Archive for May, 2014

Soraya Azzawi, Fulbright, Jordan: Entry #1

Even as the sun sinks behind the buildings, life flourishes in the streets of the Hashemi district of Amman. Crowds churn as families return from Sunday mass or head off to Maghrib prayer; local eateries ready their stoves for rounds of dinner.

We watch the bustle from our place on the porch of Collateral Repair Project (CRP), an organization that aids impoverished urban refugees in Amman. In addition to my Fulbright project, I have had the opportunity to volunteer with several refugee service organizations. At CRP, Sunday is typically dedicated to administrative work and we’ve just finished outlining prospective program ideas, stepping out to catch the fading rays of sunset.

Suddenly a man approaches us, trailed by a little girl. He shuffles up the steps in a dusty coat that hangs loosely off his frame. It is clearly not tailored for him, two sizes too large. His fingertips just barely escape the sleeves as he warmly gestures hello.

They are new refugees, he says. Syrian, and he heard this place can help.

Syria. Once it used to refer to a rich cultural heritage and a host of ancient civilizations. To finely crafted armoires inlaid with seashells, to Damascus’ world-famous delicacy of Booza ice cream. Lately, it seems the only headlines mentioning ‘Syria’ are those followed by the word ‘crisis’.

It defies reason that the man is still smiling, having just fled a war-ravaged country, but somehow he is—a battered building that refuses to crumble in the storm.

My supervisor, Rami*,  has the difficult task of explaining that registration for new beneficiaries isn’t until tomorrow. A closer look at the pair before him changes his mind. The man is clinging to Rami’s every word as though the sounds themselves will provide relief. His daughter’s eyes never leave him.

Going hungry is one thing. Watching your own child go hungry—while powerless to ease their suffering—is something else entirely. I cannot possibly imagine what this man feels when he looks at the family he must support.

“Why don’t I take your information?” Rami offers instead.

I turn my attention to the little girl, hoping to occupy her as they work through the details. A chance to practice colloquial Arabic, I figure. In a very businesslike manner, she informs me that her name is Huda and that she is six years old. Huda has large, inquisitive eyes, the color of freshly brewed coffee.

I resort to the nifty toolkit of conversational phrases we’ve practiced over and over and over again in class. I’m pretty sure I’ve started hearing them in my sleep.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Fine, thanks to God,” she replies, smiling.

I can barely contain my complaints (and they are loud) in a Los Angeles traffic jam and this girl, who has just left behind her only home, is fine and thankful.

She turns to face me fully, eyes wide like she’s about to reveal the wonders of the universe. In the most eloquent classical Arabic I’ve ever heard, she proclaims, “It is an honor to make your acquaintance.”

And I am floored. With a rich, literary tradition, Arabic is regarded as one of the most challenging languages to learn in the world—particularly Classical Arabic. And this six-year-old refugee girl speaks it perfectly.

Working with underserved refugees for the past few months has proven a challenging exercise in emotional resilience—but also, and more importantly, in humility. Even for those with the best of intentions, it is easy to forget that many of the individuals you serve are highly educated, versatile people who have simply found themselves in unfortunate circumstances. The relationship between the aider and the aidee risks giving way to paternalism, relegating the aidee to little more than an object of pity. It’s interactions like these, the words I exchanged with Huda, that lend perspective, that lead me to marvel at the extent of human perseverance in the face of hardship.

Watching news segments about world events like the refugee crisis is informative. Studying international affairs in the classroom is useful. Completely immersing yourself in the situation, in the context and in the language is indescribable. In addition to the chance to study the impact of war trauma on psychosocial health, the Fulbright Program has given me the unparalleled opportunity to experience history in the making, to not merely learn about other peoples and cultures but to live them. It is a dynamic, once-in-a-lifetime experience that enriches your worldview like no mere course, textbook or news soundbyte can.

“The rapprochement of peoples is only possible when differences of culture and outlook are respected and appreciated rather than feared and condemned, when the common bond of human dignity is recognized as the essential bond for a peaceful world.”

— Senator J. William Fulbright

* Names have been changed for privacy purposes 

Armaan A. Rowther, Fulbright, Jordan: Engaging Contradictions – My Fulbright Experience

Heart-warming stories, awe-inspiring photographs, cute yet meaningful trinkets… these are the souvenirs that friends and family expect me to return home with after my Fulbright fellowship year in Jordan.  Their expectation, however, is mistaken on two fronts.  Firstly, through eight months of living and studying in Amman with my wife, this has in many ways been my home, the home I will be leaving when I depart three months from now.  Secondly, no number of stories or photographs could represent my year abroad as truthfully as the questions and contradictions I will take with me, which have come to define my Fulbright experience and that I hope to share in what I expect to be my final blog entry.

Cultural Exchange, or Human Connection?

To explain these contradictions, I must start by relating my own path to the Fulbright program, which I believe began with the following words: “And do good to others, as God has done good to you.”  Originally from a verse of the Holy Qur’an in Surah Al-Qasas (The Stories), I found this quote on the final page of my late grandfather’s journal, which he kept during his 23-year diplomatic career in the Pakistani Foreign Service and eventually in the Pakistan Mission to the United Nations.  My grandfather Ataullah Khwaja, whose name in Arabic means “gift of God,” chronicled a life committed to the idea of serving others with every opportunity that his education had afforded him, privileges that he understood as unearned and as blessings.  Having lived through violence in Indian-occupied Ladakh and exile from his home in Chinese-occupied Tibet, he sought to empower communities that, like his own, had been uprooted and marginalized by conflict.  As a young boy, I internalized the ethic of service inherited from his final journal entry, and it has since guided me toward a life dedicated to this same conception of service.  A decade later, it would form the basis of my project proposal to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program in Jordan.  My motivation was simple: to use my education in public health to promote health among families that, like my own, had been displaced by conflict and military occupation.

Through this story, I hope to share the layers that exist beneath and beyond my own identity as an American: I am an American, and I am also a Muslim; my project and studies are motivated by a verse from the Holy Qur’an; my family traces its roots to Muslim communities here in the post-colonial Third World.  The collective result of these layers was that, after travelling thousands of miles away from the place where I was born and raised to arrive in Jordan—where I hear the Qur’an being recited in taxis and grocery stores, where halal meat is available everywhere, where I can hear the call to prayer and walk to the mosque from my home—I felt a connection rather than distance.  I felt a shared heritage, a belonging.

I am led to ask, in the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  The express purpose of the Fulbright program is mutual understanding, and I thus believe that my personal experience poses a larger question that pertains to all Fulbright scholars, which is: is our goal of mutual understanding really about cultural exchange, as though we have crossed the boundaries of two mutually exclusive worlds?  My own story would suggest otherwise and leads me to further questions: when my Fulbright peers interact with their students, their research subjects, their neighbors in Jordan or other respective host countries, do they view them as the Other, or do they also see in them a heritage that is shared by people like myself, who are their compatriots and neighbors back in the place they call home?  Is our experience solely about cultural exchange, or is it truly about making this human connection?

Objective Observer, or Active Participant?

Moving on from how we as Fulbright scholars perceive the people around us, I also question how we perceive ourselves and our own role in their context.  For those who are student researchers like myself, we are conventionally taught that the scientific ideal demands detached objectivity in our observations and investigations.  The question I faced early on was, assuming that such detached objectivity—in spite of context, positionality, or even power relations—was even possible, would it be ethical?  This was a dilemma I faced early on in my project proposal, which began as an observational study of the barriers to care that exist for diabetes patients among refugee populations.

The question I faced was: what were the ethical implications of examining a life-threatening problem facing a vulnerable population, publishing my findings for academic advancement, and then wrapping up and going home?  The result of my reflections on this problem was a major shift in my project proposal, which was modified to become an interventional program incorporating public health education for diabetes prevention in addition to observational analysis.  I believe that the ethical and methodological question I faced is relevant beyond my field, as the critiques of passive objectivity are well known within the social sciences.  French psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon once said, “For the native, objectivity is always directed against him,” pointing to uses of the notion of objectivity to actually conceal and defend specific power relations and structural inequities.  Even after modification of my research design, the ethical implications of my position and project continue to represent a question with which I struggle to this day.

Privileged Teacher, or Humble Student?

The final question that I have confronted through my Fulbright experience thus far is, do I conceive of myself as a privileged teacher in a foreign land, or as a humble and sincere student?  Once I had modified my project to revolve around a public health education program, this question became extremely relevant.  As a Fulbright scholar from the United States to Jordan, it can easily be assumed that the direction of learning and benefit flows primarily from my First World knowledge and advantages to this Third World, “developing nation” context.  In the case of diabetes, however, the United States is among the worst examples to follow, with a public health crisis stemming from rising rates of obesity and diabetes despite exorbitant healthcare expenditures.  If anything, among the primary factors suggested to be contributing to Jordan’s rising burden of diabetes is adoption of Western or American diet and lifestyle.  In this way, traditional notions of First World progress and Third World development come into question, and I have had to examine what role I play in the assumptions that underpin such notions.

I conclude by reiterating that, rather than providing answers, my intent is merely to offer questions that I feel my Fulbright experience have warranted, and I hope to continue engaging with them through the duration of my Fulbright fellowship as well as long after I return to the United States.  The collective sum of these questions and contradictions for me has been to realize that, however service- or education-oriented as my project may be, this experience has been above all a privilege and a blessing—one that, in the spirit of my grandfather’s memory, I hope will contribute to my efforts to continue serving in the future.

Ataullah Khwaja, my maternal grandfather, in his youth

Ataullah Khwaja, my maternal grandfather, in his youth

This post is based on my presentation at the Fulbright Near Eastern Affairs Regional Enrichment Seminar in Amman, Jordan, on February 24, 2014.

This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State.