Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Discourse of DukeEngage - Mbaye Lo

It is my honor to be able to post a blog entry from our beloved group leader, Professor Lo. Thank you for the time you have invested in this program and in each one of us. - Daniel Barron

At the end of the 2008-09 school year, DukeEngage marked the beginning of a three-day academy, in which roughly 350 students participated. Its goal was to maximize students’ intellectual and behavioral capacities to engage, to provide students with the skills necessary for volunteering across cultural, ethical and logistical challenges. This event was a practical move forward because as DukeEngage bureaucratizes its personnel, it also has to institutionalize its mission. However, the other side of the debate on DukeEngage was not presented in this workshop, and now as site leaders, we have to confront its manifestations on the ground, deal with its presence on blogs and websites, and address its symptoms in students’ anxiety. It is a cultural debate, and DukeEngagers, whether faculty, students or community partners, have to deal with its multifaceted constructions. It is an uneasy argument, a discursive dialogue on the purpose and relevance of DukeEngage.

The main tenet of this discourse is the idea that by assuming the role of a community helper and a ‘world changer,’ a DukeEngager is also projecting and assuming some level of superiority, elitism and leadership. This debate could extend further into the world of politics if it is introduced in the global context, where the legacy of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the failed politics of multi-lateral aid and neo-colonial policies have served to foster economic dependency and generate a wide-spread politics of discontentment among the communities that they intended to serve. Since DukeEnage is geared toward partnership with local communities, its model is hardly divorced from international NGOs. The similarities are that both are sponsored by an external entity, both are Western-based, and both are primarily accountable to their sponsors, and not necessarily to those they serve.

Therefore, there is some validity to these postulations: they are well intentioned in many cases, even if they are based on ill-informed criticisms. The validity is that there is an existing structural tradition that justifies these concerns, and we should not ignore them. However, DukeEngage is also a remedial model, an experimental approach to treat societal challenges, unlike many of the international NGOs.

On this latest point, the approach of DukeEngage should not be confused with that of many of the international NGOs. If the reality of international NGOS is that they often bypass local communities in their decision-making process, and that they are often legitimated by and accountable to their external board members, DukeEngage’s mission is service-oriented; its success is measured by a positive impact on community partners, its student body and to Duke University. By impact here we mean the degree to which community projects are completed, and their internally established agenda are accomplished. In some respects, measuring the impact of DukeEngage is a difficult undertaking, but its hallmarks include a lasting experience for the DukeEngager, a deeper bond with fellow students and faculty, and an entrepreneurial approach toward societal causes. In this sense, Duke will become known as an institution that bridges theory and practice, an institution of learning and service, and an entrepreneurial hub of civic engagement.

In this, one touches the philosophical ground on which DukeEngage differs from other social service providers. International NGOs are an outgrowth of conditionalized aid and politicized humanism, which, in a deep analytical reading, cannot be divorced from contemporary human catastrophes. The father of the concept of the international NGO, Guy Gran, has argued (in Development by People) that international NGOs (from the industrialized countries) should be the catalyst for applying just civil society in developing countries. Obviously, this is not the domain of DukeEngage. DukeEngage, as I understand it, is an investment in the human self, the human capacity and ability to do good, regardless of the constraints of lack of experience and the challenges of time-limits. It is a manner of helping students transit from the legally segregated classrooms to the chaos of the hierarchical, politically divided outside world, where they can witness the myriad problems that confront humanity across the globe.

No one can deny the failure of institutionalized diplomacy to prevent war, reduce poverty or even criminalize man’s inhumanity to man. It is a shame that so many years have passed since Jean Améry, a philosopher and an Auschwitz survivor who committed suicide, warned us that ”anyone who has been tutored remains tortured,” (in At the Mind’s Limits) and that our democracies are still debating the ‘needs and utility of torture.’ it is a crack in our moral order that the same rationale of going to war that caused mass human displacement in the twelfth century in the Middle East is today largely the same rationale for war that is behind the 9.2 million refugees and 25 million internally displaced people around the world (UNCHR Report, 2006 & UNCHR World Refugee Day, 2009 gave an estimate of 42 millions). Human progress should not only be measured by what it can do, but rather by what it has failed to achieve. There is an old Wolof proverb that says “the sharpness of your sword also mirrors the limits of your argument.”

As I told Yasmina, a staff writer of Egypt Daily News, in response to her inquiry on whether DukeEngage was a response to Obama’s engagement of the Muslim world, DukeEngage is not the Peace Corps, and it is certainly not President Obama’s brainchild. It seems to me that both President Obama and DukeEngage are products of a chain of occurrences that followed 9/11. In major human tragedies, the great Arab poet and philosopher, Al-Mutanabbi (d. 965) postulates, man has the natural predisposition to go to extremes—whether right or wrong—good or bad—evil or noble. DukeEngage was an institutional response to this tragedy, as is Obama’s appearance, in the reactionary chain of the many responses to the tragedy. The Peace Corp, although a great success in terms of numbers (more than 165,000 since its inception in 1961) and in terms of its mission of being for ‘world peace through friendship,’ is different from DukeEngage due to its national self-centered goal of “grand and global alliance,” to quote President Kenney’s words.

DukeEngagers should highlight these differences in theory and practice. They should not shy away from articulating what the program stands for, and proudly affiliate themselves with its mission and vigorously work for its success. At the communal level, they should be partners in development, and not agents of development; not managers of development, but facilitators of its projects; they should be working for the success of their projects, and not as consultants for these projects.

From a conceptual framework, there is a direct link between serving oneself, serving a local community and serving internationally. Current globalizing trends have increasingly promoted a worldview that states that a societal crisis anywhere is a societal crisis everywhere. The evidence is un-deniable, whether it is the Taliban revolt in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the pirates off of the cost of Somalia, or the swine flu outbreak that started in Mexico. These issues and their widespread impact all reflect the interconnectedness of the world’s communities, and the need for concerted, coordinated service to all.

Khalas (Finish) - Daniel Barron

I am no longer a teacher. I do not mean this figuratively. My students have not transformed in to my friends, they began as such. My students are not like my children either; I consider them my equal as they are my age. I mean this literally. After six weeks of teaching English at St. Andrew’s Refugee Center and conducting a two day workshop focusing on computer skills in addition to celebrating their accomplishments.

Can you measure success? I suppose each teacher is attempting this in their minds. By focusing on the improvements in their students the feeling of accomplishment swells. I might as well participate; my students dramatically improved their critical reading skills as well as their writing abilities. Well I guess that was the purpose of the trip.

Obviously, I came to Egypt for so many more reasons than this, and my interactions with my students accomplished much more than a simple sentence, pardon me, complex sentence can convey. While another purpose of Duke Engage is for me, the American college student, to learn, I think we should not change are focus from my students so quickly. This trip will not be both the beginning and end of my relationship with my students. During this month and a half, I have invested much into my students beyond time. I have taken an interest in their lives, and this interest will not cease after I leave Egypt. It will continue as we correspond through e-mail. Who knows? Perhaps one of my students will even be able to make it to America some day and I will be able to once again physically help. Regardless, while I understand that this experience is intended to be a learning experience (and this goal has definitely been met!), firstly, I believe it should be about the people we serve. It has been this for me

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Username: Duke. Password: Engage - Atif Mahmood

Today, July 27, 2009, was the penultimate day of our teaching experience at St. Andrews. Instead of lumbering through another day of teaching in a small, stuffy, ramshackle classroom, all the Blue Devils decided to bring the fifteen or so students to our apartments. We taught them vital internet skills such as using email and Google and checked up on their typing skills. More importantly, we were able to provide a fun, social environment for them, replete with purple Fanta grape soda and groovy Ethiopian music.

I began the day trying to teach my student Zakariye how to write an email. When it took him more than 30 seconds to find “y” on my keyboard, I realized the kid had seldom written anything on a computer. Zakariye is one of the weakest students of the group, which is surprising since, being 23-years old, he’s the oldest of them all and is a student majoring in history (at least that’s what he told me) at Cairo University. One would expect him to know some basic computer skills at the least. But Zakariye does not spend his time in front of the screen typing emails. While using a computer, he usually goes on YouTube or plays some kind of “shooting” game with friends. The only informatory website Zakariye uses (apart from YouTube, the biggest time-wasting phenomenon on earth) is – a major Somali news website.

Zakariye’s compatriot from Somalia, Mohammad Ali, then shed light on the perplexing account of Zakariye’s dismal computer skills. According to him, many Somali refugees in Cairo did not have access to the internet back in their home country. Highlighting the lack of this basic facility, Mohammad Ali explained how he made his first email account in Cairo back in 2006 and subsequently lost it through typing in the wrong password over and over again. And the only way most refugees can access the internet in Cairo is through cheap internet cafés, which, in my experience, provide a rather unsatisfactory browsing experience due to the abominably slow internet connection at such places.

For me the highlight of the day was helping one of my Sudanese students, Abdallah, make a Gmail account. Seeing how I, Dan and Steve all use Gmail over Yahoo Mail or Hotmail, Abdallah wanted Gmail as well. His user name: bigboy.abdallah. Don’t ask me how he came up with “Big Boy,” but he sure was ecstatic when he was able to use his Gmail to send and receive emails from the Blue Devils. Google if you’re reading, we just provided you with another customer, so save an internship for me for next summer please.

Most Americans take the internet for granted. Back at Duke, I check my email at least five times a day. My work for my second NGO AWTAD revolves around constant Google searches for information, information, and yet more information. My first three weeks in Cairo were the most miserable of all mostly because we had no internet. Therefore, with my background of being incessantly in front of my laptop screen, I was absolutely shocked to find someone like Zakariye unable to write and send a simple email. It disheartens me to know that my time at Duke Engage will end very soon, and except for email, I have no means, NO means, of contact with Zakariye. He does not have a cell phone and I doubt letters would reach his address. The internet is my last and only hope of staying in touch with someone I’ve grown closer to in the past few weeks. If the worst comes to worst, I’ll probably have to email Big Boy Abdallah, who’s Sudanese, and ask him to first find Zakariye, a Somali living in a city of more than 15 million people, and then give him a review lesson in the fine art of staying connected online.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mission Accomplished - Susan Park

Some of us, Katherine, Dan, Abby, and I work with our second NGO, Al Kayan. Al Kayan works with children with disabilities and provides various therapies and activites. The Egyptian society is not yet in the process of welcoming and giving access to job opportunites to these children. This kind of attitude is different from what we usually observe in the United States. After all, those with disabilities are protected by the law and if they choose to do so, can educate themselves and find jobs.

One day, when I talked about how our community partner al Kayan wanted to take us to the public library, Professor Lo said something quite interesting. Basically, he explained that when Egyptians see that even Americans care about these children, they may start to think differently about children with disabilities. In a way, we are setting an example and perhaps even breaking the mistaken notion that Americans only care about themselves in Cairo.
I had never thought about going to the public library as being so significant. It inspired me to care about the children even more.

As we settled in the library, the children drew pictures and played with play-doe. Each children required a volunteer's full attention. I started to work with one girl. However, she started to hit me and tried to pull my hair. It didn't make me angry but it made me sad because she had no control over her behavior. She could not control her affection or her dislike. If almost everyone in this world is scared about losing control, how scary is it that she does not have control over such simple emotions as like or dislike.

As we left, many Egyptian children turned to look. Mostly they were interested in us foreigners. Later, they came up and took pictures of us and asked for our emails and phone numbers. We felt like celebrities!. However, they also took interest in the children that we were holding hands with. Some of them came up to the children and hesitantly said hi to them. These children with disabilities were no longer ignored, no longer dismissed. Mission Accomplished for today!

Food for All - Susan Park

These past few weeks, certain reactions from our students have surprised and confused me.This is a result of my presumptuous thoughts, which I am sure most people have without even having tried to reason through them.

During lunch time, our partner organization St. Andrews provides free meal for our students. At first glance, the meal looks unappetizing with nude colored beans and no utensils to eat with. In fact, you simply dip bread into this porridge-like creation. Honestly, I did not even want to taste it (When I did try it, it tasted a lot better than it looked) . However, I must admit that I was surprised to see similar reactions from our students. Perhaps I, without having truly thought about it, assumed that since the students are refugees, they must be used to this kind of meal. One of my students frowned at the bowl of food and balked at taking a step closer to it. Only when the teachers set an example did the students shyly take some food.

On another day when we had taamiya instead of the usual bean porridge, the students actually welcomed food. One of our students told me that this is food. He explained that he realizes that he is a refugee and that he is grateful for us teachers, but that they wanted to eat something delicious. In the end, however, it was not about the taste of the food that mattered (because as I have said before, it did not taste bad at all) but the difference between what the students and I thought about the food.

Why did we assume that they would welcome a meal that looked unappetizing? Why did we assume that they would welcome a meal that we, American students, balked at? What right do we have to judge what is acceptable to others? Don't people deserve the same treatments regardless of their backgrounds?

I believe that these assumptions arise from overestimating the status of being an American and undermining those of others. However, I also believe that these unquestioned assumptions are what leads to human rights violation all around the world. This is why ignorance and lack of thought are dangerous. Realizing this, it is even more critical to dispel unquestioned assumptions arising from ignorance of all people.

Letting go of past certainties… - Steve Schmulenson

I cannot believe that my time here in Cairo is winding down so quickly. At the same time, it seems like I have been here for a year and have been here for only a few days. So much has happened around me and to me, and I wish I could have kept up with a blog. As I write, it makes me wonder why I have not been doing so. I think it is because that everything that has happened on this program seems too significant to be confined in the temporal realm of words. Instead, I have been documenting my experience through pictures, which I have been regularly uploading to Facebook. Yet, in a way, pictures too can represent another temporal constraint, so why is it that I have preferred them?

The answer to my question is at best unresolved. Right now, I find it necessary to write about what has happened recently, and so I think I will just let the ideas pour out. Perhaps because it is towards the end, I have been reflecting a lot lately on how this experience has changed me and how I have changed the environment around me. Any such reflection is not one easily thought out, so I apologize now if any of the following is disjointed!

To best describe what has been an amazing experience here in Cairo requires the following recognition: I find myself doing things I would not have imagined I was capable of doing before coming here. I have always read the sappy pieces of literature on how engaging in community service makes you feel good and how it changes you and so forth. Now, I am not saying their message is bad at all. It just seems silly to simply describe what a civic engagement experience is really like. Unfortunately, I may be committing the same folly here, but again forgive me. As of now, I felt I have truly connected with my students to the point where their failure is my failure. This may be what every teacher would go through, but with my students I truly feel that they have become part of me. I still cannot even begin to comprehend what they have gone through, but I never thought I could so quickly connect so deeply and become friends with my students in the way that I have during this program (not even freshman orientation at school can compare!).

Yet, my students are not the only people I have forged connections with. As of this writing, I feel that I have made real inroads with local Egyptians. Of course I can still and always be recognized as a foreigner, but this has not made it impossible for me to be accepted by Egyptians. Two days ago, I attended a gathering of intellectuals discussing the issue of the full veiling of Egyptian women’s faces with others on the program and our professor. I was trying my best to grasp the gist of the conversation, as it was in Arabic, and for the most part I could grasp a few words. While at this debate, I met an Egyptian writer of children’s books, who immediately took an interest in my friends and I. What was so interesting about our meeting was that it was fully in Arabic; it was a challenge for me to sustain a dialogue in Arabic for over an hour. Nevertheless, it greatly pleased me to find that I was able to speak and understand most of what he was saying.

Our conversation quickly turned political, which instantly made me recoil. Talking about politics openly, with not only foreigners but Americans as well is something that I know does not always lead to something positive. This time, however, it did. Before I knew it, this author, who I will refer to as Amir, was insisting on taking us out to a local café so that we could experience the “real” Egypt. He also wanted to take us on a tour of his own neighborhood. Naturally, I immediately became tense and uncomfortable. Although I had been in Cairo for almost two months at that point, my deeply ingrained sense of not trusting strangers was telling me that this could never be.

Nonetheless, I, along with two of my friends on the program, Dan and Atif, agreed, with the urging of our professor, to having Amir taking us out to a café two days later. When he met us then, he had brought along his young daughter to meet us as well. Without wasting any time, and with a spring in his step, he eagerly led us to a local café in his neighborhood where we drank tea. He pointed out all of the local buildings and described their architecture to us. All of this, of course, was conducted in Arabic.

For me, this was a challenge. I was excited to find out that I understood what he was saying. Granted, he was speaking slower and was obliging us by speaking in Modern Standard Arabic, or Fushaa, but I was still happy that my years of studying Arabic are starting to pay off. Yet, an unforeseen challenge was that I found myself confronted with the position of being an impromptu translator. My friends who were with me are certainly some of the best students in the Arabic program at Duke, but I had forgotten that they were still a year behind me in their studies. Translating Amir’s comments for them, and then translating their questions for Amir into Arabic, was rather difficult because our conversation was once again about politics. As such, the concepts we were discussing were dense and like most discussions about politics seemed to lead to always-arguable conclusions and a thirst for expounding more upon them. I had to be flexible and come up with ways to translate my friends’ questions into terms that I was familiar with while at the same time ensuring that the meaning of their questions was not skewed. Hopefully, I was successful!

In the end, our conversation was indeed difficult, but it was an illuminating one as well. The problem that we found is that Amir was telling us that the best way for foreigners to help the Egyptian people is to help them directly. He told us that money is not important; education and total advancement were what he claimed Egyptians wanted most from the outside world. This admission hit me square in the face. The way he said it made it sound so simple and uncomplicated, yet I knew that this could not be. Political conventions and practicality all stand in the way. But, this truly showed me how important it is to remember that volunteer work is not something you just do. When you volunteer, those you help expect actual direct help. Indirect help and a lack of personal contact frustrate those in need. On the one hand, this may be an unfair expectation for someone who volunteers; they too have their lives and daily problems. Sometimes those that need help have been suffering for so long that this recognition is one that may be unfair to expect from them. As such, I felt at that moment that I truly learned that any volunteer role requires thinking and doing things for those you are helping to be your number one priority. I hope this is the message my students at St Andrews are receiving.

Our adventure into the streets of Cairo and its daily life did not end at the café. What happened next is definitely something I never thought I would do: my friends and I accepted an invitation to Amir’s house. Before I go on, I must say that I am still ever distrustful of strangers, but in Cairo my expectations for Egyptian behavior cannot be the same for American behavior. I am not saying Egyptians and Americans are inherently different and incompatible (that would be far from truth!), I am just saying the cultural standards of what is considered normal and mundane is different.

On the way to Amir’s place, we found ourselves in the shadow of the famous Ibn Tulun Mosque, which is constructed from mud-brick and sports one of only two remaining minarets in the world that have a spiral staircase running along its exterior. Amir was demonstrating to us that Egyptian daily life was always in the shadow of its rich past, much as how the winding streets of his neighborhood would always be in shadow of that famous mosque and its minaret.

Amir’s apartment was located at the uppermost floors of a high-rise, and he led us to the rooftop. Before our eyes was the most amazing view of Cairo I have had the whole time since I have been here. All of Islamic Cairo was unfolded before our eyes: the Citadel, Sultan Hassan Mosque, and the Ibn Tulun Mosque were all there. At the moment, I realized my camera was not with me, and I wanted to kick myself. My camera was my documentary tool, and my opportunity was lost, or so I thought. While on the rooftop, Amir insisted on us playing simple children’s games with him and his family and friends. Many of us certainly were too old for these games, but there we were. We were Americans and Egyptians, no people, enjoying each other’s company by playing simple games on a rooftop overlooking all of Cairo. It was something out of a dream, something that erased any distinction of tourist, foreigner, or local. At that moment I realized this was it, this was Egypt. No camera was needed to document such a realization.

Unfortunately, we could not spend as much time with Amir and his family as we would have liked. We had Arabic class that night, but of course we left later than we intended, as we could not refuse Amir’s wife’s kindly invitations to drink some soda. I realized that we had given Amir and his family a chance to enjoy themselves in a way that perhaps they have never before or only have done once in a great while. They loved being our hosts and enjoying simple games to convey their overly kind hospitality to us all. This experience was one that I thought I could never be capable of having, and I realize now it could not have happened unless I bended the boundaries of my own comfort levels.

I hope that this experience will live with me forever, as I know my time here in Egypt will. It is sad for me to be writing this now. I know I am ready to go back home to the United States and be with my family and friends, but I do not think I will ever be ready to leave Cairo. Egypt has become a home to me, and it fills me with pleasure at the thought that I can return here in the future and have people eager to see me again. I could not think of a better thought on my imminent departure from here. Ma’salaama.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Can’t We be Friends - Atif Mahmood

Last Wednesday, I took three of my students – Asli, Mona and Abdullah – to watch the sixth Harry Potter movie. Having fun was part of my agenda, of course. But I actually really wanted to observe firsthand how Abdullah, who’s Sudanese, would interact with Mona and Asli, both Somali, outside of the domains of the classroom.

The movie itself was terrific. All of us kept laughing hard during the first half of the movie, and were on the edge of our seats during the other half. I asked Asli whether she and Mona understood what the characters were saying (British accents are bound to sound different from the American ones we’re bombarding them with in class). She nodded and replied that they were reading the Arabic subtitles. That surprised me a bit, since I realized that the two Somali girls sitting beside me were laughing and gasping at all the right moments. I thought that they knew too little Arabic to be able to read the subtitles quickly enough. I guess I was proven wrong. Abdullah, on the other hand, I knew was as comfortable with Arabic as Harry with his phoenix-feather wand. He thoroughly enjoyed the movie, as expected.

Later on, on the taxi ride back home, I asked Asli about the relationship between Somali refugees and Sudanese refugees living in Cairo. She told me, in broken English, that there have been fights between Sudanese and Somalis. She began a story, much of which I think was lost in translation, of how a Somali she knew had her arm broken on the hands of some Sudanese refugees. She also mentioned that the Sudanese are larger in number in Cairo and have better access to resources such as the NGOs at work here. I then asked her whether or not she was friends with Abdullah. Both Mona and Asli laughed, and said that Abdullah’s all right. He’s their classmate. But “what will happen once class ends?” The girls did not know of any Somali befriending a Sudanese. Were it not for my position as a teacher, Abdullah would never have mingled with Mona and Asli outside of St. Andrews.

In overpopulated Cairo, refugees are competing for meager resources not only against Egyptians, but among themselves as well. In the words of Grandmaster Flash “It's like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder.”