Amir Abouelrous was born in Cairo, Egypt. He studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa from 2016 to 2018, where he completed his honours and masters in physics. He returned to Egypt in 2018 and wants to continue his studies in physics.
In 2007, I began an undergraduate degree in geophysics at Ain Shams University in my home city of Cairo, Egypt. In my third year, I wanted to switch to theoretical physics, but with only a year left to graduation, I decided to continue my geophysics degree and pick up physics again after graduating.
I completed my undergraduate degree and graduated in 2011, whereupon I decided to look for a job in the oil and gas industry and continue studying once I was financially stable. However, I wasn’t able to secure a formal job, so I decided to look for a scholarship to study physics abroad. I had no one to guide me in how to apply for overseas scholarships so my search did not yield any positive results.
I had reached a turning point in my life. I decided I wanted to help people live their dreams. I didn’t know anything about motivational speaking at that time, but I knew, in my heart, that was what I wanted to do.
My father had lived in South Africa in the 1990s and told me it was a stable and peaceful country. This motivated me to travel to South Africa to pursue my dream of studying physics and becoming a motivational speaker, somehow. I arrived at OR Tambo International Airport on 14 May 2012 on a 30-day visitor’s visa. I booked a ticket to Cape Town on the day of my arrival. My first night in Cape Town was very difficult. I didn’t know if I would ever see my family again or if I was going make it in South Africa.
Over the next 18 months I struggled with a few odd jobs here and there and my family tried to assist me financially as well.
I acquired a laptop and started studying physics and mathematics books. I wanted to keep learning and, most importantly, I wanted to keep busy. I used to study for at least 30 minutes a day. I never stopped because if I did, I felt I would lose my motivation to pursue my dreams.
By January 2014 I had had enough of struggling in odd jobs. I wanted to live a better life. My visitor’s visa had long since expired so I decided to go to the Department of Home Affairs to renew it. I was immediately arrested for overstaying my welcome by about 18 months. I spent four days in jail in a Cape Town police station and on 28 January 2014 I was sent to Pollsmoor Prison for deportation. This was, perhaps, the most difficult day of my life. I had come to South Africa to study and contribute to the country and here I was: in prison and waiting to be deported.
After 24 days I was sent to Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp. I vividly remember a rainy Tuesday. We had to stand in a long queue in the rain waiting for lunch to be served. My shoes were torn and I had to tie them together with rope, my shirt was old, I was hungry and, most importantly, I was asking myself whether I would ever study physics at a university.
After three weeks at Lindela, a friend contacted a lawyer who helped me to get out and secure a 30-day asylum document. I travelled back to Cape Town, packed my stuff, and moved to Johannesburg – the largest city in South Africa – where I thought I might have more success. In October 2014, I obtained refugee status, which was valid for four years. It was then that I decided that the time had come for me to pursue my dream of studying physics.
My plan was to be admitted for the final year of a physics undergraduate degree and then to continue postgraduate studies. I applied at the University of Johannesburg but was rejected. Since I had a bachelor degree in geophysics, the university wanted me to start my degree from scratch. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do, but I was determined to hold on to my goal and vision.
A friend suggested that I apply at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), also in Johannesburg. The first time I visited Wits I fell in love with it. I approached the physics postgraduate coordinator, who was a friendly and positive person. I told him about my plan. He didn’t say “yes” or “no” immediately, but it seemed like he wanted to offer me a chance. I visited his office many times before I was officially accepted for the 2016 honours programme in physics.
After four years of struggling, my dream had finally come true. My first class was in the second week of February 2016 and I remembered that two years ago I had been sleeping on the floor in Pollsmoor Prison, waiting to be deported back to Egypt. I was shocked at how far I had come. It made me realise that any person, from any background and of any race has the potential to achieve their dreams if they are willing to fight for their dreams every day, even if there seems to be no hope.
No ‘Plan B’
My first year at Wits was very difficult. I was afraid I would fail. I had no ‘Plan B’ or safety net. That fear drove me to work hard and ask for help. We all know that hard work is the key to success but asking for help is equally important. I was very fortunate to have a large community of positive, friendly and well-educated friends and faculty I could turn to. I passed my final exams and graduated with an honours degree in March 2017.
In January 2017 I started my masters and during that period I was struggling financially. I wasn’t able to pay my rent. The only home I knew was Wits itself. I was studying there, my best friends were there and it was actually the only good thing (besides hope, of course) I had in my life at that point. Outside Wits, I was a foreigner with no money and no proper study visa (only a refugee document).
On 1 May 2017, I moved onto the Wits campus. In the first few weeks I was very scared that people would find out that I was living at the university and I would be suspended. A friend suggested I sleep at the Muslim prayer facility which was quiet and safe. I started my new life at the prayer facility, where I slept and washed my clothes.
Every morning I would fold my blanket, change my clothes, brush my teeth, and head to my office in the physics building. This was my daily routine for the next 18 months until I left South Africa in December 2018.
Eating was a challenge. I couldn’t cook in the kitchen in the physics building as that would attract attention so I ate food I didn’t have to cook: plain brown bread, bananas and raw eggs. I couldn’t drink my raw eggs in the kitchen or office so I had them in the toilets. It was the only option I had and all I could think about was survival. Sometimes, this is what we are forced to go through in life to survive in difficult situations and to keep moving forward until circumstances change and opportunities arise.
The Strength to Face My Troubles
It was not all bad, however. When I moved to Wits I joined the fitness and wellness centre. Working out was and will always be a fundamental part of my life. Over the years, it has shaped my character, boosted my confidence and endurance and I believe it has given me strength in the face of all struggles.
I left South Africa in December 2018 using my Egyptian passport. Since I had overstayed my visitor’s visa by many years, I signed a form at customs at OR Tambo International Airport that would bar me from entering South Africa for the next five years. Back in Egypt I made my final submission for my masters dissertation in March 2019 and graduated on 11 July 2019.
When I first arrived in South Africa, as I said, I had a desire to study theoretical physics and become a motivational speaker. I wanted (and I am still trying) to make a positive contribution to South Africa. I want to give hope to South African students and inspire them to pursue their dreams regardless of their circumstances.
My journey in South Africa was an adventure with many beautiful days and events, but many scary, dark days where uncertainty, fear and depression surrounded me. Fortunately, I had a few tools that helped.
• I had a burning desire to study physics and become a motivational speaker. As Napoleon Hill says in his book Think and Grow Rich, a burning desire is half of the ingredients needed for success.
• Working out helped me through times of depression, boosted my confidence and gave me the energy I needed to move forward.
• Watching motivational videos every day inspired me to face my fears and pursue my goals.
• Whenever I got stuck in a difficult situation, I asked for help, even though I love being independent.
• I always tried to keep myself busy and remind myself never to stop moving forward towards my goals and dreams. A quote from the movie the Shawshank Redemption sums it all up: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying”.
• Over the years, I learned to trust my heart, for the heart never lies.
Above all, I learnt that hope is a good thing. As it was said in the Shawshank Redemption: “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
This story was original published on UniversityWorldNews.com