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.

A Summer of Service Begins!

This week, our unofficial ambassadors arrived in Morocco, Tajikistan, and Zanzibar to begin their summer service internships. From Arizona State to The College of New Jersey, our summer service interns will be representing six different colleges or universities and eight different cities as they do things like teach French to children in a shepherding village outside of Ifrane, support women’s empowerment initiatives in Stone Town, and teach English to university students in Dushanbe. Together, our summer service interns will do more than 1500 hours of direct volunteer service! They will share their experiences with their communities – from the Bronx, New York to Greenville, South Carolina – and with you too, as they blog about what they are doing, who they are meeting, and the difference they are making together.

Over the next week, we will be posting our unofficial ambassadors’ pre-departure blog posts as they share their expectations for their upcoming summer experience. Our first, pre-departure post comes from Katrina Marks of Villanova University and the great state of Michigan. She is now a communications intern with the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Zanzibar.

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Next Stop, Zanzibar

Katrina Marks

I am standing at a gate in the Detroit airport. My eyes are red and I am short of breath because I have just run through three terminals to get here. I am travelling, alone, to another country by myself for the first time. I do not speak Dutch. I did not think I had to speak Dutch to get to Greece. But my flight to meet my group in Philadelphia was cancelled and now I am going to Amsterdam. I am going to Amsterdam by myself to get to Greece and I do not speak a word of Dutch. They are now calling my row and I am getting on a plane to Amsterdam and I still do not speak Dutch. How could I have forgotten to study Dutch? Of course I would need to speak Dutch. I should have known.

Katrina Marks

Katrina Marks

Eight hours later I am sitting in a terminal of the airport in Amsterdam by myself. My eyes are blue. I am breathing. I cannot speak Dutch. And I am thrilled.

There is a moment, every time I fly, when the clouds dissipate and I can see the ground for the first time. I can see the cornfields of my tiny village in Western Michigan. I can see the skyscrapers in Shanghai. Both have a thrill. The first is an interesting combination of excitement and relief, like coming home for a holiday regardless of whether it’s snowing at the time. The second is something like fear, but with more curiosity, like diving underwater to see if the bottom is rocky or mucky. I like snow, but I love to swim.

Somewhere in the year between my trips to Greece and Shanghai, I became okay with the fact that I do not speak Dutch. I became okay with cancelled flights and alternate travel plans. I became okay with wandering around alone and lost at the edge of Shanghai with a Chinese address smudged in the rain. In my Intercultural Communication class we call it “decreased uncertainty avoidance.” I like to think of it as spontaneous exploration, a way of meeting the strange face-to-face on its own terms and holding out a hand to it.

I no longer bother with expectations. Of course I have them. My imagination acts of its own accord most of the time. I Google “Zanzibar” and skim through pictures of fluorescent blue water and bustling markets I can almost hear and smell. I read blogs. I plan out the first days and weeks. I imagine the people I will meet and script out dialogue in my head. I come up with contingency plans for any and all possible—or absurdly impossible—emergencies. But I recognize that there will be times when I have to go to Amsterdam to get to Greece. I will be unprepared. I will be terrified. But it will be all the more fascinating for just that reason.

Just to clarify, I am not an adrenaline junkie. I do not jump off of things. I don’t even like to ride rollercoasters. My curiosity is not reckless; it is compelling. It no longer allows me to sit in my own room in my own town and dream of things that are different. I need to see them. I need to be changed by them. Most of all, I need to know their stories.

I need to live in a world rather than a place.

More and more, as I explore the world and encounter the stories of the people I meet, I am searching for a role I can play in that world, something I can do that will make those stories heard. They are important. And the people telling them deserve a voice—a voice I believe can be strengthened through accessible education like that supported by the Forum For African Women Educationalists (FAWE). I cannot write the stories down myself—that would defeat the purpose—but I wish to support efforts that empower people to tell them in their own voices.

And so I have decided to go to Zanzibar.

I do not speak Swahili and I have decided to go to Zanzibar.

This time I will learn some.


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