Paying it Forward

The following is a post from Alessandra. This past Summer Alessandra taught English at the Al-Akhawayn Azrou Center for Community Development in Ifrane, Morocco


Giving back to the community is an important part of serving as an Unofficial Ambassador. This past summer, I shared English skills with over 50 students between the levels of kindergarten and Ph.D in a spacious classroom in the Al-Akhawayn Azrou Center for Community Development in Ifrane, Morocco. While I was acting as an American cultural ambassador in the way I looked and spoke English and broken Arabic in Morocco, I was also able to represent Moroccan culture I absorbed back home in the United States. As soon as I stepped off the airplane in JFK, I was answering questions from curious friends and family members about exactly how Moroccan people lived, what they spoke, what they ate, how Islam worked, and my thoughts on my experiences.

Last Tuesday, I gave my second presentation at a Social Justice Fair headed by our school’s chapter of New Jersey Christian Fellowship, a Christian group I belong to at The College of New Jersey. Seated next to a girl who headed a table on Trenton’s education system, I presented my ESL experiences in Morocco. I focused on the international education aspect of my internship by showing pictures of mystudents taking vocabulary tests, presenting their skits and choreographed songs at the end of our six weeks together, and handwritten notes some of my students made me. I also showed a chart of the Arabic alphabet I made when I was first starting out my Arabic minor. Many students who stopped by our tables were curious about the differences between American and Moroccan education systems, so I was able to share what I picked up in Morocco. While Morocco has a Western-style system of education given its French colonial history, these same influences have created friction between “French-educated” and “Moroccan-educated” students. Not surprisingly, students who go through the French-style education system are stereotyped as being privileged, rich, and given preference for university admissions while their Moroccan-educated counterparts are viewed as being vindictive and not as well educated.

Thanks to AUA, I was able to use my knowledge and experience in Morocco to communicate the differences and similarities that people in other parts in the world experience. I was initially excited to be giving my presentation at a Christian event because I thought that it would spark important and revelatory discussions on Christianity and Islam. Surprisingly enough, I got more questions about the Moroccan language than on Islam, and I certainly experienced the same last summer. Perhaps religion is less of a barrier than we are led to believe.


I, Too, Represent America

Returned Unofficial Ambassadors continue the AUA mission of tolerance-building even long after the come back from service abroad. We’ve just seen a fantastic example in this project by AUA Tajikistan alum Okxana Cordova-Hoyos, who served last year with IRODA, an organization in Dushanbe dedicated to serving children with autism and their families.

Okxana helping with art time

Okxana helping during art time at IRODA

Using some of the Web skills she honed during her service, Okxana has launched I, Too, Represent America, a fantastic social media initiative aimed at encouraging dialogue about race in America. Here’s some info from the site if you want to take part.

Post a picture of your unique and diverse self and tag us on Instagram (@itoorepresentamerica), Twitter (@i2representusa) or Facebook . Caption it with what makes you special and be sure to add the hashtag #itoorepresentamerica. Spread the word to your friends and have them join in on helping to change what it means to be “true” American!

Follow this link to the site.

Read: Words matter, and Obama got it right on countering violent extremism – AUA Director Ben Orbach in The Hill

In the wake of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, AUA Director’s Ben Orbach wrote this piece for The Hill about the importance of protecting equal rights for all Americans and keeping government out of the business of religious reformation while we counter the threats posed by ISIS and al Qaeda. If you have a chance, take a look at the comments to Ben’s essay. They are a reminder of why we each need to contribute to the work of building mutual understanding. Those comments are just a sample of the sentiment that is out there and further evidence as to why it is so important that our unofficial ambassadors share their experiences, through words and photos and perhaps most importantly, through their community presentations.

A week after the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, pundits are still hammering away at President Obama for his choice of words in describing the threats we face from extremist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda. Calling this particular threat by an Islamic name might gratify those who believe we are engaged in a clash of civilizations, but doing so would undermine our efforts to defeat these groups.

Sitting in the audience last Wednesday, I appreciated how the president articulated this conflict, what we need to do and what his administration is actually capable of accomplishing. This speech was not an exercise in political correctness or a head-in-the-sand example of naivete. It was an accurate assessment of the complex challenge that we face. The president strategically identified that there are specific roles government can and cannot play in this war with ISIS and al Qaeda.

Obama does not want to refer to ISIS or al Qaeda in religious terms because he believes that would grant recognition to their claims of representing Islam. He explained, “They are not religious leaders — they are terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

In no way, though, did the president shy away from this threat’s religious claims and origins, nor did he absolve the individuals most threatened by ISIS and al Qaeda of their responsibility to join in this shared struggle. The president called on Muslim leaders — in the room, across America and around the world — to confront extremists and their ideas. Selectively quoted texts from the Koran may not be representative of the religion, but, as Obama asserted, it is the role of religious leaders to “push back on this twisted interpretation of their faith.”

Follow this link to read the full article.

Countering Violent Extremism: The President’s Call to Action: AUA Director Ben Orbach on The Huffington Post

I had a chance to attend the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism last week, and I was struck by these lines of the president’s speech:

“I want to challenge all of us to build new partnerships that unleash the talents and creativity of young people — young Muslims — not just to expose the lies of extremists but empower youth to service, and to lift up people’s lives here in America and around the world. And that can be a calling for your generation.” 

That’s why we started America’s Unofficial Ambassadors and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last few years. I recently wrote the following for the Huffington Post about the summit if you’d like to read more:

President ObamaIMG_5848 nailed it this week in his speech on countering violent extremism. At the close of Wednesday’s sessions at the White House, the president made the case for where we should concentrate our efforts, and in a call to action, he offered an honest accounting for the division of labor between government and civil society.

Government is the only actor that can physically destroy groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, provide development assistance in countries that are home to the largest numbers of foreign fighters, and call for progress on national grievances — from human rights abuses to corruption — in our bilateral dialogues. Civil society has a crucial role in debunking this ideology of extremism and the narrative that America and the West are at war with Islam.


AUA Volunteer Sawyer French with new friends in Aceh, Indonesia.

For an American audience grappling with brutal actions of ISIS and al-Qaeda, the call to action for civil society was the most interesting part of the speech for two reasons. First, the president placed an emphasis on the special role that Muslim-American leaders (and Muslim leaders worldwide) have to play with defeating this strand of extremism. While few would deny that Muslim-Americans have faced discrimination since 9/11, nowhere else in the world do Muslims enjoy more rights and opportunities than in the United States. Yet that isn’t the prevailing storyline about America and Islam throughout the Muslim World.

Follow this link to read the full article.

Build a Hammam, Empower Women: Check Out Our New Placement in Morocco

America’s Unofficial Ambassadors is pleased to feature to a brand new placement in our Summer Service Internship program in Morocco with Empowering Women in the Atlas – The Ecological Hammam Project. This new placement offers unofficial ambassadors with engineering, construction, business or education experience a chance to contribute to an important women’s empowerment initiative in the Atlas Mountains. Details below. And don’t forget, AUA’s program deadline for summer applications is right around the corner on March 5, 2015!

Empowering Women in the Atlas – The Ecological Hammam Project

Overview: Empowering Women in the Atlas (EWA) is a youth-led nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting women’s empowerment and development goals in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Founded in 2011, EWA works with local women on projects aimed at fostering change at the village level. EWA’s first project is the construction of an ecological hammam (public bathhouse) for the village of Adghagh. The bathhouse will improve sanitary and health conditions in a village of more than 1,400 people and promote women’s business leadership.

Needs: EWA is seeking four unofficial ambassadors to work with its engineering team and students from Al-Akhawayn University in the early stages of planning and construction for the bathhouse, as well as to teach English or French to children and young people. Unofficial ambassadors will also take part in organizing cultural activities and leadership training sessions for women.

Preferred Qualifications: Unofficial ambassadors with experience or training in engineering or construction skills are preferred. In addition, applicants with experience or training in tutoring, business skills, or youth leadership may also be eligible. Applicants should be in good physical condition.

Lasting Connections – An S2S Greeting Card from Bangladesh to Pennsylvania

It has been about 18 months since Lancaster Country Day School Teacher Sam Schindler visited the Carter Academy to serve as a volunteer teacher through the School-2-School program but the partnership the two school forged continues. Over the holidays, TCA sent brownies and cards to Sam’s class in the U.S. and we’ve just gotten a look at the card Sam’s students sent back. Sam is now working on an effort to visit the school again in the near future.

All of us at AUA are proud to see the LCDS-TCA relationship continue as a great example of lasting people-to-people partnerships.

From the Carter Academy’s website:

seasons-greetings-2014“Thanks to School to School program run by Creative Learning a non-profit organization in the United States, America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA), a citizen diplomacy initiative which builds mutual understanding and enhances people-to-people partnerships between America and the Muslim World. The boys and girls of Lancaster Country Day School and The Carter Academy, in a remote village Matlab, Bangladesh are connected through internet, skype and when skype does not work via exchange of videos. This is a unique concept bridging two cultures uniting them into one human race while having different religious beliefs, language and multiple races.”

Reflections on My Service in Aceh: Sawyer French

The following is a post from Sawyer French. Sawyer has just completed a month-long term of service with the Sukma Bangsa School in Aceh, Indonesia through AUA’s School in Aceh program. Sawyer taught English in several classes at the school, which serves students impacted by the tsunami that struck the region in 2004.

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I am writing this after a month in Aceh, Indonesia.

This trip has allowed a great deal of cross-cultural learning, both for me and for the students and staff at Sukma Bangsa (my school in Aceh). One of the most interesting aspects of our cultural gap was the way in which we express care for others.

When I first arrived, I was told that in Aceh, “our guest is our king.” I thought this was a nice sentiment, but I initially failed to realize how seriously everyone would take my status as ‘guest/king.’ Eventually, I learned that everyone would seem take my personal well-being as their own responsibility.

This was most evident in the dozens of times daily that I was asked if I was tired, which was inevitably followed up by the suggestion that I go take a nap. In other situations, I would constantly be asked if I was bored, or dissatisfied. As an American, these questions initially did not seem in the least bit polite (as they certainly are in Aceh). In my cultural mindset, being asked if I was tired, bored, or dissatisfied seemed like accusations that I was frail, needy, and picky. Also, the frequent insistence that I take a nap seemed like a polite way to ask me to leave (which it is not—it is a polite way to express your care for someone’s well-being).

There were days when I would get annoyed by these questions, but over the last month I have learned to appreciate the deeper meaning behind them: they are showing that they care for me. When Americans ask each other “how are you?” we are rarely that interested in the response, as asking the question itself conveys our social message. Some staff and students at Sukma even asked me why I was always asking, “how are you?” To them, this was an odd (rather than normal and polite) question. Just as I had initially found their way of expressing care to be bizarre (as I was used to the American way).

Some say that learning a new language requires one to learn a new way of thinking. While this may be true on some levels, these differences in polite inquiries do not show that Acehnese care more about whether I am tired or not, or that Americans are more interested in my overall wellbeing. They are simply different words to express the same idea—care for others—which is not exclusive to any language or culture.

A month ago, I saw the students and staff at Sukma as a crowd of people I didn’t know and whose way of talking and interacting confused me. Now, as I prepare to leave, I know that—despite our linguistic/cultural differences—they are a group that truly cares about me.

Allegheny Mosaic Grant Available Now

America’s Unofficial Ambassadors would like to thank Allegheny College for supporting AUA’s mission through its Mosaic Grants.

The Allegheny College Mosaic Grant is Available to students at Allegheny College, these grants range from $500 to $1,000 to support applicants in AUA’s Summer Service Internship program. To qualify, applicants must be Allegheny College students, complete the essay question in the Financial Aid section of the application, and include a note in the application asking to be considered for the grant

Applicants must apply for the Summer Service Internship program before March 5, 2015 with a note in their application requesting to be considered for this grant specifically and must submit the remaining program payments by March 15, 2015.

Follow this link to apply for the Summer Service Internship program.