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.
The following is a guest post by Mohammad Zia who traveled to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania in January 2011 and lived/volunteered with Muslim orphans who were infected with HIV. If you would like to share your story about volunteering in a Muslim-majority country or region on the AUA Volunteer Voices blog, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Entry 7: Reflection
Yatima. Swahili for orphan.
No parents. No family. No support
These preconceived notions are synonymous with the thought of yatimas in Tanzanian society. During the first week of 2011, I entered Africa as a young, American college student in a poor urban environment that was home to ten young yatimas suffering from HIV. My first encounter with the young children was far from what I expected. My encounter consisted of a short meeting in which I was introduced to a group of timid children who could barely speak English. After the introduction, I felt removed from the children because they didn’t seem similar to me in any way. I was an American and they were Tanzanians. I was scared, exhausted, nervous, and anxious. At the time, I felt as if my decision to volunteer was a mistake. I was thousands of miles away from home surrounded by strangers.
I gasped for air in the arid room where I was to stay for the next two weeks. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to survive in poverty in an orphanage where communication was one of many barriers standing in my way. The lack of clean water and the constant threat of malaria further heightened my anxieties. With a plethora of worries and regrets, I struggled to go to sleep. I remember lying in bed and feeling a cloud of uncertainty and unease hovering in my mind.
Less than 12 hours later, the overcast quickly faded and bright rays of love, sincerity, and companionship emerged onto the forecast. I slowly realized that the negative notions associated with orphans were not true in the case of orphanage where I was living in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Furthermore, I realized that language was a barrier that could easily be overcome. What these children lacked in the form of parental support and language skills, they made up for in the form of love, sincerity, and respect. The children treated me with genuine consideration and they did not hesitate to thank me repeatedly for even the simplest of favors.
I could write for hours about my experiences but there is one event that really helped me understand my main purpose for being around the children. The day I was leaving the orphanage, most of the children started to cry. Hassan and Husain, the two oldest children, gave me a small envelope but they did not want me to open it until I left Dar Es Salaam. Once I left, I opened the envelope and saw a small drawing with a few decorations. Hassan and Husain drew a beautiful bird and flowers and wrote a small note next to the pictures. In the note, the twins wrote Asante sana kaka Mohammad (Thank you brother Mohammad) at the top. Underneath they wrote the following: you are my brother, you are my sister, you are my mother, you are my father, you are my uncle, and you are my family. . .
After reflecting on the gift for a few minutes, I was overcome with emotion and I felt truly touched by the children’s sincere appreciation. I went to Dar Es Salaam with the idea of helping the kids learn some English and Math. When I first arrived, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to teach anything due to the language barrier. In reality, the present from Hasan and Husain reminded me of my main purpose of coming to East Africa. I was in the orphanage to fill the void of love and company for the orphans. The children did not have family members to turn to but for ten days I was able to provide a sense of companionship, which was treasured and appreciated by the children. Also, the children were so thankful for the donations from Americans that I brought to the orphanage. I was glad the children were going to benefit and have a positive view of American society and the good people that live in this nation. I learned about the importance of love and how it can make up for the absence of amenities in the life of a young orphan.