Today’s post comes from Benjamin Orbach, Director and Founder of the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors initiative at Creative Learning, a Washington DC-based not-for-profit organization. He is also the author of Live from Jordan.
It was almost 10 years ago at Jordan University in Amman that I met Sundos, a 19-year old sophomore. Little did I know that helping a muhajiba, or head-covered young woman, with her English homework would change my life.
It was the fall of 2002. I was a graduate student of Middle East Studies, and I’d moved to Jordan that summer for a year-long fellowship to improve my Arabic. I saw Arabic as a key to gaining a first-hand understanding of America’s challenges in the Middle East. It was less than a year after the 9/11 attacks, and I saw an opportunity to pursue answers to the questions that plagued so many of us.
While improving my Arabic was a driving force in my decision to go to Jordan — and in many of my choices while I was there — my motivations for moving to Jordan and then for traveling around the Middle East were more complicated. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and on the eve of war with Iraq, I was struck with how wrong America’s relations with the Arab World seemed. From my perspective, as a 27-year old graduate student, “wrong” was the most appropriate word to describe what should have been a multi-faceted and nuanced relationship that was instead reduced to stereotypes, generalizations, and short-sighted decision making at all levels, from popular questions of “why do they hate us?” to policy decisions of war and peace.
I set out to conduct my own outreach campaign in Jordan, then later in Egypt, Syria, and Morocco and the other places that I lived in or backpacked through over a 13-month period. I wanted to offer a different picture of America, a perspective that would force the people I met to reconsider their stereotypes. I spent my days and nights speaking with anyone who would speak back in Arabic. I wasn’t a glad-handing baby-kissing mayoral candidate. Rather, I was more like an unofficial ambassador. I sat in coffee shops for hours on end and engaged in respectful but often discordant discussions on US foreign policy. Like a diplomat, I reported on my conversations to my friends and family back home. I felt responsible for trying to complicate misperceptions on both sides of this divide.
At a certain point, I realized that while all the discussions I was having had some value in demonstrating cultural respect, people I met still went home to the same realities, from dim employment prospects to an absence of certain basic rights. Around the time that I grew to understand that I wasn’t really helping people who sought to improve their lives, I met Sundos.
Sundos approached me in a university cafeteria the first or second week of the fall semester and asked me to help her with her English essay about how she spent the summer. I still admire her courage in approaching a foreign man. We became friends. She’d practice English with me, and at a certain point she asked for my help in learning to use a computer. We sat in a university lab one fall afternoon and I taught her to use a computer and then the Internet. Ten years later, we are friends on Facebook.
The idea of serving as an unofficial ambassador and enlisting others to do the same became my passion and my work. A year and a half ago, we launched America’s Unofficial Ambassadors, an initiative that is focused on increasing the number of Americans who achieve this vision with the people of the Muslim World. Our unofficial ambassadors have an impact in their volunteer service in areas of human development, they dispel stereotypes of Americans, and they bring their experiences home to help build mutual understanding in their communities. This summer we will launch “Summer Service” programs in Indonesia, Morocco, and Zanzibar.
For me, it started with my friendship with Sundos. I came to see volunteering in other countries and supporting local leaders and citizens to achieve their education and economic development goals as something wonderful that each of us is capable of doing. There are so many good programs that offer short-term options for such service, you don’t have to join the Peace Corps or become a diplomat. You do, however, have to decide that you want to be an unofficial ambassador and be a part of making a difference.