Going to Egypt had been my dream for ten years before I ever stepped foot in the country. I wanted to study there as a senior in college. After graduating with my minor in Arabic and spending a summer at a prestigious language school, I was admitted to a one-year program at the American University of Cairo. My goal was to refine my language skills and to learn to speak the Egyptian dialect. However, life does not always go as planned. Egypt was in the middle of the Arab Spring when I graduated in 2011, which meant that the country was in a state of political and economic instability. On top of that, I did not have the financing to pay the expensive tuition. My college sweetheart helped me find a soft landing after my “dream deferred” by applying for a fellowship on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.. I interned for a Member of Congress, and my life took on a new trajectory. When my college sweetheart became my husband, and we joined the Foreign Service, our directed assignments to Bangladesh and Colombia had me feeling that Egypt was a long-ago aspiration that should be placed in a box to be tucked away with forgotten childhood dreams.
This year, however, the opportunity was extended to me to work in either Tunisia or Egypt to help their visa operations for two months. The choice was a no brainer. In January 2020, I was on a plane to Cairo and finally going to fulfill my dream.
Egypt was everything I hoped it would be and more. I had no idea that I could walk the streets of Cairo or the hallways of the U.S. Embassy and look like any other Egyptian. My Egyptian co-workers often called me “First Lady,” in reference to Michelle Obama or Cleopatra, and my work was making an impact. I believed that all of my life had prepared me for this moment at last.
On Thursday, March 12, I languished peacefully in bed, fully intending to enjoy a day off by reading a good book. A storm was coming. Egypt had shut down public and private entities to prepare for the electricity and water outages that would result from expected hurricane-like winds and rain. I opened my balcony door, looking out over the Nile River. The sky was gray. It was only a matter of time. We were in the calm before the storm.
Egypt is a Muslim country. Closing down businesses on a Thursday was like having a three-day weekend. Friday is equivalent to a typical Saturday morning in the United States. Sunday is the start of the work week. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo was a part of the shutdown. I was feeling privileged to have another day of rest…until I saw the text messages.
By 7:45 AM, I had a missed call from my husband and urgent texts from my mother, sisters, and my friend who had departed on the last military flight out of South Korea. At this hour of the day, all of these events were unusual and left me wondering, “What on earth is going on?” While I was sleeping in Egypt, seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, President Donald Trump was giving an address to the American public, informing the nation that on March 13 at midnight, all flights from Europe would be subject to new travel restrictions. I was scheduled to complete my assignment and fly through Germany on March 20th. These new restrictions called into question my ability to get back home. I knew it was time to move. I needed to get to the airport before the streets flooded.
By 10 AM, I was sitting in Terminal 3 of the Cairo International Airport. I had packed, checked out of the Marriott, taken a taxi, and convinced an airport official to let me into the partially-closed building. I told him that my flight was with the German airline Lufthansa, which it was, but a week from that day. I hoped to speak to a Lufthansa representative to change my flight, but, because of the storm, all of the airport offices were closed until 1 PM. To brace for the worst, I bought bottled water, took money out of the ATM. Then, I waited.
After 30 minutes, the waiting game was already wearing on me. I wanted to do something before flights sold out, but business hours in the United States had not begun. I took a risk and called the travel office for government employees and was connected to the representative on-duty for emergencies. The office had booked my original flight and, after confirming that there were no seats on flights through Germany, placed me on a new flight through Morocco. I would depart at 7 AM the next day. I did not want to sleep in the airport during the storm, so I pushed my bags over to a hotel attached to the terminal. As the rain hit my room window, I prayed that God would hold the storm long enough for my plane to take off in the morning.
Just before 9pm on Friday, March 13, I arrived to Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C. I made it before the new restrictions took effect. During my trip, I discovered that I was not alone in my escape efforts. I ran into many people who were leaving their lives abroad or ending their tourist trips early to get home to their families.
At the airport in Cairo, there was a Black man from Memphis who worked at the U.S. Embassy and was ending his assignment ahead of schedule. His company, which completes construction projects at embassies around the world was pulling in all of their employees from abroad due to the virus. The check-in line for the flight from Casablanca, Morocco, to the United States looked like a great American exodus: filled with college-aged students, young military members, and families.
I sat in a row on a completely-filled plane with a Black woman who had shuttled back and forth between Rabat, Morocco, and the United States for three years through her work in an international organization. She was returning to her family based in Washington, D.C.. Next to her was a young man who was raised in D.C., but had spent the last several months with his father in Africa. His dad was born in Africa, immigrated to the United States, married a Black American and had children. His dad later divorced his mom and moved back to West Africa. Once he finished high school, the young man visited his father abroad and loved it so much, he was not ready to come home. In Africa, his family had wealth, and he had a personal driver. He had fallen in love with a young woman in his village. His father, seeing the same announcement from President Trump, sent his multilingual son home to finish his education at Howard University.
Since I have been home, it has been apparent that I made the right decision in the nick of time. I am so happy to be in Florida with my family. There is no place like home. BY: KINDALL SUNSHINE HAYES