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.

From on-Campus to in-Country:One Trip, Five Journeys

The following is a collection of guest posts from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipients at Columbia University. They are 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!

Egypt has much to offer. From the fascinating architecture to the culture, and even the current revolution, there is much to experience in the country. With the help of Columbia University’s Alternative Spring Break and America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA), eight students have embarked on a journey to volunteer  and experience all that Egypt has to offer. Though these individuals have the same itinerary, they all hope to experience different things.

Mirabel Rouze

As a transfer student enrolling in Columbia University this past semester, I wanted to ensure I got the most out of my new university. Therefore, it is only natural I took part in Columbia’s Alternative Spring Break Program. Unfortunately, the trips for Spring 2012 were not yet decided.  A semester went by.  Then, over my winter break, I received an email announcing the trips for the upcoming year. I went through the list searching for one that sparked my fascination.  Finally, I found it at the end of the list: Cairo, Egypt.

I yearn for the opportunity to volunteer abroad and positively impact the lives of others while learning through first-hand experience. 

What I admire the most about this trip is that it is so much more than a one-week trip – it is a process of learning about a region with fellow Columbia students before the trip and continues afterward when we share what we learned with the larger Columbia community.  Therefore, our direct volunteering will impact each of our lives and has the potential to impact the lives of our peers upon return. With the generous support of the AUA scholarship, we will work to promote better relations between the United States and Arab World, throughout and following this trip.

Ryan Rivera

As a freshman nearing the completion of my first year in New York City at Columbia University, I still find myself in disbelief as I write this. In a single day’s time I will be boarding a plane with seven other students and a professor to travel to Cairo, Egypt.  We will be spending our spring break in the city working with an organization called Hands Along the Nile Development Services (HANDS). During the mornings we will be volunteering at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage and in the evenings we will be meeting with various leaders and students to discuss the revolution that has and is still taking place in the country.  In a month’s time, we have done extensive fundraising and gathered financial support from friends, family, and the Columbia community. However, none of this would’ve been possible without Columbia’s Alternative Spring Break Program and America’s Unofficial Ambassadors.

While I know exactly what we’ll be doing, where we’ll be going and all the logistics, I don’t know exactly what to expect.  We’ll be working in the zabbaleen neighborhood where the main occupation is garbage collection and recycling.  The pictures and videos I have seen depicting the amount of trash circulating throughout the city can only be conveyed in person.  Aside from physical aspects of the area, I face a language barrier. Thus, being faced with this unfamiliar obstacle will force me to strengthen my communication skills in order to effectively connect with the children at the orphanage.  As in many orphanages, these kids do not interact with people outside the orphanage, let alone foreigners. Therefore, I feel a personal duty during my volunteer trip to create a relationship that will open these kids up to a broader spectrum of people.

My ultimate goals is to be able to connect with the people I interact with and learn about them as they will learn about me. I want to relate this new perception of the country as real – something other than the mysterious and fantasy land of the pyramids and pharaohs – something more human than a dangerous Middle Eastern country in the midst of a revolution.

Rubii Pham

I’m excited to see all the beautiful architecture of Cairo, especially the mosques (it IS considered the Paris of the Middle East, and I am an architecture major!).  I’m excited to (hopefully) pick up some Arabic, to eat delicious kababs, but ultimately I know the thing I will remember the most will be the people that I will meet. No matter where I go, I always notice that as delicious and breathtaking as they may be, it is never really the food or the sights that make me want to return. It is always the way the natives take me in and make me a part of their home, extending their friendliness to help me feel less like a stranger in a new town.

Packing and traveling can certainly be stressful at times, but I know that all I truly need to bring with me is my open mind and spirit of adventure, and I’ll be fine anywhere I go.

Nicolas Miyares

The revolution is still fresh and I, along with the rest of my peers, am extremely curious to pick the minds of Egyptians and try to understand what is going on. I’m particularly curious to find out how young Egyptians think about the future of their country and how they feel about a closer relationship—both politically and socially—with the West, specifically the United States.

However, the purpose of this trip is not to study the region’s politics or compare cultures; rather part of our mission is to connect with a group of people that has been politically, socially, and economically marginalized within Cairo. Although many of the orphans in the Sisters of Charity Orphanage, where we’ll be performing our volunteer work, are mostly young and do not speak English (only one member of our group actually speaks Arabic), I’m fairly certain that we’ll find ways to communicate and get along. There may be a cultural gap at first, but I know that we’ll all work hard to overcome it.

Aiya Aboubakr

Born and raised in the United States to two Egyptian immigrants, I spoke Arabic before I learned English, and ate foul for breakfast before I learned what pancakes and waffles were. It’d be unfair to say I’m just an ordinary New Yorker, for I am distinctly an Egyptian-American. For several consecutive summers, my immediate family and I have traveled to Egypt to see the rest of our family, but my trips were just that – family visits. After the revolution, my friends asked me and continue to ask, what life is like Egypt. As much as I tried my best to answer, I really couldn’t tell from my perspective. The media created one picture, my family in Egypt told me another, but what was life really like?

As an Egyptian American, I am ultimately the bridge between the two cultures, and this trip will certainly highlight that quality. With my knowledge of the language and culture, I hope to utilize my Egyptian-ness to create a better connection between the Egyptians and our American group. The potential of understanding between these two groups is immense and will be beneficial, but communication is the key. Whether it’d be a little thing like helping my fellow colleagues buy breakfast, or letting the Egyptian market sellers and bystanders alike know that we are merely students volunteering and not interested in prying into their lives, I hope to ameliorate the possibility of miscommunication which can go a long way.


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