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 Pola Mora
Pola Mora is a senior at The University of Delaware where she studies Political Science and Spanish. She is from the Upper West Side of Manhattan where she has lived her entire life. Pola has had the opportunity to travel all over the world, though this was her first trip to Southeast Asia. As an Unofficial Ambassador to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Pola interned with Dian Interfidei: an NGO aiming to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance. She helped Dian Interfidei to enhance their social media sites and document events for their 25th anniversary. Pola enjoys photography as well as travel, and hopes to assist others throughout the world.
“So…What’s your impression of America?” This was a question I asked quite often throughout my five weeks in Yogyakarta. The answer was different each time, but each response shared a similar underlying message. Typically, the answer had something to do with immense freedom and whether this correlates with our stereotype of being arrogant. A memorable response went something along the lines of, “I just don’t get how you are a world superpower.” Though, the emotions that were evoked when asked these questions were not positive, I was quickly bombarded with questions regarding my life in America. The question always being, “Is it like what it is in the movies?” Thankfully sometimes, I could answer with yes.
Aware of all the negative connotations of Americans, I wanted to present myself and act as the best person I could be. Answers I gave were based off my opinion, and I did my best to understand their opinion. As a citizen diplomat, it was vital for me to present myself in a positive light because I was the new image that they would associate with America.
The purpose of my photo essay was to show how curious foreigners are of our world. The photos I selected represent the people who were all so eager to learn. Not only were they eager to learn, but they were eager to share their own lives. Neither religion nor race was a barrier between people I met throughout my journey. The people I photographed kept genuine smiles on their faces throughout their interactions with me. Their curiosity and openness is what I wanted to capture in my photographs.
By fulfilling my duties as a citizen diplomat it allowed me to interact positively with the people I met. Being open minded and smiling at everyone who passes made it easier for me to capture people in such bright moments.
I believe the expressions on my subjects’ faces indicate a group of loving people. The photographs show that the people I met are curious, open, and harmless. One big difference I found between Indonesians and Americans was their interest in other cultures. Some Americans I have encountered are closed-minded and do not care about the cultures of other places. This is not something I found in any Indonesian person I met.
I hope readers see these images and reconsider their perception of Islam. I think it is of vital importance to capture photos of Muslims separate from their religion, an example being photo 10, “Warm Goodbye.” Separating religious affiliation from a person eliminates much room for judgment. The American media makes many generalizations of Islam and in my opinion does not give an accurate representation of the religion and region.
One of the best attributes of a citizen diplomat is a natural smile. A smile makes you all the more approachable. Throughout my time in Indonesia I realized that they had much more courage than me. No one I encountered ever hesitated to ask for a photo or any other miscellaneous questions. I, on the other hand, was nervous to go up to people and ask if I could take a photo of them. Now I am embarrassed because I am sure many people I failed to approach would have been so happy to pose for a photograph.
First Impression (July 15th, 2016; Jemb. Baru UGM, Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
After about thirty hours of traveling, the first thing I wanted to do was throw my bags down and begin adventuring the streets of my new home. With five deet wipes in my bag, a bottle of cool water, and my camera I ventured out with my fellow interns. We came across a group of boys between the ages of four and seven biking on the cracked streets of Jogja. They traveled on bikes that were much too big for them. I asked if I could take a picture, he understood and sweetly agreed, the rest laughed at the gibberish that was pouring out of my mouth.
Hungry for Attention (July 15th, 2016; Jemb. Baru UGM, Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
After the click of my camera gave that little boy his seconds of fame, the rest of his crew wanted this same attention. I snapped a few shots of them as they threw up different hand signs, not too different from ones that my friends and I do back at home. They laughed when I laughed, and smiled when I smiled. I reached into my bag for my camera lens and I could hear a sigh of disappointment from the group. We played a seemingly-endless game of who could say “goodbye” loudest, then walked away. I heard their rickety bikes behind me. They were following me; they would not leave me alone until I hid.
“I Met A Young Girl, She Gave Me A Rainbow” (July 19th, 2016; Borobudur Temple, Central Java, Indonesia)
I titled this photo after a song written by Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” No, I do not know this girl and no, she was not the only random Indonesian to ask me for my photo. But this little girl followed me around, and we took enough selfies until she was satisfied at the way the blistering sun hit her high cheek bones. This little girl was curious, and whatever picture came out on her Samsung will contribute to her understanding of the western world. I hope my smile changes her perspective on my world, because her smile did so for me.
We’re Famous! (August 13, 2016; Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
Like I said, that girl was not the first or last person to ask me, or just about any westerner, for a photo. Representing America, and being a citizen diplomat, the answer to these endless requests was, yes. Whether or not we were having the worst or best hair day, photos were important to people and thus became important to me. We learn the most about other cultures by interacting with people. This was made very easy for us in Jojga.
Interns (August 12, 2016; Dian/Interfidei, Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
Strangers did not only want photos with me, but also people I interacted with on a daily basis. Of course, I wanted photos with them too, but I did not have the same confidence to call out to the entire office for a selfie photo shoot. Three other interns worked at Dian/Interfidei, all about three years younger than me. They were essential to my life at Interfidei. Their welcoming smiles and endless questions made me feel at home even on my first day.
Serving the Wise One (July 20th, 2016; Borobudur, Indonesia)
My first day at Dian/Interfidei my supervisor, Wenning, sent me to a Buddhist monastery. I was given the opportunity to attend a mediation class, serve the Buddhist lunch and lastly, speak with the wise one. The Buddhists welcomed me into their sanctuary. Serving the group lunch, and attending the prayer service that occurred prior, was a window into a life I would have never known. Visiting the monastery was the first of many opportunities to discover Java’s diverse population.
Wayang Sayur (August 6, 2016; Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
One Sunday, Interfidei asked me to come into work. I wasn’t sure what for, but to be honest I was slightly disappointed that the rest of interns had the morning off. Once the event began, the room sparkled with magic: children all came together to learn about the importance of respecting each others’ religion. Attending this event was worth it.
Arranged (August 18, 2016; Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
Another task I was assigned was to lead of a discussion of my choice. I chose to show the film Arranged, which tells the story of a friendship between an Orthodox Jewish woman and a Muslim woman. Indonesia recognizes six major religions, but Judaism is not included. One of the reasons I decided to go to Indonesia was to bring home a message of religious tolerance to my peers. I was surprised to find immense Antisemitism in Indonesia. My supervisor was nervous for the reaction of the community, and thus decided this would not be a public event. Those who attended asked plenty of questions, and were open to hearing me out. They, too, smiled and laughed with me.
Independence Day (August 15, 2016; Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
Our taxi couldn’t get through to our street. There were people gathered all around so we knew something was going on. When we finally got to our apartment, there were a few people gathered outside, but nothing like the crowds we had encountered previously. My roommate and I returned to our room and decided that if we saw anything interesting out our window, we would go check it out. Moments later the sound of drums began to beat against our eardrums, and we quickly ran downstairs.
Warm Goodbye (August 15, 2016; Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
Though small, the parade was full of life. Some Indonesians walking down the narrow streets wave to me and my fellow interns. They encouraged us to take photos of them as they did the same to us. Witnessing the parade was one of my last memorable events in Yogyakarta. It made me remember all the people who opened their arms to me, a warm goodbye to a very warm country.