By Amanda Dyslin
---- — ST. JAMES — Matthew Kuehl isn't sure where his fascination with the Middle East and northern Africa came from.
He just knows that, for as long as he can remember, he's been drawn to the area; he even wrote reports about ancient Egypt in grade school.
“Since I was a little kid, I was always interested in that region,” he said.
His childhood fascination translated into a career, and for the past eight years, Kuehl worked for university programs in Yemen and Cairo. But recently, the ongoing unrest in Egypt led to the cancellation of his program for fall and spring semesters at America-Mideast Educational and Training Services Inc. in Cairo. (AMIDEAST is a private American nonprofit organization engaged in international education, training and development assistance work.)
After living much of his adult life in a different culture, Kuehl returned to his native St. James Aug. 31.
“It was a really hard decision,” said Kuehl, 29. “At this time in Egypt and the United States, there's a growing mistrust, growing misconceptions. And those are the things we were trying to dispel (with our programs).”
News of the cancellation of the program (Education Abroad in Egypt for U.S. students) came just days after one of AMIDEAST's interns was stabbed to death during a protest.
Andrew Pochter, who was a junior at Kenyon College in Ohio, was interning at a training center in Alexandria, Egypt, where he taught English to 7- and 8-year-olds. Pochter was an observer at a demonstration in Alexandria June 28 when he was attacked and killed. Kuehl didn't want to discuss the incident but said it took a toll on him.
As the country's turmoil continued, running the university program was no longer feasible, Kuehl said. There were curfews and restrictions on mobility, and it became difficult to monitor dozens of college-age students.
“There's no guarantee students will follow our security advice,” he said. “And recruiting students was obviously very difficult.”
After spending some time at home in St. James, Kuehl hopes to move to Washington, D.C., and possibly work in Foreign Service in the U.S. State Department. If the university program were to reopen in Cairo, Kuehl said he likely would not go back.
“While I believe very much in bringing students over there … it's just too stressful to be responsible for 30 or more students who are 19 or 20 years old and in an environment they don't know,” he said.
Kuehl graduated from St. James High School in 2003 before studying Arabic and international studies at the University of St. Thomas. After graduating in 2006, he went to Yemen where he helped to develop a private study-abroad college in Sana'a.
In 2008 Kuehl moved to Egypt, where he helped develop the international education program for U.S. students interested in Middle Eastern studies and Arabic to have the opportunity to study in Cairo. He also earned a master's in international human rights law from the American University in Cairo.
For five years Kuehl said he enjoyed his time working for AMIDEAST. As program manager the past several years, he coordinated all aspects of the program in Egypt, from housing to student activities.
Despite what's been reported in the media, the country always felt like a safe place to him, Kuehl said. Protests were announced in advance in specific locations, and so it was easy to stay out of the fray, he said.
“You just avoid it,” he said. “It's very easy to remain safe in that city.”
Kuehl didn't observe in protest areas because, as a blond-haired, blue-eyed American, he said he stood out in the crowd.
“I never went just because of the possibility of one member of the protest looking at me as a symbol,” he said.
But in the majority of the city of 20 million people, Kuehl said Americans are welcomed. For eight years, what he enjoyed most was the public diplomacy aspect of his job, he said — having those meaningful conversation with students and Egyptians that help show the complexity and depth of both cultures.