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 blog from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient Lindsay Michael. She is currently volunteering with Project Hope in the Palestinian Territories. To find an opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations©.
During my time volunteering in Nablus, I was an unofficial ambassador, representing my country, my community, my neighborhood, and my family. Now that I am back in the U.S., I have a similar responsibility to represent for my brothers and sisters in Palestine. Invariably, the first question I have received since returning has been, ’Was it safe?’ This hauntingly familiar sentiment was also expressed to me abroad concerning the extent of violence found in many U.S. cities. Yet the answers for both are the same; it often comes down to who you are, where you are, and in what you are involved.
A challenge that arose fairly early upon returning to the U.S. was how I might go about presenting all that I had witnessed and experienced but not overwhelm audience’s politics. Sharing that reality was as important to me as it was to convey my personal stories of interacting with the people there. Nablus is, for all its adversity, one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking places I have ever lived. So here I am, challenged with the task of sharing all when relaying my own experience alongside those of the people I’ve gotten to know and affectionately consider my extended family.
I felt it was very important to bring back simple gifts so that people I spoke with would have something tangible with which to accompany my slides and stories. Just as the dream catchers, John Coltrane cds, and maple syrup I brought to Nablus were great conversation starters, the Palestinian scarves, soaps, and spices I returned with added a level of intimacy between peoples who I have not yet and may never physically meet.
During my first presentation I included a modest sample of olive oil and zatar that I had brought back from Nablus. The olive oil, spicy and fresh from a recent village harvest, spurred a conversation about Palestinians’ connections to the trees, the hills, the valleys, and even the rocks throughout the area. Members of the audience found it easy to relate as many of them also share an immense love for their land despite the difference in distance and terrain.
I have embraced the idea of building bridges of greater understanding between culturally and religiously diverse groups in hopes of reducing the distance between us all. It is hard to get people to act if they don’t understand one another.
Much of what motivates me to extend myself is the desire to live in a more compassionate, loving world. I want to belong to a community that supports cultural diversity and religious tolerance in a country that places an emphasis on building inclusive communities. My goal of one day living within a global society that functions like a loving family is no longer so farfetched.
I encourage people to travel to places they perceive to be vastly different from what they are used to. My friend Karam’s unforgettable description of visiting someplace new will stay in my mind forever. His desperate yearning “to have another breath, to taste another air, to have the freedom to move so that when you inhale for the first time you can taste what it feels like to be free.” It is important to understand that you can cross cultures and extend yourself no matter where you are. For most people, it takes extraordinary courage to step outside their comfort zones and put forth a hand to those who are different. Whether you reach out locally or abroad, you only have to open your heart and your mind and the end result will be nothing short of magnificent.
Once the connection has been made and a friendship has been built, a very important part lies in maintaining that bond. Not a week has gone by since leaving Nablus that I haven’t communicated with a student, co-worker, or member of the community. My time volunteering in the West Bank will never be reduced to distant memories, casually referenced during moments of reflection. I have been given the chance to put my dreams of a better world into action. My representation as one of America’s Unofficial Ambassadors in Nablus has come to completion, however, my work here in the United States and beyond has just begun!