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.
Unofficial Ambassador Britta Nippert, who is already interning with IRODA, a center that helps children with autism in Tajikistan, shares her goals that she will complete during her summer service.
The original post was written by Britta.
In all of my previous international travel, I had never fully encountered the culture-shock that I did when I arrived in Tashkent last summer. I was set to travel throughout Central Asia, specifically Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on a study tour with my professor and six other students for three weeks. I had spent time in Nicaragua, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland before but had never experienced such considerable differences in language, food, religion, and dress as I did in this part of the world. European and Hispanic cultures (including the languages) had been fairly intertwined in my American upbringing, but Uzbek and Tajik life were foreign, even after studying the regions extensively in school. In addition to my internal adjustments, I had to adapt to being a blonde-haired and blue-eyed non-Muslim in a land of dark hair, dark eyes, traditional dress and head coverings. Needless to say, I stuck out a little.
In spite of the forced acclimation, my travels throughout Uzbekistan and Tajikistan last year were undeniably amazing. I was able to see and experience historical architecture I had only seen in textbooks, able to understand (even if in a very limited manner) the real social milieu of Post-Soviet Central Asia, and explored some of the most fascinating shrines I could have ever imagined.
Despite, however, the magic of last year’s adventures, my relationships with the locals were still fairly limited I became close with some of our tour guides, ate in the homes of some welcoming families and exchanged contact information with a couple of students living in Bukhara, but my job, per-say, was to study my surroundings, document my findings and carry on conversation with my fellow-students and leading professor. I became more tolerant of the greasiness of Uzbek plov (a heavy beef and rice dish) and learned how to use a squat toilet, but I was not in Central Asia to interact personally with any of the people, let alone to perform any kind of direct service to them.
This year, that is all different. I am sure I will encounter a few more squat toilets and greasy plates of plov, but my main focus here is to work, to provide a service, and to bring my experience home to educate and share with the people in my community. For these reasons, I am extremely excited for this adventure and also a little more anxious than I have been for previous trips.
I will be working for an NGO called IRODA which is a parent-founded organization for children with Autism. The organization advocates for legislation (as Autism is not an officially-recognized disorder in Tajikistan) and provides classes and care for children on the spectrum. My responsibilities at IRODA will include helping to build two English-language websites, to research funding options, and to teach and help out with classes five days a week.
I am very much looking forward to the class part of IRODA because I love children and cannot wait to see the effectiveness of circus and flow-arts therapy and techniques at the center. In the states, I have been involved in these arts for about four years and have just recently become interested in these arts as therapy techniques. I have started working with a friend that directs a circus school in northern New Jersey and is a front-runner in circus therapy research and implementation. Participating in a recent workshop for children on the spectrum really cemented my excitement to bring some of these techniques to IRODA. Meeting the children and getting a better idea for the feel of the organization and the children’s capacities will help me to understand how and where these skills might be applied.
Additionally, this will be my first time working for an NGO and because the prospect of humanitarian work is on my post-collegiate horizon, the experience will be invaluable. The opportunity is met with a small amount of hesitation, as I have little background in website-building and donor research but I know I will be learning a lot skill-wise which will certainly open up to some more clarity in terms of my career interests and goals.
In addition to these hopes, I am overwhelmingly excited to return to the culture and landscape of Tajikistan. Since the moment I left last year, I have been brainstorming ways to return to the hospitality, colors and beauty I experienced there. Despite the cultural gaps, I look forward to calling Tajikistan home for the next six weeks and hope that by living in Dushanbe for a set amount of time, I will be able to engage more with the present society, absorb a bit more of Dushanbe’s way of life, and do what I can to help those at IRODA. I am so excited to see how this adventure unfolds and hope sincerely that I can make some small amount of difference by bringing my American experience to Tajikistan and then by bringing my Tajik story home afterwards. This will be an equally exciting job and I hope that by sharing the beauty of Tajikistan and the warmth of its people with my fellow Americans, I can continue to complicate the American idea of Islam and the Muslim world. My pre-rush of packing, vaccinations and visas is only the small beginning of what I hope and expect will be a heart-felt, formative and inspiring adventure.