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Great Neck’s Alexandra Woodhouse: A First-Hand Youth Perspective from Working in Egypt for the United Nations

If one wanted to choose a young person to be a representative-at-large for what is best about America, Alexandra Woodhouse, 21, with her vitality, warmth, intelligence and strength, would be a good choice. For the last seven months, she worked in Egypt for the United Nations International Labor Organization and was so engaged in her work, that she had just signed a contract to take a leave of absence from Cornell and work for another six months there. She had fallen in love with the place, and had made many good friends, a number of whom took extraordinary risks to help her stay in Egypt during the days when she and her roommates were trapped in their apartment without food and then to leave, when the situation became too unpredictable and Americans were urged to evacuate.

She says, “I want nothing more than to go back...I’ve been texting my friends and they’re telling me that they’re cleaning up the streets...wonderful things are happening...I was so torn about leaving there. I knew that my family was suffering and worried about me and with gunshots and tear gas outside, it really was frightening...but I made a promise to myself...that when I got back to America, I would share what I have learned about Egypt and the young people I met.  They only want lives free from oppression and lives with opportunities...This story is not about me, it’s about them.” So while she had great difficulties in obtaining her passport and spent two days at the airport being questioned, not knowing until the last moment whether she would leave or not, she felt that those were not the things to focus on in the interview. “What I went through was nothing compared to what the Egyptian people have endured for 30 years.”

Many things had drawn Alexandra to choose Egypt when it was time to choose an internship through the International Labor Relations program at Cornell University. Her grandfather had attended Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s oldest university and learning center for religious leaders and her family is according to Alex, “all about social justice.” Her father, Colin, had as a young man been a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan where he met her mother, Latifa. And while Alexandra would have loved to go to her mother’s homeland, she felt Egypt would bring her closer to her roots in the Mid-East. She laughs and says, “With my looks, I could pass for being Egyptian, but I did have to struggle with the language.”

Alex says that it was difficult for her to accept that there was no real middle class in Egypt. There were only the very rich or the very poor. Forty percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Young people who are lucky enough to gain higher education have no concomitant jobs when they graduate so they resort to taking unskilled jobs just to support their families. Gender inequality is another deeply rooted reality in modern day Egypt, but as the revolution gained more strength, more women were seen on the streets.

According to Alex, a very critical survey was recently taken of the youth population by the Population Council to learn more about the youth of Egypt, those under the age of 29, which constitutes 62 percent of the total population. A nationally representative sample of 15,000 young people aged 10-29 years collected information on five key areas, education, work, family formation, health and sexuality, and civic and political participation. Those living in rural areas and those with less education have more conservative beliefs about equality of the sexes. For example, more than three-quarters of young men and women believe that a woman must obey her husband’s orders in all cases and two-thirds agreed that wife battery is justified in some situations. Three-quarters of female respondents are circumcised and most respondents think the practice is necessary. More than 71 percent had heard of HIV/AIDS and knew some routes of transmission. Yet only three percent of the young aged 15-29 had complete knowledge of the ways that HIV may be transmitted. The total youth unemployment rate is 15.8 percent and the rate among young women is more than double that of males. Civic involvement was summarized as being “weak,” but that is not too surprising considering the lack of free speech and the history of corrupt elections.

But Alex says that the young people she met were hungry for learning, were eager to know more about American culture and accepted her as an individual. She says, “What was amazing was the humor and kindness of the people who have such hard lives..living on so little money.”

Alex believes that there was tremendous pent-up energy because people had to be silent and guarded about any criticism of the government due to fear of reprisals to their families. She says that the uprising in Tunisia gave them hope that things could change.

She says, “They have come so far, risking their lives for a peaceful revolution, I have great hope for the future...Progressive steps are already under way. There’s no way that they will allow another oppressive regime to take over...all social demographics were in this together..all religions...men, women, youth...I have such faith in them for the future. Just look at what they have already done.”

Further, Alex is also quite hopeful that her organization, the ILO, will be able to be more effective in working in Egypt. She says, “The organization’s mission is to improve labor conditions through working with government, employers and employees...we had to tiptoe around the government in Egypt...it would be wonderful to have a more open partnership with them.” Her office has temporarily been relocated to Ethiopia, but more than anything, she would like to return and finish her commitment in Egypt and have a part in helping in the hard, but exciting work ahead.

The results of the report from the Population Council are available at www.popcouncil.org