The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Christine Choi. She recently returned from volunteering with Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. in Egypt. To find an amazing opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today!
By now, my family and friends are old hands at sending me off to various locations around the Middle East. Where my first trips to Fes and Cairo generated a flurry of concerned e-mails, phone calls and lengthy discussions—I quickly developed a point-by-point strategy for addressing concerns ranging from kidnappings to proposals—my announcement of my recent spring break trip was instead greeted with responses of resigned acceptance (“Again?” my grandfather replied) or muted enthusiasm (“Cairo! Jealous. More of your research stuff?” texted back my high school best friend).
Upon our return, after waking up at an unseemly hour due to jetlag, I called my mother—thankfully an early riser—to check in. She has for years indulged my long rambles about the places I’ve just returned from, but this time around, it was different. When I began to describe the environment of Garbage City and the way in which many of the residents there make their living through the collection of trash, she pushed for more details about the system of collection and the production of sustainable crafts at the Association for the Protection of the Environment, one of the NGOs in the neighborhood we had visited. And when I began to discuss the difficult work of taking care of, playing with and feeding the young children at the orphanage, especially infants, she laughed and we debated at length the best techniques for getting stubborn kids to finish meals. She’s always been interested (or skillfully feigns interest) in what I have to say about where I’ve been and the people I’ve met, but by transmitting my experience through the weight of the social issues we’d witnessed and certain shared elements of human interaction—particularly working with kids, an issue that resonates with her as a parent and a children’s librarian—she was, I believe, able to experience my retelling not just as rehashed narration of where I’d been and what I’d seen, but able to undergo and more vividly imagine, in a small way, the trip for herself.
That’s what makes trips and service such as ours so compelling and so important for more people to take on. Traveling to places such as Cairo not only “normalizes” the individuals who live there—just as you may normalize or diversify the notion of what an American looks like to your new friends—but also normalizes the challenges the communities there face. As I’ve mentioned many times before, media representations of the region convey circumstances of violent social upheaval, dangerous and militant milieus and seemingly intractable systems of social oppression. And yet, when you see that there also exists the need for volunteers to feed children and hang up laundry, or you tour classrooms and are greeted by choruses of “Hello! How are you? What’s your name?” or get a chance to chat with some local peers, you see that the challenges and issues they face are, in many respects, much the same. There exists a need for greater support systems for children and education in all places around the world; there are teenagers trying to navigate the social environment in every city you go to; there are difficulties regarding the environment and sustainable infrastructure in all countries. By visiting and serving in places such as Cairo, even if only for a short time, you are not only able to diminish the distance between yourself and the people who live there, but experience, if only briefly, their challenges—after which you will inevitably conclude that, in many ways, they’re not so different from ours. And even now, more than a week since my return and the inevitable fading of sensory memories accelerates, small daily activities such as the Facebook updates from our AUC friends, the e-mails I’ve sent to Gihan, a women’s rights activist who talked with us, or the arrangement of volunteer opportunities at an Association of the Protection of the Environment crafts sale here in New York City in May through a HANDS board member help sustain the experience, making that short week a now inseparable part of all of our lives.