CAIRO, Egypt – Anxious families of some of 11 Egyptians who failed to show up for studies at an American university said Thursday that the students may have decided to try to look for work and live in the United States.
The students' failure to show up for their month-long study program at Montana State University prompted a police hunt for the 11, though U.S. authorities said they had no indication there was a terrorism threat from any of the 11. Three of them were taken into custody or turned themselves in this week — one in Minnesota, the other two in New Jersey.
They were among a group of 18 students from Mansoura University, located in Egypt's northern Nile Delta. The other seven students from the group reported for the program on English Language and U.S. History in Bozeman, Montana.
Egyptian security officials said they believe the 11 students, who had no criminal records or known ties to Islamic militants, decided to abandon their studies and seek work in the U.S. Egyptian police were not pursuing the issue, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The father of Eslam El-Dessouki, the student arrested in Minnesota, said his son likely wanted to try to find work.
"America is something super. It must have been in his mind to stay where there are plenty of job opportunities. You know how much a dollar is worth here in Egypt," said Ibrahim el-Dessouki, a retired army officer living in the village of Sinbelawan, near Mansoura. He said he spoke to his son when he arrived in the States but not since.
After hearing reports about a terror plot foiled in London, el-Dessouki became worried that American authorities might think his son was involved. "Will he be fine? Will they torture him?" he said.
U.S. authorities have said the missing students are not suspected of any connection to the London plot.
The students arrived in the U.S. on July 29, and when they did not report to the school, Montana State repeatedly tried to contact them. When that failed, the school notified Homeland Security officials and registered the Egyptians as "no-shows" in the system developed after the Sept. 11 attacks to track foreign students.
The sister of another of the students — 18-year-old Mustafa Wagdi, who is still missing — said she spoke to him on the day he arrived in Egypt and a second time five days ago.
He assured her "that he is OK and he is living with his colleagues," but he did not say where, the sister said in a phone interview from Mansoura. She refused to give her name because of worries of trouble with Egyptian security services over the incident.
The sister was quoted in the Egyptian press as saying her brother had told her over the phone that he would stay in the U.S. to find work. Speaking to The Associated Press, she denied making those comments, saying she didn't know what he was doing.
But she added that if her brother had decided to look for work, "I know that it's wrong to do, but everybody does it."
U.S. government tightened the student visa process after the 9-11 attacks. One of the hijackers involved in the attacks had arrived in the U.S. with a student visa.
Illegal emigration is very common in Egypt, where rising unemployment and inflation prompt young men to seek jobs in the West. Many Egyptians are returned home on weekly flights from Malta, Cyprus, or Greece after failing to sneak through borders to Europe.
Mansoura University required each student in the group heading to Montana to sign a piece of paper promising to return home on schedule and "represent Egypt in a good manner" while in the United States. The university has said it will expell the students who disappeared.
According to the families, each student paid around 25,000 L.E., equivalent to $4,500 dollars, to participate in the program.
The mother of Mohammed Ragab Abdullah, 22, who surrendered in Manville, N.J., was furious her son had slipped away, saying her husband paid "lots and lots of money."
But the elder el-Dessouki said it was worth the investment, given the bribes some have to pay to find government jobs in Egypt.
"A cleaning worker in a ministry paid $1,050 to get a job," he said. "So it's not strange to pay 25,000 L.E. to get my only son a chance to go to the States."