Service trip abroad turns terrifying


For a while Samantha Weintraub thought this could be the end. Taken against her will earlier this summer in Ethiopia, where she was volunteering as a teacher, the 21-year-old St. Louisan feared the men with guns would harm her, or worse. She was terrified.

They spoke little-to-no English. Finally, one shouted: “Hold, sister,” as she tried to push past him on route to her school from her host family’s home in a small Ethiopian village.


“I told him I was a teacher, and that I needed to get to school, that I could not be late,” says Weintraub. The man and his two companions again insisted that she stop walking. When Weintraub tried to get past them, one of the men pushed her back.

“That got me really nervous,” she says.

Speaking last week from the safety of her home in Olivette, Weintraub recounts the tale in chronological fashion, as though it happened a long time ago, maybe even to someone else. It didn’t.

Weintraub left on June 15 to spend six weeks in Ethiopia as a volunteer for a student-run, non-profit program called Learning Enterprises, based in Stanford, Calif. Her job, along with 13 other American volunteers, was to teach conversational English at elementary schools outside the town of Harare. Three weeks into the program, Ethiopian police rounded up all the Learning Enterprises volunteers and sent them home.

“We were never informed by the Ethiopian government or the United States government why the volunteers were deported,” says Katrina Shankland, director of programming for Learning Enterprises. She notes that the program has sent volunteers to the country three years in a row. “I can’t say if we’ll go back. And that’s really all I can tell you.”

The daughter of Sue and Rob Weintraub, Samantha Weintraub is a senior at Emory University in Atlanta, where she studies finance and international business. “Learning Enterprises sounded like an interesting program,” says Weintraub, “and I thought I would enjoy teaching English and fostering a cross-cultural exchange.”

When the men came to the home of Weintraub’s host family that morning in July to pick up her and two other young women staying there, no one explained what was going on. “None of the men could speak much English,” Weintraub recalls. “They took a cell phone from one of the volunteers, and then one of the men said that he wanted us to come with them in a car.”

The father of the host family came outside, and all the men started arguing in a regional dialect. Then the father turned to the young women and said, “He is a policeman. Go with him.” A car with four men in it pulled up. The men had guns.

“We kept asking for identification,” says Weintraub. “They did not show us any, and we said we would not go with them. They kept arguing with us. Then we said we would go, but only if our host family came with us. We figured then we would at least know that they were not taking us away to kill us.”

The family said they could not accompany the women. “Then the men pushed us into the car,” says Weintraub. “They asked if we had our passports. Two of us did, but one did not. She went back inside to get it, and the two of us sat in the car with an armed guard behind us. We started counting our money, wondering if we had enough to bribe the men.”

The women rode in the crowded car to a police station in a village about seven or eight minutes away. There, they saw five other volunteers with Learning Enterprises. “They put us in a room for four hours, and they wouldn’t tell us anything,” says Weintraub. “Still, once we were together, I felt we might be told we could not teach or we could even get deported, but I knew then we were not in any danger.”

Then the women were driven to neighboring villages, to pick up more volunteers. All cell phones and cameras were collected. Comparing notes, the volunteers discovered that each group had been told a different story. One group was told they were being taken out for lunch. Another group was told they were to attend “a safety meeting.” One group had been told they were being taken to Addis Ababa, the largest city in Ethiopia.

That story was true. Three hours outside the city, the drivers stopped for the night. The volunteers were told they could stay in a hotel at their own expense or sleep in a field near the local immigration office. They opted to stay at the hotel. The next morning, the volunteers were taken to the immigration office in Addis Ababa.

“They took us upstairs, where they collected our passports. Then they started interrogating us, one by one,” says Weintraub. They asked her what her host father did for a living and what she did at home. They asked her about her major at college.

“They could not wrap their minds around the idea that none of us was being paid to teach,” she says. “I learned later that they told some volunteers that they had tourist visas instead of business visas, and that the officials believed we were not qualified to teach. Finally, they told us all that we were being sent home.”

The volunteers were driven to a hotel for the night where guards were posted in the halls. The next day, the group was driven back to the immigration office and then on to the airport. “We had no passports, no plane tickets, no flight information,” says Weintraub. “We were told to wait with our luggage.”

About 90 minutes later, four officials from the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia arrived. “They introduced themselves and told us our flight information,” says Weintraub. “And they let us call our parents.”

Right after the volunteers were rounded up, the host families in Ethiopia had contacted the Learning Enterprises office. Individuals there contacted the volunteers’ parents. “We got an email saying Samantha had been taken from the village for her safety,” says Rob Weintraub, who co-owns Weintraub and Associates Advertising in Clayton. “We did not know what that meant.”

The Weintraubs called the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia and they spoke to people at Learning Enterprises. “No one knew much. My wife was in Florida, and if she had been home, we would have tried to kill each other with Jewish guilt, arguing over which of us had said Samantha could go to Ethiopia and which of us had said she could not. This kind of thing is every parent’s worst nightmare, and we both had a harrowing, sleepless night.”

The next day, the Weintraubs contacted Missouri Rep. Jill Schupp (D-Creve Coeur), who put them in touch with the offices of U.S. Senators Claire McCaskill and Christopher Bond. “Everyone was great,” says Rob Weintraub. The couple heard nothing for two and a half days. Then the call came from Samantha saying she was at the airport in Addis Ababa.

“I got to St. Louis on Sunday night, July 12,” says Weintraub. “After three days of not having a lot of food, basically being a prisoner, I was ready to be home.” Weintraub adds that before being removed from the village, she had really enjoyed the experience. “I would like to go back to Ethiopia, to see more of the country and to visit with my host family,” she says.

“That’s OK with me,” says her father. “On one hand, it’s great that Sam decided to share with the world, to teach others that Americans are good people. On the other hand, you never know what’s going to happen – anywhere.”