Ever since traveling to Palestine in college, Graham Pitts, 32, has been eager to return to the Middle East.
In 2011, Pitts arrived in Egypt to study at the American University of Cairo in the midst of his Ph.D. studies in history at Georgetown University. It was four months after the Jan. 25 Revolution, part of the wave of rebellions known as the Arab Spring, when countries erupted in protests and many overthrew their rulers.
It was exactly where Pitts wanted to be.
“Revolutionary Cairo was a totally different place,” he says.
The state had ceded control of Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Pitts says, as well as several blocks around the square, near where the American University of Cairo (AUC) is located.
“Eventually the situation there became so unstable that we had to move our classes elsewhere,” he says. “But the rest of the city was really safe during that time. If you had a little bit of savvy about where you were going, that was all you needed to be safe.”
For some graduate students, study abroad offers the chance to leave their comfort zone, including to places experiencing conflict, be it military, political, social or religious. Students interested in world affairs say studying in areas of conflict is a risk worth taking — if you travel wisely.
“You have to know who you are, and where you are,” says Pitts, who has also studied in Syria and Lebanon. “[With] a sense of that, I feel as safe in Beirut, despite the huge refugee crisis, as I do in Washington, D.C.”
But the danger is still present. Giulio Regeni, an Italian student who was studying at AUC, was found dead last week just outside Cairo. He had gone missing two weeks earlier, after leaving to go downtown after dark to visit a friend. Regeni’s case is a sober reminder for students: Whether traveling through an official university program or on your own, you should follow certain steps to stay safe abroad.
Before the trip
At George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, grad students have the opportunity to take two- to three-week “field experience trips” to destinations such as Israel and Palestine, Colombia, Jordan, Serbia and Kosovo, and, previously, Turkey.
Grad student Tim Mathew, 27, says the trips are why he chose the program. “I had an interest in the Middle East area going into [it],” he says. “Once I saw those trips, I jumped on them.”
The school tries to follow guidelines from the U.S. Department of State’s list of travel warnings and alerts when choosing locations for the field experience trips. This list includes warnings for cities at risk of political or social unrest, or for locations with high crime rates.
“In some places we’ve had some additional security travel with us,” says Lisa Shaw, director of student services and field experience at S-CAR.
Students should research and understand the political situation in the country where they’re headed. American University’s Study Abroad Program, for instance, recommends perusing analyses provided by the State Department.
Still, some unsafe situations can arise completely unexpectedly. Allan Goodman, president and CEO of the Institute of International Education, agrees with many universities that it’s important to sign up with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which allows U.S. citizens and nationals to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate and be contacted in emergencies.
“I equate registering with the embassy to buckling your seat belt,” Goodman says. “It’s a simple thing to do, it saves many lives and it might save your life.”
Once abroad, a communication plan is key, Shaw says. Students should have in-country cellphones or other methods to communicate with their instructors, and may have an agreed-upon meeting place in an emergency, she says. S-CAR and George Mason police also maintain emergency contacts for each student.
When exploring their new country, students should think twice before venturing out alone. On George Mason’s field experience trips there’s limited downtime, but when students are on their own, “we prefer they travel in groups,” Shaw says.
When Mathew and his classmate Will Johnson, 25, traveled to Turkey last March to work with Syrian refugees, and to Israel and Palestine last January, they were told where they could go safely, and how to be respectful in their host country.
“There were possible questions you might get asked and how to answer those,” Mathew says. “For example, you’d just [say] you’re here for a class to learn about the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
And while journalism students, especially, may want to cover an event or demonstration as part of their studies, Goodman says, they should remain aware that protests and demonstrations often turn violent.
American University recommends students avoid all protests and demonstrations. In 2011, three students from U.S. universities were arrested in Cairo during protests in Tahrir Square, putting themselves and other students at risk, the university notes. “You need to recognize that you are guests in your host country and should refrain from inserting yourself into an already volatile and potentially dangerous situation,” American states on its website.
“There are many ways to cover an event short of grabbing a poster and getting mixed up in something that could turn violent,” Goodman says. “I think the biggest mistake a journalism student can make is to think that our guarantees of the freedom of the press travel beyond our borders.”
It’s worth it
Grad students and faculty agree that it’s important to travel outside of one’s comfort zone.
“You won’t understand conflict unless you see how it affects people,” Mathew says. “It helped build empathy for me.”
And as long as you take steps to stay safe, the experiences can be invaluable.
“Don’t let the news throw you off,” Johnson adds. “There is no better way to learn than having that immersion experience.”
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