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Published: 18 July 2016

How a Battersea student visit broke down political barriers

Surrey has a vibrant international community, with students from over 120 countries, making us one of the most culturally-diverse universities in the UK.

This continues a strong tradition; our predecessor institution, Battersea College of Technology, had a rich mix of students and staff from overseas and held regular international shows which were extremely popular with performers and the audience alike.

Emile Jouzy, who graduated in 1961, was a leading light in the International Society. He moved to England in 1955 from Egypt, where he had lived with his family since leaving Jerusalem in 1948. Originally studying engineering at Battersea, Emile felt there was a stronger future in tourism and he switched to study Hotel Management.

He has gone on to have a 60-year career in the industry, working all over the world, and only recently handed over the reins of his company, Hotelequip Consultants, to his children.

Emile was elected chairman of the International Society in 1959 and was keen to develop it further - and he had big ideas! Not one to let a tricky political situation curb his ambitions, he decided it was time to rebuild relationships with Egypt after the Suez Canal Crisis a few years earlier and thought a student delegation was a good way to start.

A letter was duly dispatched to President Nasser and the answer came back – ‘come and be my guests’. Seven society members, including Emile, set off for the adventure, hoping to arrive in time for the revolutionary day celebrations on 23 July.

“We travelled by train to Greece relatively cheaply, but we still didn’t have any money for flights to Cairo,” said Emile. “So we visited the Egyptian Airways office in Athens and as soon as we showed our letter from President Nasser, seven seats were given to us! We arrived on 22 July, and were met at the airport and given a choice of five-star hotels, all free.”

On the day, Emile and his fellow students were among the packed crowds listening to President Nasser speak for four hours, Emile the only one who understood Arabic. “It didn’t matter because the whole event was spell-binding nonetheless.”

The group spent the next month travelling around the country, gaining access beyond normal tourist destinations, including factories and even a gun manufacturer.

The visit was a resounding success and at the next international evening in Battersea, the Egyptian cultural attaché attended. However, determined to continue to widen the society’s international links still further, Emile wrote to heads of state, including Macmillan, De Gaulle, Nehru and Khrushchev, asking for messages of goodwill to be read out at the event.

“Everyone wrote back,” said Emile. “The Principal, Peter Leggett, who went on to become the University’s first Vice-Chancellor, invited the Head of the BBC Overseas Service and the reading of the letter from Khrushchev was transmitted on the Russian service. It was a wonderful evening.”

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