Students share stories about Egyptian experience, witnessing first riots in Cairo
WORTHINGTON -- More than 200 people -- including the parents of several area students -- were on hand to greet Augustana College band members Monday night at the airport in Sioux Falls, S.D., following their weekend flight out of Cairo, Egypt. The welcoming scene was much different from the scenes of chaos they left behind Sunday morning at the crowded Cairo airport.
More than two-thirds of the 70-member band arrived in Sioux Falls Monday night. Among them was Brian Juber of Worthington, who was glad to see his parents waiting for him when he stepped off the plane.
Still, he couldn't help but think about the 25 band members that were still stuck in Amsterdam. That group left Amsterdam on Tuesday for a flight to Minneapolis and then on to Sioux Falls.
"We just wanted to keep them in our thoughts," Juber said. "It was kind of tough leaving them at the hotel (in Cairo) when we left for the airport. That was a difficult goodbye for the time being."
With the exception of their last few days in Cairo, five band members with ties to southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa said the three-week trip through the country was a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience.
They performed four concerts, visited 27 monuments, toured several universities, took a cruise down the Nile River and exchanged Facebook information and e-mail addresses with Egyptian college students.
"The entire trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life," said Juber. "The great thing about Egypt is that it has such a long history."
Lindsey Olson of Luverne said on their very first day, they were taken to see the pyramids and the Sphinx.
"All of us were like, what else is there to see?" said Olson from her home on Tuesday morning. In the days that followed, they experienced both urban and rural sights.
They saw people farming with cattle and using donkeys and carts to transport goods, and they saw homeless people gathered around makeshift fires on the sides of roads and in abandoned buildings. On the flip side, they met college students excited about their future and hundreds of people who "had never heard western music or met Americans," she said.
Andrew Paulson of Jackson said a couple of their concerts attracted large crowds of people -- at one, there was standing room only.
"This was music they'd never heard before," he said. "They didn't have a concept of concert band. It was fun to have an audience that thought we were great. They treated us like rock stars."
Signs of change
Last Thursday night, on Jan. 27, members of the Augustana band were confined to their motel because of the protesting and subsequent curfew that was put in place in Cairo. While dining in the hotel's 11th floor restaurant, they could hear singing and chanting going on in the streets.
"We went out on the balcony, and that was the start of the riots," Paulson said. "It was nowhere near as intense as they are now."
Paulson actually filmed some video from the balcony, which shows Egyptians forming, chanting and then running away as the policemen arrived.
"We didn't really know what (the demonstration) was about," he said. Their tour guides offered some perspective on the situation, saying that the country's government needed a "definite change."
Brian Hokeness of Rushmore said he was never worried about the situation unfolding before their eyes.
"I realized it was history in the making," he said, adding that the tour guides kept them all safe.
Katie Kuehl of Sibley said their tour guides were supportive of the protests -- even saying they would be taking part in the demonstrations if they hadn't been busy showing the band members the sites. The tour guides said Egypt's economy is being split into either rich or poor, and the middle class is disappearing.
"Our guides were middle class, and they are fighting to be able to afford their daily needs," Kuehl said. "Overall, our guides thought Egypt was fighting for the right thing."
"The impression that I got was that this was a very good thing that was happening," added Juber.
Paulson said he was initially worried after seeing the protestors march through the streets, but once he spoke to the tour guides, he had a better understanding of the situation.
"I just thought it was really cool that we were there to see it," he said. "I thought it was neat how seriously they were taking it. For the most part, the protestors didn't want it to be violent. They wanted change to happen, but they didn't want anyone to get hurt."
Olson said the band members were fortunate to have tour guides who helped them put the demonstrations into perspective.
"Even though 70,000 (protestors) is a huge number, Cairo has a population of 22 million," Olson said. "Really, a small percentage of the population was speaking out. With the mob mentality, one thing leads to another and some of them became violent, but we were not anywhere near that."
All of the band members gave credit to their tour guides for keeping them safe in the last days of their Egyptian tour. When they were moved from their downtown hotel Friday morning, they were hurried onto the bus and led to a safer hotel near the airport. The quick action provided a secure home for the entire group, as within two hours people had crowded into the hotel lobby because there were no more rooms available.
The flight out
Once the band members arrived at the Cairo airport for their departure home, they experienced wall-to-wall people.
"I didn't feel unsafe, but the tension was palpable -- you could just feel it," Juber said.
"That was the most chaos we saw while we were there," added Olson.
After a lengthy flight delay, the band members waited some more on the tarmac as about 10 planes had lined up to take off.
"Once we were in the air, we all let out a cheer -- we were very relieved to be able to get out of the country safely," Juber said. Now, after having a day to reflect on the events of the past several days and seeing the continued unrest in Egypt via television, he said the experience is hitting him.
"At the time, it didn't seem like I was in the midst of something that would spark a revolution in Egypt," said Juber. "There's a possibility that we could have seen something truly revolutionary and groundbreaking."
All five of the Augustana band members from the region have wonderful memories of their journey, from the places they saw to the people they met and the experiences they had.
"The experience of being in a culture that's just so different from ours was probably my favorite part of the trip," Juber said. "It really made me appreciate living in the U.S. and it made me appreciate the freedom that I often take for granted in this country."
"I think my favorite memory from the whole trip ... was sitting down with our tour guide and we had a question and answer time about Islam," said Olson. "That was so cool getting to know him and learning about the Islam faith. I just think there were a lot of stereotypes erased that day, from our point of view."
Hokeness said the entire experience was worth so much, learning first-hand about Egypt and its history, rather than reading about it in a text book.
"We really got to know the culture and the people," he said. The student exchange program, in which they got to meet other students who shared their field of study, was one of his most memorable experiences of the trip.