Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canadians jailed in Egypt bonded with cellmates

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TORONTO -- Two Canadians held in an Egyptian jail for seven weeks say they survived by bonding into an "adopted family" with their dozens of cellmates, who quizzed them on life back home and posed for portraits.

"This was really what kept us alive in some ways -- 38 guys together, including ourselves, keeping each other on track and optimistic," John Greyson said Saturday.

Greyson and Tarek Loubani touched down Friday night at Toronto's Pearson airport, ending an ordeal that began with their arrest and beating during an anti-government protest in Cairo in mid-August.

Though the duo were dumped into what they've called a cell with a "small bath mat" worth of space each on a concrete floor crawling with cockroaches, they said the care and companionship in the tiny room kept their spirits from breaking.

"When we needed to cry, we would cry and people would comfort each other. There was a lot of love," Greyson, a 53-year-old Toronto filmmaker, told The Canadian Press.

Loubani, 32, said he and Greyson bonded deeply. "We derived a tremendous amount of strength from each other and from our families... and from our adopted family" of cellmates, the London, Ont., doctor said.

When they weren't discussing how to end their detention -- which included a hunger strike -- the pair said they were peppered with questions about life in Canada.

Greyson said he talked regularly with a handful of cellmates who spoke "high school English," one of whom even memorized Greyson's entire family tree.

The cramped space even once rang out in song, Greyson recalled, with the entire cell giving an earnest rendition of Happy Birthday when they heard his detention kept him from his teenage daughters' birthdays.

Both men praised Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and the country's diplomatic corps for securing their release, along with the friends, family and supporters who pushed for their freedom.

Loubani also had special thanks for his father, who travelled from New Brunswick all the way to the office door of an Egyptian minister to lobby for his son.

By pure happenstance, Loubani said, his father spoke to the entire Egyptian cabinet when the minister let him inside to speak on the line during a top-level teleconference.

The two said they had planned to stop overnight in Cairo on their way to provide aid at a Gaza hospital when they were delayed due to a border closure and went to observe a protest three kilometres from their hotel on Aug. 16.

Not long after, shots rang out; Loubani sprang into action providing medical aid while Greyson recorded the chaos on video. They were arrested at a police checkpoint hours later and dumped in jail without charges.

Though the men were suddenly released from prison last weekend, they were prevented from boarding a flight out of the country after their names appeared on a "stop list" issued by prosecutors. That travel ban was lifted days later amid continued lobbying by Canadian officials.

--The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2013 A7

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