September 3rd, 2013 (Jupiter, FL)-
For students at the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University, a typical summer may include an internship, a job, or a research opportunity. For Wilkes Honors College Junior Skylar Benedict, however, the summer of 2013 was anything but typical. Benedict planned to spend six weeks studying and completing service work in Cairo, Egypt during June and July. Unfortunately, his studies were cut short after only a few weeks, when he was suddenly forced to leave the country due to the events surrounding the deposition of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. But rather than diminishing Benedict’s interest in Middle Eastern society, this experience has only served to encourage him in his ardent pursuit of understanding about the Arabic language and the Islamic world.
When Benedict arrived in Cairo in late June, his plan was to study colloquial Egyptian Arabic and Egyptian Social Issues, and to participate in a 6-week service project. Already an advanced Arabic student, Benedict was looking forward not only to immersing himself in his linguistic study, but also to gaining a greater understanding of the complex social climate of Egypt. The study abroad program, called “Learn and Serve in Cairo,” was designed to partner students with agencies working on the ground in Egypt to solve social conflict. Benedict partnered with an organization known as Refugees United for Peaceful Solutions. “What I was supposed to be doing for the whole summer was working on an advocacy campaign called ‘Refugee Voices’ in which I would write and then my supervisor would publish stories about different aspects of the refugee situation in Egypt,” Benedict explains. In recent decades, Egypt has become a prime destination for individuals seeking to distance themselves from military and social conflict in various African and Middle Eastern countries. As a student, Benedict had the opportunity to witness firsthand the living conditions and tensions within the various refugee populations residing in and around Cairo. However, two weeks into his work and his studies, he was told to pack his things and prepare to return home.
In late June, tensions began to rise in Cairo as protestors took to the streets, calling for Morsi to step down. “It’s important to say that while Egypt and Cairo may or may not be dangerous for international citizens right now, while I was there, even up to the point I left, it wasn’t dangerous overall,” insists Benedict. “There were very specific sites of protest and disorder and conflict, but it was not a situation of lawlessness.” In reality, the events that took place on June 30th were in some ways planned, he says. “A couple of months before this conflict on June 30th a group of opposition leaders had gotten together and come up with the idea for a signature campaign,” explains Benedict. This campaign was intended to gather a greater number of signatures of those who were opposed to Morsi’s government than the number of votes he received when he was elected to office. The result would be an open declaration of how dissatisfied the Egyptian people were. The opposition leaders widely publicized their intentions and called supporters to rally together on June 30th to ask Morsi to step down. “Going into it, every American studying there was notified of this; it was a planned event,” says Benedict. However, the violence that erupted in Cairo following the demonstrated was unexpected. “Naturally, no one imagined the kind of response to what happened. Obviously that was completely unprecedented.”
On the day of the protest, students were placed under lockdown in their rooms to await the outcome of the demonstration. Later that day, they received word that the program would be dissolved, as the streets had become too unsafe for students to continue to work in Cairo. They were offered the option of being funneled into a different study abroad program in Jordan, or of returning to the United States. Benedict opted to return home.
Although disappointment quickly set in, it was the shock of being pulled from a culture he had only begun to explore that bothered Benedict the most. “Two weeks into the program I was just starting to become comfortable with living in Egypt. So suddenly finding out that I would have to return home was quite a shock,” he explains. “I had some anxiety about being in the midst of the protest or that something unexpected might happen, but that wasn’t at all my dominant feeling.” In spite of the brevity of his trip, Benedict returned to the United States more determined than ever to continue his studies in the language and culture of North Africa and the Middle East. “I certainly did not have time to do everything I wanted; on the other hand, I feel that I was accomplishing something and working on an issue that was significant,” Benedict insists. “Even just interacting with the Egyptians in our program enforced that kind of ground-level diplomacy, as did working with the refugee groups.” It is for this reason that Benedict adamantly encourages other students to study abroad in North Africa. “Do it!” he exclaims. “It’s a place where it’s essential for us to build global communications and global ties right now, and I firmly believe that studying abroad there as a student, going there and acting as a goodwill ambassador, and acting as an example of what the American youth is, is one of the most important things you could possibly do.”
As far as his own studies, Benedict hopes to continue to learn more Arabic and to study the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. “This trip reinforced my interest in language study and understanding that region, but it also gave me a new perspective on North Africa. For instance, I hadn’t really known anything about the refugee situation in Egypt or the human rights situation in the region in general, but it is something that I would definitely like to research and study and contribute to,” he says. “Studying human rights is certainly higher now on my list of priorities.”
Right now, Benedict is planning to focus on his last two years of his undergraduate education and his entrance into graduate school. But he looks forward to the day when he can return to Egypt and finish what he began there this summer. “I would certainly go back to Egypt,” he says. “In the foreseeable future, I’m not sure when that would be, but there’s much that I plan to do in Egypt that is still unfulfilled. In any situation, it is a country worth exploring and worth knowing well.”
About Florida Atlantic University: Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University, with an annual economic impact of $6.3 billion, serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at sites throughout its six-county service region in southeast Florida. FAU’s world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University is placing special focus on the rapid development of three signature themes – marine and coastal issues, biotechnology and contemporary societal challenges – which provide opportunities for faculty and students to build upon FAU’s existing strengths in research and scholarship. For more information, visit www.fau.edu