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.
Those of you with memories of the 1980s and 1990s will remember that the Bekaa Valley is east of Beirut and was famous as a training and staging area for Hizbollah. We jokingly referred to it as “terrorist central” when I worked in Lebanon between 1995 and 2005.
So what was I doing in the Bekaa Valley on 9/11? During that time I was implementing projects in rural Lebanese villages to improve education, agriculture and infrastructure on behalf of a U.S. foreign aid program. This program was entirely—except for me—staffed by Lebanese and developed very close working relationships between our project staff and the local villagers.
When we got the word about the attack we were on the road in two vehicles on the main highway in the Bekaa. My project director received a call on his cell phone about the first airplane crashing into World Trade Center One. Of course, we did not believe it to be an attack at first, and were only convinced of it after World Trade Center Two was hit.
We returned to Beirut as fast as we could since we had no idea about whether there would be any violence in Bekaa emanating from the any of the anti-American groups in the valley, and went to the project office in relatively safe East Beirut.
When we arrived, we found all the project staff and various friends and relatives were there and they were waiting to express their outrage at the attack and to console me, the only American. Emotions were high. There was tremendous sympathy for America, and resentment and fear that fellow Arabs might have perpetrated such a crime. I was approached by each person as if it was a funeral and they were there to express sympathy for someone who had suddenly lost family members, me. Many asked “What can I do?” I felt they expected some words from me.
I can still remember what I said 10 years later:
“My friends, it is a terrible day for me and all Americans, and I am gratified for your sympathy and good wishes. I want you to know what you are doing for the people of Lebanon is what both your people and ours need—building peace through cooperation and development. Buildings in New York and Washington have fallen, but your efforts to build schools, roads and other needed things here in Lebanon with America’s help shows that the relationship between the Arab World and America can be one of friendship, cooperation and peace. Do not be discouraged; terrorists knock things down, but we build things up together and trust that our actions will be appreciated by the Lebanese people.”
Since 2001, I have remained involved in the effort to build understanding and peace between America and the Muslim world.
Now I head an organization, Creative Learning, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C. Creative Learning recently launched an initiative called America’s Unofficial Ambassadors to help in that effort.
Our goal is to increase the number of American volunteers serving in education and other human concerns in the Muslim world, and we are building a community to offer volunteers 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 premier 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.