Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holidays Gifts, 2010

December 21, 2010

New York – Another year and another lump of coal for my family. This year, I continued my practice of giving my family’s holiday gifts to organizations that support Americans building people-to-people partnerships in the Muslim World in areas of human development such as education, health, and rights. In 2011, we’ll launch the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors initiative around this concept of service at Creative Learning, and as part of that initiative, I am writing a book about Americans volunteering and serving throughout the Muslim World. With this holiday season, I decided to donate to a couple of organizations working in Africa that I came across through my research and work:

Sudan Sunrise is an organization founded by Rev. Tom Pritchard of Kansas to build peaceful reconciliation between Muslims, Christians, and Animists in Southern Sudan and to achieve the dream of former NBA baller Manute Bol. My childhood memories of Manute Bol are of a 7’6, rail-thin basketball oddity who chucked the occasional three pointer. Bol was a greater giant off the court then on it; he devoted his life to building peace in his native home of Sudan. The problems of Sudan have received considerable attention over the last several years due to the genocide in Darfur. Before the genocide, though, more than two million Sudanese in the south were killed in civil war, many by Darfurians, actually. Bol dedicated himself to reconciliation between the different faiths of the people of Sudan, and his vision of 41 schools that educate children of all religions (together) is a revolutionary concept in a place that has been torn apart over the last couple of decades. Bol was also instrumental in saving the lives of some of Sudan’s Lost Boys, orphans forced from their homes during that country’s civil war. Manute Bol died this past June at the age of 47.

There is much to admire about Bol, a professional athlete who became a celebrity but who never forgot the problems of home. There is also much to admire about Tom Pritchard, a soft-spoken pastor from Kansas who has invested all of himself, personally and financially to achieving development and reconciliation in Sudan. A month ago, I met Tom Pritchard, John Zogby, Rudwan Daoud, James Mijak and other courageous leaders from the United States and Sudan who are dedicated to building these 41 schools and creating a new reality in Sudan. Donations to Sudan Sunrise literally translate to desks, books, blackboards, supplies, and a future for Sudan’s children. You can read about Manute Bol here and watch a video about his legacy in Sudan here. One thing – don’t be misled by the moving video from NBA TV. While I hope that NBA stars will line up to support Sudan Sunrise and the construction of these schools, it hasn’t happened yet and this is an initiative that needs your support.

Another excellent initiative that needs your support and that I learned about recently is the Village Bicycle Project. Village Bicycle Project collects used bicycles and ships them to Ghana and Sierra Leone. Since 1999, VBP has sent 50,000 bicycles to Africa and trained 10,000 people to ride them. In Ghana and Sierra Leone, with local partners, they sell the bicycles to motivated individuals, teach bicycle maintenance to create self-sufficiency, and sell tools and spare parts at discounted rates. You might find it surprising that they sell the bicycles, but giving them away for free only devalues their worth in the eyes of the communities and individuals they work with. What I really like most about the project is their emphasis on women and girls. Transportation between villages is a real challenge in many countries and bicycles are a form of mobility and empowerment for women, especially. For people who walk several hours a day, a bicycle can mean the difference in going to school and working at a job.

I found out about VBP and their work in Sierra Leone through Brittany Richardson, a San Francisco woman who left her job last year to spend seven months as a volunteer teaching young people to ride bicycles in Sierra Leone villages. Brittany had never traveled to Sierra Leone before and did not know the people she would meet and work with. She taught more than 250 girls to ride bicycles, including Kadiatu Brewah, a single mother of five children (her husband passed away four years ago) in her early 30s. Kadiatu (right) now rides her bicycle to and from her farm everyday. Other girls that Brittany taught to ride and care for their bicycles were able to cut their 7-hour commute to school dramatically.

The Sierra Leone program is relatively new for VBP, and they are collecting bicycles to send a container there in January of 2011. A $25 donation translates to a bicycle and independence for a young woman in Sierra Leone. You can also donate your old bicycle at participating stores across the United States from Boise to Pittsburgh to Kenosha. Take a look at VBP's website, their nationwide list of partners, and donate here. Donate soon though, to support the growth of their Sierra Leone program and the shipment of this next container.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Do It Yourself Foreign Assistance NYT Magazine Letter

My response to Nicholas Kristof's excellent NYT Magazine piece from two weeks ago, published in this week's Magazine -

Letters: The D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution
It was a pleasure to read Nicholas D. Kristof’s article on “do it yourself” foreign assistance. The efforts of private American citizens to advance human-development causes at the community level are exceptional stories that are frequently untold.

From the perspective of an organization that supports Americans to volunteer in the Muslim world, I’d like to add two things. First, this kind of service doesn’t just affect day-to-day challenges in education, rights and health. Through the creation of substantive people-to-people partnerships, we can change communities’ impressions of America, as well as our own views of the “other.” Second, you don’t have to be a “full-time hero” to make a difference.

There are opportunities to volunteer on a short-term basis to build a house, teach a class and change a life as one of America’s unofficial ambassadors. The first step is to realize that we can create change, and the next step is to find the right opportunity to do it. Thank you for helping to raise awareness.

Director, America’s Unofficial Ambassadors
Creative Learning

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Habitat's Unofficial Ambassadors in Tajikistan

A short piece I wrote for Habitat for Humanity's newsletter about the unofficial ambassadors I met in Tajikistan this past July. You can read here on Habitat's newsletter or below...

New York - In July, I spent a week in Tajikistan with Habitat for Humanity. Usually, a week with Habitat means laying brick or hanging drywall. If that week is with a Global Village build, it also means connecting with another culture and helping a family in a foreign land build their life. My experience with Habitat was a little different.

I direct the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors initiative at Creative Learning, a DC-based not-for-profit, and traveled to Tajikistan as an observer. America’s Unofficial Ambassadors is a new program that will encourage more Americans to volunteer throughout the Muslim World. By building people-to-people partnerships that support local leaders addressing human development challenges, private citizens can help to make a difference, not just on issues such as education and health, but also in the way we perceive each other. The AUA initiative will raise Americans’ awareness to the value of volunteering and then help people access the opportunity that is best for them, whether that is teaching English in a Moroccan village or building a home in Tajik town.

So, I visited Tajikistan to learn about Habitat’s program and see a Global Village “Women Build” team in action. I split my time between Nurek in the south and Khujand in the north. In Nurek, I met villagers who lived at the mercy of mudslides in brittle houses until they received Habitat loans. With Global Village volunteers at their sides, they built homes that are secure from the elements. Protection from the elements is so basic; we take it for granted in the United States. They don’t take it for granted in Nurek, though. Emomali, a smiling eight year-old boy, showed me photos from the build that the GV volunteers sent him. He remembered “Karla” and “Joe” who came from America to help his family.

In Khujand, I watched six women from the United States, Slovakia, Belgium, and the UAE work alongside an earnest Tajik family. Mussabbe, the mother, is a gynecologist, and her husband is an engineer. In Tajikistan, they are a “low-income family” – Mussabbe makes $50 a month and her husband works in Russia, like many Tajik men, because it is difficult to find work at home. In a week of laying brick and mixing cement, the family and the “Women Build” team raised 75 percent of the house’s external walls. In September, the family will move into their new 5-room house and out of the 2-room house they share with ten family members.

The work of the family and volunteers and the connection they formed with each other were inspiring. After a tearful goodbye with the team on its last night, Mussabbe and her family went to the airport in the morning wee-hours to say thank you and goodbye, one more time. Such is the gratitude felt towards volunteers like Jean, a 62-year-old from Nebraska who traveled half-way around the world to be a part of creating a healthy life for a family whose mother’s ambition is simply for her son “to possess a good profession and not to go to Russia to work.”

My trip to Tajikistan reminded me that a home, whether it is in the United States, Tajikistan, or any other country, is fundamental to feeling secure and aspiring for something more. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Tajikistan, when I return not as an observer but as a Habitat volunteer with other unofficial ambassadors who seek to make a human difference.