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.

Laura Mills: Pre-departure Thoughts on Traveling to Egypt

The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient Laura Mills. 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!

My grandfather turned 21 in Egypt. I discovered this late in my childhood as I flipped through the pages of his typewritten memoirs, skimming over the awkward parts about former girlfriends (many of whom, he was relieved to discover, had become quite fat in later life). After only just missing the Second World War, he was shuttled off to defend the remnants of an empire that was slipping like hot sand through British hands. And so he found himself in Cairo: he stands with his chest puffed out, the blunted ridge of a Royal Air Force cap on his head, smiling and sweating under the desert sun.

This year, at age 21, I will travel to an Egypt much transformed since those days of imperial domination, but a country undergoing a fascinating transition just as it was sixty years ago. In these times of flux, no one is left more vulnerable than minority populations, whose roles are tenuously defined even during stability. I hope that, through our work with the Sisters of Charity orphanage in Muqattam, we will provide a much-needed service to the Coptic Christian community of Muqattam, and learn to better understand transitional Egypt as a whole.

As a student of Russian history, I’ve long been fascinated by revolutionary change. I last traveled to Russia in January 2012 for my fourth (and assuredly not my last) time. I had two missions: thesis research, as well as work on a student-run documentary film project. But perhaps the greatest thing I got out of that trip were those talks over cups of tea with old friends or my host mom.  These are people who had long considered politics the dirty business of life-long bureaucrats and petty technocrats, endlessly corrupt and infinitely unscrupulous. These friends had always been willing to express their disillusionment within the comfortable confines of their apartments or over a beer, but never wanted to take that discontent into the streets or, in most cases, even to the voting booth. But eventually this level of discontent reached a critical mass and spilled out into the streets, and countless of these friends participated in demonstrations, while others had found other ways to take part, by volunteering with disabled children or at animal shelters. Russia remains much the same: the dangerously high heels (which function as ice picks on the slippery winter streets), the enormous cars, the babushkas begging on street corners, vying for territory with the stray dogs. But I insist on believing that something has changed—that civil society is slowly but surely waking up.

At a place like Columbia, it’s easy to take volunteerism for granted. Most of us give ourselves up to an almost merciless regime of activities, balancing our time between the library and on-campus publications, between Model UN and the Tai Kwon Do club—by the end of the semester our eyes are bloodshot and many of us are rolling into classes in sweatpants, but we never underestimate the emotional (and, of course, resume-related) benefits of this kind of life. But my last trip to Russia truly reinforced the importance of encouraging development of volunteerism and activism abroad, and taking part in that development myself.

And so I have little real idea of what awaits us in Egypt. My knowledge of Egypt is informed only by the news, one history class, and a few Naguib Mahfouz novels, all of which combine to give me a smattering of contradictory expectations: revolutionary upheaval and chaotic streets, juxtaposed with the cool, quiet interior of Cairene homes. I love working with kids and am thrilled at the prospect of meeting the children at the orphanage and getting a glimpse into their world, and I likewise look forward to the opportunity to meet NGO leaders and activists who can give us insight into Egypt’s political scene in these times of change. But whatever expectations and stereotypes are debunked and whatever is demystified in my trip to Egypt, the one thing I hope never to lose sight of is this ethic of volunteerism and activism, and my commitment to its development throughout the world. 

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