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April 7, 2011

PROUD OF HER PEOPLE - Despite being 6,000 miles away, Tech tennis player Yasmin Hamza felt pride at the revolution that ended an oppressive regime in her native Egypt

By: Jimmy Robertson

Yasmin Hamza is not an American – in fact, she’s an Egyptian – but she certainly resembles any other normal American college student. She carries around a Blackberry and is an incessant texter. She loves to randomly surf the Internet, and she talks quickly in general conversation. She comes from a good family and has one sibling, a younger brother, of course, named Mohamed.

“Like every other Egyptian,” she laughed, displaying a camera-ready smile.

But she’s not normal. Anything but, actually. She attended a German high school in Cairo, and she speaks four languages, among them Arabic, German, English and French, though she modestly says her French isn’t “fluent.” She took ballet lessons for the longest time and considers that among the many sports in which she’s participated. Until she arrived at Tech in the fall of 2007, she had no idea what a quarterback was.

“Everyone was talking about a quarterback, and I didn’t even know what a quarterback was,” she said, again laughing. “It was so overwhelming.”

What really sets her apart, though, is that she plays on the Virginia Tech women’s tennis team, and she holds a rather unique spot in Tech athletics – she’s currently the only Tech athlete who hails from Egypt.

And she’s the only one whose country just won its freedom.

Hamza kept track intently over the Internet from more than 6,000 miles away as her fellow countrymen took to the streets and protested the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in late January. The protests began on Jan. 25, and Hamza first found out when she received a text from a friend saying there was going to be a big protest in downtown Cairo.

“They’ve been saying that for so long, but then it happened,” Hamza said. “My friend texted me, ‘Do you know what’s happening back home?’ So I opened up my computer and looked. It went from, like, zero to a million. It was all happening so fast. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, is my country going to fall apart?’”

Adding to her worries, the heart of the protests occurred in a place called Tahrir Square, a central gathering spot of shops, eating places and hotels in downtown Cairo. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded there, and Hamza started worrying about her family. They live a 15-minute drive from Tahrir Square.

“I was very concerned because what the media was showing was really extreme,” Hamza said. “They were saying that everything was going crazy, and people were trying to take care of their own houses and all this.

“But every time I talked to my dad, he’d joke around about it. He’d be like, ‘Oh, I went out and got my coffee this morning. It’s not a big deal.’ They were trying to make it much easier on me.”

Mubarak and Egyptian government officials complicated the situation when they shut down the Internet on Jan. 26. They did so because protestors used Facebook and Twitter, two social media outlets, as a way to coordinate demonstrations.

The residual effect of that decision was that it eliminated Hamza’s main source for information. She relies on the Internet for most of her news. Without that option, she found herself texting friends to check up on current events instead of using social media.

“I was pretty concerned because the Internet was gone for a long time,” she said. “So I didn’t really know what was going on.”

Eventually, Mubarak started caving on certain issues, and the government turned on the Internet again. The crux of the protests, though, was jobs.

In Egypt, unemployment runs rampant, and the people are very poor. More than 40 percent of the population lives on the equivalent of $2 a day, according to Wikipedia. Plus, food prices were on the rise, and without money to pay for food, Egyptians started worrying about their very existence.

Yasmin Hamza’s passion is interior design, and she loves spending her spare time in one of Tech’s studios doing design work.

“We have this huge gap between rich people and poor people. I think this causes a lot of problems,” Hamza said. “A lot of people think it’s about who you know, which is all over the place. But these people get so upset because it’s like, ‘How will I get there? I’m too poor to know you.’ It could be solved with more jobs and getting people more than $2 a day. If the prices are getting that high, then there has to be something wrong.”

Hamza, though, is fortunate. Both her father, Rand El Baghdadi, and mother, Hesham Hamza, are doctors in Egypt, so Hamza never lived under trying economic conditions, though through her parents’ occupations, she witnessed firsthand the problems caused by poverty.

Her parents provided her with opportunities to expand her horizons. As a kid, she played all sorts of sports, but settled on tennis – the sport of her father. El Baghdadi was an accomplished tennis player in his younger days and still excels in various leagues in Cairo. He put his daughter in a high-quality German school and let her play tennis in France and Spain in the summers.

But it was her mother who actually helped Hamza secure a college scholarship. A friend of her mother’s helped Hamza receive a scholarship offer from UCLA, but the Bruins’ staff wanted her to wait a year before coming to the States. So Hamza’s mother started sending out CD’s of her daughter, and that led to her receiving a scholarship offer from Virginia Tech coach Terry Ann Zawacki-Woods.

Hamza’s father originally wasn’t keen on the idea of Hamza leaving Egypt to go to college. He believes strongly in family and wanted her to stay close to home.

But after seeing how much his daughter wanted to play tennis at Virginia Tech, and more importantly, enroll in Tech’s interior design program, he gave his blessings.

“He liked the fact that I worked so hard,” Hamza said. “Because I did that and gave all I had, he was going to give me the chance to do that [come to the U.S.]. He trusted me. He didn’t want me to leave, but he thought I had worked too hard, and since I got a scholarship, I should go ahead and do it. Both of my parents were supportive.”

Like most international students, she struggled early on with the adjustment to a different culture. Also like most, she has adapted, become very good at her sport and makes good grades, while keeping an eye toward the future.

On the court, she was the team’s co-rookie of the year as a freshman and earned All-ACC honors. Her junior year, she was voted the team’s most valuable player by her teammates, and this season, while competing at the No. 1 spot, she holds a respectable 18-11 record as of April 4.

She enjoys tennis, but she admits her passion is interior design, one of the toughest curriculums at Tech. She loves spending time at one of the studios in Burruss Hall, which houses the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Ultimately, she wants to design building or homes, or both.

Yasmin Hamza’s father taught her how to play tennis, and she ranks as one of the best players on Tech’s team, participating in the No. 1 spot.

“I enjoy it,” she said. “I stay up at nights. I’m very happy doing this. When I have free time, I’d rather look at an interesting architectural feature or a building than watch TV. I like to learn new things and explore, and this teaches you so much about the world and how things work. You make all these concepts, and these concepts make you hit all these different areas, which is really cool.”

Her face lights up as she talks about her major. Of course, she’s got a lot to smile about these days. She’s playing well on the tennis court, she’s making good grades and she’s become a huge fan of the Tech football team.

“I do love football games,” she said, laughing. “I used to hate it. But now, I love it. I go to every game I can.”

But those aren’t the main reasons for her happiness. For the first time in a long time, the people in her home country are free. Her people stood up for themselves. They protested firmly, and on Feb. 11, Mubarak resigned after 30 years as president.

“I’ve never been as proud to be an Egyptian,” Hamza said. “We stood up for ourselves. I know it’s not the best situation now back home. But there’s hope. Before, there was no hope.”

Once Hamza graduates in 2012, she wants to move to London and work for a while to gain some experience. Then she wants to return home to Egypt.

Yes, she wants to work there. But she also wants to celebrate her people’s independence, and more importantly, she wants to be a part of her country’s future.

“I’m very loyal,” she said. “It’s always going to be a piece of my heart. I do love going home. I miss it. Even if we’re a poor country and even if everything goes bad, it’s still home. I love it.”