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UofL prof in Egypt returns home safely

by Denise Fitzpatrick for UofL Today last modified Feb 03, 2011 05:51 PM

A University of Louisville researcher who was in Egypt when trouble erupted there a little over a week ago has arrived back in Louisville after a five-day ordeal of trying to return home.

UofL prof in Egypt returns home safely

Steven Myers

Steven Myers, professor of pharmacology and toxicology, flew to Cairo Jan. 20 to do field work for his research on environmental pollutants and cancer. All was fine until his colleagues began telling him that he might want to prepare to leave Egypt quickly.

"They were hearing rumors that students were gathering for a big protest," Myers said.

About the same time, he began to notice armed guards stationed just outside the University of Fayoum, a campus about 50 miles south of Cairo where he was staying.

"I was collecting blood samples at a hospital only about 150 feet away from campus for my research project," Myers said. "The guards began escorting me there and back. I knew something was going on but I wasn't sure what."

When Myers first heard the news reports that thousands of young people had gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to call for Mubarak's resignation, he was not overly concerned. Al Jazeera was reporting that the protests were peaceful, he said. But on Jan. 28, violence erupted and he realized it was time to leave.

Myers called the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to ask for help getting a flight home, but no one answered the phone. "The diplomatic staff there had already been evacuated," he said.

His next call was to the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., where he remained on hold for 45 minutes. The person who eventually came on the line told him to check the department's website for instructions. Since the Internet was down, he couldn't.

After making a series of frantic phone calls to EgyptAir, he was able to book a flight to Munich for the next day. He hired a driver to take him to Cairo Airport.

"Traffic was crazy. We passed 200 Army tanks on the road. There were cars everywhere, people everywhere. It took us two hours to cover the last half-mile to the airport."

When Myers arrived at the airport, between 2,000 and 3,000 people were trying to get through security and fights were breaking out all over the place, he said.

"Everyone wanted to leave. There was lots of screaming. I was supposed to fly out at 10 a.m. but I couldn't even get to the ticket counter until 2 p.m."

Finally, Myers received a boarding pass but it had no flight number or date. By then, there was very little food available at the airport. Myers ate the last of the snack bars he had stuffed in his carry-on and then had to make do with water and crackers.

"I was supposed to fly to Munich but when I got on the plane I didn't even know where it was going. All I knew is that it was supposed to be somewhere in Europe."

His plane landed in Dusseldorf, Germany, early the next morning, but he couldn't book a flight from there to the United States because a winter blizzard had just struck most of the U.S. Midwest. After spending another two days in Dusseldorf, he got on a Lufthansa flight to Miami and continued to Louisville on yet another flight, arriving home around midnight Feb. 2.

"I'll go back to Egypt someday, because I love the country and the people, but I think I'll wait at least until next year," Myers said.

Another UofL faculty member, Adel Elmaghraby, was heading toward Cairo while Myers was trying desperately to go the other way.

Elmaghraby, an Egyptian American professor at UofL's Speed Engineering School, had lost touch with his wife and son in Cairo due to the state-imposed phone and Internet blackout. After a detour and a few delays, he reached Cairo via Amsterdam.

"My family and I are OK," Elmaghraby said in a Feb. 2 e-mail. "The situation is not perfect, but I am optimistic.

"I am staying in a complex with mostly Americans. We have building security guards but we also stand guard. People are becoming closer and friendlier and have a better sense of community. Most of my neighbors refused the U.S. Embassy evacuation offer. Frankly, it is very sad, but we are all OK."

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