From Cairo (and jail) to a master’s at Wits




I am an Egyptian and I would like to tell you my story in the hope that it will inspire students in South Africa.

In 2007, I was admitted to an undergraduate degree in geophysics at Ain Shams University in Cairo. I wanted to switch to physics but decided to complete my geophysics degree and study physics after that. I graduated in 2011 and looked for a job in the oil and gas industry. Well, all I was able to get was a few odd jobs. So I decided I had to look for a scholarship to study physics abroad.

At the same time, I had a turning point in my life. I was having lunch with my family and watching a Bollywood movie called Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars on Earth). The film is about an eight-year-old dyslexic boy whose teacher encourages his passion for art. The moment the movie ended, I knew I wanted to help people live their dreams.

During the late 1990s my father had lived in South Africa and he told me it was a stable and peaceful country. I decided to go there to pursue my goals. I got a 30-day visa and arrived at OR Tambo International Airport on May 14 2012. The same day I booked a ticket to Cape Town because it was said to be a beautiful and calm place. But my time in the city was very difficult and I struggled financially. I got a few odd jobs and my family tried to help me.

I bought a laptop and started studying physics and maths books. I did that for two reasons: to keep learning and, most importantly, to keep pursuing my dream, or my life would be meaningless.

In January 2014 I decided I had had enough with struggling. My visa had expired so I went to the home affairs department to renew it. Obviously I was arrested. I was held at a police station in Cape Town for four days and then sent to Pollsmoor prison for deportation. I have to say that this was perhaps the most difficult day in my life. I came to South Africa to study physics and I was in prison, waiting to be deported.

After 24 days I was sent to Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp. I remember vividly that rainy Tuesday. It was lunchtime and we had to stand in a long queue. My shirt was old, my torn shoes were tied together with string, I was hungry and wet and I was asking myself: Is it possible that I will ever get out of here and study physics at a university?

I had no answer to that question but deep inside my heart, I knew that, somehow, it was possible.

After three weeks at Lindela, I got out after a friend got a lawyer to help me. I went to the home affairs office in Pretoria and got a 30-day asylum document. I travelled back to Cape Town, packed my stuff and moved to Johannesburg. In October 2014, I got a refugee permit valid for four years.

My plan was to be admitted for a physics undergraduate degree for the third year only, graduate and then continue postgraduate studies. I went to the University of Johannesburg but they rejected my request; I was told I had to start physics from first year. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like my hard work and struggle had been in vain. But then I remembered why I had travelled to South Africa in the first place.

A few days later, a friend suggested that I should approach the University of the Witwatersrand. I remember very well the first time I visited Wits. I fell in love with it and knew that this is the where I would study physics. I approached the physics postgraduate co-ordinator, Daniel Joubert, who was a friendly and positive person. I said I would like to study physics even though my undergraduate degree was in geophysics. He didn’t immediately say yes or no but it seemed like he wanted to give me a chance. I took that opportunity and I visited his office so many times. And then I was accepted for the 2016 honours physics programme.

My dream had come true after four years of struggle. I remember my first day in class. It was in the second week of February, exactly two years since I had slept on the floor in Pollsmoor prison, waiting to be deported to Egypt. That made me realise that any person, from any background, from any race, has the potential to achieve their dreams if they are willing to hold on to them and fight for them every day, even if there seems to be no reason to hope.

My first year at Wits was difficult. I was afraid that I would fail, I had no plan B, no safety net, and I didn’t know what I would do with my life if I didn’t succeed. That fear drove me to work hard and to ask for help. We all know hard work is a key to success, but asking for help is equally important. I was fortunate to have a community of positive, friendly and well-educated friends and staff.

I graduated with an honours degree in physics in March 2017.

I started my master’s in physics and during that period I was struggling financially more than during any other period of my life. An idea came to my mind: I could live at Wits. It was like a home to me: I was studying there, I had my best friends there and it was the only good thing (besides hope) I had in my life. Outside the university, I was a foreigner with no money and no study visa.

The first thing I did was to join the Wits fitness and wellness centre. Working out boosted my confidence and endurance, and gave me strength in the face of struggle.

The first few weeks were scary. I was afraid that people would find out that I was living at the university. A friend suggested I should sleep at the Muslim prayer facility, which was quiet and safe. Every morning, I would fold my blanket, change my clothes, brush my teeth and head to my office in the physics building.

Eating was a problem. I couldn’t cook in the kitchen in the physics building because I was afraid that would attract attention, so I ate brown bread, bananas and raw eggs. I was too afraid to eat in the kitchen or the office so I did that in the toilets.

My mindset was about survival. This was my daily routine for 18 months until I returned to Egypt in December last year.

I didn’t show my refugee document to the immigration officers at OR Tambo because I was afraid the Egyptian customs officials would interrogate me and I would get into trouble. Because I had overstayed my South African visa by many years, I had to sign a form that makes me an undesirable in the country for five years.

I went to Cairo and, in March this year, I submitted my master’s dissertation and graduated on July 11. I had achieved part of my vision. Now I want my story to give hope to South African students, to inspire them to pursue their dreams regardless of their circumstances.

My journey in South Africa had many beautiful days and also dark ones where uncertainty, fear and depression took hold. Fortunately, I had some tools that helped me:

  • The first was my burning desire to achieve a defined goal;
  • Working out helped me through depression;
  • Watching motivational videos helped me face my fears;
  • Whenever I got really stuck in a difficult situation, I asked for help;
  • I kept myself busy whenever I seemed to be breaking apart;
  • I realised that my heart was always right and learnt to trust it, for the heart never lies; and
  • When everything else was gone, I had hope.

Never stop moving, even if it’s very slowly, towards your goals and dreams.

Amir Abouelrous is a customer care agent at a telecommunication company in Cairo. He gives motivational talks at an educational centre during his spare time and studies physics for an hour or two every day. His goal remains to continue his research and become a motivational speaker

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Amir Abouelrous
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