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An Egyptian Evacuation

July 12, 2013

NYU TravelerIn October 2012, NYU – like most of Lower Manhattan – had to deal with the impact of Hurricane Sandy: housing, feeding, and helping a community of many thousands for several days when the electricity went out. But as a university with a global presence, we need to be prepared for more than what happens in our neighborhood or city.

That brings us to what occurred last week in Egypt.

NYU does not have a campus in Egypt, but a handful of our graduate students were studying in Cairo this summer when the country was plunged into its second revolution in three years. The question a University faces whenever political unrest occurs where students are studying is a simple one—how do we keep our students and employees safe? And that usually boils down to: should they stay or leave?

In this case, it was an easy question to answer. By Wednesday, July 3rd, when the military ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning recommending that all Americans leave the country for their own safety.

Still, accomplishing an evacuation is not an easy task. The University contracts with an evacuation service provider that includes a global security firm to provide on-the-ground assistance in just these types of emergencies. But we still need to assess how many students and employees we have in a hotspot, get in touch with them to learn their locations, make pick-up arrangements, arrange secure transportation to the airport, and book them on a plane out of the country. And we usually need to do it quickly. No one knew what would happen in the wake of the Egyptian military coup. But we knew that one American student had already been killed, and we had concerns that street travel in Cairo would become more dangerous the longer we waited to act.

Task one was to get in touch with the students. The Department of Public Safety worked through the July 4th holiday to contact the students and collect important travel information. Working with school deans, we determined that 10 NYU students were studying in Cairo. The neighborhoods where they lived were several miles from the demonstrations and appeared safe, but the route to the airport could take them through areas where violence was occurring. So the security firm’s transportation teams did practice runs from the neighborhoods where the students were staying to the airport to ensure there were no checkpoints, roadblocks, or street violence.

On Friday, July 5, eight students were picked up at their apartments at various locations at 6 a.m. (two students were Egyptian citizens who elected to stay behind with their families), loaded into vans with a security detail, and taken safely to the airport using routes the security teams had previously scouted.

All eight students flew out of Cairo, and in New York the University prepared for the arrival of the seven students flying here. (The eighth student flew to Istanbul, Turkey.) That involved arranging for dorm rooms or other accommodations, meeting them at the airport, and helping them get settled.

We have been fortunate – when we’ve had to respond to perilous circumstances abroad, we’ve had good luck in sorting out who’s in the country and getting them out safely. There is also an online tool that can greatly assist members of the NYU community when they travel overseas and that is NYU Traveler.

NYU Traveler was created to help speed the University’s response during emergencies. For example, last fall during the brief Israeli-Hamas hostilities, the University was able to quickly evacuate undergraduate students and staff from our Tel Aviv location in part because all were registered with NYU Traveler.

We know that NYU Traveler was not well received when it was rolled out – some members of the community found it too intrusive, some found it too clunky to use. But there is no doubt that when members of the NYU community do use it – as is the case with University-sponsored undergraduate travel – we have a quicker and better understanding of how many students, faculty, and staff we need to move, and we have immediate access to contact info. The point is: it works.

--Philip Lentz and John Beckman

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