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Far from his home in Egypt, UDC basketball player Ziad Ashmawy tries to stay positive

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 12:02 AM

Ziad Ashmawy tries to talk with his mother by telephone every day.

"I know that people here, once you hit 18, you've got your own life. But overseas, we're pretty close to our families," he said. "I'm pretty close to my mom."

Then he added with a laugh, "I'm a mama's boy."

Recently, though, Ashmawy could not call his mother, Wessam Moussa, back home in Cairo. When the freshman forward on the University of the District of Columbia men's basketball team tried to reach his family in Egypt, his frantic calls went straight to voicemail.

"When [the Egyptian government] cut the connections, I was pretty worried" about his family, Ashmawy said. "Even Coach [Jeff] Ruland was trying to call them. I'm going to think positive that everything is going to be fine, but yeah, I was pretty worried about them."

Ashmawy eventually did make contact with his family members and learned they were safe. But the continuing unrest in his homeland has made for an anxious couple of weeks for the 19-year-old political science major.

Since the protests to drive Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from office began on Jan. 25, more than 300 people have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch. On Jan. 28, the government cut off Internet and cellphone service for nearly a week. A curfew was put into place. Mubarak, who took power in 1981, announced Friday he was stepping down, handing control of the country to the military.

Ashmawy, who had hoped Mubarak would remain as president until the September elections, feared for the welfare of his homeland after speaking to his mother early Friday morning.

"I just can't believe it," he said. "I really don't know what's going to happen to the country. It's just crazy. Things are changing so fast. I'm pretty worried. No one knows who's in control."

Like most Egyptian boys, Ashmawy played soccer as a child. But because he was always the tallest in his class, his mother persuaded him to try basketball when he was 8 years old. He played on a youth national team and caught the attention of Rice assistant coach Marco Morcos, who also is Egyptian. Morcos mentioned Ashmawy to Ruland, and after a year in prep school at Maine Central Institute, Ashmawy enrolled at UDC.

"He's got a bright future ahead of him," Ruland said. "He's got some skills."

Ashmawy has become a solid contributor for the Firebirds (8-13), who after a slow start have won seven of their past 10 games. The 6-foot-5 forward has started 17 games and is averaging 7.8 points and 4.8 rebounds. He chose UDC in part because Washington reminded him of Europe, but mostly because he felt like he fit in with the team.

"Especially Coach Jeff, he made me feel part of the family," Ashmawy said.

To stay current on the ever-changing situation in his homeland, Ashmawy constantly monitors the Internet and devours news from CNN and al-Jazeera. Even though his family lives a good distance away from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests in Cairo, he became distraught when he heard looters were breaking into homes on Jan. 29. UDC had a home game against Pfeiffer that day, and although he tried to focus on the task at hand, his thoughts kept creeping back to Egypt.

"I started crying on the bench," he said. "It was just hard."

Ashmawy was mostly upset because his mother was alone at that time. His 23-year-old brother, Mohamed, was out of town.

"That was the thing that worried me the most because my mom was on her own," he said.

His brother has since returned, and his mother has gone back to work. Despite the continuing unrest, Asmawy said his family has begun to return to its normal routine. But he isn't certain how long that will last given the changes that are happening in his country. He wonders what life in Egypt will be like now that Mubarak is gone.

"It was kind of weird when you're away from everyone, your people, not only my family, but my friends, everyone is in danger, the country," Ashmawy said. "That's my country where I grew up. I saw those places. Now when I watch them on TV, those places are destroyed. It was insane. I've got to go back. I can't see that through TV. I'm an Egyptian. I've got to be there with my country.

"Then I started thinking about it. What will I do when I get back home? Nothing, basically. I'm not going to make a big change. My mom pretty much helped me on this one. She called me: 'You're not going to make a difference. Everything is going to be fine. Don't worry about us. Don't worry about the country.' She was right."

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