knew that Egypt was quiet at the time and when things turned around the insurance company that we work with responded just as well as they possibly could. They did everything that we asked them to do, everything that they needed to do, probably even above and beyond. �

�It means that we�ll still encourage students to take part in language immersion programs and other immersion programs with the knowledge that we�ll keep an eye on what�s going on,� he said.

Milstead is now attending class at USD and hopes to go study in Morocco beginning this summer.

�The university has just been phenomenal helping me jump back into a couple classes, and also to continue studying Arabic,� she said.

Schorn added, �We�re certainly glad to have Jessie back, but I understand that she�s disappointed, because it puts her Arabic studies on hold and her opportunity to experience another culture and another place. But I think she�ll probably find something interesting and challenging to do in the near future, as well.�

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