A Surrey family has been caught up in the turmoil gripping Egypt as protesters try to topple the nation’s repressive dictator.
Hassan El-Shaikh, his wife Mona and five-year-old son Karim were supposed to be safely back home in B.C. by now after a two-week trip to visit ailing parents.
But thousands of citizens began marching the day before they were to leave – soon after Tunisians kicked out their own strongman – paralyzing air travel and forcing the family to stay in Alexandria.
With dozens killed in the early clashes and thousands wounded, friends and family in B.C. have been frantic for information.
“All the cellphones are totally down,” said Ahmad Badawi, El-Shaikh’s brother-in-law, a Burnaby film producer and director. “We’ve been trying to get through different ways, but it’s difficult.”
The El-Shaikhs have lived in Canada almost seven years and are among 370 Surrey residents of Egyptian descent and more than 2,900 who count themselves as ethnic Arabs.
In Metro Vancouver, 2,100 residents are Egyptian and more than 14,000 are ethnic Arabs.
Badawi describes the El-Shaikhs as a hard-working couple – Mona is a biochemical engineer, Hassam is a manager at Kal Tire – who are active in both the Surrey and Egyptian communities.
One night during the unrest in Alexandria they heard gunfire, Badawi said, but it turned out that was simply to keep prisoners at a nearby jail from escaping.
Despite the fears for their safety and the casualties of unrest, Badawi and millions of others with links to Egypt are optimistic they are witnessing a revolution that will end president Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule.
“We are demanding our freedom,” he said. “Whether he is going to stay or leave, he’s gone. I would say he’s history. We don’t care about him.”
He dismissed fears Islamist forces might take power, saying Egyptians simply want an end to oppression, torture and corruption.
“We want to live like eveybody else.”
If anyone were to be swept up in the winds of history, it perhaps should have been Badawi.
Before leaving Egypt four years ago, he was a youth leader in the opposition party al-Ghad, which means “tomorrow.”
Tomorrow seems to be arriving today, he says.
“I’m not scared at all,” he said. “We have been facing the police for a long time. We’ve been kidnapped before. We’ve been taken to jail.”
Meanwhile, the Canadian government is working to fly home hundreds of Canadians trapped in Egypt, although it was not clear when the El-Shaikhs might escape.
No Canadians have so far been reported injured in the protests.
Egyptian-Canadians in Vancouver are sharing what they know on Facebook.
Many – like SFU student Omar Nada in Coquitlam – are switching their profile images to the Egyptian flag or photos from the protests.
“No silence after this day,” reads the slogan on the page of North Surrey Secondary student Toka Saleh.