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.

The Most Rewarding Aspects of Being in a New Place

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!

I’ve been lucky enough to have spent many years living overseas and traveling, and whenever I’m away from the States, I like to look for the small frustrations of daily life.  These details, maddening as they are, signal to me that I’ve attuned to the rhythms and pace of a place well enough that I know the good and bad of it all.  Once the broad strokes of a new country have been taken in, the far more rewarding process of learning the details in between begins, whether I’m there for six days or six years—and nowhere has such an experience been as rewarding as in my time in the Middle East, where I’ve spent time in an academic capacity as a Middle Eastern Studies major. In Jordan, where I lived for a semester, a sense of awe at the cinematic deserts of Wadi Rum was soon joined by frustrations with the regulation of water use; in Beirut, where I visited for a weekend, the jump of adrenaline upon seeing militarized zones of the city receded after striking up conversation with fellow college students.

Such a shift from the larger macro levels of pre-trip conceptions and initial impressions—whether good or bad, but certainly broad—to the micro level of daily life is, for me, one of the most rewarding and important aspects of being in a new place.  It signals a change in mental framework such that I no longer view a country and its population as a conflation of media headlines and secondhand accounts from the comments section of travel websites and passages from history textbooks. It also means that places such as Cairo—where I spent two weeks last summer conducting research—are no longer just hotbeds of civic protest against dictatorship and repressive police crackdown, but Safia’s apartment on the outskirts of the city, the coffee shop in Zamalek, the NGO office on Abd El Khaleq Tharwat Street.  Creating the details of my version of Cairo doesn’t mean that I accept all aspects of the city unquestioningly, but that I am able to gain a more nuanced understanding of life there and, for that moment, take it for what it is.

Carrying a more finely tuned image of a place and its people back to your home community provides an important alternative to the generalized conceptions of faraway places that we construct through such media accounts, and also provides a modicum of detail that allows an audience, whether one friend or a group, to see a place, particularly one featured as prominently in the headlines as the Middle East, as not just a distant location where revolutions and wars break out on a seemingly daily basis.  In this manner, the distance between locations becomes smaller, and, one hopes, the broader strokes given more detail.  When it comes to the space between two countries like America and Egypt, so closely intertwined on the international stage yet possessed of such negative misconceptions about one another, the diminishment of this distance in any way is particularly important.

That’s why I’m so excited to be returning to Cairo with a group of my fellow Columbia University students for our alternative spring break trip.  There’s still so much to learn about the city, and through this trip, I’ll be able to approach it in a new way: our volunteer work at an orphanage in Muqattam—the “Garbage City” neighborhood of Cairo where the zabbaleen, a group of Copts who make their livelihood by recycling trash—will allow me to both observe and directly support a neighborhood and social group that few travelers, and perhaps even locals, interact with.  In addition, this trip is the culmination of an internship I had three years ago with Hands Along the Nile Development Services, a Washington, DC NGO that supports socioeconomic development projects throughout Egypt, including a handful we’ll be visiting in Cairo.  At that time, I could never have foreseen that I would be leading one of the trips that I was organizing (at that time, I was assisting with the logistics of a trip with Georgetown for high school teachers), or creating a service opportunity with organizations that I was helping create grant proposals for.  With the support of AUA and HANDS, I have thus been able to serve (in a small way) organizations, communities and individuals who have helped me to develop such a rich personal and academic life, and also allow my fellow students to fulfill the more important purposes of travel that I discussed.  Even if all we do is provide an alternative view about the U.S. to kids we’ll be interacting with or about Egypt to our communities back home, that’s that many more new viewpoints.


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