February 9, 2011
When Sarah Christian moved to Egypt for a post-graduate internship, she knew she would make memories that would last a lifetime.
She didn't realize she would witness history.
"It was a little surreal," said Christian, who returned for a visit to her home in Illinois and to Indiana State University. "Nobody thought it would be as big as it was. I thought, ‘The whole world is paying attention and I'm right here.' It's much more than I bargained for when I moved to Egypt."
"By studying the Middle East at ISU and being adventuresome, Sarah has had a rare opportunity to witness first hand a truly democratic revolution unfolding on the banks of the Nile," said Robert Hunter, an ISU professor of history, who's class on the modern Middle East interested Christian to learn more. "Hers is the travel and learning experience of a lifetime."
Christian, who graduated from ISU in May 2010 with degrees in history and legal studies, moved to Cairo in August for a one-year internship at the American University.
"Just long enough to be nice and settled, and I didn't want to be torn away," she said.
Along with studying Arabic, she worked at the university along with other interns. She traveled in Egypt and to the Sinai Peninsula, snorkeled in the Red Sea, rode camels and experienced Egyptian life.
Then as Jan. 25 approached, she began hearing talk of a rally on Police Day to protest police brutality linked to a recent case.
"Nobody expected it to happen," she said. "The night before I was talking to people and they said, ‘Egyptians don't protest.'"
Except this time, they did.
"People really came out," she said. "It got broken up and everybody went home. Everybody thought that was it."
But talk began circulating again of another protest. This time, they didn't stop as protestors demanded that President Hosni Mubarak leave office immediately after 30 years of rule.
"Nobody expected it to be the scale it was on," she said.
Christian lives in an apartment on an island in the Nile River. A 25-minute walk takes her to Tahrir Square, where the protests have been located.
"I could go out on a terrace and I could hear everything happening," she said. "There was no real risk of it spilling over where I lived."
While American University has two campuses, including one at Tahrir Square, Christian worked at the new one in the suburbs of Cairo. She said she never feared for her safety, even when she and another intern participated in the March of Millions on Feb. 1. She said the Egyptians welcomed them and wanted to talk to them about the protest.
"They were so happy and really hopeful," Christian said of the Egyptians attending the event. "They were proud of their country, proud of themselves and what they're doing."
She said she was glad to have attended the event, which became an outing for Egyptian families.
"It was inspiring to see them that way," she said.
That way is bringing about historic changes to a people with an ancient history.
"Today, the peoples of the Middle East and Asia are undergoing dynamic, even revolutionary transformations that affect U.S. consumers, American foreign policy, national security, even our standard of living," Hunter said. "Yet Americans remain woefully ignorant of these regions and their fascinating cultures and civilizations. Students are beginning to make up for our knowledge deficit."
Arabic is the fastest growing foreign language studied in U.S. colleges and universities, with Chinese a close second, according to Hunter.
"Through travel, study abroad and work opportunities, young people like Sarah Christian are able to experience the problems but also the prospects of the peoples who live on three quarters of our planet," he said. "Staying at home won't do anymore."
Christian, at first, didn't plan to return to her home in Lawrenceville, Ill.
"My thought was I'm not leaving unless I'm forced to leave, only if the State Department says I have to leave or the university president because she's my boss," she said. "I was thinking if I leave I can't come back."
However, when the State Department ordered a mandatory evacuation of non-essential personnel, Christian began to reconsider. She bought a ticket from a commercial carrier and flew back to the United States on Feb. 5.
"I bought a round-trip ticket," said Christian, who plans to return to Egypt on Feb. 18. "I left all my stuff. It eased my mind to know I am going back."
When she returns, she hopes that it's to the beginning of wide-sweeping changes in the Egyptian government.
"I'm so proud of what they're doing though it obviously has caused some chaos. I hope some actual change does happen. It would be a real travesty if it doesn't," she said. "I hope they understand though that change won't happen overnight. Some demands can't happen overnight or it could get a lot worse."
Sarah Christian in front of the Pyramids of Giza.
Protests in Egypt. Photo by Sarah Christian
A woman waves a sign with "Leave" written in Arabic during the March of Millions. Photo by Sarah Christian
Contact/Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu
Sarah Christian witnesses history as Egyptians protest.