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.

My 9/11 story: The attacks set me off to become an unofficial ambassador

Today’s post is a special message from Benjamin Orbach, Director, America’s Unofficial Ambassadors. The essay was published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on September 6, 2011.

Ten years ago, I walked up the steps to my Arabic class as Nadav, a short guy  from Brooklyn, bounded from the building, yelling “Someone flew a plane into the  World Trade Center!” We were both graduate students at Johns Hopkins University  in Washington, D.C.

I joined Nadav and a handful of students around the TV in the building’s  lounge. When the second tower fell, I stood up and walked home. It was such a  beautiful, clear day, yet it seemed as though the world was ending.

The previous semester, I had written my masters’ thesis on Osama bin Laden  and al-Qaida. Still, I had questions. In particular, what had led individuals to  do this and how did people in the Arab world feel about these attacks? Within a  year, I moved to Jordan to learn more Arabic and to search for answers.

Not knowing anyone in Amman, I wandered the city and spoke to anyone who  would speak back about 9/11 and U.S. foreign policy, but also about everyday  life and our hopes for the future. Over the course of a year, I backpacked  through Syria and Morocco, then moved to Cairo at the start of the Iraq war.

Along the way, I continued to speak and listen — to the Egyptian falafel  cook making $5 a day, to my Jordanian barber who wanted to move to Detroit, to a  young Syrian woman working in an art gallery in Hama, to so many others. I  became intimately familiar with the problems of securing a life of dignity in  the Arab world — whether that’s affording marriage, finding a job after  graduation or carving out personal space in authoritarian states.

On a fall day in 2002, I had an epiphany about how private American citizens  might help our Arab counterparts with these problems while improving our own  security. As I taught Sundos, a headscarf-covered 18-year-old University of Jordan

student, to use a computer, I realized that no matter what befell Jordan as a  result of the war in Iraq, there would remain a role for Americans to play in  building partnerships.

For Sundos, the Internet wasn’t just entertainment but a tool of professional  and personal empowerment. She was grateful for my help in opening a world of  possibilities and was happy to be my friend.

Like people I met throughout that year in the Middle East, she differentiated  between the American people and the U.S. government, seeing the American people  as our country’s greatest asset and U.S. foreign policy as our greatest  liability. For her and many others, Americans created Hollywood and Harvard,  while the U.S. government backed dictators and launched wars.

When I returned home in late 2003, I went to work at the State Department  managing programs that support democratic reforms and women’s empowerment in the  Middle East and North Africa. I saw success in projects that paired American  experts with Arab activists and leaders.

Whether it was legislative assistants from Colorado and Vermont training  Algerian parliamentary staffers to draft bills or a documentary maker from  Mississippi teaching activists in Bahrain to make short videos, I witnessed the  American people serving as unofficial ambassadors. They supported local leaders  seeking to address the educational, economic, human rights and other development  challenges within their communities. In the process, they represented the  diversity and strength of America.

I decided that I, too, wanted to become an unofficial ambassador and play a  direct role in creating opportunities. I returned to the ranks of the American  people and worked for an international development company in the Palestinian  territories from 2007 to 2009. I designed and implemented a small grant program  that built educational facilities, installed computer labs and provided  recreational equipment to women’s centers and youth clubs in isolated villages  and woebegone refugee camps.

We completed projects in more than 75 communities that benefited more than  10,000 people striving to improve their lives. Along the way, I continued to  represent America while learning about the daily problems that manifest  themselves in global issues.

This past year, we launched the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors initiative  at Creative Learning, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit organization. Our goal is to increase the number of American volunteers in the Muslim world,  and we are building a community to offer them guidance and support. By the end  of 2012, we hope to have encouraged 1,000 Americans to commit to volunteering  for one week to one year.

In March, we released the AUA Directory, the premiere resource for  researching short-term volunteer opportunities in Muslim-majority countries. You don’t  have to be a professional development worker to teach English in Indonesia, to  build a house in Jordan, to promote public health in Senegal or to help build  peace.

Frequently, I think about my walk home on that terrible, clear day 10 years ago  when everything changed. I’m grateful to have found a path to making a  difference and to have met so many other unofficial ambassadors who are doing  the same.


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