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.

Off to Egypt: Christine’s Pre-Departure Thoughts

The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient Christine Choi. She is currently volunteering with Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. in Egypt. To find an amazing opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today!

Ahlan wa sahlan, dear readers, to the Columbia Cairo Trip blog.

This trip has been a long time in the making—nearly four years, if we’re counting.  Back in 2009, while I was interning for HANDS, a Washington, DC NGO that supports health and education projects throughout Egypt, I worked with a number of socioeconomically marginalized communities in Cairo, including the zabbaleen, a Coptic community that lives in on the outskirts of the city and makes their living collecting trash.

Then, this past August, I traveled to Cairo for a Columbia research project and reached out to Jennifer Cate, the director of HANDS, for some assistance.  After my return, as we were sipping shai and catching up, she mentioned that HANDS was looking into resuming their educational trips to Egypt that had been halted as a result of the revolution.  Six months of brainstorming, paperwork and applications later, and we had a group of eight Columbia students ready to head to Cairo in a week’s time.

But beyond the thousand and one administrative details that needed to be accounted for during that time, I also needed to find a way to balance the current “trendiness” of the Arab Spring against long-term and sustainable project goals.  Throughout 2011, widespread protests fueled by perceptions of socioeconomic injustice (including those here in the U.S. with the various Occupy movements) were attractive to participants, the media and observers alike due to their high visibility, emotional content and the perceivable sense of “justice” motivating their activity.  But in what way could this trip be organized so as to present a deeper view beyond the headlines?  Just as “war tourism” only presents a superficial understanding of a country’s military conflicts, I didn’t want this trip to end up being “revolution tourism”—but also didn’t want to deny the impact it has had.  HANDS’ pre-revolution trips to Egypt had always been about intercultural understanding by providing Americans with an alternate view into the struggling communities that they partner with.  This seemed like the perfect intersection: how has the revolution affected marginalized communities that HANDS works with?  And how could we provide some form of direct, short-term service while also learning more about the long-term impact of the revolution and its effect on communities? 

With these considerations in mind, we decided to focus on an orphanage in one of HANDS’ partner communities, the Sisters of Charity Orphanage in Mukattam, the zabbaleen neighborhood.  While there, we’ll be assisting the nuns who run the orphanage in daily activities, such as feeding the children, as well as providing emotional support through playtime and interactive programs.  Foreign volunteers have been scarce as a result of travel scares, and in this respect, we’ll be providing much-needed direct service.  In turn, as we’ll be in the Mukattam neighborhood on a regular basis, we’ll also be able to talk with and interact with a religious and socioeconomic minority community, and learn about the change (and lack of change) that has come to their neighborhood with this transitional period.  We’ll also to be meeting with sustainable development NGOs, women’s activists and fellow college students to learn about the experiences they’ve undergone during this period.  We hope to bring back our own experiences to raise awareness in our Columbia community about the issues we witnessed and stories we heard and spur further and sustained discussion.  By doing so, we hope to provide both greatly needed short-term service and long-term awareness.

Of course, it is all too easy to set up these goals on paper and watch them fall to the wayside when we meet the reality of the situation.  Although we’re confident we’re heading to Cairo with open minds, we can’t anticipate everything that will happen while there.  For some of us, it will be quite the culture shock.  No matter how many times you hear descriptions of crowded streets, pollution and public attention, nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of being there.  For others of us who have been to the Middle East, and even to Egypt, we’ll be in neighborhoods we haven’t visited, so the same thing applies: we may hear descriptions of the smell, and watch documentaries about the community, but ultimately we can only go with a willingness to be flexible in the situations that may arise. 

But that’s what we’re here for, and I don’t think we could be more ready or excited.

We’ll all be updating every day during the trip and every few days after we return until the end of the school year, so keep checking back for updates!  Each of our group members will be writing, so you’ll have a wealth of voices to hear from.  In the meantime, ma’asalaamah.



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