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Out of Egypt: Newlyweds saw historic change as teachers in Cairo

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

It was with mixed emotions that Emmad and Katie Kabil watched mass protests and chaos erupt around them in Egypt last month.

The couple, who settled there shortly after their marriage in August, were afraid, they admit. But they were also amazed and inspired by the sight of people from all walks of life uniting to fight for basic human rights after nearly 30 years of autocratic rule under President Hosni Mubarak.

“It was really uplifting, because of how the community would band together to protect everybody and how much they just wanted democracy and freedom,” said Emmad, 22, a Pawleys Island area native. “The movement was really pure.”

Katie, 23, recalled hearing Egyptians chant for peace, and later watching them cheer and dance in the streets or whistle and wave as the Egyptian army made its way into neighborhoods, offering protection.

“There was such a feeling of pride,” she said.

Emmad and Katie moved overseas last summer to get to know the family of Emmad’s father, Essam, who is Egyptian. Essam, who now lives in the U.S., gave them two plane tickets and a place to stay as a wedding present, and they both found work as teachers.

Emmad and Katie returned to the U.S. on Feb. 1 and, after visiting Katie’s family in Charlotte, they’re staying with Emmad’s mother, Sara Sowell, in Hagley.

Their return came nearly two weeks before Mubarak resigned and they spent much of that time glued to the news, watching events unfold and worrying about Emmad’s relatives, as well as friends and former co-workers who are still in Egypt, they said.

Emmad and Katie, both graduates of the College of Charleston, lived with family near New Cairo during their stay, but they don’t want to be specific about the location because they fear it could bring trouble to their doorstep.

As the chaos escalated, more family members moved into their household, hoping to increase safety through numbers after reports of prison breaks and looting started to spread.

For the most part, Emmad and Katie were told not to go outside, not even on the balconies, they said, because as Americans they would be bigger targets for criminals.

But they did participate in a protest in their neighborhood on Jan. 28.

“It wasn’t like what you see on the news,” Katie said. “It was peaceful. There were a lot of police, but it was very peaceful.”

She was most impressed by how many people participated in the protests, setting aside all socioeconomic boundaries.

“It was truly all Egyptians,” she said, “not just the poor or the wealthy, or the young or the old.”

In the protest she and Emmad joined, there were children, as well as an elderly woman who struggled to walk.

Katie and Emmad said they were never afraid of any of the protestors. They promised to help keep the young couple safe.

The men in their neighborhood formed a civilian patrol to police the area at night, using homemade weapons, and that protection was the only reason Katie was able to get any sleep, she said.

Their efforts were effective, Emmad said, because there wasn’t a single successful looting in their neighborhood, though there were several attempts. When looters were spotted, they were chased down and beaten, he added.

Emmad was discouraged by his family from participating in the patrols — a big relief to Katie — but the couple contributed to the effort by helping make weapons. They attached knives to long sticks, which the men carried.

When they were finished, there wasn’t a single knife left in the kitchen to cook with, Katie said.

The couple also helped collect armaments and ammunition.

As protests and marches continued against government bans and officials tried to crush the uprising, Emmad and Katie wavered on whether they wanted to leave Egypt.

“We took it day by day. One day we would want to leave and the next day we wouldn’t,” Katie said. “People would say ‘it’s going to get better; the worst is over.’ The vast majority of Egyptians like Americans and they didn’t want us to leave. They kept saying they would protect us.”

“They’re the most friendly people you can imagine,” Emmad said. “They’ll take in strangers and sit you down and give you tea and stuff, to the point you can’t eat anymore.”

After five days trapped inside and too afraid to rest, they decided it was time to return home. By that point Egyptian army tanks were rolling by their house.

“You would think having the army there would make us feel safe, but the fact that the army even had to be there showed how dangerous it was and we thought it would be better for our future if we left,” Emmad said.

They weren’t sure what it would take to go home. Unreliable phone and Internet services made it next to impossible to get information about leaving the country.

The couple expected to have to wait to be evacuated, something relatives back home had already been working on. But they ended up getting an Egypt Air flight without any trouble. Their anxious families in the U.S. had been working the phones for days, trying to get more information about the situation and enlisting help getting Emmad and Katie back home.

“Our moms and my sister just kind of built a special task force team,” Katie said. “They called everybody.”

Sowell said her son and daughter-in-law tease her now about her dedication.

“I had two laptops and my phone, and I had CNN on full blast while I was calling or e-mailing [Katie’s] mom and sister, the State Department and anyone else I could think of,” she said.

From Sen. Jim DeMint to friends of friends with the American Red Cross, she used every possible contact, she said, and had others at work doing the same.

When she heard that the plane carrying Emmad and Katie had finally landed in New York, “there was such a sense of relief, I don’t know how to describe it,” she said. “As soon as their feet were on American soil, it didn’t matter that I didn’t see them. Just knowing they were safe and away from that situation that was deteriorating rapidly was enough.”

Emmad, who is considering going to medical school, and Katie, who wants to get her master’s degree in education, had a lot of positive experiences during the months they spent in Egypt, but they’re glad to be home, they said.

Katie, in particular, is enjoying the freedom this country offers with renewed appreciation.

Women have more freedom in Egypt than other parts of the Arab world, but living there was still a culture shock for Katie. She recalled her surprise during a visit to a friend’s house when the women had to go into a separate room because the men had returned and they weren’t allowed to co-mingle.

The friend “kept saying the men are going to be back soon and she just kept saying it. I was like, ‘OK are we getting them tea or something?’ ” Katie recalled.

It took a while before she caught on to what her friend was talking about.

“It was different and hard, but most of the time it was OK,” she said. “One of the hardest things about being over there is that being a Western woman attracted a lot of attention.”

Katie spent most of her time in Egypt wearing Emmad’s clothes, which were baggy on her, in hopes of making herself less noticeable.

“I didn’t want to show anything,” she said. But her hair alone — long, blonde and curly — was enough to ensure she continually attracted unwanted attention.

“I tried to wrap it, but that had the opposite effect of drawing more attention,” she said. “While I was protesting, that’s when I felt the most comfortable around the Egyptian people. They would come up to me and say ‘thank you’ and ‘I love you.’ They were just baffled that we were out there supporting them.”

Emmad and Katie said they’ll never forget what it was like to see protestors attacked.

“They didn’t even have the right to be on the streets and express their needs and wants,” Emmad said. “It made me really appreciate that I don’t live in constant fear under a dictator, and it made me feel really helpless to even think that could happen.”

When they learned of Mubarak’s resignation on Friday, Emmad and Katie were “elated.”

“We danced around,” Emmad said. “It was really amazing to see how happy people were. My cousin was there and he said they had a party all night long.”

He sees the resignation as an indication that the people are safe, he said, but acknowledges there’s a lot more that needs to be accomplished in Egypt before the situation is resolved.

“He has stepped down, but that’s more of a symbolic victory,” Emmad said. “His whole regime has to go away.”

Emmad said he supports the idea of an international movement to help foster a true election in Egypt.

Without that kind of an initiative, he worries things won’t really change.”

Sowell said she has watched the news alongside Emmad and Katie, and continues to pray for the people of Egypt.

“This is not going to be an easy victory for them,” she said. “There are 30 years of wrongs that have to be righted and that’s going to take time.”

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