ISLAMICommentary: Let’s Tweet About Sex? Frank Talk About Teen Health, LGBT Rights, and Family Planning in Indonesia

America’s Unofficial Ambassadors’ volunteer, Sarah Wall, worked in Indonesia at a center that provides sexual education and reproductive services to at-risk youth. She shared her experience with the ISLAMICommentary, a public scholarship forum through Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center.

Would you be surprised to see a devout Muslim female coworker tenderly embrace a transgender woman in a green, sparkly hijab before a weekly Qur’an lesson at an Indonesian youth center?

For the staff at the PKBI Youth Center, it’s all in a day’s work. And their work is an extension of their religious beliefs, not a conflict of interest.

PKBI is short for The Family Planning Association of Indonesia, Jogyakarta, and a branch of Indonesia’s International Planned Parenthood Association member organization. Its Youth Center supplements the organization’s health clinics with advocacy and outreach programs, and houses Lentera Sahaja (Youth School), the Community Organizing Program (LGBT, sex worker, and street youth) and two supporting programs, the Center for Sexuality Studies, and the Media Training Division.

“We provide sexual education so that marginalized communities can make better health choices and protect themselves from the risks of sexual disease,” explains Gama Triono, a community organizer with PKBI’s youth center. “Everyone we come into contact with is marginalized. All of the people and communities we work with are underserved.”

To read more of this article, click here.

Respecting Ramadan

2014 Unofficial Ambassador in Morocco, Caitie Dailey, is back from her service and sent us this blog post about her final weeks in her host country.

I think I can speak for most of the interns here when I say that one of the most challenging things we have all done together is observing Ramadan.
For those unfamiliar with Ramadan, it is roughly a month long period where practicers of Islam fast for a majority of the day and receive a small window of time at night to eat and drink. The purpose of this practice- I hesitate to call it a holiday because as Americans, we associate holidays with gifts, decorations, etc.- is self reflection, community reflection, and generosity.

This pillar of Islam reminds all Muslims of the struggles of the poor, and seeks to remind that even in this world of plenty, many continue to suffer.
Iftar (breaking the fast) happens when the sun goes down, and I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to break fast with a variety of different people. Some seems to gorge themselves full of food and tea until they are sufficiently full and wait a few ours for dinner, while others choose to take the simpler and self controlled path of just a single date and some juice or milk for their Iftar.
Regardless of the grandeur or simplicity of the Iftar, breaking the fast is a time for people to come together and reconnect after a long hard day, bonding over shared experience and enjoying all that they have to be thankful for.

3 weeks ago I was teaching the kids of Tarmilaat to play kickball and baseball, painting a mural on the side of their school, and soaking up as much Moroccan culture as possible. Now, back in the states, it shard to believe that my time there went so quickly and I had to say goodbye to my munchkins. My time in Ifrane was split between the Atlas Camp, the AUI Soccer camp, and working at the Tarmilaat School, three different posts with the common goal of getting kids involved and interested in culture, sports, and education. Ms. Fatima, Adil Kamane, and my fellow interns Pheobe and Andradene are all responsible for running these programs, and each of them made my experience that much more special for myself, but more importantly, for the kids. In both the AUI Soccer Camp and Tarmilaat I worked with the dame group of girls, girls that were so eager and ready to learn anything and everything. They came into the soccer camp with minimal French speaking skills, but after 2 weeks they could hold a conversation and follow directions in French (something that pleasantly surprised Pheobe and Andradene). At some point during my time in Morocco someone described my campers as “sponges,” soaking up as much as they can in the short time that we were there. Thats probably the most fitting description because up until the day we left Tarmilaat they continued to ask questions and learn new things. Many of them counted so well in French that I taught them to count in English!

Saying goodbye to our Tarmilaat babies was a bit emotional, but I know that we (more so Pheobe and Andradene) established a deep interest in education, in language skills, and (hopefully) set them up to have a bright future. These kids are so special and deserve the world, and I would give anything just to have more time with them and to teach them all that I know, because after all- they are our future.


Moroccan Memories

2014 Unofficial Ambassador Alessandra Testa sent us some snapshots that remind her of her experiences in Morocco, teaching English at the Azrou Center for Community Development.

My students presented me with this sign near the last days of classes. It hangs above my desk and reminds me of how gratitude is so easy to give, yet makes the biggest difference. As the recipient, I am proof of that.

This is an arrangement of some of the memories I made in Morocco: sitting on top of the traditional woolen blanket I bartered for in a room full of blankets and rugs are two pillows that one of my students shyly presented me with at the end of one of our classes, and a leather bag made in Fez.

This mug is perfect for humid college dorms–it has been created to serve cold, and not hot, beverages.









This Berber painting comes from Casablanca. I love the rough brush strokes, thick layers of paint, and mystery the painting conveys.






A copy of the Arabic alphabet.

The Arabic books I use for school. The most commonly-taught form of Arabic to foreigners is FusHa, or Modern Standard Arabic. It’s closest to the Arabic used in the Qu’ran, and unlike regional dialects like Morocco’s Darisha, is widely understood across the Muslim world.

Suraiya Jinah Presents to Ismaili Volunteer Corps in Canada

2014 Unofficial Ambassador in Indonesia, Suraiya Jinah, who served with Dian Interfidei as a research intern, gave her first presentation Aug. 15 about her experiences abroad to folks at her local mosque in Mississauga, Canada. Her audience was members of the Ismaili Volunteer Corps, and she sent us these pics! Suraiya’s next talk will take place in Montreal in the coming weeks, when she’ll present to her local interfaith club. This also marks the first time an unofficial ambassador has presented in Canada. Congratulations, Suraiya, on making the most of your role as a citizen diplomat!

Suraiya Jinah with members of the Ismaili Volunteer Corps

Why go so far?: Okxana Cordova-Hoyos

Exhausted and jet-lagged, I waited in line to speak to the customs officer at JFK airport as the last stop before I could finally go home after 6 weeks abroad. When my turn finally arose, the customs officer looked over my papers, looked up at me and bluntly said, “Why go so far?” After getting off a 10 hour flight and being in transit for about 2 days, I was a bit confused by the question, so I told him that I was interning at a center for autism. The officer then told me that I should try to find opportunities closer to home next time and that there were plenty of autistic children here in the US that I should be helping instead, before returning my passport and sending me on my way. Flabbergasted and astounded, his words, at first, angered me. But as I talked to more and more people about my experiences, the main theme seemed to be, “Why?”

On my return, I wanted to tell everyone about the wonderful people I had met, the things I had learned, and what this beautiful place was. During my time in Tajikistan, I learned not only about the world around me, but about myself as well. I gained a better understanding for autism and the everyday struggles that those affected by it face. I discovered the inner workings of different NGOs and how they work to help the community around them, not only through my work at IRODA, but also through the work my fellow volunteers did in their respective placements. For the first time in my life, I constructed a website for an organization and I taught someone else how to do the same. I saw the struggle to find donors and how tricky it is to draft letters asking for donations, recognition, or aid. With such a formidable language barrier between me and the country, my respect for those who have come to the US and learned our language soared because I saw first-hand how difficult it was. I learned that I can succeed on my own, despite not knowing the language or being in a foreign country. But still the fact remains that everyone asks “Why Tajikistan?”, “Why a Muslim country?”, “Why so far away?”. No longer exhausted and jet-lagged, I can finally give an answer.

I could say we live in a global society today, but the answer is much more than just that. I went to a Muslim country because the majority of people we interact with have a certain stereotype in mind when they hear the word Muslim or Islam. During my time abroad, I learned that their religion, though a major part of their lives, is not the main event in everything they do. Many people state that wearing a head scarf or a hijab (which are not all one and the same) is a form of oppression, but I saw it as something different. The women choose whether or not to wear it and it is a form of expression or a form of modesty to them rather than an expression of religion.

I will miss all the people I worked with incredibly. Despite not speaking the same language, they showed that they cared in many ways. From noticing that I didn’t like tomatoes in my lunch, to expressing their enthusiasm when I wore Tajik clothing, they made every effort to make us feel welcome. Humanity is universal and it would do us well to remember that when we see the media portray the Muslim world in a negative light.

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Don’t Judge a Millennial By Her Cover: AUA’s Ben Orbach on Huffpo

America’s Unofficial Ambassadors Director Ben Orbach tells us why members of the Millennial generation are a vital asset to citizen diplomacy in a feature on the Huffington Post’s Impact section this month.

My new favorite website is It belongs to IRODA, Tajikistan’s only center for autism. The main page has a gallery of 10 portraits, from a girl with pompadourish big hair who smiles defiantly to a teacher’s aide gently brushing noses with a grinning boy. The website doesn’t have pyrotechnics, but the photos pull you in, and the organization’s mission and programs are clear.

Still, what’s the big deal?

This website was put together by Britta Nippert and Okxana Cordova-Hoyos, undergraduate students from New Jersey. They volunteered this summer at IRODA, creating this website, researching grant opportunities and playing with the children.

IRODA was founded by a group of parents who seek an alternative to institutionalization for their children. While IRODA relies on foreign funding support, they did not have a website in Tajik or Russian, much less English until a few weeks ago. By creating a basic yet attractive site, Britta and Okxana filled a gap and met a priority identified by IRODA’s leadership. At the same time, for a community in Dushanbe that has little or no direct interaction with America, Britta and Okxana represented an America that reached beyond its borders in a compassionate and useful way.

As Lola Nassriddinov, IRODA’s Director, remarked, “It is amazing that people from so far could come and integrate themselves with the children. They have such a good connection with the kids, acting like they had known them for years since their first day. All of the staff asks, ‘Where can we find volunteers like this is Tajikistan?'”

Britta and Okxana are indeed special, but their volunteer service is not unique. Over the last couple of years, more than 40 undergraduate and graduate students have volunteered with us through our summer service internship program in four different countries.

To read more, follow this link.

Deborah Carey Presents: Trinity Wellsprings Church, FL

Unofficial Ambassador Deborah Carey gave her first presentation this month at a church in her hometown. Look for more presentations by AUA alums this fall. And a special thanks to Deborah for her amazing presentation and all her efforts this summer in Zanzibar.

On Sunday, August 3rd, I gave my first returning presentation as an Unofficial Ambassador! About 50 members of Trinity Wellsprings Church, in Satellite Beach, FL crowded into a seminar room between services to learn more about Zanzibar and the Islamic faith. After I described the mission of AUA, my role in Zanzibar as an ambassador and intern at ZAYEDESA, I opened the floor to questions. Many people asked about how I was received as an American and Christian, or about Islamic traditions that I experienced, such as Ramadan.

It was almost liberating to describe to members of my church family about the extreme hospitality and peacefulness I felt in Stone Town. I found myself comparing the sense of community in Zanzibar to our own small beachside town. Several people identified with similar experiences they had had throughout the world, in places such as Istanbul and with their Muslim neighbors here in the United States. At the same time, I could tell by the raising of eyebrows that this may have been the first time others had heard someone speak to the peace and cohesiveness of the Muslim world.

As I said goodbye to the attendees, many of them thanked me for my advocacy, or added “when you go back, present again!” I am so grateful to AUA for equipping me with presentation tips and tools that have allowed me to verbalize such a life-changing experience, thus adding closure to this summer, while sharing the peace of the Muslim World to my friends and family.

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My Students’ Hard Work and Amazing Creativity!

Neethi Vasudevan is back from her experience teaching English at the Azrou Center for Community Development and sent us this post about the last week of her service in Morocco.

It has been about three weeks since my last day in Morocco and not a day goes by where I don’t think about what a wonderful time I had there. I’ve learnt so much about Morocco, its people and culture; and while I wish I could’ve spent more time there I am grateful for having had the wonderful opportunity to volunteer there.

During my previous blog, I spoke a lot about the End of Program Celebration at the Azrou Center and all the effort and hard work our students put into making the Celebration successful. Although Alessandra and myself were there to help, the students took it upon themselves to work together and come up with various ideas to best display all that they had learnt from us during our six weeks there. In addition to having to prepare a presentation for the Celebration, they also had to study for their final exam, which was on the Friday before the Celebration. Despite being crunched for time, all our students persevered and made sure that they not only did well on their final exams but also put on their presentations without a hitch.

So, in order to show how proud I am of them and to show off their amazing creativity and skills, I have decided to include below some videos of our students performances and presentations. Enjoy!

Our beginners singing Do Re Mi

Our intermediates singing “Forgotten Promises” by Sami Yusuf

Our Advanced students presenting a skit that they wrote themselves: “After that, the Factory went Bankrupt” (Part one)

Part two of the Advanced Skit