Requiem for a Peacemaker
Andrew Pochter was a young idealist from Chevy Chase eager to work toward world peace. But in one horrific afternoon, he would be swept away in an uncontrollable tide of anger in Egypt.
In retrospect, the email Elizabeth Pochter wrote to her 21-year-old son, Andrew, last June seems to have been prescient. But at the time, it was the typical injunction of a worried parent.
“I trust that you will not go anywhere near the demonstrations this weekend,” the Chevy Chase resident wrote of the anti-government protests slated to take place in Alexandria, Egypt. “There is bound to be violence.”
A rising junior at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, Andrew was a summer intern in the Alexandria office of AMIDEAST, an educational nonprofit that had hired him to teach English to 7- and 8-year-olds. He liked the job and was good with children—he’d been a camp counselor for years. But the main reason he wanted to be in Egypt that summer was to improve his Arabic.
“We don’t have work those days, so I’ll be inside,” Andrew replied. “No need to worry.”
Liz and her husband, Ted, were trying not to worry. When Andrew had accepted the job with AMIDEAST, they’d told themselves that at least he wouldn’t be in Cairo, where demonstrations against President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government had grown in size and intensity throughout the spring of 2013. Alexandria, a Mediterranean port city long popular with tourists, appeared relatively calm. The Pochters also realized that they’d better get used to living with a certain amount of anxiety. Andrew, who was majoring in religious studies, wanted to pursue a career working toward peace in the Middle East.
In his email, Andrew wrote that his laptop wasn’t running properly, and since there wasn’t an Apple store in Alexandria, he’d have to rely on office computers to stay in touch from then on. But “I’m safe. Don’t worry!” he repeated.
It was his last email to his parents, dated June 25. Three days later, he would be dead.
An outgoing, cheerful, athletic young man with light brown hair and an ever-evolving beard, Andrew Pochter wasn’t new to the Arab world. Beginning in the summer of 2010, he’d spent a year in El Jadida, Morocco, where he lived with a Moroccan family and learned to speak Darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect. He’d also taken classes in Standard Arabic, which is spoken throughout the Middle East. One of his teachers that year notes that Andrew’s mind was “filled with Arabic language and with the Arab world.”
The Arab Spring of 2011, marked by widespread protests against repressive governments, was a heady time to be in the region. Andrew wrote an account of his observations that was published in English on the pan-Arab news site Al-Arabiya in June of that year: “My surrogate parents, being teachers, for the most part have been satisfied with their jobs, livelihood, and finances. [But their] approach to life came to an apparent crossroads with…the date of the first nation-wide rally. This experience provided them an opportunity and the courage to express themselves politically. …As I have noticed such a dramatic change in my own host family here in the sleepy town of El Jadida, Morocco, I can only imagine the types of internal changes that are affecting larger cities in the Arab world.”
Michelle Hu, a Harvard University junior who became friends with Andrew in Morocco during the summer of 2010, believes that his interest in social change went beyond a fascination with the Middle East per se. “Andrew was very intellectually curious, and he was interested in social and cultural issues,” she says. “I believe he would have engaged in the same way no matter where in the world he went.”