A tale of two turmoils: Egyptian students recount struggles with tension abroad



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Zainab Attia seen over an illustration of an anti-miltary coup protest at Rab’a Square in Cairo, Egypt. (Photos: Amal Ahmed Albaz, Illustration: Susanna Gómez Báez/Ryersonian Staff)

Zainab Attia is distracted. She sits in class twiddling her pen, unable to concentrate. She looks around and sees her classmates taking down notes. She wonders if they too are distracted. For her, school has become a puzzle she has yet to solve. She carries not only her backpack, but also her family’s burden on her back as she walks through the campus hallways.

“The people that pass by me every day, my professors, they don’t know what I’m going through, says Attia, a second-year biomedical sciences student at Ryerson University. “The person sitting next to me could be planning a party and I’m in my own bubble, worried about my sister and my family.”

Attia’s brother-in-law, Khaled Al-Qazzaz became involved in Egyptian politics during the elections after the Arab Spring. When Mohamed Morsi was elected as president in Egypt, Al-Qazzaz eventually became Secretary to the President for Foreign Relations. However, after Morsi’s government was overthrown in a military coup on July 3, 2013, Al-Qazzaz was detained along with many other government officials. He was held without charge for 500 days. Al-Qazzaz and Attia’s sister, Sarah, have four children together. Stripped away from his family, Al-Qazzaz spent his days and nights in solitary confinement in an insect-infested two-by-two-metre cell in the maximum-security Scorpion wing of Tora prison. He was released earlier this month but he is currently waiting for paperwork so that he can fly to Canada, where he is a permanent resident.

“I think this affected my sister, Sarah, the most,” Attia says. “She’s been a single mother for over a year while trying to advocate for Khaled. She never stops.” Attia says that Sarah met with officials and members of parliament on a regular basis and travelled from country to country in an attempt to raise awareness for a campaign she spearheaded in Ontario for her husband called “Free Khaled Al-Qazzaz”.

“I felt like I should be doing more to help her,” she says. “Being in school isn’t as important as being there for her.”

Ryerson recent graduate Nusayba Hussein found herself able to relate to Attia’s experiences.

“School wasn’t a priority for me either,” explains Hussein, who was unable to focus on schoolwork and began skipping classes in the final year of her program. “I felt like I shouldn’t be doing anything other than being there with my sister.”

Hussein’s brother-in-law was also affected by the political turmoil in Egypt. Though both Attia and Hussein’s family turmoils happened overseas, the hallways of Ryerson University united them.

During the summer of 2013, Hussein’s sister, Asmaa, her husband, Amr Kassem, and their nine-month-old child went back to Egypt to visit family. Little did they know this would be the last summer they would spend together.

Kassem, who was 26 years old, was at a protest in Alexandria calling for justice for those who had been killed by the military and security forces. Kassem was shot — the bullet travelled through his chin and exited the back of his neck. He was killed for no other reason than partaking in the protest. His wife received a call from his cellphone that changed her life forever. It was from a man who informed her of her new title — a widow.

“I think this incident affected my family in many ways,” Hussein says. “It’s difficult to sum up the emotions that were felt upon first hearing the news. It was such a shock that something like this could happen to someone so close to us, someone that lived under our roof and showed us nothing but kindness and respect.”

Though the wives of the two men have emotionally suffered more than their sisters, the situation affected the families as a whole. “It’s not only hard on my sister,” confessed Attia. “It’s been a very difficult time for me as well — especially as a student.”

Attia had to balance her struggles with her long list of exams and school work. Dr. Sabeena Chopra, a psychiatric consultant at Ryerson’s medical centre, says that situations at home can worsen the already heavy burden of a full-time university student. “Depending on the individual, if they don’t have a way of dealing with the conflicts they’re facing, and without the right kind of support, their stress levels increase,” says Chopra. “That, unfortunately, can have varying degrees of impact on their academic performance.”

Ryerson offers three main support systems for students — psychiatric help from the clinic, the Access Centre and counselling. “When a situation needs psychiatric attention, we have doctors and psychiatrists available for students on campus to oversee their entire process,” Chopra says.

If the situation doesn’t call for medical attention, the counselling centre is the next option. “Sometimes students just need to talk to someone,” Chopra says.

As long as students have their own support system, they usually don’t feel urged to use the counselling services offered. “We have our own outlets for coping with stress and sadness,” Hussein says. “As a family, we support each other and give each other advice during times of hardship.”

Hussein’s sister, Asmaa, has a strong support group on social media and often shares reflections, advice and stories from her life with her husband. Her writing inspires many, including her sister, and has proven to be very therapeutic for her.

Attia’s family also acts as her relief system. “When one of us has a problem, everybody is there to help them out.” In addition to her family, her community and friends always offered to help with the “Free Khaled Al-Qazzaz” campaign, volunteering their time or just giving words of encouragement and reassurance. “Whatever we need, our community is always there for us,” she says.

Both Attia and Hussein have another similar way of coping — through their religion. “Strong faith in God has allowed all of us to move forward and trust that he has a greater plan for us all,” Hussein says.

Attia says that unjust treatment can strengthen spirituality. “You turn to God when you know no one else can help.”

But spirituality alone may not be enough to help cope with the academic challenges of pursuing a degree amidst such turbulence. The last form of help that Ryerson offers is the Access Centre, which is known for academic support for those with disability. Disability is not just the stereotypical images people often have. “If someone is not functioning normally, it’s fair to call them disabled so they can get the help they need,” Chopra says.

In order to get academic support, there must be a disability, and in order for that, there needs to be a diagnosis. One often applied to such cases is adjustment disorder, which relates to mood and stress. This diagnosis is short-term and can be applied to students who are under short-term stresses caused by external conflicts in their life, including, but not limited to, family issues, substance abuse and depression.

“I’ve never thought about getting extra help,” Attia says. “Everybody has their own story and struggles, so I don’t think I deserve special attention.”

Although she doesn’t seek academic help, she feels the conflict is affecting her emotionally. “It’s very exhausting trying to constantly adjust to…bad news. It is a lot to take in.” Worrying reports often came into their household as her brother-in-law’s health deteriorated. “I (didn’t) always have time to focus on other things, because I (was) worried about him. I (dozed) off in class because he (was) always on my mind.”

Attia felt the responsibility to always be there for her sister. She helped take care of her nieces and nephew while Al-Qazzaz was in custody. After having organized a vigil and several other events for the campaign, Attia took some time off to concentrate on school.

Attia thought having the Egyptian Students’ Association (ESA) on campus would help her cope, but if anything, it made her situation worse. The student group adopted a neutrality policy, meaning it wouldn’t take sides on the political situation in Egypt. Some members of the group support and some oppose the military coup.

“Knowing that there are people who support something I’m completely against is very uncomforting,” Attia says. “I reached a point where I don’t want to associate with certain members, because we clearly have different morals and values.”

Attia reached out to the ESA about helping with the “Free Khaled Al-Qazzaz” campaign but was turned down. They rejected her request because even though it’s a humanitarian concern, people would perceive it as a political matter. Those who are against the coup offered to help out with the campaign individually.

“It can be frustrating,” Chopra says. “Students who are affected by these types of conflicts have to put up with a lot.” She suggested education and awareness as the proactive options for dealing with political polarization on campus.

Attia planned on bringing the “Free Khaled Al-Qazzaz” campaign to Ryerson, but was fortunately interrupted by his release. Her family’s turmoil is coming to an end as they await his return, but for others on campus, the struggles could be just beginning.

“Conflicts going on around the world are affecting people here on campus and I think it’s important that we all stop and ask ourselves what we are doing to help,” she said.

“The least we can do is try to understand each person’s story and realize that we are more than just students. We are humans with stories to tell.”

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Jan.  28, 2015.

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