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Students safe after Cairo bomb blast

Jenn Metz | Monday, February 23, 2009

Though the eight Notre Dame students currently studying abroad in Cairo were not directly affected by Sunday’s bomb explosion in the Khan el-Khalili neighborhood of the city, they have concerns about their safety and unanswered questions about the attack.

The blast, which hit one of the city’s famed bazaars packed with tourists, killed a French woman and wounded at least 21 people – most of them foreigners – according to a report by The Associated Press. A government statement said a homemade bomb was placed under a bench in the main plaza, the AP reported.

The wounded included three Saudis, a German, 13 French and four Egyptians, including a child, the report said.

The explosion took place in the main plaza at the Khan el-Khaili, a bazaar near the Hussein mosque, one of Cairo’s most revered shrines.

According to the report, the bombing in Cairo Sunday may have been a response to Israel’s offensive in Gaza, and the attack was the first on tourists in three years.

Judy Hutchinson, assistant director of the Office of International Studies, told The Observer in an e-mail she contacted the students in studying abroad in Egypt, who attend the American University in Cairo.

She said in the e-mail she is “assured that none of them were in the area of the blast.”

Three students from the program responded to Observer e-mails despite the seven-hour time difference between Egypt and Indiana.

Juniors Jim Genovese, Kassandra Barbee and Mark McGuire said the eight Notre Dame students at the American University in Cairo in New Cairo did not witness the attack. In Egypt, the weekend runs Friday and Saturday and the school week begins on Sunday to observe the Muslim day of prayer. Their dormitories, located in the northwest side of the city, are a distance from Khan el-Khalii, located in the southeastern portion of Cairo; however Notre Dame students have been sightseeing in the Khan el-Khalili area of the city in the past, Genovese said.

Genovese, a Program of Liberal Studies major at Notre Dame who is currently studying Arabic, said “an explosion in the city is cause for concern.”

However, the students’ location and the rarity of the attack have helped to assuage worry.

“I feel relatively safe and secure,” he said. “Zamalek[the neighborhood where the dormitories are located,] is a more affluent part of the city and is usually not a prominent destination for tourists.”

Barbee said she did not hear the explosion Sunday and only heard about it hours later by word of mouth.

“At this point I don’t feel in danger at all, though I will admit that I do feel a little bit uneasy about the situation. I think that as more details surface we will be more able to accurately assess the current situation and take any necessary actions,” she said.

At this point, Barbee, an Arabic major, said “things are continuing as normal.”

McGuire said his “prayers are with the victims of this atrocity,” but he does not think his personal safety is at risk; he told The Observer in an e-mail he feels “more likely to be a victim of a shooting on the streets of Chicago than a victim of a terrorist attack in Cairo.”

Genovese said Cairo is a relatively safe city: “there are police officers stationed with guns on every street.”

McGuire added the security on the American University in Cairo’s campus and in the dormitories is very thorough.

The situation surrounding the attack “is still unclear,” Genovese said. However, since tourism is one of the nation’s largest sources of revenue, he said, security efforts will most likely escalate to ensure another attack does not occur.

Genovese, who said he chose to study abroad in Cairo because of a long-time interest in Middle Eastern culture, a desire to obtain a government job after graduation and a chance for a “completely different” cultural experience, did not have “any significant concerns about violence in Egypt” before his semester began.

He said past Cairo program participants informed him “the Egyptian government and police force goes out of their way to protect American tourists” for two primary reasons: the importance of tourism to the nation’s economy and Egypt’s reputation in terms of foreign relations with the United States.

“Egypt is actually quite liberal for a Middle Eastern country and is much more receptive to Americans and foreigners than many of the other countries in the Middle East,” Genovese said.

Barbee said though she had some initial concerns “about what life would look like for me as a woman studying abroad in a Middle Eastern country,” she was never worried about violence in the city before she came abroad.

The students said they have not been contacted about being removed from the city because of the violence; McGuire, a political science and Arabic double major who went to the Middle East to focus his study on the region’s politics, does not expect such a phone call or e-mail.

“I would consider any talk about removing us from Cairo as being premature and unfitting to the situation here,” he said.

“Realistically,” Genovese said, “I don’t think there will be any more attacks.”

Barbee said her “hope is that this was simply an isolated incident and that we can continue on with the rest of our semester here.”