She interlaced her fingers in her friend’s hand and yanked her away from the mob of men carrying chains, pipes, and bats. The girls sprinted up three flights of marble stairs, screaming for their roommates to open the door. The heavy sounds of a thousand footsteps chased them, followed by sounds of heavy objects smashing the building’s structure. Once inside their apartment, the girls pushed a heavy cabinet against the door and turned off all the lights. They sat in the dark with their four roommates and waited for the looting to be over.
“Those were the longest forty-five minutes of my entire life,” says Adriane Bolliger, reflecting on her time in Tunisia during the government collapse.
Through the University of Oregon’s IE3 (International Education, Experience, Employment) internship program, Bolliger worked as a study abroad coordinator at AMIDEAST, a non-profit organization established in 1951 that works to strengthen relations between America, the Middle East, and North Africa. During her time in Tunisia, former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was evacuated from the country after demonstrators protested his oppressive regime.
“Ali had been ruling with an iron fist for twenty-three years,” says Bolliger. “That’s longer than I’ve been alive.”
Ben Ali took over the Tunisian presidency in 1987 when he declared Habib Bourguiba, the former president, senile. There was no election. Although Ben Ali helped stabilize Tunisia’s economy, he governed with strict Islamic rules and gave few rights to his people. In January 2011, protesters began to riot and Ben Ali fled the country, leaving Fouad Mebazaa as the interim president.
The riots in Tunisia marked the beginning of a string of Middle Eastern uprisings—unlike anything the world has seen. In Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman, revolutionaries are organizing, communicating, and sometimes overthrowing historically oppressive regimes by banding together through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Although each government struck back in violent ways, social media, grass roots protests, and pride have kept the movements in motion.
While working at AMIDEAST, Bolliger watched the governmental structure in Tunisia unravel and found herself stuck in the middle of a political revolution. Like many others living and working abroad, she eventually fled from the revolution, choosing to watch, with the rest of the world, from a distance.
In the beginning, the staff at her internship told Bolliger of unrest in the country. However, they were unable to provide any details about the revolution, in fear that undercover police were in their midst.
“Tunisia was on the news in every country on every publication—except in Tunisia,” says Bolliger. “I ended up getting most of my news from a publication called France 24.”
Bolliger explains that in addition to reading foreign newspapers, she also got a lot of information from Twitter. Although the Tunisian government censored the news, they were unable to gain control over many social networking sites. For some time, political blogs and Facebook were used to post updates from the rebel groups.
“There were a lot of blogs that were discussing politics, but they got shut down quickly,” says Bolliger. “It was a sign of pride for political bloggers to have the ‘404 page not found’ message to show up.”
Ben Ali eventually shut down access to Facebook for a few days, but was never able to contain Twitter.
Throughout her experience, Bolliger’s family and university advisers reminded her to stay safe and away from the danger.
Bolliger remembers hearing large crowds shouting outside, prompting her to walk onto her apartment balcony and look down at the streets of Tunisia. In the distance she could see the protestors gather. She would watch as the large crowd swarmed, as though covering an anthill, racing towards the city. Bollinger went inside her apartment and warned her roommates. After the looting had finished and the noise had died down, she returned to her balcony to see the despondent street vendors pulling their cars into the street and emptying their store’s contents. They would leave behind whatever they could not fit and tack wooden planks to the outside of the windows and doors, hoping that the looters and protestors would spare the remains of their livelihoods.
While in Tunisia, Bolliger moved apartments three times, each time attempting to move away from the shopping centers where the looting happened most often. She also did her best to always live with many people, typically five others, to feel safer. Although the company helped create a sense of security, she recalls often running out of fresh fruits and vegetables and needing to ration portions.
“My boss would call me and tell me to buy supplies, go straight home, and to remember that this was not my fight,” says Bolliger.
She recalls how one of her friends, an older man she had met through work in Tunisia, was injured.
“We were at home when we got the call that he had been shot,” says Bolliger.
He was on his way to his apartment when he saw a mob forming. Although he knew that he needed to get away quickly, he paused to take a picture. As the camera clicked, he saw the first tear gas canister fly in the air. He started to run and felt what he thought was a can hit his leg, until he looked down and saw his pant leg filled with blood. He had been shot. The gentleman was taken to the hospital in the back of a pickup truck where he was treated without anesthesia and immediately discharged, as the hospital’s supplies had run out.
“They told him that there might be others who would need the bed more than he did,” she says.
While living in Tunisia, Bolliger spent many days afraid. She relied on those around her for support. However, unlike Bolliger, some individuals living abroad hope to experience moments that define a culture and change history in the most hands-on way possible.
Casey von Ofenheim studied abroad in Jordan through a University of Oregon program. Three weeks after former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, von Ofenheim flew from Jordan to Egypt to witness the rebuilding of a nation. In addition, she took time during and after her internship to visit Bahrain, Palestine, and Israel.
“I’ve always been curious about revolutions and the atmosphere right after a tyrant has been removed,” says von Ofenheim. “This was a once in a lifetime chance to be a part of history.”
She explains that she waited for Mubarak to be evacuated and for the violence to calm down before venturing to Egypt, adding that most people forget that despite the political revolution, daily life continues.
“My favorite moments of my trip weren’t captured in the big events that I participated in,” says von Ofenheim. “I enjoyed meeting people and being invited into their home[s].”
Reflecting on her time abroad, von Ofenheim remembers spending Ramadan with a family and being invited to partake in the fasting and celebrations. The people showed humility and devotion in ways that she says changed her outlook on life.
That doesn’t mean that von Ofenheim didn’t see her share of violence. She remembers being tear-gassed at a protest and running into a line of tanks during a march.
Von Ofenheim explains that she was tear-gassed in Palestine while accompanying a woman she worked with on what she thought was a walk through Bil’in. However, she quickly realized that they were heading towards a Palestinian rally. When she saw the first tear gas cans arcing toward the marchers, she quickly ran to a nearby hill and tucked herself into safety. From a distance she watched as the people, children included, gagged on the gas.
“I didn’t want to be a part of the action, however, even after the tear-gassing, I did eventually chose to participate in a peaceful march in Tahrir Square [in Cairo],” says von Ofenheim. “I really enjoyed being in the midst of it all and loved getting to see it firsthand.”
Like many students who live and study abroad, von Ofenheim enjoyed being afforded more than the typical tourist perspective, but still realized this was not her country or her revolution.
On the other hand, for Nadia Abraibesh, being a part of the revolution was a necessity.
After graduating from Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, with a major in psychology and a minor in Spanish, Abraibesh traveled to Libya to visit family, take classes in Arabic, and work in a European school. While there, she witnessed the revolution against Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi.
In February 2011, rebel groups began to stir in several Libyan cities—including Benghazi, where Abraibesh was living. Qaddafi had been in power since 1969. The rebel groups trying to oust Qaddafi clashed with hoards of his army and civil war erupted. Qaddafi’s troops made their way into residential areas of Libya, threatening to kill all those who opposed the government.
Five days after the protestors took to the streets in Benghazi, Abraibesh emerged from her aunt’s home and ventured into the city.
“It was too hard to just stay at home and wait to be killed,” says Abraibesh. “I needed to do something to distract myself.”
Despite being scared and knowing that her family in Portland worried about her, Abraibesh felt it was her duty to stay with her Libyan family.
“My mom was really worried about me, cried a lot, and wanted me to leave immediately,” says Abraibesh. “But I think my dad, being from Libya, understood how I felt. It was the first time that I actually felt like a proud Libyan.”
Because she was able to speak English, she began to act as a tour guide for the journalists arriving in the country. Abraibesh showed them the hospitals brimming with injured people and the courthouses where most of the demonstrations happened.
Abraibesh explained that living with her family was a strong coping method.
Sitting with her uncles, aunts, cousins, and family friends crowded into a single home, Abraibesh watched the news. They sat near each other knowing that being together was the only way to know that relatives were alive. Qaddafi had already shut down most methods of communication.
“We would watch the news and laugh at the mad man [Qaddafi] ranting on TV,” says Abraibesh, referring to one of the first speeches Qaddafi gave in response to the protests. “He was threatening to come door-to-door to kill families. If you take threats like that serious, it’s too scary.”
Abraibesh remembers going to sleep with knives next to her bed for the first few days of the uprising, knowing that they offered no defense against the guns Qaddafi’s soldiers carried.
“I only slept an hour or two a night and I was always on the edge,” says Abraibesh. “We would go to sleep hearing the gun shots and wake up to the same gun shots. It was terrifying and something that I’m still trying to process.”
Despite now being away from the danger and home with her family, Abraibesh says that she wishes she were still in Libya.
“I feel helpless from so far away,” says Abraibesh. “Because Qaddafi shut down the Internet and phone service, all I can do is watch the news here and pray that my family and friends are okay.”
Bolliger agrees that it takes time to recover from traumatic experiences. She recalls that the weeks after leaving Tunisia were very difficult. She was sent, by her University of Oregon internship, to the AMIDEAST program in Morocco to be in a safer environment while concluding her internship, but often felt as though she were still in Tunisia.
“There’s a marble staircase in my apartment here that reminds me of the one in Tunisia,” says Bolliger via Skype from Morocco. “And I can often hear people yelling in Arabic in the mornings. Even though I know I’m safe here, I still wake up in cold sweats.”
While the experiences of anyone studying abroad range in intensity and reaction, in every one of these women’s cases, there came a point in time when it was no longer safe to stay.
Bolliger explains that she left Tunisia when her program directors told her to. They arranged to send her to a family friend’s place in Sicily for a limited period of time.
“I only packed a small bag and my backpack,” says Bolliger. “I thought I’d be going back to Tunisia. I hadn’t finished what I went there to do.”
However, Bolliger didn’t return to Tunisia. Wanting to finish her internship, Bolliger instead accepted a transfer to the Morocco AMIDEAST, where she works now.
Bolliger explains that leaving Tunisia was a bittersweet experience for her.
“I always thought I’d go back to Tunisia, to my job and my friends,” she says. “Now I’m getting ready to go back to my Salem family where I’ll still be able to close my eyes and relive each moment and hope that it eventually gets less traumatic.”