Students escape violence, miss adopted home
By Sara Tirrito
As tensions and political unrest began to rise in Egypt over the past two weeks, two Baylor students studying there found themselves caught between recommendations that they leave and their own desires to stay in a country they had grown to love.
McKinney junior Vanessa Onguti and Austin junior James Laughlin were both attending a study abroad program at American University in Cairo when protests broke out. They had not yet begun classes at, which had been slated to begin Jan. 30, but were postponed until Sunday and then postponed again until Feb. 13.
Both students left the country Tuesday. Onguti is now in Kenya, the country where she was born and has family, and Laughlin is staying in Abu Dhabi with the family of his AUC roommate. Baylor has given the students until Feb. 13 to see how the situation plays out in Egypt before helping them return to America.
Onguti said she did not want to leave Egypt, but left at her parents’ request.
“I left just because my parents were not comfortable with me being there, because in the news it looks like we’re all just in terror and it just looks terrible,” Onguti said, “but the area of my school [that the dorms were in] wasn’t too far from downtown, and I guess that was a reason for concern, but it was very safe. There was a lot of security.”
Lori Fogleman, director of media relations at Baylor, said the students were strongly encouraged to leave Egypt.
“The students were in Egypt as part of a Baylor program when the facts were such that we could ensure their safety,” Fogleman said, “but when the circumstances changed, the university put the program on hold and arranged at Baylor’s expense to move the students to a safe location in the vicinity of the country for a period of time while we monitor the situation there in Egypt.”
Laughlin said his decision to leave was made out of compliance with Baylor’s request that he do so.
“They proposed it as basically ‘You’re leaving,’ so I just chose not to fight that and said OK, all right, I will leave,” Laughlin said.
But having been to Egypt numerous times, including a study abroad trip last semester, Laughlin had a difficult time leaving the country that now feels like home to him.
“I truly, truly fell in love with the culture, the way of life that I found in Cairo and Egypt and just everything from the people to the language I just felt very inclined toward,” Laughlin said. “I guess that definitely has a lot to do with it, and just having a lot of connections there — what feels like to me is family. I feel like I have a home both in Cairo and in Austin, and it’s a very neat feeling so it’s hard.”
Onguti said she found it hard to say goodbye to the new friends she had made.
“No one was ready to leave, or no one was voluntarily saying ‘Hey, yeah, I want to leave, I feel so unsafe,’” Onguti said. “No. For most people, their schools were pulling them out, their parents were pulling them out. … So people had to leave.It wasn’t like their personal choice or anything.”
Although he didn’t see any of the violence firsthand, Laughlin could see evidence of it in the hours he left his apartment between curfews, and has been keeping up with the situation by watching the news from Abu Dhabi.
“It really does make me just feel sick and this is something much more than me being there for a couple days or reading about it. It’s just knowing people that have actively been taking the streets and calling me afterward, telling me what it was like,” Laughlin said. “The violence just doesn’t really sit well with me; it doesn’t seem like something that is representative of these people and of this country, and I think it’s not to be looked at in a way, maybe in the way the media portrays it.”
Laughlin said he learned a lot by watching the protests and seeing the people’s unity as they worked to create neighborhood watches, direct traffic and pick up trash from the streets.
“What I saw in those people is they weren’t afraid of their government anymore. They weren’t afraid to stand up and go walk over to them and knock on their door and ask for change, because basically for 30 years they’ve been operating out of fear and just getting in line with the rest of everyone else,” Laughlin said. “So, honestly, I learned a lot about them and about the Egyptian people and saw them take their pride and handle themselves very well.”
Onguti said she was also proud of the people’s protests against corruption and of the military’s response to the situation, but that she hopes Egypt can return to normal soon.
“I pray that this country will get back to the former way it was because it’s such a beautiful country, very peaceful. The people are really nice and it’s very busy during the night,” Onguti said.
“I loved it, loved it, absolutely loved it, and I just hope it’ll get back to how it was sooner rather than later.”
In the meantime, Onguti is following the situation by watching the news daily.
“I’m watching the news very, very, very much,” Onguti said. “When I wake up, I eat, breathe, live CNN because I just want to see how the situation is unfolding in Egypt.”
The students’ academic situations remain uncertain at present, but neither is worried.
Onguti is looking into other study abroad programs in case she cannot continue the semester in Egypt. Otherwise, she will return to Baylor where she will work with her advisers to make a new plan for her studies.
“Right now I’m just doing some research on some other schools because I’d really like to study abroad and I’m a junior, so this is like my one-time opportunity because next fall I have to take the LSATs and then in the spring it’s my last semester. So this is it,” Onguti said.
Laughlin said he believes God will help him find the right solution.
“If this door is closed I know there’s another one open and I’m just ready to walk into it,” Laughlin said. “So whatever happens, I know that I’m going to be taken care of and God will instruct me in my ways.”