Achieving Goals

By Alexandra Green


Alexandra Green, 2015 AUA Summer Service Intern in Morocco

“Hadi? [this?]” Malak asks me as she points to the letter “G,” wondering if that is what I want her to pronounce. As I nod my head in affirmation, she exclaims—rather confidently—“A!” I shake my head no and I immediately see disappointment spread across her face.

“Non, Malak. C’est ‘G’” I explain to her. She repeats the letter and then I move on to the next—the letter “H.” As I point to the letter waiting for her to respond, Malak once again glances at the letter and declares “A!” As I tell her no and ask her to repeat the letter “H” I see nothing but confusion in her photo

Malak is one of my students in Tarmilaat Village. She’s six years old and before I met her—one short week ago—she did not speak a word of French. With my lack of Derija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic) and her lack of French, I knew that it would be challenging to communicate even basic information to her. After introducing myself to Malak in Derija, I had her begin learning the letters of the alphabet. Although she knew how to sing about half of the alphabet song, it was immediately evident that she could not match the spoken letters with the written symbol.

Since introducing Malak to the alphabet, I have come to realize that she is under the impression that the first letter I point to, for her to pronounce, is always the letter “A.” She assumes that because the alphabet begins with “A,” that she should always pronounce this letter first.

Through a lot of time—and patience—Malak has learned that each written symbol (in the alphabet) has its own distinct sound. It is incredible to witness the constant growth and learning of my students, such as Malak. Without a doubt in my mind, I know that my students—both the ones I teach French in Tarmilaat and the ones I teach English to in Azrou—have come to realize that with hard-work and determination, they have the ability to learn another language.

IMG_1276Following the day that I first met the shy, young girl who was hesitant to copy the letters of the alphabet, Malak has never ceased to amaze me with all that she has learned. She now understands that not every letter is pronounced like “A,” can answer basic questions about her name and her age, and can identify the letters A-G and numbers 1-7. Her shyness has faded away and each day she comes to school with more eagerness to learn than she had the day before.

Each day when my students—such as Malak—walk into the classroom, I cannot help but smile. After four weeks of teaching, the impact of our lessons is clear. As I witness these children gain hope and confidence in their ability to speak another language, I feel both pride and satisfaction: pride in my students and all that they have learned, as well as satisfaction that I am helping them achieve their goals.

First impressions of the Muslim world

By John Curran

John Curran, 2015 Summer Service Intern in Tajikistan

John Curran, 2015 Summer Service Intern in Tajikistan

Traveling to Tajikistan has proven to be full of challenges. However, as part of the AUA program and as an intern working for an NGO and a volunteer at a local school, these challenges have been more than manageable. While in some ways similar to time I spent living in Dominica, in the Caribbean, Tajikistan has provided its own set of unique experiences, and each day in Dushanbe has proven to be a smaller part of a much bigger adventure.

In the United States it is very easy to forget how our day-to-day lives are made possible due to an extensive infrastructure, which has been slowly built and improved over the course of many decades. Everything from mass transit to school attendance records are a part of the American infrastructure and without it our lives would be very different. In fact, our lives might be much more similar to that of an everyday Tajik citizen who finds themselves living in an environment that is inefficient, convoluted, and in large part, simply not conducive towards meeting the needs of our society in 2015. In response to this problem Civil Internet Policy Initiative (CIPI), the NGO where I am interning, has emerged as an organization dedicated to improving, and in many cases building from nothing, a modern, efficient, and internet integrated Tajik infrastructure.

As the basic foundation for all the work and activities we do as citizens on a daily basis, the need for a functional infrastructure is a crucial factor in determining the success of a town, city, or country. In many cases this translates to CIPI tasking its self with the development of what may seem mundane and unimportant. However, without CIPI, Dushanbe would be without many of the basic utilities that cities all over the world depend on in order to operate efficiently.  For instance, in America calling a hotline for assistance or reporting a neighborhood disturbance is more often than not handled by an automated system. In America we make take these systems for granted, while in Tajikistan they simply don’t yet exist.

The work that CIPI does is very important, and it is exciting to assist in building the foundation that Dushanbe will depend upon more and more as time progresses. CIPI has grown tremendously in the past few years as it continues to expand its influence, working on new projects, and branching out in new ways in order to provide as much as possible to the citizens of Dushanbe. My contributions to CIPI come largely from my ability to write English language documentation and proposals. As CIPI grows it is seeking to extend its reach, and a great way to do this is through providing information and resources about the company in English. A great example of this is the CIPI website, which I have been working to translate entirely into English, and should be complete by the end of my stay in Tajikistan.

In addition to working with CIPI, I am also teaching English and Information Communication Technology’s (ICT) topics to students at a school called Masoud. These topics include, such things as discussions on open data or big data, as well as discussions regarding broader themes such as “robotics.” My time at Masoud has been the most surprising experience so far in Tajikistan. In particular, it has been my students’ ability to speak and understand English really well, that has surprised me. Coming into Tajikistan initially my expectations were neither high nor low, instead I simply didn’t know what to expect, and as a result I have been thoroughly impressed by my students. Furthermore, prior to arriving in Dushanbe, I was relatively apprehensive about teaching English, and was quite unsure whether or not I was up to the task. In hindsight this fact seems silly to me, as my students have been a pleasure to teach, and continue to teach me as much as I teach them.

In addition to working at CIPI and teaching at Masoud, the experience of seeing and living in Dushanbe has also been a fascinating experience. In many ways it has been challenging to navigate a city that doesn’t speak your language, which has in turn spurred me to practice my Russian even more. Having learned the alphabet now I have found it supremely satisfying to wander around reading all the signs for shops, businesses, and restaurants in an effort decipher whatever meaning I can. As time progresses, I am hoping to improve my Russian even more, while also continuing to enjoy working at CIPI and Masoud. As of now I have three weeks remaining in Tajikistan and the first three weeks have gone by much too quickly!

A Captivating Culture

By Alexandra Green

“Teacher, I have a question,” a student exclaims while looking at me. After looking around, I suddenly come to the realization that I am the teacher—she is the student. Within one short month I have transformed from being a student, myself, to a teacher of 2 different languages.  In only two weeks of teaching, I have taught motivated students, met numerous caring individuals, and made memories I know I will never forget.

Throughout the time I have spent in Morocco so far, I have settled into a routine during the week. I wake up each morning and attend Derija class—Moroccan Arabic—with my partner, Bethlehem. We immediately have the opportunity to put our knowledge of Derija to the test as we depart to teach the young children of Tarmilaat Village.

In the village of Tarmilaat, Bethlehem and I arrive each morning around 9:30. After drinking tea served to us by Ito—the village mom—our students begin to trickle into the hut and kiss us good morning. Although our students only have a limited understanding of French, and my knowledge of Moroccan Arabic is less than minimal, the students arrive each morning incredibly excited to see us.

Students of Tarmilaat Village

Students of Tarmilaat Village

As the students arrive to class, they join us on the floor—with their notebooks and pens—eager to learn French.  Since the students span six different grade levels, we first divide them based on their level of French. While some students can speak in basic sentences, others struggle to identify the letters of the alphabet. Nevertheless, all students—no matter their level—have a desire to learn and work to the best of their ability.

After teaching in Tarmilaat for two to three hours, we depart to Azrou—where we teach English. Once in Azrou, we have time to eat lunch and review our lesson plans for the afternoon before beginning to teach beginner and intermediate English classes. Since there are only two classes and teachers, Bethlehem and I alternate which class we teach each week.

Throughout the first week of teaching, I rapidly learned that having the ability to speak English, and effectively teaching it, are extremely different. Nevertheless, I soon realized that through planning effective lessons—and a little bit of patience—my students have the ability to learn a lot about the English language from me.  The unique aspect about teaching at Azrou is that my students’ range from 8 years old to 42 years old; despite this, they each come to class every day with deep desire to learn.

In our last class of the day, Bethlehem and I, together, teach an advanced level English class to the staff at Azrou. Although the staff is always incredibly busy at work, they always set aside time to learn English with us because they believe that it will help them in their jobs. Those at Azrou, without a doubt, have the highest level of dedication and drive that I have ever witnessed in others.

Aside from teaching, I have had countless incredible experiences outside of the classroom. I have been unbelievably touched by how accepting and welcoming Moroccans are. From my roommate who has shown me first-hand what Moroccan culture is like, to the little girl who approached me in the market and whispered “Bonjour” with a huge smile on face—more than likely eager to practice her French—all of my experiences have resulted in the Moroccan culture captivating my heart and mind.

US Ambassador Susan Elliott Welcomes Unofficial Ambassadors to Tajikistan!

Last month, US Ambassador Susan Elliott welcomed our group of summer
service interns to Tajikistan. The Serena Hotel hosted Ambassador Elliott,
Cultural Affairs Officer Andrea Kalan, members of Tajik civil society and
our unofficial ambassador team to its beautiful downtown Dushanbe location
for a lovely welcome reception. Photos of from the reception are below.

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Postcards from Zanzibar

By Kitty Thuermer

As week 1 in Zanzibar winds down, unofficial ambassadors reflect on the week that passed and get ready for the week ahead. Kitty Thuermer is the AUA Team Leader in Zanzibar and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Mali. Check out photos from the volunteers below!

On My Way

Camila is volunteering with America’s Unofficial Ambassadors through its Professionals in Service program. She is a Proposal Specialist at Creative Associates International and will be working with the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Zanzibar.

On My Way

Camila Linneman

My 13-hour flight had just deposited me in Addis Ababa on my way to Zanzibar. The sight of snow-topped mountains and tin roofs had been my first visual of Africa, seen through jet-lagged and bleary eyes. My internal clock reminded me it was 4:30 in the morning but the day was just beginning in Addis. I exited the plane to find every traveler with a connecting flight’s worst nightmare – a security line so long you cannot see where it begins. I raced to the end of the line, pulled out a book, and settled into what I knew was going to be a long wait.


Camila Linneman

Sandwiched between two groups speaking languages I couldn’t recognize, I was disoriented. We stood with barely any space between us, hoping that minimizing distance would improve our prospects. My neighbors and I waited patiently, keeping to ourselves for the next hour. As we neared the security checkpoint, I noticed a man about 10 people behind me, as he was carrying a grocery bag full of Marlboros and had nothing else with him. “European tourist?”, I thought, and returned to my book. The next time I noticed him, he was directly behind me. Having place his grocery bag on the floor, he was kicking it into people’s standing space and using it to crowd them out. In a short-time, he’d surpassed everyone behind me.

I will blame it on my jetlag, but I was not feeling very forgiving at this point. Neither was the woman behind me. She put out her hand to stop him as she didn’t speak English, which he promptly ignored. This earned glares from both of us but he wasn’t deterred. I kept inching myself forward, trying to prevent him from passing me. I caught the woman behind me doing the same, and we shared a big smile knowing we were in cahoots. It was a small battle of wills and tiny movements, as we attempted to edge ourselves forward. As we neared the end of the line, the group of men in front of me had noticed our struggles. In a move that was so subtle it appeared unintentional, they blocked him out as we advanced. In fact, I would have thought it was unintentional, if they hadn’t waved the two of us in front of them, which was returned with more big grins on our part.

It was one of those simple exchanges that will immediately set you at ease in a new place. Traveling to a new country, or in this case, even a new continent, is incredibly daunting in how much you don’t know. In my case, I don’t know much at all about life in Zanzibar. But a language barrier doesn’t prevent human connection. My partners in crime (or more like our own small form of justice) and I understood one another just fine without words. Your perceived inability to communicate is never a reason to not try; and I’m going to try and make this my guiding principle over the next two weeks.

I’m on a shorter timeline than the other unofficial ambassadors who will be here for six weeks. In order to get the most out of my time here, I want to get the most out of the people here. In a sense, my intentions are very general: I want to learn as much as I can, and where I can, contribute back. And I believe the first step to succeeding in this will be forcing myself to reach out in small and large ways for these kinds of experiences and interactions. I want to begin each day with the purpose and the courage to challenge what I don’t know rather than hide behind it, and take as much pleasure from those small victories as I did from exchanging smiles with strangers in the security line.

Teaching and Learning Languages in Morocco

Bethlehem Mehari Belachew, born in Ethiopia, is a rising senior studying Political Science and French at Furman University, in Greenville, South Carolina. In addition, she is working toward minors in Middle East and Islamic Studies, and Poverty Studies, making this internship even more meaningful to her! Bethlehem will be teaching French in Tarmilaat village, Ifrane, Morocco for the 2015 Summer Service Internship. Read her pre-departure blog below! 

Teaching and Learning Languages in Morocco

Bethlehem Belachew

Hello, my name is Bethlehem Belachew, I am from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I am a rising senior at Furman University. I am currently a double major in Political Science and French with minors in Middle East and Islamic Studies and Poverty Studies. As I have been looking for an internship that tied in all, or most, of my areas of study, I was overjoyed to learn about the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors’ program in Ifrane, Morocco.  

I must admit that I was not as enthusiastic as I should have been in the days after I finalized my internship plans. I assumed it was due to school work and responsibilities that piled at the end of the semester, I learned afterward that it was for a completely different reason. As a foreigner in the US, I occasionally found myself correcting people’s prejudiced and often stereotypical view of Ethiopia, and sometimes Africa; hence I couldn’t get myself to imagine a country I knew so little about. One could easily wander into “orientalist” territory in thinking of arid climate, perhaps the veiled women, or maybe snake charmers.


Bethlehem Belachew

So, I have been intentional in my preparation so to be fully conscious of what that awaits me. I’ve read and studied the history and geo-politics of Morocco, and the North African region in general. And I have become quite interested in the Arabic language. As a speaker of another Semitic language, I find Arabic moderately difficult and extremely rich. My studies further motivated me to read up on the Moroccan dialect and Berber that is spoken in Morocco. I am hopeful that it will all help me bridge certain linguistic gaps with the students who I will be teaching French and English. Who knows, they might even be encouraged by the fact that I too am in the same process of learning a different language.

From a previous experience of teaching students in an impoverished community, I feel confident in saying I know what things to strive for, although this time, the cultural and linguistic context differs. Two years ago, I taught English to seventh graders who barely knew the basics. I was personally challenged by their, rather frequent, question of “why do we need to learn English?” 

After much thought, I realized that it was wrong of me to have thought mastering English would drastically change their lives. I accepted and respected their goal to help their parents, at home or in the market. I also took it as my duty to help them think of things they normally wouldn’t be exposed to, things beyond themselves and their families. In the same manner, I do not expect my students in Morocco to master the tenses and conjugate each verb by the end of our summer together, although that would be nice. I hope they will see why learning an international language like French or English is so important, and how it may help them in the long run.  

A Once in a Life Time Experience, Again

Rob Handerhan is a rising senior History major at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) with a specialization in the History of the Islamic World and a minor in Arabic. This summer, he will be teaching English and planning cultural events at the Bactria Cultural Center in Dushanbe, Tajikistan as well as working at IRODA, one of the only centers for children with autism in Central Asia today. Following graduation, Rob is ultimately interested in pursuing post-graduate studies, although he first hope to travel as much as possible as well as to work for a non-profit organization that is committed to both combating Islamophobia in America and to building peace and cross-cultural understanding worldwide. Read Rob’s pre-departure blog below, as he prepares for his second trip to Tajikistan!

A Once in a Life Time Experience, Again

Rob Handerhan

When I first announced that I would be traveling to Tajikistan during the summer of 2013, my family bombarded me with questions about the country’s landscapes, languages, politics, and people. After studying Central Asian history and culture for the previous school semester, I had already fallen in love with this country that I had yet to visit, and I was excited to answer their questions and to share what I had learned with them.

The majority of my relatives had never heard of Tajikistan before; few were able to pronounce the country’s name, and even fewer could locate it on a map. In spite of (or, perhaps, due to) their unfamiliarity with the region, however, most members of my family responded with fear and anxiety; there was something about the “-stan” suffix that seemed distant and unfamiliar to them, and their fear of the Muslim World in general was similarly boundless.

Robert (Rob) Handerhan

Robert (Rob) Handerhan

When I returned home to New Jersey safe and sound from a beautiful and truly transformative trip that summer, I was prepared to answer the commonly asked question “was it safe?” with a resounding and heart-felt “yes.” While in Central Asia, I had the privilege of exploring sprawling deserts and stunning mountain ranges while visiting beautiful cultural, historical, and spiritual landmarks. The history that I had been studying in school suddenly became real and three-dimensional. And it took on a living component as well; during my time in Tajikistan, I met the most incredible people who welcomed me into their country with kindness and hospitality. No history books could compare to the experience of learning about a country first-hand through the eyes of a friend, and I thought that telling my family about the friendships that I made was perhaps the best way to provide a face for their disembodied understanding of the Muslim World. I wish I could have brought them back fresh, warm bread and tea to make the experience complete!

Putting their stereotypes and fears aside, my family was happy for me, and they congratulated me on this “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” and I couldn’t help but notice that inherent in that phrase is the idea that I wouldn’t likely be going back to Central Asia any time soon. Yet here I am, about to embark on this once-in-a-lifetime experience for the second time!

I feel so fortunate to be returning to Tajikistan this summer with America’s Unofficial Ambassadors. This time, however, I will not be part of a study tour and hopping from landmark to landmark. Instead, I will join a part local community. Although I cannot escape the fact that I will still be a tourist in many ways, I am indescribably excited to become engaged in everyday life in Dushanbe rather than staying in a hotel and hitting the highlights of the city as on my previous trip.

I will teach English at the Bactria Cultural Centre and feel strongly about the importance and impact of English language learning.  On my first trip to Central Asia, many of the students that I met expressed a strong desire to work on their English language skills in order to pass TOEFL exams and gain access to new opportunities for studying and traveling abroad. My greatest anxieties about my upcoming trip involve my hope to be an effective teacher. I want to be able to make a difference in my students’ lives. I have never taught English to non-English speakers so this will certainly be a challenge.

As part of my summer internship, I am also thrilled to be volunteering one day a week at IRODA, the only center for children with autism in Tajikistan. As autism is not a recognized condition in much of Central Asia, IRODA is a completely parent-run initiative, and I hope to be able to effectively expand their reach in terms of accessing international grants as well as garnering international support.

As I build relationships at Bactria and IRODA, I hope to improve my own language skills; I am fortunate to have a background in Persian, and I am looking forward to learning the Tajik dialect in the hopes of being able to communicate even more meaningfully with the people that I meet.

And as much as I cannot wait to become part of my local community in Dushanbe, I am looking forward to bringing my experiences back to my home community in New Jersey in an effort to further combat Islamophobic stereotypes. As I sit in my room surrounded by everything that I hope to squeeze into my suitcase, I am reminded of one of my last afternoons in Dushanbe when I was gazing out of my hotel window and thinking about how incredibly at home I felt in the city. I am hoping to find that feeling of home once again, and as I imagine what it will be like to look out of my apartment window at the city streets below, I cannot help but feel excited for what I am sure will be an unforgettable and incredibly meaningful trip.

From Meknes to Stonetown

Brieanna Griffin and is a rising senior at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, where she concurrently majors in Global Studies and Anthropology. She is also pursuing a minor in Arabic Studies and certificates in Islamic Studies and TESOL. After graduation, she would like to teach English in the Arab world and then find work in the field of diplomacy after graduate school.This summer, Brieanna will be living in Stonetown, Zanzibar and teaching English at a public school. This is not Brieanna’s first time going abroad to teach English. Read Brieanna’s pre-departure blogs post below to discover her love for travel, languages and service. 

From Meknes to Stonetown

Brieanna Griffin

After spending ten weeks of my summer last year in Meknes, Morocco working as an English teacher and taking an Advanced Arabic class, I returned home determined to spend this summer abroad doing meaningful work as well. A few months ago, I applied to travel to Zanzibar and serve as an intern with America’s Unofficial Ambassadors.

Brieanna Griffin is guided around the historic Tumekuja School by students Sharif Mohammed and Abdul Latif Juma.

Brieanna Griffin is guided around the historic Tumekuja School by students Sharif Mohammed and Abdul Latif Juma.

I am truly inspired by the work America’s Unofficial Ambassadors has been able to accomplish in its short time and feel truly grateful to be a part of this special program. I have been assigned to work in the Zanzibari public school system teaching English and Geography which I could not be more thrilled about as I believe that teaching is one of the best ways to engage in meaningful cultural exchange and dialogue.

Since I started at the Barrett School at Arizona State, my interests have developed to encompass many things. I initially was interested in learning the Arabic language because it looked and sounded beautiful to me, but in my mind it seemed advantageous to learn a language that was considered critical by the United States. After studying Arabic for three years, I can say that it has left a much greater impression on me than I could have ever imagined. My interest in Arabic fortunately led to my interest in Islamic Studies. As an Islamic Studies student, I have become keenly aware that many people understand the term “Muslim world” to be synonymous with the “Arab world.”

The Head of Tumekuja School, Mr. Saloum, welcomes new English teacher Brieanna Griffin and AUA Zanzibar Country Coordinator Ulrica de Silva.

The Head of Tumekuja School, Mr. Saloum, welcomes new English teacher
Brieanna Griffin and AUA Zanzibar Country Coordinator Ulrica de Silva.

America’s Unofficial Ambassadors aims to address misconceptions and stereotypes like the example I provided which is an incredibly admirable mission. As the world continues down the path of globalization, it is more important than ever to work to understand and accept differences and not by paralyzed by them.

While in Zanzibar, I hope to become a better teacher and gain further experience in a developing country to prepare for a gap year after I complete my undergraduate studies next year. I also hope to gain experience working with NGOs in Zanzibar as I think NGO experience is invaluable for those interested in international work of any sort. I’m looking forward to building a comparative perspective on two different places in the Muslim world, as well as in Africa. I also hope that I am challenged with my Swahili classes and by the people I meet.

I so look forward to this amazing experience… I will pour my heart and soul into everything I do this summer!

See you in a few days, Zanzibar…

Students at the Tumekuja School use their break to gaze out at the Indian Ocean, a challenge to some teachers who have to speak loudly to compete with the sounds of the sea.

Students at the Tumekuja School use their break to gaze out at the
Indian Ocean, a challenge to some teachers who have to speak loudly to
compete with the sounds of the sea.