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 following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Aiya Aboubakr. She recently returned from 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!
“Welcome to Cairo,” echoes the pilot.
Exiting the terminal, our jobs as America’s Unofficial Ambassadors began. Here we were, a group of 8 students representing America to Egypt. Not that we came with a detailed political agenda, but what we did and said was all some Egyptians got to see of the West. As we got onto our bus, the guide was amazed that I spoke Arabic.
With a smile, I nodded, and he was at ease. Perhaps due the comfort of sharing a nationality, he immediately asked me detailed questions about our trip. He had stopped himself from asking the others, scared he would be asking too much, or miscommunicate in his efforts and not make much sense. He was surprised that we had left the busy streets of New York during our school break to come and volunteer in the streets of Cairo, which he thought – and correctly so – most people considered “too dangerous.” It brought him joy that we were coming, even though we weren’t coming as tourists, because the past few months have been rough on the tourism industry. I was able to explain our mission in coming, the genuine helping hand we were offering, and in doing so, already dissolved his stereotype of who Americans are. This interaction allowed me to foster an understanding, even if on a small level, between the two cultures.
For me, I too gained an appreciation of my cultural identity, a surprising outcome of this trip I was not necessarily expecting. Even on our first day at the orphanage, the women were surprised that I spoke Arabic. They thought Arab-Americans would not be concerned with preserving Middle Eastern culture. After being somewhat relieved that this is not at all the case, they asked a dozen questions about our trip in just a few minutes. The focus of these scenarios, however, is not my Arabic fluency, but what the Egyptians told me and may not have told the rest of my group. Two of the women at the orphanage similarly questioned our choice of location, the motives behind our trip, what we hoped to gain, and of course, why just a week? These conversations and the answers I provided perhaps taught me more about our group as a whole versus teaching the women who asked the questions. They clarified our mission and gave the trip a stronger meaning for us as a collective group.
Our time at the orphanage is only for four days and although we will do our best to play with the children, feed them, put them to sleep or stop them from crying, I think more of what the orphanage means for us is the perspective it allows us to take hold of. The orphanage is located in one of the poorest towns around the globe, and centering on garbage collection, is far from being the most healthy environment. Our experience reminded us of the difficulties involved with living in a poverty-stricken environment, and how this may shape our interactions with the respective town’s inhabitants. The garbage community ultimately served to highlight the impact of social conditions on individual perspectives, and by volunteering our time there, we learned to appreciate and understand the differences between those people and ourselves.
While it’s a blessing that these children have a place to sleep, eat, and play, it is difficult to grasp the idea that they need so much more. Children with developmental problems are unable to receive the adequate care and attention they need, but better something than nothing. One of the workers at the orphanage had reminded us that by giving up the hours of our mornings, we are giving some of these children the emotional personal attention they usually are missing as they grow. It made me realize the universality of what we were doing. Replace this orphanage with any other in a poor town around the world – what we were doing transcended cultural values, what we were doing was a human to human interaction. Americans and Egyptians alike, helping humanity with the time and resources we had.
Although one may think otherwise, from what I’ve seen in just a matter of days, the people of Egypt, even in the garbage community, are full of a distinctive hope that their respective situations will get better, that Egypt indeed will restore itself. It was inspiring to see that they are able to carry on with their lives with a vigor that, cliche as it sounds, money can’t buy. No matter how bad their socio-economic situation, the Egyptians never failed to hide their smiles.