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 an account of Sawyer French’s experiences serving at the Sukma Bangsa Schools of Aceh, Indonesia.
“I am writing this after a few days in Aceh.
On the plane ride here, I was fairly worried that I would feel like an outsider, but I was immediately greeted with emphatic hospitality. After arriving at the Banda Aceh airport in the late afternoon, I was taken to a Pizza Hut, which is a very nice restaurant here—it has couches, silverware, non-paper napkins, and tablecloths. By the time we arrived at the school (Sukma Bangsa) in Pidie, it was already night, and I met a few teachers at the school.
The next morning, I met everyone (hundreds of students and dozens of teachers). I was given a formal welcome, including an Acehnese dance, at the end of which I was presented with some bitter plant that I had to eat. I have been surrounded by people almost all the time, asking me questions about America. One of my favorites was, “what color is the water in America?”
As a vegan, I am always somewhat worried when I travel that my hosts won’t understand and that I will insult them by refusing to eat what they’ve prepared. But here, the cooks have always taken the care to provide me a meatless (and delicious) alternative to whatever everyone else is having. Most meals are rice with tempe, tofu, vegetables, and crackers.
Before coming here, all I knew about Aceh was that there had been a rebellion, then a tsunami, and that now they enforced the Shari‘a. Therefore, I expected these things to dominate my experiences here—like war-torn villages and families, residual flood damage, and religious police cracking down on gays and punk rockers. However, as far as I can tell, they seem to be living normal (non-headline news-making) lives just like anywhere else in Indonesia—if not America.
I am told that Sigli (the closest city) was the center of the rebellion before the tsunami hit. We drove past some villages that had nothing left but the shells of former homes. There were charred walls and empty door and window frames, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask what had happened there. The rebellion is over now, but there are still a few people here who claim to still support Acehnese independence.
I expected the Shari‘a to have a much bigger impact on my day-to-day affairs, but so far, I haven’t noticed anything different from elsewhere in Indonesia. I haven’t seen any religious police either.
The tsunami comes up fairly often in conversation, and most people at the school were affected by it personally. However, it seems to serve as a sort of 9/11 for them—an inspirational culturally-specific point of reference. They are proud to have survived it and recovered.
I have enjoyed every moment here since I arrived, and I am excited to spend a month in this wonderful place with these wonderful people”.