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 Strangers to Family in a Few Days

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!

One hour into our first day at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage in the Muqattam neighborhood of Cairo, I set down a three year old girl I had been rocking and unwrapped my leg from the preternaturally firm grip of another toddler, then followed Sister Celeste up to the rooftop of the orphanage’s small complex, where laundry lines cut across a view of the urban sprawl below.  Garbage City, the small neighborhood of the Muqattam district of Cairo in which we were working, is nestled in a range of hills overlooking the city (depending on the legendary Cairo traffic, a five minute drive from the Salah al-Din Citadel, chosen for its strategic location by the famed ruler to serve as fortification against the Crusaders), and the rooftop of the orphanage offered an expansive panorama of the buildings and hustle extending far into the distance. 

Our three other group members were quickly joined by two girls who worked at the orphanage, each bearing buckets of laundry in each hand: sheets, towels, baby clothes, their clothes, although I wouldn’t have been able to tell—from their weight, they seemed filled with bricks.  As we began wringing out the wet garments, one of the young women there flashed a broad smile, then whispered something to the other girl there. 

She turned back to me and asked, in halting but confident English, “What’s your name?”             

“Christine,” I replied, then in my own halting and not quite so confident Arabic, “Wa ismik?” 

“Mariam.”

We continued on as I told her where our group was from, how long we were here for, and so on.  After a few minutes, I asked her how old she was—seventeen—and whether she lived in the neighborhood, which she did, with her family.  What about school?  She had finished.  Sister Celeste, who had been hanging laundry nearby, then commented in English: “The schooling system here is not so strong.  Most of them finish early.”  I nodded, not sure of what to say next, but Mariam asked me another question and soon, the laundry was done and I was back in the grip of a small child.  Over the next few days, I would pass by Mariam in the hallways of the orphanage and we would smile and exchange greetings and laugh over statements, such as “I’m fine,” that normally carry no humor but, I like to think, signified a small but warm connection.  That, or she was laughing at my flat American accent in Arabic.  

In either case, by our last day, as I again stood up on the rooftop wrestling with a sheet, she came up the stairs with another bucket of laundry and set it down next to me, then asked, “Your last day?” 

I nodded, and replied, “Yes, our last day.”

“You should come back tomorrow and stay longer.”

I smiled and tried to offer up a poor apology, but the best I could come up with was, “Hey, do you want to take a picture?” 

Afterwards, as they reviewed the shot in Laura’s camera, we asked for their e-mail address, which none of them had, so I promised to send it by mail to the orphanage.  And with that, Mariam said goodbye.  It wasn’t the last time I heard such a sentiment, though, as other women who worked in the orphanage and the nuns there continued to tell us that we had to stay, even if we just came back for a few hours before our flight the next day. 

While our mornings were a flurry of small hands and laundered shirts, our afternoons and evenings were filled with meetings and discussions with a variety of NGOs and student groups, and on one afternoon, we found ourselves in the American embassy participating in a discussion with Egyptian and Tunisian youth.  As the broader conversation about civic education and common American-Middle Eastern misperceptions shifted into smaller chats, the girl next to me and I struck up a conversation over—what else—her long silver earrings, which offset her deep purple hijab.  As we continued chatting, I found out Maha was from the countryside and had come to Cairo to study to be an interpreter.  English was her second language, Italian her third.  Our conversation ranged from exchanging details over family life (complaints about siblings on both sides) to the new Egyptian parliament (“I believe in a secular government,” she repeated multiple times).  At five o’clock, as our time there wound down, she turned to me and said, “I already feel so familiar with you, like you’re family.”  I hid my surprise by smiling and offering her my e-mail address, and as we exchanged contact information, she insisted we meet up again for coffee if I had any free time before I left in three days but to stay in touch either way. 

I shouldn’t have been surprised.  When I was in Cairo last August, an hour’s coffee and dessert turned into invitations to come back and stay for the summer, while thirty minutes of discussion turned into introductions to a whole network of friends—and this time around, it was no different.  When I think of the way that Nayer, who helped us coordinate the logistics of our trip, ran out to buy medicine for our group members with colds and Egyptian flags for those who wanted to take one home, or that Gihan, a women’s rights activist who I met last summer and met with our group, stopped her discussion of parliamentary laws to advise that we needed to eat and drink better in order to get well before our flight home, or the manner in which a few days or a few minutes is all it took for Mariam and Maha to become family, even the stoniest urbanite can’t help but get a little sentimental. 

And that’s why I keep coming back to the Middle East, and why I think it’s so important for more Americans to experience it.  The warmth and generosity of so many of the people there, and the way in which strangers become family in a few days, offers up both a different social system and a different way of relating to individuals and groups in the region.  It’s so easy to “other-ize” populations you only know through the secondhand interpretation of television or print media, to use the lazy cultural shorthand of films and television shows to define and categorize groups—it helps you define your worldview through comforting shortcuts and stereotypes that may not be entirely unfounded but offer only one type of viewpoint and don’t require you to reconcile their reality with other realities and circumstances.  But once you’ve spent a few days or hours with people like Mariam or Maha, it’s far more comforting to know that there is family there to go back to. 

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