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.
By Miranda Dotson
Miranda Dotson is taking a gap year and will start her undergraduate studies in the fall of 2017 with plans to study International Peace and Conflict Resolution. She is originally from Highland Park, Illinois and has spent time studying and traveling abroad in Germany and France; she has no intention of stopping her travels yet. As an AUA volunteer intern, she works as a camp counselor by teaching English and leading youth activities at the Zouia Abdel Salaam Youth Center in Ifrane, Morocco.
A friend of mine, knowing that I am currently volunteering for six weeks in Morocco, tagged me in an article on Facebook titled “7 Reasons Why Your Trip to Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling ‘Bull’ On Service Trips”. My friend probably assumed that I had joined the ranks of helpless Americans who ignorantly embark on volunteer abroad trips around the world, believing that something like painting the side of a building a pretty purple shade would positively impact their host community.
Still, this article’s message is extremely important and I fully agree with it. Its author, Michelle Lynn Stayton, states, “voluntourism often exploit[s] the people and communities they pretend to help.” Selfish service exists and it is arguably an upper-middle class, white, American phenomenon. But on the other side of the coin, volunteers can also be exploited by pouring money into a program or organization that preys on well-intentioned Americans to produce essentially useless volunteer work. I have heard horror stories about volunteer groups being split up into separate summer sessions and burdened with the same simple mission of fixing a wall in a rural school. This task does not take very long to complete nor does it require lots of supplies. Unbeknownst to the volunteers that shelled out thousands of dollars to make a difference, the organization tears down the wall at the end of each summer session so the next troop of volunteers can march in, rebuild the same wall, and feel like they made a difference too.
Despite how upsetting a story like this may be, do not let it dissuade you from providing your services to a community that actually needs help. Although Lynn Stayton notes the downsides of “voluntourism,” she emphasizes how “it is imperative to focus on evidence-based best practices within the field of international service rather than relying on anecdotal experiences.” Just as a doctor would not prescribe a treatment because other doctors told her it was “totally awesome”, you should not opt for a volunteer experience that claims to be improving communities solely based on an alumni’s recommendation. Facts, numbers, and a knowledge on the history of the organization are needed to help determine where one should volunteer.
As I sit in my Moroccan dorm room at Al-Akhawayn Univeristy, I notice areas where my program contrasts with voluntourism. My six weeks in Ifrane, Morocco are through a nonprofit organization called America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA). During the day, three other Unofficial Ambassadors and I visit a neighboring village as camp counselors. We play with the children and enforce positive attitudes that help to build their confidence and social skills. What occurs through these interactions is a cultural exchange. I am immersing myself in an Arab, specifically Moroccan, culture and seeing the Muslim World in a way that the media fails to display. Arguably one of my best cultural experiences so far occurred last week in the classroom at the youth center where I volunteer. One of the younger boys eagerly pulled up a chair to the front of the classroom and beautifully recited a Koranic verse. As I listened in awe to the most mesmerizing melody, one of the girls quietly leaned over to me and whispered that I should not applaud at the end because clapping is not socially acceptable after a recitation of a Koranic verse. This girl was only in sixth grade, but she understood that I was used to different customs. She took initiative and made sure that I understood this cultural difference. To me, that simple interaction is the epitome of cultural exchange and it is the very reason why I love traveling abroad. At the end of every day when I return to my dorm, I am not filled with this self-entitled notion that I “saved” them or evoked a life-changing moment. Instead I realize that the greatest impact made was the created understanding my Moroccan students had of me, and I of them.
That is the core of America’s Unofficial Ambassadors. The AUA program is structured around citizen diplomacy placing the representation of the United States on common American travelers like myself. It is likely that non-Americans view my actions as typical American behavior. In most voluntourism cases, sending “unskilled” volunteers abroad becomes a common obstacle in creating real change. As a citizen diplomat, my only required skills are my interest and engagement. If I am culturally sensitive and interested in adhering to foreign cultures abroad, my practice of citizen diplomacy paints a better picture of Americans as well as successfully fosters international friendships. Traveling and living locally in foreign countries for long stretches of time allows citizen diplomats to further build relationships that last.
During my stay, I am eating delicious, but highly caloric Moroccan food, making friends with cool Moroccan dorm mates, spending time with strong willed and energetic children, and being absolutely overwhelmed by the incredible hospitality of Moroccans. Living in Morocco also allows for a constant immersion in foreign languages; I speak French with almost everyone I encounter and am starting to pick up enough Darija to greet locals in the street.
Michelle Lynn Stayton’s article makes a really good point on calling out people who visit less developed countries in order to morally elevate themselves or become pseudo-better people, but I urge everyone to understand that cultural exchanges formed while traveling abroad are quite different from voluntourism; it is an equal transaction between two parties instead of only one side benefitting. As I am participating in these cultural exchanges here in Ifrane, I know that what I am building will certainly last longer than any wall.