Fellows' Reflections: Hannah Byrd

As my airplane descended into Tunis in late August, I looked out my window and saw a white sailboat skimming through bright blue water. This first sign of life in my new home sparked the realization that I would have to find my place here in a country with distinct customs and language. In the almost two months since I have lived here, every day has felt like a test of whether I am succeeding at this. Like most things in life, the path to belonging has not been linear. There are days when I walk home from work at sunset when the pink sky frames the white houses and I feel an enormous sense of contentment. I feel cared for by my neighbors when I buy bread from the bakery near my apartment and the women owners ask how I am. I feel the joy of sharing life with others during moments of laughter at lunches with my co-workers over something one of our students did that day.

That being said, there have also been times when I have felt lost living here. I speak Modern Standard Arabic, but the Tunisian dialect is different. The phrases “Mora okhra?” meaning “Can you repeat that?” or “La afHam” meaning “I do not understand” have left my lips too often to count. An incident with FedEx challenged my ability to live in a different context. A package my mom sent from the U.S. with prescription medication was detained at the shipping facility for a seemingly growing list of reasons.

When I consider these challenges, though, I see clearly how I have been helped over and over again. The taxi drivers and shop owners who I give my apologies to for not speaking the dialect are always kind and persistent to communicate with me. My American and Tunisian co-workers helped me solve my issues with FedEx, translating over speaker phone for me, finding medication to act as a substitute, and asking a doctor to write a prescription. The issue was finally resolved thanks to my mom’s call to the company’s customer service, after which my package was delivered in full with no questions or cost. This is an excellent reminder of the support from my family and friends at home for which I am grateful.

I think often of my favorite poem here, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. It has been a source of comfort since high school, but my experiences in Tunisia bring it even closer to my heart. Nearing the end of the poem, Oliver reminds the reader that “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” The immense challenges life can bring in a new country are no match for the capacity of human connection. The place I inhabit in Tunisia I owe largely to the myriad of people who have made it for me through their deeds and words. I trust these relationships will continue to create a sense of home as I grow more acquainted with Tunisia.

Fellows' Reflections: Maddie Fisher

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One of the joys and the challenges of being a fellow in a new position is stepping into a loosely defined role. Even now that I have been at Eastern Mediterranean International School (EMIS) for a couple of months, it takes a while to describe what my job as a MENAR fellow here is like on a typical day. I sum up the various roles I take on by explaining my work falls into two main categories — teaching language and supporting the school's mission to create peace and sustainability in the Middle East. What I did not expect is just how much overlap there is between teaching English and mediating dialogues about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

At EMIS we have 190 students who come from cities all over Israel-Palestine and countries all over the world. With the exception of a handful of native English speaking students, everyone is adapting to learning not only how to do math in English, but also how to express their complex ideas and reflections in their second or third language. As we began planning our Conflict Mediation program, I talked with the staff about barriers to dialogue that the school has faced in previous years. A common issue for the students is not having the most precise vocabulary to convey complex ideas about conflict. We throw around a lot of common media words without knowing what they really mean. For example, a student was overheard saying, "I can't eat this apple because it's biased" in the dining hall, without understanding that "biased" is not a word they can use for anything that they do not like. It is challenging when we have a group of fifteen students who speak five different native languages all trying to not only express their own ideas in English but also to understand opposing viewpoints when the exact meaning and connotation of their thoughts gets lost in translation. As someone with a background in linguistics, I believe strongly in the power of words and the importance of choosing our vocabulary with care all the time, especially when we are having difficult dialogues.

I am grateful to have a complicated job description. When we engage in intense conversations at EMIS, our students face language, cultural, and ideological barriers. In my diverse roles I am able to help students strengthen their English skills so that they can share their stories with increased confidence that the words they use mean what they intend and that intent is understood by others. Finding common ground is hard enough when you have a common native tongue and even more so when there is a language limitation. I am encouraged that time spent in English classes not only helps the students pass their International Baccalaureate exams, but also that this increased knowledge of syntax and diction in English empowers them with the skills they need, so that the focus of dialogue is on getting to know the person behind the words.

Fellows' Reflections: Lisa MacKenzie

Building a Sense of Community in Amman

Amman is a city of about 4 million. Despite the large population and its sprawling hills, I rarely go a day without interacting with someone I have crossed paths with before. Whether it is the young man selling figs on a Friday morning by Al-Fayhaa Mosque, a former classmate reading in a cozy coffee shop, or earnest cab driver who has picked me up before and remembers where I work, there are always familiar faces. These daily encounters are slowly allowing me to build a sense of comfort and belonging in Amman. Beyond these serendipitous meetings, joining athletic groups in Amman has been a rewarding way to meet people, make friends, and find community.

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Friday Run Club

Weekends in Jordan start on Friday. The mornings are quiet and peaceful. I meet the Running Amman group every Friday morning to run on empty streets with 20 to 40 others. We end each run with brunch in the neighborhood. This past weekend, at least 20 from the group completed the Amman half marathon, full marathon, or 10k. Sharing congrats and welcoming each runner at the finish line reminded me of how supportive and friendly runners’ groups are. I seek out a running community wherever I am, and I am happy to have found it in Amman.

Ladies’ Gyms

I go to a women-only gym in Al-Rabieh. I feel welcome thanks to the mothers that invite me to drink coffee before their 7:00 am workouts. I am grateful for the space in which I feel comfortable as female. Public spaces in Jordan are male-dominated spaces, and I am honestly relieved by the lack of men when I go to the gym. Ladies’ gyms are where women don’t think twice about exposed hair, elbows, shoulders, or bellies, celebrate birthdays in the locker rooms, get their nails and hair done at the adjoined salon, and spend time walking and gossiping side by side on treadmills. It is a safe space where I have made female friends 18 to 65 years old.

Fellows' Reflections: Hazlett Henderson

I am having trouble teaching Charlotte’s Web.

You would think that after four years of studying Arabic and Islam, working with a Jordanian boss in high school, studying abroad in Morocco, and hanging out with various friends from the MENA region over the years, I would have realized that Wilbur (the main character of Charlotte’s Web) could present a problem. Of course, I did not.

Trying to work out how to teach a class book is its own thing, so I was happily focused on dividing up the book, pulling out vocabulary words, and developing character and plot analysis lessons. I have an elementary school librarian in the family, and she had assured me that my main trouble with teaching Charlotte’s Web for the first time would be its difficult ending.

But a few weeks ago, after I had sent home the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web, comprehension worksheet and all, I could tell something was wrong. When my students came back to class the next week, their little faces were scrunched up, their lips curling, and their eyes accusing me of something. As soon as I mentioned Charlotte’s Web, I heard the dreaded, “Mssssss!” (The students know their teachers’ names. Regardless, we are all “Ms.” Unless a teacher happens to be a man, in which case: “Mr.”)

“I can’t read this story because it’s a pig!”

“Pigs eat trash!”

“I hate pigs!”

My students told me that pigs roll around in the mud, that they’re dirty, that they eat and hang out in trash. This is consistent with Islam’s teaching regarding pigs: eating “the flesh of swine” is forbidden, along with “dead meat” and “blood.” In Christianity, eating pigs is also haram (see the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah), but Christians tend to be less stringent about that particular prohibition. (You are probably also aware that Christians are not supposed to touch pigs’ carcasses because they are “unclean” animals. See: American footballs.)

I did not know how to respond, to say the least. One parent suggested her daughter pretend Wilbur was a cat. Okay. I suggested we embrace our “American children’s literature immersion experience,” at a total loss to defend one of the best-known and most popular children’s stories in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, my students were not thrilled by that prospect. I gave one particularly religious student the book I had started with my other class to read instead, only to realize that the subplot of Holes also features a pig. Not going to work.

Finally, I realized something. It would not help me with my pig problem, I thought, but I figured out that I should actually be reading the majority of the class book in class, in order to get my students engaged and thinking about the story as it unfolded for them. I hoped this would combat some of the “This story isn’t fun” and “It’s so boring” comments I had been getting. And it has done that: my students asked more questions, reflected more on the characters and events, and seemed to get the story more this week than they had in the past.

But reading the story aloud (and, as we progressed, learning more about Wilbur’s thoughts and feelings) also let my students identify more with Wilbur the pig. When we finished our most recent chapter, I heard students considering Wilbur’s motivations and fears, not commenting on his pig-hood. We spent time discussing the goose, that tricky, repetitive advice-giver, and Wilbur’s limited experience with the world outside his fence. In short, at least during that class time, we moved a little bit past the cultural difference.

I am frustrated that some of my most religious students still look at me askance in class. I wish that I had anticipated this problem, and I think I could have if I had considered my class book choice at more length. This week, however, I am happy for the reminder of the differences between my background and those of my students. It makes the connections we are forging (outside of Charlotte’s Web!) all the more meaningful.

Fellows' Reflections: Eliza Davis

As a fellow at Collateral Repair Project, I’ve been put in charge of running Hope Workshop, a craft collective for refugee women. It’s been two months, and what I can say with certainty is that I never feel bored. I’ve spent an entire Saturday assembling Ikea furniture, one whole session working with the women to pick thread colors for embroidered tote bags, and far more time than I would like hearing complaints about sewing machine jams — which I am somehow expected to know how to address.

There are also the more standard aspects of running a program such as writing budgets, managing social media, organizing trainings, and coordinating on monitoring and evaluation. While these are the more “important” aspects of my job, I often find them overshadowed by the reality of the workshop. I’ll be in a meeting strategizing sales when suddenly one of the women comes in and, with a sincere apology for the interruption, proceeds to ask me the proper placement of the penguin on our advent calendar.

My Arabic vocabulary has expanded to include ironing, sewing needles, sand paper, bobbins, and my personal favorite, tassels — which I now know in both the Syrian/Jordanian dialect (dandoushe) and Iraqi (karkoushe). This week, one of the women pricked her finger during the embroidery session and asked me for a kishtiban. I didn’t know the word, but looking at her finger assumed this was the Iraqi term for a bandaid. “Yeah of course we have one.” She looked surprised. I ran across the center, and returned triumphantly, band aid in hand. She took one look at it, and immediately began to laugh. “No! The metal thing to put over your finger!” I made a mental note: kishtiban = thimble.

One of my main goals in coordinating the program, however, is to empower the women to take on more responsibility within the workshop. Thus, despite the constant questions about production, due to my complete lack of craft experience and refusal to learn where any of the materials are stored, the women have been increasingly taking over the daily management of the workshop. When someone asks me how to attach straps to our tote bag or which stitch they should be using to embroider a specific flower, I simply laugh and ask them, “You think I know?” More and more, they rely on each other, and somehow, they always figure it out. They find the tape they were searching for or fix the seam that was crooked. I return to my color-coded spreadsheets, and work for a few minutes — until someone comes in with another question.

Fellows' Reflections: Jessie Miller

Pictures and Permanence

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It’s hard to believe that I will be rounding out my first two months in Amman in just a few days. My first trip to Jordan last summer lasted a total of two months, and I remember being entirely ready to head home and see my family and friends.

At the beginning of September, I moved into a new apartment which will hopefully be my home for the duration of my stay in Amman. I now live with two Jordanian siblings in an area of Amman called Weibdeh. The younger brother, whose room is right next to mine, is 20 years old and his older sister, whose room is on the other side of mine, is 25 years old. Their older sister lives upstairs with her husband, and my friend and co-worker, lives across the stairwell. I am loving being surrounded by family members and friends, and in a way, it reminds me of the surreal experience I had living with 14 of my closest girlfriends on one floor of an apartment building last year in Madison, Wisconsin.

In the months leading up to my departure from the U.S., I made an effort to mentally prepare for being gone for a full year. Instead of saying that I was traveling to Jordan, I told people that I was moving, which conveys more of a sense of permanence. I knew that acknowledging the length of my stay would be one step of settling in and feeling at peace with my routine in Amman. In this first blog post, I want to focus on several of the simple things which have made me feel like I’m settling into my new life, while also staying in touch with the humans I love back in the U.S.

String Lights, Plants, and Hooks

This week, I finally had a chance to settle into my room. I fiddled with a power strip for an hour, getting it to work, hung string lights in my room, bought a basil plant, and hung pictures of my family and friends from home. There was something about the 3 hour process of drilling hooks into the wall with my new neighbor that finally started to make me feel settled. We spent about an hour attempting to make the holes in this metal hook larger because the screws we needed to use would not fit. By repeatedly bending the metal holes with screws by hand, we eventually made that happen (though perhaps inefficiently). What else did I learn from my experience of room decorating? That string lights and basil plants make me unreasonably content. I love the sense of ownership that growing a plant provides, as I water it each morning and ensure that it doesn’t die (hopefully). I will be living in this apartment for 11 months, which a longer time than I ever stayed in one apartment during my time at UW Madison. I gain so much peace from the pictures I’ve posted of those I love and the glow of string lights which have moved with me from room to room for the last 3 years. These memories from home provide me with a sense of support each morning while also helping me remain connected to home.

A Dukan and Bread

There is always something about grocery shopping and doing laundry in a new apartment that makes moving in feel more real to me. Though you won’t find a traditional Pick ’n Save in Amman as you would in Wisconsin, there are a few nearby dukan which do the job. Dukan translates generally to "shop" in English, and these tiny stores are scattered up and down the streets of Amman. I can buy essential groceries and cheap food in the dukan closest to my house, and the owner has started to recognize me. The second necessity that I needed to find in my new neighborhood was bread, which is a staple in every meal and diet here. After a few days, I ventured in the direction opposite my dukan, and I found a bakery that is open 24/7. Now that I have ensured access to basic food, I can say with certainty that I feel more settled in my new neighborhood.

Peaches, Plums, and Inside Jokes

I am convinced, hear me out here, that there are two words that both mean peach here in Jordan – one is darak and the other is khokh. One of my responsibilities at CRP includes daily accounting and petty cash management for center expenses. While that might seem boring, it is actually the highlight of my every day because I reconcile receipts with a staff member whom I will call Abu Amjad. Abu Amjad is an Iraqi refugee with a handful of kids, and he is in charge of all the center purchasing, so my days begin with giving him money and end with registering his receipts. He only speaks Arabic (except he tells me “toodles” when he leaves my office each day).

On my first day independently reconciling with Abu Amjad, he told me that he bought darak. I spend 5 minutes playing 20 questions with him about its color and shape and essentially only discovered that it was a reddish fruit. I then googled darak and got very unhelpful images of Drake, the singer, which was entertaining. Finally, I had Abu Amjad take me to the kitchen and show me a peach, which I promptly explained to him was taught to me as khokh. He proceeded to explain that a khokh is not the same thing. I have now asked my roommates, my neighbors, several friends in Palestine who I met on my trip there, and countless strangers if someone could explain to me the difference between a darak and a khokh, to no avail. Some describe khokh as a plum, while others refute that explanation. Whenever either a darak or a khokh is available as an example, it seems the other is not as a comparison.

While reconciling this past week, Abu Amjad told me he bought both, reopening our discussion of the difference because I don’t know how to translate these fruits correctly into our financial logs. I was explaining this dilemma to my coworker in our taxi ride home, when she started cracking up. I promptly realized that I could have ended this ongoing predicament by simply asking to see both. This realization led to me wildly laughing in the back of a taxi while the driver laughed at how hard I was laughing. I will make sure to update all of my curious readers on the correct translations of these fruits when I figure it out myself. In the meantime, though, this joke has provided me with an ongoing source of joy and comfort. It is a simple reminder of the familiarity that inside jokes and dialogue can create, and such engagements have certainly helped to make me feel as though I’m settling into a community.

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In the coming months, I know that my schedule will grow more hectic as I start taking part-time Arabic courses. However, I hope to continue reflecting on my experiences and time here in Amman. Some days are longer than others here, but I am thoroughly enjoying my time, and I cannot wait to see what insights the rest of my experiences will bring.

MENAR featured on ProFellow.com

We are pleased to have been featured in ProFellow.com's recent articles, "25 Alternatives to the 2019-2020 Fulbright U.S. Student Grant" and “25 Fellowship Opportunities for Work or Study in the Middle East and North Africa.” Our application for the 2019-2020 fellowship cohort will open in just a few weeks, and we look forward to reviewing a new round of fantastic candidates!

Fellows' Reflections: Bryce Feibel

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Since arriving in Amman on June 4th, my time here has been a whirlwind of new experiences and transitions. From starting a new job, finding an apartment (in less than 24 hours), and dusting off my Arabic skills, the last two months have been non-stop and full of new memories.

One of these new experiences happened a couple of weeks ago when a friend sent me a post calling for extras for Netflix’s first Arabic series, Jinn. After a little hesitation, I decided to respond to the request and 48 hours later I found myself on a bus to Petra with 50 other expats. After a 3 hour bus ride we arrived in Petra around 6 pm and were shuttled by jeep to the majestic Treasury. For those of you who have had the opportunity to visit Petra, you are aware that the Treasury is about a mile or so walk from the entrance, so being driven in was an exciting perk.

Upon arrival at the Treasury we were told to go look around the set, which had been set up for “Petra by night.” Within 30 minutes of arriving, we were already being staged and ready to shoot. Surrounded by cameras, producers, actors, and a few stray cats and dogs (who decided to sit next to us), we were instructed to sit back and watch the “show” that was being put on. Our roles were that of tourists enjoying a visit at Petra. Fast-forward 4 hours (during which, every 15 minutes, they promised it was the last shot), we ate dinner among the ruins of Petra. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be eating dinner with the Treasury as my backdrop and the rest of Petra absolutely vacant of tourists.

After dinner we went back to our designated spots and began shooting once again. By this time it was 12:30 am and all of us were exhausted -- sitting on the ground for hours at a time is tiring!! Although all of us were cranky and tired, it was an incredible experience watching how a Netflix series gets made. Finally, at 3:45 am, they called “That’s a wrap!” and we were escorted out of Petra. We received our payment for our time and headed back to Amman around 5:30 am (side note, I had work to be at work by 9 am). When I arrived at work, the past 12 hours felt like a crazy dream. This is just one of the many adventures I have had thus far in Jordan, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year has in store!

 
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Fellows' Reflections: Jessie Wyatt

Final Reflection: Building a Community of “Powerhouse Women” at Reclaim Childhood

As I sit here and write my final reflection for the MENAR Fellowship, it still remains hard to fathom that over a year has passed since joining Reclaim Childhood. Although all words feel inadequate in describing the ways this past year has moved and shaped me, one theme that has pervaded the entire year is the importance of communities of “Powerhouse Women,” something I was able to experience every day at Reclaim Childhood.

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The Reclaim Childhood coaching staff is the most important part of Reclaim Childhood. They are the reason why families trust RC; they ride the buses with the girls and they facilitate all of the practices. They have the sense of what makes the girls happy and they advocate for changes that need to be made to make the program a better and safer place for all. They ask for more trainings, attend trainings on their own, and have formed tight bonds among themselves. The RC staff is made up of 10 different women, from a diverse array of nationalities, who serve as mentors and role models for not only just the girls, but also for me.

When I first took this job, the RC coaching staff immediately took me under their wing. They taught me new Arabic phrases, they took the time to walk me through all of the protection concerns that the girls face, and they never ceased to exude positivity for the program and their work. To me, each coach exemplifies what it means to be a powerhouse woman: a woman that drives through all obstacles to advance the well-being of not only herself, but those around her. The coaches are forces to be reckoned with, yet they practice patience beyond what I have ever seen before.

This past summer, RC had a team of female interns to support the coaching staff. My favorite part of the summer was watching the interns grow in appreciation, admiration, and awe of the coaching staff. Starting off at coach clinic, they quickly recognized that the coaches are the ground on which RC is built. Over the course of the summer, the interns and the coaches defied language barriers, built strong relationships, and exchanged information and cultural tendencies. During the interns’ last week, all of the coaches and interns came over to my apartment to have a little celebration and potluck dinner. All the women flooded into the room, filling the table with dishes from their specific cultures, ranging from grape leaves to mac-and-cheese. They spent the night chatting, eating, and, of course, dancing. It was amazing to see the way that a team of 20+ women celebrated the uniqueness and success of the women around them. It was clear that they built themselves a community of powerhouse women.

Fellows' Reflections: Jordan Lee

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I was born and raised in the United States of America, to parents who were born and raised in the United States, who were both born to parents who were also born and raised in the United States. 

That may not be particularly noteworthy to you, but it is a confounder to many people I have met in Qatar. Whether I’m introducing myself to taxi drivers, students at Qatar University (QU), or other expats, people respond variously with confused looks, shock or outright disbelief when I first tell them where I’m from.

This experience isn’t new. When I was in India, Morocco, and Israel, people were routinely shocked to learn that I was born and raised in the U.S. and on one occasion challenged me to speak American English to support my claim.

During my gap year in Ecuador, news that I was from the United States was met with similar surprise. I lived in a small, rural town, and the first time I told members of the community that I was from the U.S., they responded with uproarious laughter. They were sure that I was kidding and was actually from the coastal part of Ecuador (where the majority of the country’s Afro-Ecuadorians live). To be fair, they had reason to be surprised. As I mentioned, it was a small town, so to get a visitor from another country, let alone someone living there for nearly a year, was rare. Also, I was effectively fluent in Spanish by this point and had nearly eliminated my American accent.

But the context in Qatar is very different. I am not fluent in Arabic, Doha is a sizable city with a considerable population of Americans, and my physical features are noticeably different from those of the various African populations that live in Qatar.

And yet, the surprise persists. Whether I’m speaking to someone from Senegal or Bangladesh or even California, I’ve become accustomed to seeing a look of incredulity when I mention that I am from the United States. 

I often respond to the surprise by asking where people think I’m from, and the most common response is Sudan. This response wouldn’t be particularly surprising if it only came up when I introduced myself in Arabic. After all, Sudan is an Arabic-speaking country, and Qatar hosts a significant Sudanese population. Pair that with the facts that relatively few U.S. citizens in Qatar are black or can speak Arabic (let alone both), and the speculation that an Arabic-speaking black man is from Sudan is not unreasonable. But regardless of the language I’m speaking, Sudan is the leading guess. In fact, four Sudanese students at QU have independently (and repeatedly) told me that I look distinctly Sudanese. As far as I know, I don’t have any Sudanese ancestry, but much of my heritage remains a mystery, so maybe they’re onto something. 

After Sudan, the next most common guesses of my country of origin are Kenya and Nigeria. Latin America even comes up every now and then. And even after I’ve assured people that I am a native U.S. citizen, I often get a follow-up question, “But what is your heritage?” When I respond, “I’m actually not sure, since my family has been in the U.S. for a long time,” I only generate more surprise.

I’m not angry or frustrated about this common reaction to news of my nationality. Nor do I perceive it as racist or insensitive or believe that it stems from a considered belief that Americans can’t be black. Rather, I’ve concluded that a black man is simply not representative of the America commonly envisioned by many people outside of the U.S. But I don’t resent having to prove my U.S. origins. To the contrary, I find some satisfaction in changing perceptions of what it means to be an American from the United States of America.

Fellows' Reflections: Lilly Crown

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how split I feel between my life here in Jordan and the one in the States. I recently took a trip back to my original home in Virginia. Since I decided to stay on working at Collateral Repair Project after my fellowship ends at the end of July, I took the slowness of Ramadan as an opportunity to go visit my family. And I really loved it. This wasn’t my first time going home, but it was my doing so as a visit, knowing I only had a few weeks to enjoy it. So I used the time at home to really soak up all of the conveniences that I could. I drove everywhere in my old car, ordered things online, ate my favorite niche foods, and wore shorts and a tank top to run with my dog around my neighborhood.

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But then I started to feel guilty. Do the desires that I have for my American comforts indicate that I’m not actually acclimating to this life that I’ve built here? Am I not actually cut out for this like I thought I was? I think being at CRP made me feel even more strongly this way. Surrounded by people who were forced to leave their homes, here I am internally complaining about the place that I chose to be in.

What I’ve come to accept is that I’m inextricably pulled between these two places. I love being in Jordan, I love the communities I’ve built for myself at CRP and outside of work. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t still love home too. And as my heart teeters between, it’s only natural that I’ll sometimes catch myself longing for some good barbecue, and maybe I’ll opt to spend hours video-chatting my little sister instead of meeting friends here. Those choices don’t make me a failure. In fact, I think that being mindful about these feelings will allow me to embrace who I am without worrying about the contradictions.

Fellows' Reflections: Katherine Butler-Dines

While Surfer Magazine may seem an unlikely place to find profound life advice, in a column a few years author Beau Flemister wrote some very sage words: “School will make you smart, the world will make you wise.” He recounted a series of vignettes from his globe-trotting adventures and explained how the experiences you accumulate through travel can be ultimately much more meaningful that the knowledge you’ll gain attending school. The article deeply resonated with me as I thought about all the funny, awkward, and enlightening moments I had already experienced traveling. But now as my year as a MENAR fellow is beginning to draw to a close, I have started thinking about his article again. So, in an ode to his article and because my mom keeps telling me to write it all down, here a few of my favorite and most educational experiences.

A Most Unusual Conversation

On my way home from the train station one night, I hopped in a cab and per usual the driver was curious about where I was from. I told him I was American, and he immediately asked if had heard about the school shooting. I said yes but was surprised he already knew about the Parkland school shooting that had occurred just hours earlier. He quickly launched into a speech about how appalling it is that these shootings happen so often, yet the media portrays Morocco and the Arab world a war zone when you’re probably certainly more likely to get shot in the street in the U.S. than Morocco. I struggled to explain the hypocrisy of my own country, it would be a difficult task in English let alone in my broken mix of French and Darija. But I didn’t have long to ponder my response as he quickly switched gears and asked if I believed in God. Again, a hard question to answer, and while I am agnostic, I answered Christian to save myself a strange look and more explaining. He smiled, and he said that when you look at all the beauty in nature and the vastness of the universe, how could you ever doubt that there wasn’t some all-knowing being who had created them. I figured that he wasn’t really interested in hearing about evolution and I don’t exactly have the language skills to explain it, so I just agreed that yes, the world is full of beauty and magic.

While we were quickly approaching where I needed to be dropped off, he had more hard-hitting topics to discuss. Next, he wanted to know what my salary was and how much my rent cost. I was stunned and answered a bit evasively, but he wasn’t bothered. Instead he took the opportunity to lament how all the young people in Casablanca now seemed obsessed with money and material things. He offered a piece of sage advice: happiness is not determined by your salary, and a good life requires taking time to enjoy the small things and live at a slower pace. I smiled and adamantly agreed, promising to remember this when work got stressful.

Having already discussed politics, religion, and money in just the first 10 minutes of the taxi ride, I shouldn’t really have been surprised by his next choice in topic. He asked if I was married; I said no and began to get a bit nervous being a female alone a night in a cab, but he did not respond with a come-on like I expected. Instead said he had a daughter my age and he knew that just because we aren’t married doesn’t mean that we “go with men.” But he advised it is essential we always use condoms and that our partners get tested since AIDS is a serious problem in Morocco. To say I was shocked to get advice on sexual health from a Moroccan cab driver would be an understatement. When he dropped me off, we parted with a final reminder to “be safe.”

Politics, religion, money, and sex are not usually the topics we choose to discuss with total strangers. But what took me even more by surprise was that this older Moroccan gentleman, who I assumed to be an uneducated cab driver, was asking informed questions on U.S. gun policy, arguing against materialism, expressing his religiosity, and still showing an acceptance of sex before marriage. This experience was a valuable lesson on the importance of not pre-judging people.

Lost and Found

A second unforgettable story happened as my company was hosting our annual spring break trips for MBA students. While I greeted some of the students upon their arrival to Marrakech, one girl was visibly distraught and told me that she had forgotten her new iPhone on a bus. Unfortunately, she did not realize this until the bus had already driven off; where to, she did not know. The girl did not know the name of the bus company or of the driver. I sent her with my colleague to see if the airline that had arranged the bus could assist; of course they were no help. The best they could do was have her file a missing items report. I said we would keep working on locating the phone, but internally, all I could do was roll my eyes because even in the U.S. if you leave your iPhone on a public bus the chances of you getting back are slim to none. Then, after midnight that night, when she called my cell to “ask for an update,” at this point I lost my cool. I told her point blank the chances she would get her phone back were basically nonexistent, but that we would continue to call the airline and bus company on Monday to see if we could locate it. The next day, I spoke to her group’s guide to explain the situation. He mentioned having a cousin who worked for the airline who he’d try calling. I thanked him and mostly moved on, because we had done everything we could, but at this point I was sure her phone was already being sold on some electronics black market.

Lo and behold, I got a call on Monday from the guide saying his cousin had located the phone and that it was being sent to Marrakech. Turns out his cousin spoke to his friend, who spoke to another friend who worked at the Casablanca airport, who found the name and number of the bus driver. The bus driver had returned the bus and had not seen the phone, so the friend of the friend of the cousin dispatched someone to check the bus, and there in the crack between the seats was her phone. Three days later, she was reunited with the phone and my cynicism was proven wrong.

This experience highlighted a valuable lesson about community. In Morocco, it is common practice to refer to people, friend or stranger, your “brother” or “sister.” I thought this was just to be polite, but the story of the lost phone proved to me that it is also because Morocco has much tighter bonds of community than I’ve experience in the U.S. When a friend of a friend of a friend calls to ask a big favor, my expectation would be that this person would say, “Sure, I’ll try,” but never actually do anything. But in Morocco, of course you go out of your way to help a total stranger because ultimately, they too are your brother or sister.

A Difficult Repair

An iPhone was also involved when I learned another powerful lesson. Several months ago, my iPhone’s charging port ceased to function. I knew it would be a challenge to get it fixed as there are no Apple stores in Morocco, but I found a place on Facebook that said they repaired iPhones. When I brought them my phone, they turned me away since it was less than a year old and repairing it would break my warranty. I explained that I didn’t care about my warranty, but they still said they couldn’t help. I tried a second place but was turned away there too because my phone has an American service provider. They said that I could only get my phone fixed in America. I was pretty desperate at this point, especially because I wasn’t going to be returning to the U.S. for several months.

Later that afternoon, while explaining the sad saga to a coworker, the courier for our office jumped in the conversation. While he doesn’t really speak English, his understanding of the language is pretty good. He told me in Darija that he had a friend who could fix my phone. He said that he would take my phone over there and get the guy to look at, and it should be as good as new in a few hours. I was hesitant to give him my beloved and very expensive phone to take to a total stranger to fix, but I didn’t really have any other options. So, I took a leap of faith and handed my phone over.

A few hours later, he returned with my phone that had miraculously been fixed, and even better, he had videoed the entire repair just to give me confidence that he wasn’t ripping me off. When I asked what I owed, he said only 300 dirhams, or 30 bucks – definitely less than what I would have had to pay in the States. For me, it was an important lesson about trust. While I tend to always have my guard up, strangers in Morocco have proved to me time and time again that they will to go out of their way to help me, if only I show them a little bit of trust.

A Chance Encounter

            The most recent enlightening experience happened while surfing this past week. I am regularly the only female in the water, and at least during my pre-work surfs, I am often the only person in the ocean. But on this occasion, shortly after I paddled out, another woman did too. We smiled and said “bonjour.” She was probably in her early forties and looked vaguely familiar. When a set rolled though, she called me into a really good wave and when I returned to the lineup, I thanked her. You never know how friendly other surfers are, as many, myself included, like to use surfing as a time for solitary reflection. But when she asked where I was from, we struck up a conversation in a mix of French and English about surfing spots in Morocco. She was easily one of the best surfers I’d ever seen at the beach and I was so grateful as she consistently helped me pick the best waves to ride.

It dawned on me, as we sat in the line-up together, that she could possibly be the pioneering female Moroccan surfer I had read an interview with earlier that year. She was about the right age and clearly had the talent, but I couldn’t remember the woman’s name. I made a point of asking her name before I went in, and she said Fatima. As soon as I got home I pulled up the article I’d read about female surfers in Morocco and lo and behold, the woman I’d remembered was named Fatima. I looked at the pictures and sure enough, it was the same woman. I really couldn’t believe it. Certainly, the surfing community is pretty small in Morocco, but I never expected reading that article before I moved here that I would end up getting a surfing lesson from none other than the most decorated female Moroccan surfer of all time. This experience reminded me of just how small a world it really is and about how the most memorable moments are often those you haven’t planned for. 

***

There have been countless other funny, excruciating, challenging, and instructive experiences this year. Beau Flemister’s words have never rung truer. The lessons travel imparts come with far greater risk than those given in classroom. You risk not just a bad grade, but offending people, humiliating yourself, and getting very lost. The world won’t just hand you the right answers; your wisdom is hard-earned through many moments of cultural misunderstanding and making a fool of yourself. But you’ll come out the other side with greater humility, a stronger sense of wonder, and confidence in your ability to adapt to whatever obstacles are thrown your way.

Fellows' Reflections: Laura Humes

Essential Arabic Phrases from Om El Donia (Alexandria)

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Arabic is one of the top five most common languages, with many dialects spoken throughout the globe. Among these, Egyptian Arabic is the unofficial lingua franca of the Arab world.

Despite walking into my year as a MENAR Fellow in Egypt with what could be described as a nearly impenetrable language barrier, I dedicated myself to absorbing as much as I could of Egyptian Arabic.

As I picked up new techniques in teaching language fluency and literacy in my role as a classroom teacher, I also saw myself undergoing a parallel journey of language acquisition.

Learning Arabic has been one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve made this year. I owe what I know in large part to my sharp-witted tutor, and also to friends and colleagues, as well as a multitude of endlessly patient and good-humored neighbors, shopkeepers, street vendors, and passersby who all played the role of circumstantial conversation partners.

Throughout this journey, I’ve found a new appreciation for the great meaning carried by minute details. I’ve found myself listening more closely and growing closer to people around me in the process.

Often the smallest details convey the most significant meaning. I recently made the mistake of telling someone, “Ana bakelem araby micaserat,” instead of “Ana bakelem araby micasr,” and just that one single mistakenly added syllable changed the meaning from, “I speak broken Arabic” to “I speak Arabic nuts.”

While I do sound admittedly nuts speaking Arabic, I’ve learned that letting go of perfection and my inhibitions has been as essential to learning the language as it has been to embracing life here in Egypt.

Communication promotes understanding. A little has gone a long way towards genuine moments of human connection. I’ve come to believe more than ever that intentional communication is one of the most sincere forms of care. It demonstrates a willingness to enter into new situations with curiosity, humility, and commitment to meet people on their level. Learning Arabic has opened many doors—sometimes literal ones—I’ve been invited into more people’s homes than I ever could have imagined.

Language plays a significant role in shaping people’s lived realities, and can say so much about a culture. After nearly a year of trials, tribulations, and triumphs with the Arabic language, I wrote this post to give some insight into a few of my favorite Egyptian Arabic phrases that I feel give unique insight into Egyptian culture.

Tae’shab shay!
Come, drink tea!

You might hear this condensed version of the phrase “ta3ala eshrab shay” from a number of different people. [Note: "3" is often used in writing to denote the Arabic letter "ain," which does not have an equivalent in English.] The bawab on your street. The neighbor you pass in the stairwell. The person you just asked for directions. Regardless of whether they actually have any tea or not, the important part is that they thought to invite you.

Ma3lesh
That’s a pity

There’s no direct translation in English for ma3lesh, but the meaning becomes clear when you hear it in use. You spilled coffee on your shirt? Ma3lesh. Car broke down in traffic? Ma3lesh. Don’t have any change? Ma3lesh. It’s an incredibly versatile phrase that acts as the verbal band-aid on all sorts of day-to-day wounds.

Kousa
Influence

A story goes that generations ago when farmers wanted to sell their produce, they had to wait in long lines under the sweltering sun to have it weighed by distributors. Farmers who grew kousa, or zucchini, were allowed to cut to the front of the line because zucchini withers quickly in the sun. Today, somebody with kousa is the kind of person who is always at the front of the line, a person with a lot of influence.

Khally
Keep it

It would not be uncommon for a street vendor to make your foul [fava bean] sandwich and then refuse to take any money, replying “khally,” which comes from the word for “keep” but means something more like, “no need to pay.” It is a gesture of goodwill that essentially means, “this one’s on the house.” When someone says this (after paying the right amount, of course) the appropriate reply is, “robena ykhaleek,” or “may God keep you.”

Sabah al kher
Good morning
When you say good morning in Egypt, it is always more than just good morning. It is the "morning of blessings." Alternatively, if whoever you are talking to is really going above and beyond, it could also be the morning of any number of flowers (sabah al fol… sabah al yasmine… sabah al ward…) Sometimes the exchange goes long enough until you’ve named the whole garden. Mornings in Egypt give new meaning to the phrase, “Wake up and smell the roses.”

Sousa
Troublemaker

Somebody who is sousa is a bit too clever for their own good, and uses it to cause all kinds of trouble. If you are also a primary teacher, like me, you definitely know exactly what I’m talking about.

Eshta
Cool

The key to many of Egypt’s most delicious desserts is cream, or eshta. It makes sense, then, that if we agree that something is cool we’d also say it’s eshta.

Minowar
You light up the world

Egyptians aren’t afraid to let you know that you brighten their day. More than that, you’ve just brightened up the whole world if you hear someone tell you minowar. It’s no wonder that Egypt has among the highest number of sunny days in the world.

Meet the 2018 Class of the MENAR Fellowship Program

The Middle East and North Africa Regional Fellowship Program (MENAR) is pleased to introduce the organization’s fifth class of fellows.

The Middle East and North Africa Regional (MENAR) Fellowship Program was founded in 2011 with the objective of offering one-year post-graduation fellowships to top graduates of American colleges at leading organizations across the Middle East and North Africa region. Since then, 11 fellows have had the opportunity to work and live in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. This year, for the first time, MENAR Fellows will also be located in Tunisia and Israel.

The MENAR Fellowship Program facilitates intercultural exchange by coordinating fellowships for recent American college graduates with both businesses and non-profit organizations in the Middle East. The MENAR Fellowship Program screens partner organizations; provides the organizations with a guarantee of excellence from fellows; allows fellows to access a range of opportunities through a single application process; and supports fellows and partners through the intricacies of international placements.

The fifth fellowship cohort consists of 11 recent college graduates from different universities across the United States, with majors ranging from International Studies to Film & Media Studies to Biology.

Fellows will depart for their placements this summer. Some MENAR fellows will spend a year with previous partners, including the Collateral Repair Project, Bayt.com, Experience Morocco, and Elm International School, while others will work with new partners, including Cosmos Organization, ClubAnglais, and the Eastern Mediterranean International School. They will share their experiences on MENAR’s website throughout the year.

The fifth class of MENAR fellows are:

  • Hannah Byrd
    Education: Baylor University
    Placement: ClubAnglais, Tunis, Tunisia
  • Mushfiqur Chowdhury
    Education: Harvard University, University of Southern California
    Placement: Cosmos Organization, Tunis, Tunisia
  • Eliza Davis
    Education: Tufts University
    Placement: Collateral Repair Project, Amman, Jordan
  • Madeline Ewbank
    Education: Northwestern University
    Placement: Cosmos Organization, Tunis, Tunisia
  • Bryce Feibel
    Education: Dickinson College
    Placement: Bayt.com, Amman, Jordan
  • Madison Fisher
    Education: Georgetown University
    Placement: Eastern Mediterranean International School, Tel Aviv, Israel
  • Hazlett Henderson
    Education: Swarthmore College
    Placement: Elm International School, Alexandria, Egypt
  • Lisa MacKenzie
    Education: Bowdoin College
    Placement: Bayt.com, Amman, Jordan
  • Jessica Miller
    Education: University of Wisconsin – Madison
    Placement: Collateral Repair Project, Amman, Jordan
  • Madeleine Minke
    Education: Pomona College
    Placement: Experience Morocco, Casablanca, Morocco
  • Aiesha Savage
    Education: Williams College
    Placement: Elm International School, Alexandria, Egypt

Read more about the fellows on the Current Fellows page of our website.

Fellows' Reflections: Tonia Bartlett

Confessions of a Reformed Skeptic

I think as humans, we’re very compelled by the idea of martyrdom. We love characters like Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins -- the ones willing to carry a great burden and responsibility for the good of all. Now I don’t always mean martyrdom in the fullest, most complete sense of the word -- we generally aren’t keen on seeing our heroes fall, so don’t misunderstand me. But we are all, in our core, drawn to the idea of an individual willing to make sacrifices for the preservation of ideals like goodness and justice. I mean it’s why Avengers Infinity War just broke so many box office records, right? 

Probably, like you, I have many family members and dear friends who chose teaching as a career path. And probably, like you, I didn’t really get it. I felt like teachers were and are the forgotten martyrs of American culture. Sure, we have a teacher appreciation week and every once in awhile I wrote a thank you note growing up. But really it seemed like somewhere along the way, the educator’s impossible task -- to teach, mentor, coach, parent, model, and everything else in between -- had become normalized as reasonable for what is often an underpaid and under-resourced position. I looked at my friends and family who became teachers and sort of shook my head, impressed by their nobility, but very skeptical of their decision. 

And then I entered the classroom. 

And this is where I want to shake my head at myself. After all those years of swearing to myself I would never be a teacher! Here I am, actually enjoying the job. Sigh.

Moving to Egypt has been full of unexpected discoveries. Of course in many ways, moving abroad, we come expecting the unexpected. But learning to love education this year has been among my biggest surprises. If I had never entered the classroom on this fellowship year, I might never have discovered the satisfaction I find in a fast-paced and reactive day-to-day work environment. I might never have fully realized how much I enjoy being surrounded by kids on a daily basis. And I definitely never would have opened up to teaching as a reasonable and fulfilling career path. 

I never wanted to be a martyr for the classroom, and I still don’t want to be. The American and many international education systems need reform, and I hope my generation will pick up that torch. But in the meantime, reflecting on this year, I’m genuinely and joyfully surprised by the direction I’ve found looking toward a future in education. And if that makes you want to shake your head and sigh . . . I get it. 

But then again, maybe you should give the classroom a chance. 

***

Here’s a video of one of the many moments I’ve loved this year with my students, from our STEAM Week and Future City projects. Check it out! 

Fellows' Reflections: Jordan Lee

When I decided to major in Middle East Studies, I had no idea what I was going to do with my degree after graduation. I knew that I loved the subject, but was clueless as to how I could turn that passion into a job of any kind. A few years and many classes later, I had developed a slightly clearer focus – I knew I wanted to live in the Middle East and work in politics in some way – but concrete career goals eluded me. Luckily, while finding ways to avoid studying for finals, I noticed an advertisement for the MENAR Fellowship program, which seemed to offer just what I was looking for.  

My official title is Policy and Research Fellow at Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI). SESRI conducts surveys of Qatar’s population on topics ranging from political concerns to charitable giving to attitudes towards gender equality. It then analyzes the survey data and distributes its analyses with the goal of informing governmental policy-making with quantitative data.

SESRI employees carry out the interviews by phone or in person and record survey responses in an electronic database. Once the survey has been carried out, SESRI analysts perform statistical analyses on the survey data to identify patters and draw conclusions. Finally, the analysts write reports and policy briefs on conclusions that may be of interest to policymakers in Qatar. In addition, since the majority of SESRI researchers are academics, they also use survey data to support articles in peer-reviewed journals.

My work focuses on data analysis and report/academic paper writing, with about 30% of my time dedicated to statistical analysis, 40% to researching for papers, and 30% to actual writing. Because I am free to choose the projects I work on, I can immerse myself in topics that most interest me.

For example, one of my first projects was to author a report on data collected for the political opinions and attitudes portion of SESRI’s annual Omnibus survey. This survey gathered popular opinions on trust in the government, the importance of democracy, Qatar’s rapid socioeconomic change, and many other topics. Working on this project allowed me to familiarize myself with Qatar’s political landscape, which is one of my professional goals for my time here. I’ve also authored a policy brief on the public attitudes towards – and potential economic benefits of – water conservation efforts in Qatar. This project allowed me to develop expertise on water scarcity mitigation techniques, one of the most urgent needs for Qatar and other countries on the Arabian Peninsula, and indulge my longstanding interest in natural resource management.

Working for SESRI has also given me opportunities beyond the specific projects I’ve worked on. Through the Institute’s onboarding program, I received training in STATA statistical software and, as a result, have greatly improved my quantitative analysis skills. Because SESRI is part of Qatar University, I have been able to audit classes in the University’s Arabic language program as well as the Gulf Studies program (an international relations graduate program that focuses on the Gulf region). In addition, my position at SESRI has allowed me to attend many conferences, lectures, and panels where I’ve made great professional connections.

One reason I came to Qatar was to continue learning about an area of the world that I spent so much time studying in college. Working for SESRI has allowed me to do that to an extent I would have never expected. I look forward to what the next few months will bring.

Fellows' Reflections: Tonia Bartlett

My Grandpa is the Coolest Guy I Know

Right before I left for Egypt, my 91-year old grandfather and I sat down and looked at pictures from his earliest explorations of the world, some of which dated back to the late 1930’s. Pictures from when he taught in Istanbul with my grandmother in their earliest years of marriage, his traipse through Central America back when a Jeep was not a stylish accessory but the only practical means of crossing the terrain, meeting my grandmother in a coffee shop in France, and time spent in Egypt on sabbatical. My grandfather is one seriously adventurous guy, and was always years ahead of his era when it came to photography. His lifelong passion for documenting his experiences has been a brilliant blessing in my family, because it has helped give us a sense of our history and the legacy he and my grandmother have left for us.

I vividly remember leaving that day thinking to myself that my grandpa might be one of the most adventurous people I’ve ever met. How many people can say that? But I was beginning my life of adventure in a very different era than my grandfather. His travels across the Atlantic involved a multi-week boat ride -- mine would be a less-than-24-hour plane commute. To communicate with his family, he would use an international telegraph, write letters, and perhaps in the most necessary circumstances might access an intercontinental phone call. On the other hand, I can Skype my family less than 15 seconds after the idea crosses my mind.

In a world of digital noise and with his legacy in mind, I was left wondering: How am I going to document my experiences in a way that, 70 years from now, will be meaningful for my potential grandchildren?

Like my grandfather, I have always loved the craft of storytelling, but have never felt the same pull toward photography that he has. In an internship after my sophomore year of college, I was introduced to the world of videography, and have been captivated ever since. I love the way it challenges me to take the setting I’m in and figure out the story it’s trying to tell, rather than the other way around. Much like photography, it requires a creativity of its own -- authentic storytelling requires a willingness to look at our daily moments through a new angle and lens. I’ve found videography helps me to make sense of my experiences, and offers insights I didn’t notice in real time. It’s my way of reflecting on where I’ve been and what it meant to me.

In my October blog post, I talked about how strongly I wished I could capture the sights and sounds of Egypt to share the brilliance of daily life here. There really is no way of capturing what life anywhere looks like through a medium beyond memories and the human experience. But living and working in Egypt over the past 6 months has given weight to my videography endeavors. Shooting footage and creating features isn’t only a way to reflect on my memories anymore; it creates pathways for sharing and documenting the world we know in a way that did not exist 70 years ago. What started as a desire to document my life in Egypt for something to show the grandkids has become much more. Now I see video as a way to build bridges and take down walls between the East and West, through adding to the narrative. And frankly, I think that’s an adventure my grandfather will be quite proud of.


Here’s a video I recently made from my trip to Fowa, Egypt, a small village in the Nile Delta with a rich history of artisans, trade, and agriculture, and a brilliant passion for sharing their city with visitors.

Fellows' Reflections: Cassidy Lyon

Being Intentional While Working Abroad

My job has changed significantly since I first came into the office -- way too early for Ramadan hours. (Hint: If you start a job during Ramadan, don’t show up before 10:30 am.) I feel really lucky to try out so many different roles and be part of a company that recognizes strengths and adapts opportunities to meet those strengths and interests. I tried my hand at marketing, UX design, content writing, and everything in between. I thought I had finally settled into a role as a product manager for a new B2B product that we’re launching, but after one seemingly random 2:00 pm email, this changed. The sales team found out that I was actually pretty good with data analysis. For the next week, I became the go-to person for data analyses and sales presentations for some of our big client meetings in Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

Maybe that sounds boring to some, but for graduate students in International Economics (including me), it’s everything we’ve been preparing for. Still seems boring? Yes, sometimes staring at an Excel sheet for hours and making various pivot tables to try and find trends isn’t the most exciting. However, throw in the fact that I’m compiling data from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Kuwait, then it gets pretty interesting. When you can actually see where the economic downturns occurred because of decreased spending and hires or you have to factor in Saudi nationalization for data analysis, it becomes an enthralling puzzle for anyone interested in economics and the Middle East.

For most expats coming to the region, they don’t imagine working for a private sector company. In fact, the looks of surprise and following intrigued questions when I mention that I don’t work for an NGO or English school are always amusing. Some of my Jordanian friends have even referred to me as a unicorn for being one of the only “white girls that doesn’t work for an NGO.” Perhaps that can be a harsh way to verbalize it, but the statement truly covers a myriad of dynamics that expats need to be prepared for when moving to another country for work. Whether you’re working for an NGO or a private company, you have to understand the underlying tension behind both of these spaces, as not only does it exist but the concerns are 100% valid.

Sitting in a taxi once, the taxi driver exclaimed harami, or “thief,” when finding out that I was employed here in Jordan. He followed it up later with imzah imzah, “I’m kidding,” after offering a cigarette. I had responded to his cigarette offer with, ana harami tathaker, or “I’m a thief, remember.” I learned early that sassy comebacks in Arabic will immediately ease any tension and create a forever friendship between you and the taxi driver. So, he insisted that he was kidding and that I take the cigarette as a token of his apology, but the sentiment of harami remained.

When you come to work in another country that’s facing high rates of unemployment, especially when you’re coming from a country that’s viewed as the epitome of work opportunity, there will be tension. What are your intentions here? Do they justify your time here? Are you really bringing added value in your position or is there someone local and more qualified to be doing this? Are you hired here because you’re white? These are questions that you’ll be asking yourself at some point or answering from others. I found that my time should be intentional and not a lackadaisical entrance into the workforce as an excuse to live somewhere different and foreign for a while. I’ve felt the need to prove my value of being here -- that I can help as an individual, whether it’s bringing a new idea into my company based on my specific qualifications, or spending weekends working on water management projects to revitalize local farmland. I’m not just taking up valuable space here, but trying to give back more than I’m taking from the place that’s letting me call it home.

I love my job and have found more and more satisfaction as I’ve become more intentional about my reasons for being here. I’m not just here because it’s fun and I want to live abroad -- a common trope of expats in the Middle East that can create tension based on the juxtaposition of living and employment opportunities for Jordanians versus expats. I’m here to do a job, provide value to my company, gain experience in a tech company that works across 13 different offices, and learn as much as I can to ensure that I don’t take my work opportunity for granted in a region that has some of the highest rates of youth unemployment. It’s a humbling, gratitude-inducing experience that will truly pave my career path from this point on.