Fiona Lloyd-Muller Presents at Guilford College

AUA volunteer, Fiona Llyod-Muller presented about her experience teaching English to high school students at the English-Speaking International Muslim school in Zanzibar. She spoke to her fellow students at Guilford College about her time in Zanzibar and engaged them in discussion.

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On Wednesday, September 24th, at 7pm, I gave my first presentation on my AUA Internship to Zanzibar, Tanzania this past summer. It was held in the Principled Problem Solving room, in King Hall in Guilford College. I advertised for it by making and putting up fliers, putting an ad in the daily college email announcements, sending the fliers to all of my professors and mentors on campus who supported me in some way through the experience, and telling everyone I know to come support and learn!

The presentation itself was a success, although not particularly amazingly attended. The 10 or so people who were there were really interested in what I had to say, and wanted to learn more and discuss abroad experiences. I was able to speak about my experience, Zanzibar, and the way my privilege influenced the way the world views me, and the way I view the world. It was a lot of fun, and I think the next presentation should be great as well!

Fiona's flier she created to advertise her presentation.

Fiona’s flier she created to advertise her presentation.

Shana Brouder Returns Home and Reflects on her Time in Tajikistan

AUA Volunteer, Shana Brouder, has returned from her time working in Tajikistan with the Bactria Cultural Centre. She reflects on her overall experience in Tajikistan and dispels common stereotypes about the Muslim World.

Shana Collage

The word prejudice is overflowing with negative connotations. If you were to stop a random person on the street and ask them what prejudices they hold, I would bet my life savings that 99 out of every 100 would say they had none because who would want to admit they have an unfounded negative belief against one group? Not many, if any.

Coming from just outside of New York City, prejudice against the Muslim community is not a new phenomenon and for many not without pretense. I think all of us living in this area have just been so traumatized that it’s hard to realize you even have these prejudices until they’re challenged.

My time in Tajikistan has taught me so many things, but the message I think is most important is how being Muslim is not a defining characteristic. It does not make a person automatically aggressive, or bad, or violent, or any of these other words we associate with terrorism. Going on this internship, I knew I would be living in the “Muslim World” but the truth is, when you look past wearing long skirts in June when it’s bordering 100*F outside, it feels just like any other place in the world. The kindness that was shown to my friends and I there was absolutely incredible and truly beyond description. Every goodbye we had the last few days was filled with tears as these people had become, in six short weeks, a family to us. The word “Muslim” was never present. It was not a blockade or a barrier to our relationships – it was just a fact. I am a Christian, you are a Muslim, and after these six weeks have gone by I can truly not imagine making it through my time in Tajikistan without you.

The Muslim world isn’t scary. I think we have this picture in our heads in America that everywhere in the “Muslim world” has terrorists and women covered head to toe against their will, and every time you walk down the street you have to fear for your safety because you never know what will happen. Now I’m not saying that may not be a description for some places, but it certainly is not a blanket statement one can say describes the entire Muslim world. Tajikistan is a beautiful country with amazingly friendly people. In six weeks, I never once felt unsafe, threatened, or in any way insecure. Any feelings I had there in regards to my safety would be justified in New York City, Baltimore, Barcelona, or any other major city I have visited previously. Just because the majority of people there were Muslims did not make it inherently dangerous or threatening. It was just another city located in another part of the world.

We shouldn’t be afraid of making these connections with the Muslim world. Yes extremists do exist, but that doesn’t make every single person bad or responsible. The truth is we need to stop making religion a defining characteristic of a person. When it comes to making friendships, we need to realize something like religion is not as dramatic or important as recent times make it seem. A person is so much more than what god they choose to believe in.

My time in Tajikistan will always have a special place in my heart. I have thought about my experience there so many times since returning to the United States and traveling to Germany. There are many things I miss – the mountains, the food – but most of all I miss the people and friends I made there. I am so grateful for this experience that has changed my life so much, all for the better. So to everyone in Dushanbe, I hope you’re doing great and that I get to see you again sooner rather than later!

Thank you to all these amazing people I met, worked with, lived with, laughed with, cried with, and will never forget.

 

Deborah Carey’s Second Presention: American University

Unofficial Ambassador Deborah Carey gave her second presentation, this time at American University. She spoke about her time volunteering in Zanzibar at ZAYEDESA and engaged her fellow students in a discussion about their experiences abroad. Many students also had similar stories to Deborah’s where they felt very welcome as Americans in Muslim societies.

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Soccer in Tarmilaat Village

Joe Sgroi from Ewing, NJ, has returned from volunteering at a Summer Day Camp in Ifrane, Morocco.  He shares stories about teaching new sports and games to the kids of Tarmilaat Village and why his time there was unforgettable.

Tarmilaat ambassadors and kids.

Tarmilaat ambassadors and kids

Another important soccer experience of mine in Morocco was during my time in Tarmilaat Village. Tarmilaat is a remote village, fifteen minutes outside of downtown Ifrane. My assignment for the third part of my internship was to introduce new sports and activities to the kids of Tarmilaat Village. When they weren’t in the schoolhouse refining their French, I was teaching them how to play kickball, wiffleball, American football, and Frisbee. As much as they liked these new games, the sport they always gravitated to was soccer. Soccer is embedded in Moroccan culture, urban, suburban, and rural alike. Playing soccer on the rustic terrain at Tarmilaat at full speed with only flip-flops, was something that I will never forget. My hope is that the children that I met at the village will use soccer and the games that I taught them, as an outlet and means of exercise, as well as a connection to the culture of their country.

My last week at Tarmilaat Village is one that I will never forget. My goal as a volunteer for America’s Unofficial Ambassadors was to relay lessons regarding teamwork and individual growth to the children at the Al-Akhawayn Summer Camp, Al-Akhawayn Soccer Camp, and Tarmilaat Village. For me, sports have always been a means of exercise, learning, crisis management, and leadership development. Sports and activities give children a medium to come out of their shells and find something they are passionate about. Furthermore, children are able to mold their minds at an early age, so exposure to as many new things can be beneficial to growth.

I was extremely proud with all of the campers that I came in contact with during my 6-week, 3 site internship. They had developed into receptive students of the game while I became a further developed leader and coach. The best qualities from past teachers and coaches came together within me, allowing me to be the leader that the children of Morocco could rely upon, learn from, and hopefully always remember. While being successful towards achieving my goal as a coach and volunteer, my long-term hope is that these campers apply the lessons that sports can teach them to their lives and the lives that they touch in the future.

Each of the three sites for my internship provided a unique experience for the children and myself. However, Tarmilaat Village was the site that hit home the most. As an adopted child who had spent time in foster homes and whose mother lived in a similarly organized village in Peru. This experience at Tarmilaat became less of an internship and more of a mission. This mission was about helping these children to find themselves while I did the same. During their classes and during the sports and activities, I saw myself in their mannerisms, intensity, and promise. I was also able to see the trials and tribulations that they go through as pre-teens living in the modest village of Tarmilaat. If not adopted, my life would be just as modest growing up. Therefore, I felt even more obligated towards my mission as it felt more personal than the other two sites.

In retrospect, the impact of being a volunteer at Tarmilaat did not hit me until I left from my last day’s assignment. It was hard to say goodbye, as I had grown close to the roughly fifteen children that filled the schoolhouse on a daily basis. One child in particular, named Youssef, was hard for me to say goodbye to. Aside from sharing the same name, we both had personalities on the quiet side. Sometimes we get lost in the fray, underestimated, or simply overlooked because of this. His willingness to open up eventually to me and the other Tarmilaat children was one of the biggest personal victories in my experience as a coach and leader thus far. Through my experience at Tarmilaat and with Youssef, I could see that we are in fact all reflections of one another. Our names, religions, and cultures, may seem to differentiate us, but we are the same down to our cores and should be exposed to experiences that will help us see our own reflection.

Joe and Yusuf

Joe and Youssef

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 http://autism-tj.weebly.com/. 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.