America's Unofficial Ambassadors

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.

Noah Connects with Muslim Students through Student Action For Refugees

The following is a message from guest blogger Noah Schumer.

While studying abroad at the American University in Cairo (AUC) in the fall of 2009, I volunteered with the university’s chapter of Student Action For Refugees (STAR), an organization run by AUC graduate students that recruits English speakers to teach language courses to local refugees once per week at the school’s Tahrir Square campus. The program is free and most semesters more people sign-up than the number of available classrooms will allow for. I hadn’t planned on volunteering with STAR prior to my arrival in Cairo, but when a fellow study abroad student told me about the program during our orientation week I was excited by the opportunity to add a service component to my experience living in Egypt.

After attending a general information meeting and brief training session, I was assigned to teach a class of twenty-five students, a diverse mix of adults from various African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian nations. My co-teacher, Ashish, was a fellow student from Tufts University who grew up in India.

The vast majority of our students were practicing Muslims, and given that our first week of classes coincided with the final days of Ramadan, STAR organized an iftar to allow teachers and students to get to know each other. One of our students, Abdul Wahid, hailed from Nuristan, a province in northeast Afghanistan. After talking to him for a few minutes, he pulled out his cell phone to show me pictures of his village and his family, all wearing traditional Nuristani tribal garb. “You see,” he said, smiling, “you are not the only one having to adapt to Cairo.”  Another of our students, Ali, was a middle-aged gentleman from Baghdad with a young son. He later stayed after class several times, telling us the latest news that his family, still in Iraq, was reporting to him, and asking questions of us about life in America, where an NGO was working to relocate him. For many Americans, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are abstract events in distant locations.  Ali and Abdul Wahid’s depictions of their family’s situations humanized the conflicts for me in ways that reading about them could not.

The program supplied us with copies of “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” a children’s book by Salman Rushdie, to distribute and read in class. Ashish and I, however, decided to open our first session with a discussion of President Obama’s speech at Cairo University in June of that year in order to facilitate a more mature conversation. Given that we were several years younger than our students — many of whom had not been in a classroom environment for a long time – we knew we needed to work to earn their respect. Several of the students spoke to President Obama’s eloquence and the powerful message of American’s having the tolerance to elect an African-American president with the middle name Hussein. “When I heard about the election, I was very proud of Americans,” one student, named Habib, told me. Others, while praising the president’s words, warned that he still faced the responsibility of translating his promises into actions. As the only American in the room, I sometimes felt the burden of, if not defending, at least presenting American viewpoints. At one moment during the discussion, Habib passionately questioned what he saw as the U.S. government inconsistency in promoting democracy in some parts of the world while supporting autocrats in others. Whether or not I agreed with my student’s opinions, I felt it was important that they knew – regardless of if I was listening to them or engaging in debate – that I was genuinely interested in and respectful of their opinions, thereby to counter the unfortunate reputation of American arrogance that exists in many places. 

Ashish and I taught level five – the program’s highest level – so instead of having to focus the majority of our time on grammatical minutiae, our classes were based on reading and oral comprehension, and allowing our students time to simply practice speaking English. Reading “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” a book heavy on metaphors and motifs, out loud in class offered a chance for the students to improve their understanding of non-literal English writing. At the end of the semester, we were charged with designing a final exam; if the students passed our exam, they graduated from the program. Ultimately, around half the class passed, rendering them eligible to apply to various AUC scholarship programs for graduates of STAR, while the other half returned to level five the following semester for more instruction.

After returning to the United States, I’ve been able to stay in touch with my former students through email and facebook.  During the revolution in Egypt earlier this year, I had several email exchanges with Abdul Wahid, who updated me on the rapidly evolving political situation and offered first hand depictions of the scene in downtown Cairo.  My experience reinforced my belief that a vital component to being an active and engaged American citizen in the twenty-first century is having the ability to build bridges across racial, religious, ethnic, and cultural lines. As I learned from my time in the classroom, interactions between individuals allow the dispelling of stereotypes about “the other” and the making of positive change through engagement across cultures something that, in our increasingly interconnected world, is as important now as ever.


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