Durham students' stay abroad gets dicey

Durham students' stay abroad gets dicey

Staff WriterMarch 24, 2005 

Only two days after she arrived in the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, Kate Gilbertson woke up her mother back in Durham with a 5:45 a.m. phone call.

There were large protests and civil unrest in the small nation following a parliamentary election, Kate told her mother, Sue Gilbertson. But Kate, an only child, said not to worry, Gilbertson recalled Wednesday. The trouble was isolated in the south, more than 11 hours away from Kate and her classmates from Riverside High School.

Gilbertson had to pull up a map to find Kyrgyzstan when she learned Kate wanted to travel there with a group of nine students and two teachers from Riverside. The students are participating in a State Department-sponsored exchange program with former republics of the Soviet Union and are staying with host families in the capital city of Bishkek in north Kyrgyzstan.

"My first reaction was, it was scary to let her go, but I also really think it's a wonderful thing for people in the U.S. to see other cultures," Gilbertson said. "I wanted to support her in it."

So Gilbertson packed up her daughter -- who will turn 15 next week -- and let her travel thousands of miles across the globe. Now Gilbertson is anxiously perusing news Web sites and waiting to get Kate's e-mail.

After gaining independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been "one of the most stable countries in central Asia," said Lisa Choate. Choate is vice president of the Washington-based American Councils, which runs the exchange program called the Secondary School Excellence Program.

But protests started in the southern part of the nation of 5 million in opposition to what some saw as fraudulent parliamentary elections. Protesters have seized government administration buildings in three of Kyrgyzstan's seven regions and in smaller districts within two other regions, and they control Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city, Osh, The Associated Press reported.

The State Department sent an e-mail message Wednesday to all U.S. citizens in the country warning them not to travel in southern Kyrgyzstan, but it has not issued a nationwide travel alert. The current government has strong support in the northern part of the country.

David Stein's son, Eli, is also on the trip. Neighbors and people Stein sees at the supermarket keep asking, have you been following what's going on over there? Yet he's not overly worried, saying he is confident his son is safe and in good hands. Eli is having a great time, Stein said, with his only complaint being that his host family makes him drink orange juice every morning.

In an early-morning phone call from Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday, Eli told Stein that an avalanche on a main road separating the north from the south was preventing any opposition from getting to Bishkek.

But Wednesday afternoon, as Stein pulled up on his computer the latest news, even he started feeling jitters. Some 200 riot police broke up a small group of opposition protesters in the capital city, AP reported.

"Oh, geez. Are you trying to make me nervous?" he asked with a laugh. "Now I'm going to keep reading it more carefully."

Choate said this is not the first time the organization's students have been abroad when there's been some trouble. Last year, U.S. students were in Uzbekistan when terrorists detonated bombs in the capital city. SSEP is very careful, she said, and has an evacuation plan ready in case the situation in Kyrgyzstan deteriorates. The host families have virtually locked their U.S. guests down, Choate said, and the students are in no danger.

While her days have been filled with prayers about the situation, Gilbertson said the last thing she wants is for Kate -- whom she describes as "wide-eyed about the world" -- to have her trip cut short. But the mother is counting the minutes until her daughter is safely back home.

Staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones can be reached at 956-2433 or nikole.hannahjones@ newsobserver.com.

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