Hopkins, UM students headed home from Egypt

Jay VanRensselaer had photographed archaeological digs in Egypt since 1996 without ever feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome.

But the Johns Hopkins University staff member sensed a seething anger in the populace last week as he finished another excavation with Hopkins graduates and undergraduates. When one of the students read Facebook posts about overthrowing the government on Friday — well, it seemed like a good time to go.

"At no point did I feel threatened, but there was a certain level of anxiety," VanRensselaer said.

VanRensselaer is one of more than 30 Hopkins students, professors and staff members who have either left Egypt or are planning to leave on charter flights Tuesday.

Since protests broke out last week challenging the government of President Hosni Mubarak, Hopkins and the University of Maryland, College Park have moved to get students and faculty out of Egypt as quickly as possible. Most other colleges and universities around Baltimore said they had no students or staff members in the country.

The Hopkins departures include more than 20 employees of the Bloomberg School of Public Health who left the country on commercial flights Saturday and Sunday and most of the archaeological students with whom VanRensselaer had worked in Luxor.

A family of four associated with the Bloomberg school was planning to leave Cairo on a chartered flight to Rome on Monday afternoon. An archaeology professor, four of her graduate students and two undergraduate students from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences planned to leave the country on charter flights Tuesday. A university spokeswoman said the charters were arranged through International SOS, a crisis response service.

Seven University of Maryland, College Park students were studying in Egypt when the protests erupted. Six are back in the U.S., and a spokesman said the university is working to bring back the last student, who enrolled in the American University in Cairo on his own and not through a UM program.

Mae McIver, a senior from Salisbury, had studied Arabic in Alexandria since the end of last summer. She walked along with protesters on the first day of demonstrations last week. "It was exciting to see the people finally standing up for themselves," said McIver, whose mother is Egyptian and whose grandfather lives in Cairo.

But as she walked over broken glass, torn signs and discarded shoes, her excitement mixed with nervousness that the protests would interrupt her travel to Cairo for a planned flight out of the country Thursday.

She was relieved to reach her grandfather's house without incident and said her parents were equally relieved when she stepped off the airplane. Now, she's waiting to see whether the situation will settle down enough for her to go back later this semester.

"I don't know if I should start looking for a job or what," she said.

College Park officials said they have maintained steady contact with the students and their parents since the crisis arose.

VanRensselaer said the Hopkins excavation team was aware of the coming protests for more than a week but did not learn the seriousness of the unrest until Thursday. News arrived slowly because of unreliable Internet connections. But the need to hasten departures became obvious, he said, when Egyptian Facebook chatter mentioned specific plans to bring down the government Friday.

VanRensselaer said he had no trouble flying from Luxor to Cairo but had to wait 15 hours in the Cairo airport for a delayed flight to Amsterdam. The airport was mobbed with departing tourists and workers, who slept on the floor as they waited for rescheduled flights.

"We all just sort of hunkered down and waited," he said. "The Egyptians certainly did their best to work through the situation."

He arrived back in Baltimore on Sunday night and said he would not hesitate to return to Egypt. "I think the Egyptian people are wonderful," he said.

College Park officials said the school may return to Egypt in future years. "The university continues to strongly believe in the great importance of education abroad and will consider programs to send students to Egypt in the future once the political situation has settled down and personal safety is not in question," they said in a statement.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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