Citizen Diplomacy in Dushanbe

By Sammi Falvey

Understanding the difference between what citizen diplomacy is and what the roles and responsibilities of citizen diplomats are can be difficult. On paper, citizen diplomacy is a grass roots interaction between a person from one country with a person from another. This interaction is the basis for or a contribution to both people’s understandings of each other’s country, life, traditions, religion, and other aspects of culture. These interactions are meaningful because they allow for a person-to-person exchange of ideas that can promote tolerance, understanding, and cultural awareness.

adsfAs nice and neat as this definition sounds it is important to point out that there are, generally speaking, no standard roles and responsibilities. For example, on a moral basis you should always tell the truth when talking to someone. So, ideally, when you come into contact with someone who is different from you, and you are having an informative conversation, you should be telling the truth. But in the end you will be telling your truth. And I will be telling mine.

As a young Muslim, Italian-American, Jersey-girl, I pull from my identity as a way to discuss important issues with the people I meet in other countries. My close friend Amaris is a young, Baptist, first-generation, Afro-Caribbean-American girl born and bred in New York who has lived in the south now for two years. If she and I were to talk to the same person, and answer the same question, there is a good possibility that we will have something different to say.

Holding a standard for roles and responsibilities with regard to citizen diplomacy is difficult because there are so many variables that come with each person-to-person interactions. Like with the standard of being honest, what if my truth or honest answer is totally different than someone else’s honest answer?  Or, what if our truths are not the norm? What impact will my truth have on my conversation partner? Will he or she take it as a fact, or as an opinion? Does this inform them about the whole of our country, or culture, or religion? So, as a field of study or practice, how can anyone regulate citizen diplomacy?

The reason I bring these questions up is because I have now been a citizen diplomat in Tajikistan for six weeks. So, although I will be boarding a plane back to ‘America the beautiful’ in just a few days (and will be relieved to enter the garden state again!) these ideas still weigh on my mind.

As a Muslim woman I wear hijab. In Tajikistan the hijab, or headscarf, has become more popular since the creation of the democratic country, but now the tradition is under some scrutiny by the government. It isn’t seen as a particularly ‘modern’ or ‘Tajik’ and so it has been prohibited in most professional settings—places like universities and government establishments. At the NGO where I worked for the last chunk of my time in Tajikistan, there is no prohibition and I wore my hijab freely.

My students, who are all Muslim, recently mustered the courage to ask me why I wear ‘the scarf on my head?’  I couldn’t help the huge smile and faint giggle that bubbled up as I answered rather incredulously ‘because I am a Muslim’. This remark was greeted with a lot of ‘mashAllahs’, then almost immediately the follow up question ‘where are you from?’. I laughed at this too, ‘America’, and then ‘Yes, my mother and father are American’, and then ‘My ancestors are a European mix’.

At this point we were all sitting around a long, wooden table in the middle of the classroom. I was getting some rather inquisitive looks while my students mumbled in Tajik to each other. After a minute or so, someone asked what the group must have decided was a good question. He said politely, ‘We had no idea that American Muslims existed, what are your people’s customs then?’

This is when all of the questions I have about citizen diplomacy came crashing down. These students wanted me to speak on the lives and experiences of every American Muslim. How could I talk about my customs, knowing full well that other people don’t do the same things? Not only did I feel unprepared for such a question, I also knew I was responsible for a real answer. What I said would inform these students about Muslim life in America; a topic totally alien to them. I knew there were bound to be people in the classroom that took away some sort of generalization or a conceptualization of America that is true for me, but possibly not for everyone else.

I was scared.

I started with the disclaimer ‘For me, being a Muslim on a daily basis is…”. It was the best I could do. This exchange was citizen diplomacy at its finest, but what was my role? What were my responsibilities? There is no standard response for this kind of question. I had to decide whether or not I would take-up the role of being one of the only channels of this kind of information for my students. I would also have to accept the responsibility of becoming possibly one of the only sources and experiences for my students. That is a crazy concept to me, that level of responsibility. But I accepted that responsibility when I got on the airplane and decided to become an Unofficial Ambassador.

The Confluence of Two Rivers

Today’s blog post comes from Chris Obermeyer, a teacher at Cardozo Educational Campus in Washington DC. Over the course of the year, Chris and his students have engaged in a virtual partnership with teachers and students at The Carter Academy in Bangladesh. Chris has spent the last week volunteering at TCA, teaching English and training teachers in using technology in the classroom and incorporating group work more effectively into their teaching practices.

The Confluence of Two Rivers

By Chris Obermeyer

It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been here for 6 days. I have very much enjoyed my time in Bangladesh and wish that it could continue for much longer.

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The people I’ve met are absolutely amazing and have made my stay here life changing. I was very nervous at first but all my worries were lifted the moment I stepped into the classroom with the students. Although they stood up when I walked in and they waited to be seated until I gave them permission, I very quickly realized that these students were just like mine in the United States. They have talents, skills, passions, fears, and aspirations. We have played games to improve their English and through lessons guided by the students learned how to introduce each other and utilize technology in their classrooms. During evening free time we have talked about music and movies and discussed world politics in addition to learning a few new terms common among US students like the use of “on fleek”.

The teachers are inspiring and we have spent a lot of time getting to know each other. We have discussed their methodology in the classroom and how to create more student focused activities that involve technology. Many of the teachers spent their day off taking me many kilometers away by taxi and boat to a place of natural beauty where the main rivers in Bangladesh meet.

I couldn’t help but compare the two rivers meeting and beginning to blend together as the water moved down stream to my experience here. The people here represent one culture and I another. While we come from very different sources and bring different things as we meet, we must blend together as we continue downstream onto bigger futures. I’m very excited about the rest of my time here at the Carter Academy in Chandpur, Bangladesh and will miss everyone here deeply as I go back to Washington, DC.                                                                 

Dast-e Mohammad, Dost-e Mohammad

Mohammed’s Hand, Mohammed’s Friend

By Robert Handerhan

I leave my apartment early on Tuesday mornings to travel to IRODA, one of the leading centers for children with autism in Central Asia today. My morning commute brings me outside of Dushanbe’s center, and I enjoy watching people rush to work along the city’s bustling highways. After weaving through Dushanbe’s infamous traffic patterns, I arrive at Public School No. 72 to see children playing on the blacktop despite the morning heat.This summer marks IRODA’s first year in their new space at this elementary school; although their previous location was homey and accommodating, IRODA’s new location within the school is another major step towards achieving their goal of inclusion and mainstreaming within the public school system.

555Founded by a group of parents in 2008, IRODA has grown substantially over the past eight years and continues to provide invaluable resources and support to children with autism and their families. Their training sessions have changed the ways in which parents, doctors, educators, and other professionals interact with children with ASD, and their services have provided life-changing alternatives to the once-common practice of placing children with autism in government asylums. The organization also engages in advocacy initiatives, seeking official recognition for autism as a neurodevelopmental disorder rather than as a disease that can be cured with heavy medication and social isolation. IRODA remains a community of loving, committed parents at its core.

A large portion of my time at IRODA is spent behind my computer as I work on updating the organization’s website with additional photos and articles that provide illustrative examples of their incredible work. Last summer, two AUA interns created this site, and it has been an essential vehicle for increasing IRODA’s visibility and outreach on a global scale. Although the organization did not previously have an English-language website, IRODA’s site now receives multiple hits from the around the world each day.

On my first day at IRODA, the staff members greeted me warmly and offered me coffee, tea, and sweets, in waves, throughout the day. Lola Nasriddinova, IRODA’s loving matriarch, gave me hundreds of photos from the past eight years. Looking through these photos brought me to tears – they are a testament to the strength of this organization and to the commitment and compassion of the families it serves. I saw pictures of children playing in the park and laughing on a swing set, as well as images of families marching the streets of Dushanbe to advocate for equal rights for their children.

That Tuesday afternoon, the photographs come to life for me.

I entered IRODA’s adaptive classroom and was immediately approached by a bright-eyed boy named Mohammad. Smiling, Mohammad took my hand and led me to a table in the corner of the room; he motioned toward a stack of puzzles, and I pulled the top one toward us. The object of the game was to match a set of wooden vehicles with their respective places on the board. Mohammad shook the puzzle so that all of the pieces clattered to the table and thus the game began.

He pointed toward certain pieces and, thinking that I was following his lead, I handed them to him. I whispered things like “een — eenja,” trying to use my Persian to say simple phrases like “this piece – here.” But he didn’t seem pleased. Grabbing my hand once more, I realized that he wanted us to complete the puzzle together in the most literal way possible; Mohammad guided my hand across the board as we tried fitting each piece into each possible hole. When we found the space that fit the piece, I chanted, “Afareen, Mohammad, afareen!”to congratulate him. With my hand firmly in his, Mohammad completed the puzzle and we moved onto the next one; seven puzzles later, we had completed the entire pile.

Keeping hold of my hand, he led me across the classroom and pointed at a stack of notebooks. We sat down with a small book intended to teach children how to write the Cyrillic alphabet in cursive script. Mohammad continued to guide my hand across the pages as we traced the letters and phrases. I continued cooing, “Afareen! Mohammad pesar-e khubast,” telling him “Mohammad is a good boy” with the completion of every few words. And by working with Mohammad, I began to learn the Cyrillic alphabet as well. Mohammad and I were learning the letters together as we traced their shapes along the lines.

Mohammad’s focus was incredible, and as we worked our way through the book page by page, he motioned for me to take his hand in mine. After guiding my hands across countless puzzles and pages, Mohammed wanted me to lead his hand over the words, tracing the curves and loops of each letter.

We practiced writing for over two hours, but soon it was time for me to leave for my Persian lesson. Mohammad began pulling at my arm for me to stay, but he quickly shifted his attention back to the book in front of him. I left the school that day knowing that I had made an incredible connection with someone very special, and I am already looking forward to my return next Tuesday.

Bangladesh Bound

Check out Chris Obermeyer’s pre-departure video blog post below!

Chris is a middle and high school teacher at the international academy of the Cardozo Education Campus Washington DC. Over the course of this past year, his students have exchanged “pen pal” letters with students at The Carter Academy in rural Bangladesh as part of a unique English Language Learning program. Students in both schools are studying English as the Cardozo students are part of a special program for new immigrants to the United States. Chris will travel to The Carter Academy in two weeks to teach English, conduct TESOL trainings, and to train TCA teachers on developing community projects in their science classes.

He will also be training faculty in using the solar panels and battery packs that he will deliver to the school and that will help them deal with the challenges of power outages. Chris is still raising money for this donation to the school and you can contribute here: gofund.me/s2sobermeyer

My Spiritual Exposure

By Bethlahem Belachew

Enti Muslima?” or “are you Muslim?” asked Walid, after I told him that I was fasting during Ramadan.

La” I answered, attracting half of the classes’ attention.

With a puzzled face, Zakia asked why I wasn’t Muslim. As I was carefully crafting a good response, Aziz followed up asking “enti qafira?”  I don’t think that I will forget the baffled expression of my students when I responded that I was neither a Muslim nor a heretic.

Ever since that day they always ask the question “so are you fasting today?” to which I answer, “Yes.”

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Eto, our “village Mom” at Tarmilaat, prepared ftour and invited us, it was nothing less than a feast.

I appreciate their frequent effort to label me in a way that is most convenient to them, and I am pleased to see that my presence in their lives and my actions evoke a certain question. In my own spiritual journey, I have tried to eliminate such a dichotomous view of the world, and meeting people from different parts of the world has helped me attain this position. My difference of faith, tradition and even looks is question enough already to my students; consumed by lesson planning and grading, I had not acknowledged my mere presence as another instrument for learning.  It gives me great joy in knowing that my students appreciate me enough to not accept the idea that because I am of a different faith, it does not necessarily mean that I am to be condemned eternally.

As getting to know me has made my students more or less sympathetic toward people who are different, fasting has made me more sympathetic and mindful of the people around me. During Ramadan, the pace of life slows down; people wake up later as they stay up late to have suhoor , the last meal before sunrise. It is not uncommon to see people laying in the shade as it is extremely hot. As one might guess, it is illegal to consume food or drinks in public, it is not only religiously immoral, but also culturally unacceptable. Although my Moroccan friends and colleagues told me that I have the tourist pass, I found it difficult to go the university cafeteria, or eat in the car in front of our driver.

After much reflection, I wholeheartedly decided that I would be fasting the remaining three weeks of Ramadan, for both religious and moral reasons. I was never more wrong in my initial belief that Ramadan would hinder me from fully experiencing Morocco, So far it has been quite the contrary.  Partaking in this religious tradition has brought me closer to my friends, my students, all of Morocco, and I dare say, the Muslim world.