We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
Mosaic Scholarship winner and AUA Volunteer, Morgan, sent us her thoughts as she prepares to leave for the Palestinian Territories on Friday. She will be spending two months there on a Middle East Fellowship program. Here’s what she has to say:
Hello, fellow explorers! We are getting very close to departure time here and I’m addressing this very important step in my preparation! I guess we’ll start with a little about me and my volunteer plans. My name is Morgan Faulkner and I just finished my junior year at Centre College, located in scenic (though very small) Danville, KY. My majors are Religion and English literature, but since we’re a liberal arts college I’ve taken classes in lots of different areas. Some of those classes played a big part in my desire to volunteer and study abroad in the Middle East this summer.
I discovered through trial and error that traditional study abroad at my school wasn’t for me. For one thing, my location didn’t really agree with my health and for another, it was very hard to be away from a lot of the things that gave me purpose, including my volunteer work with my service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. The moral of the story seemed to be that whatever I do with my life, I need to be doing something that serves a greater purpose. It was this discovery that led me to Creative Learning’s Mosaic Scholarship and their program, America’s Unofficial Ambassadors.
Reading about their scholarship opportunities gave me a real feeling of excitement. Until then, going abroad was just a wistful dream while I looked for a real summer job. Money is tight in my family right now and although I could afford not to work, we definitely don’t have the several thousands of dollars lying around that would allow me to do the kind of work I most desire. I looked through all of the programs AUA had listed, trying to decide which program I would apply for. Finally, I settled on the Middle East Fellowship, specifically their Damascus Summer Encounter, and I was accepted. All I needed next was the money. I literally jumped for joy when I got the email that I was being considered for AUA’s Mosaic Scholarship, even though nothing was set in stone.
As anyone who has seen the news lately knows, the conflict in Syria has been escalating. The Middle East Fellowship was compelled to cancel programs in Syria on account of safety concerns. Both MEF and AUA worked expeditiously to find an alternative for me to volunteer. MEF emailed me to ask if I would like to go to the Palestinian Territories instead. AUA offered to fund my new venture with MEF. My brief concern that I would no longer be able to spend the summer abroad was assuaged and now that I was back on track, I again jumped for joy.
And now here I am, 6 days before I embark on what promises to be the greatest adventure of my life, and it still doesn’t feel real. I’ve read the travel guides, the orientation packets, talked with friends and family, and begun the agonizing decision of what to pack. But there are things bugging me right now as I prepare to depart which never have before.
One of them is the fact that I’ve only found two travel guides that seem to acknowledge that Israel and the Palestinian Territories are two separate entities. The orientation packets and books I’ve read on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in the past weeks have made it very clear that a huge gulf lies between the two nations and that no one can claim an uncontested right to this land, but none of them talk about the details of it.
Trying to put together a wardrobe that will honor and respect the conservative, Muslim culture that I hope to become a temporary part of, I have gained a new understanding and respect for American women who feel morally obligated to dress in a conservative manner. In store after store, I find an endless string of sleeveless shirts, tiny skirts, and dresses that could easily pass as a top. I lament the lack of a good cardigan that could at least make the risqué acceptable.
The thing is, conservative clothing isn’t a subject I’m really passionate about. If women choose to wear revealing clothing then I believe that they have the right to do so. After all, in a democratic society that has prided itself on protecting everyone’s right of expression, what could be more fundamental than allowing women to choose their own clothing? But what about women who choose the opposite? Have we made it impossible for a woman to say that her body is her own business and that she has the power to choose how much of it she shows to certain people? Legally, of course not, but practically, I’d like to get the names of the stores they frequent, because I am running out of options. And as the options dwindle, my sympathy grows.
When I tell friends I’m going to Palestine they look at me strangely and ask, but where? I tell them Bethlehem and invariably they respond, but isn’t that in Israel? Perhaps they were not prepared for my new ten minute explanation about the struggle over the West Bank and its actual current political situations, but I no longer find myself prepared to just smile and nod in return. They protest that I shouldn’t be going to such a troubled place, even claiming that I’m too intelligent to do something so stupid as to throw my life away, since clearly I won’t make it out alive.
Mentors at school who have worked and travelled extensively in the area, however, are thrilled. Everyone says I will doubtlessly meet great people and make new friends. They also say that I will discover a new “secret”, that the stereotypes some people hold, believing that Arabs and Muslims are dangerous and unpredictable and not worth our best efforts are wrong. They are just people. Just like you and me, they have parents, siblings, children, friends, and dreams. They need food and water and shelter to survive, and if they can get work and an education for their children on top of it then it’s been a pretty good day. We are blinded by rhetoric and fear of what we do not know and do not understand. Instead of human beings, we see political agendas and a peace that depends on our desire not to look too closely at the ugly details of a bad situation.
My goal in my travels is to learn the secret for myself. I want to seek these people, learn about their world, their families, and their dreams. My heart longs for these relationships at the same time it fears their rejection. I come from a world that has turned a blind eye and deaf ear to their sufferings, and my greatest desire is to prove that I no longer want to be one of those people. AUA director Ben Orbach gave me some of the best advice I’ve gotten so far: listen and respect, show sincerity where it exists, and don’t be afraid to see the differences. What specifically I will learn, I’m not sure yet. I want to learn what they have to teach me. Beyond that, I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.