US less inviting for Arab students

Egyptian applications to study abroad in the United States have declined 40 percent since Sept. 11.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It certainly isn't the cushy job of assistant treasurer of the student union that is keeping Aly Nabil in Cairo this summer where temperatures have soared to 115 degrees.

But he would rather take the heat in Egypt than "face the music" in the United States where he had planned to study during a year abroad at UCLA or Penn State.

"I applied in February, but I reconsidered real quick," he says, relaxing in an air-conditioned student lounge at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

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Even as increasing numbers of American students are applying to study in Egypt, reports of harassment and undue security checks are frightening some Arab students away from their dream of studying in the United States.

"Some of my friends in the States say they have been treated poorly since September," says Mr. Nabil. "I also read in the newspaper that over 20 Egyptians in their 20s are still being held in US detention centers. I think I will wait a couple of years for things to cool down before reapplying."

The trend has officials on both sides of the Atlantic worried about study abroad programs that are deemed crucial to forging Arab world ties as the US government expands its "war on terror" and the crisis in the Middle East deepens. Officials at the US Embassy in Cairo say they are doing everything they can to support the embattled programs.

Sohair Saad, director of the Amideast educational resource center in Cairo, says that some local presentations by US schools, which garnered 25 interested students a year ago, have only hosted three or four students this year. The number of students taking the all-important Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) has dropped by 40 percent in Egypt, she says.

Likewise, Tomader Rifaat, director of International Student Services at the AUC, says applications by Egyptian students to study abroad in the US have dropped by 40 percent since last September.

"In many cases, it is the parents, rather than the students, who are increasingly reluctant to send their children to study in the United States," says Ms. Rifaat. "For two schools that we usually send students to, we had no applications at all this year."

But a key official with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, (AAADC) Hussein Ibish, says that the fears of Arab students in the Middle East are exaggerated.

"From the outside, it might look like worse than it actually is," admits Mr. Ibish. "Most Arab students don't face any great danger or particularly onerous burden when studying here. In the main, the US is still a tolerant nation. While it would be false to tell people it is as simple as in August 2001 to study here, the new obstacles should not be interpreted as prohibitive."

But Rifaat says that, in rare cases, there is real harassment and that is what is frightening away her students. "One of our students this year at the University of California, Berkeley, reported extra harassment at the hands of his fellow students after being approached by legal officials in the wake of the anthrax scare," she says. "He claimed he was mistreated and threatened and that the other students were just too much on him. We took these seriously and conducted an investigation which substantiated his allegations."

She says that the main reason, however, for less enthusiasm for studying abroad stems from the real sense of harassment Arab students have felt about the number of "random searches" they have been subjected to in airports and other ports of entry. "On my last trip, I was randomly searched three different times in three different airports," she complains. "As soon as US officials see an Egyptian passport, they jump into action."

Noha Saeed el-Mokhdaami says it has always been "her dream" to study in the United States.

"I have friends who have assured me that it is safe, and I will apply to study in one year's time, but I'm still very afraid," she says, sitting with her boyfriend in a Cairo cafe. "I feel there has been a change and I fear psychological violence in the USA. I have also read reports that Egyptians and Muslims have been mistreated. If I go there, it would be my first time and I would be extremely nervous, especially because I am veiled and I don't know what the US women will say about that."

But despite the AUC experiencing a drop off in applications to study in the US, there has been about a 30 percent increase in US students, many of them of Middle Eastern descent, applying to study in Egypt.

"These American students come here not only to learn Arabic – but to see the other side of the mountain," says Rifaat, the student services director. "They want to learn and see things from a different perspective. This is the only way that people will learn about the truth."

Rifaat says she believes that the events of Sept. 11 have sparked a new interest in the US in the Middle East. She says young people are more curious than ever. The school takes in some 200 US students annually, but enrollment could rise to 260 if the new wave of applications from the US are approved.

Two of these US students found a degree of unexpected fame this year when they charged into Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity during a standoff this spring with humanitarian supplies for Palestinians trapped inside. The two young men, Robert O'Neill and Nauman Zaidi, were tossed in an Israeli jail and deported to the US at their parents' expense. The AUC, however, paid the expenses for the young men to return to their studies in Cairo, where they were welcomed as heroes and granted special status to continue their studies.

"They were kicked out of their exchange program for what they did," says Rifaat. "But they had a chance to witness history in the making."

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