Monday, September 26, 2011

Shirley Kagan and the Library in Ram

Shirley Kagan was a beloved wife, mother, and grandmother. She was also an unofficial ambassador and peace builder who I was proud to call my friend. Shirley passed away on Thursday night.

Shirley, her husband Irv, and their family had an impact on my life before I ever met them. David Kagan, their middle son, studied Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). David died in 1986 at the age of 23. He was a passionate advocate for peace and mutual understanding at a time when such positions were not in vogue. To support David’s hopes and vision, the Kagan family started a foundation in his name, dedicated to advancing peaceful relationships among people of different nationalities and faiths.

One of the Foundation’s legacies is to support a SAIS Middle East Studies graduate student to study Arabic in the summer before his or her second year. I was selected as the David Kagan Fellow for 2001 and have done my best to forge a career that advances the goals that I share with the Kagan family.

In November of 2008, I met Shirley and Irv for the first time. They invited me to deliver the annual David Kagan Memorial Lecture at their synagogue. I was running a small grant program in the West Bank at the time, and the Kagans asked me to speak about that experience and about living and working in the Arab World. Following Shabbat services that day, I shared with 200 some congregants my viewpoints about “the Human Face of the Arab World,” as I put it. I concluded by encouraging the congregation to be a part of the change they wanted to see and to collect their used books for a library in Ram, a city in the West Bank.

Ram, a city of about 65,000 people located between Jerusalem and Ramallah, was cut from Jerusalem by the separation barrier. Jerusalem was Ram’s lifeline, and the Local Council faced the task of providing residents with new schools, a hospital, and a park. With US government assistance, the Council built a library for Ram and its surrounding villages and equipped the library with a computer lab. However, the shelves of the library remained empty; the community couldn’t afford to buy books.

After my speech, Shirley enthusiastically approached me, gave me a hug, and said nonchalantly of the Ram library project, “Yeah, we’re going to do that.” Pointing to her 12-year old granddaughter, she said that collecting the books would be Sasha’s mitzvah project, or service project, for her Bat Mitzvah the next year.

Shirley, her granddaughter, and the rest of the Kagan family ran with the idea. They printed a flyer, reached out to friends, and personally collected more than 1600 books – from Pride and Prejudice to Clifford the Big Red Dog – for children half way around the world who they’d never met and who were supposedly their enemies. They cataloged each book in their apartment on the Upper West Side, put a “Books Building Bridges” sticker inside of each, and packed them into boxes.

And then they waited.

First it was a problem with the Palestinian ministry of culture. Once that was resolved, the real problems began with the Israeli taxes and customs department. The request to ship the books disappeared into a black hole that no appeal could shake free.

In the meantime, Shirley visited Ram in the summer of 2010. She braved a new world, crossed Kalandia checkpoint, and walked a courageous walk. She visited the empty library with Muhanned, the Ram Municipality’s Executive Director and Wafaa, the head of the Women’s Committee, neither of whom she met before. They placed the handful of books Shirley carried with her on the shelves, a down payment on what was to come.

Shortly after returning to New York, Shirley was diagnosed with cancer. She battled it with strength and humor. Along the way, her family continued to wait for permission from the Israeli authorities to send the books. While we pleaded for help in completing this act of selflessness, Shirley was patient and upbeat. If she ever considered this library project a fool’s errand, she never let on to me. All she had was sincere enthusiasm for the prospect of the 100,000 people in the Ram area having access to such a wealth of resources that would help to build a better life and peace.

The books were shipped to Israel last month, almost three years after I gave that speech. They arrived in Ram a couple of weeks ago. We all had a vision of Shirley and Irv reading with the children in the library. Shirley was so enthusiastic about the idea of volunteering abroad one day.

When I met Shirley and Irv three years ago, it felt like I was visiting with family I hadn’t seen in a while. Shirley was that warm and generous a person – a lot of people felt that way about her. I am sad those kids in the Ram library won’t have the chance to feel that way, too. They missed someone special, we all will.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My 9/11 story

The attacks set me off to become an unofficial ambassador
Tuesday, September 06, 2011 (Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

By Benjamin Orbach

Ten years ago, I walked up the steps to my Arabic class as Nadav, a short guy from Brooklyn, bounded from the building, yelling "Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center!" We were both graduate students at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

I joined Nadav and a handful of students around the TV in the building's lounge. When the second tower fell, I stood up and walked home. It was such a beautiful, clear day, yet it seemed as though the world was ending.

The previous semester, I had written my masters' thesis on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. Still, I had questions. In particular, what had led individuals to do this and how did people in the Arab world feel about these attacks? Within a year, I moved to Jordan to learn more Arabic and to search for answers.

Not knowing anyone in Amman, I wandered the city and spoke to anyone who would speak back about 9/11 and U.S. foreign policy, but also about everyday life and our hopes for the future. Over the course of a year, I backpacked through Syria and Morocco, then moved to Cairo at the start of the Iraq war.

Along the way, I continued to speak and listen -- to the Egyptian falafel cook making $5 a day, to my Jordanian barber who wanted to move to Detroit, to a young Syrian woman working in an art gallery in Hama, to so many others. I became intimately familiar with the problems of securing a life of dignity in the Arab world -- whether that's affording marriage, finding a job after graduation or carving out personal space in authoritarian states.

On a fall day in 2002, I had an epiphany about how private American citizens might help our Arab counterparts with these problems while improving our own security. As I taught Sundos, a headscarf-covered 18-year-old University of Jordan student, to use a computer, I realized that no matter what befell Jordan as a result of the war in Iraq, there would remain a role for Americans to play in building partnerships.

For Sundos, the Internet wasn't just entertainment but a tool of professional and personal empowerment. She was grateful for my help in opening a world of possibilities and was happy to be my friend.

Like people I met throughout that year in the Middle East, she differentiated between the American people and the U.S. government, seeing the American people as our country's greatest asset and U.S. foreign policy as our greatest liability. For her and many others, Americans created Hollywood and Harvard, while the U.S. government backed dictators and launched wars.

When I returned home in late 2003, I went to work at the State Department managing programs that support democratic reforms and women's empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa. I saw success in projects that paired American experts with Arab activists and leaders.

Whether it was legislative assistants from Colorado and Vermont training Algerian parliamentary staffers to draft bills or a documentary maker from Mississippi teaching activists in Bahrain to make short videos, I witnessed the American people serving as unofficial ambassadors. They supported local leaders seeking to address the educational, economic, human rights and other development challenges within their communities. In the process, they represented the diversity and strength of America.

I decided that I, too, wanted to become an unofficial ambassador and play a direct role in creating opportunities. I returned to the ranks of the American people and worked for an international development company in the Palestinian territories from 2007 to 2009. I designed and implemented a small grant program that built educational facilities, installed computer labs and provided recreational equipment to women's centers and youth clubs in isolated villages and woebegone refugee camps.

We completed projects in more than 75 communities that benefited more than 10,000 people striving to improve their lives. Along the way, I continued to represent America while learning about the daily problems that manifest themselves in global issues.

This past year, we launched the America's Unofficial Ambassadors initiative at Creative Learning, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit organization. Our goal is to increase the number of American volunteers in the Muslim worldm, and we are building a community to offer them guidance and support. By the end of 2012, we hope to have encouraged 1,000 Americans to commit to volunteering for one week to one year.

In March, we released the AUA Directory, the premiere resource for researching short-term volunteer opportunities in Muslim-majority countries. You don't have to be a professional development worker to teach English in Indonesia, to build a house in Jordan, to promote public health in Senegal or to help build peace.

Frequently, I think about my walk home on that terrible, clear day 10 years ago when everything changed. I'm grateful to have found a path to making a difference and to have met so many other unofficial ambassadors who are doing the same.

Benjamin Orbach, a Pittsburgh native and author of "Live from Jordan," directs the America's Unofficial Ambassadors initiative at Creative Learning.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Unprecedented Initiative to Promote American Volunteerism in the Muslim World Announces First Volunteers

Washington DC, May 24, 2011 — Creative Learning, a Washington DC based non-profit organization, is pleased to announce that Alison Horton, from Highland Park, New Jersey and Samantha Faulkner, from Lawrenceberg, Kentucky are the first winners of the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA) Mosaic Scholarship. Creative Learning launched the AUA initiative in March of 2011 to encourage and support more Americans to volunteer short-term in education, health, and other human development areas in the Muslim World. Through programs that raise awareness and increase access to impactful service opportunities, the AUA initiative is mobilizing Americans to reach across cultural differences, form partnerships of mutual interest, and build peace. By December of 2012, the AUA initiative intends to encourage 1000 Americans to commit to at least one week of service in the Muslim World.

The AUA Mosaic Scholarship will increase the number of volunteers who represent the diverse, social mosaic that is America in the Muslim World. Scholarship recipients volunteer from one week to a year, with an organization listed in the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations. The AUA Directory provides profiles of leading organizations that send or host American volunteers serving in education, health, and other community needs in Muslim-majority countries. The AUA Directory is the premier resource for researching short-term volunteer opportunities in the Muslim World and is available free of charge at

Both Alison Horton and Samantha Faulkner will depart the United States in June. Each was chosen from a competitive field based upon their essay submissions, commitment to service, and personal interviews. Ms. Horton will serve as a volunteer in Bangladesh through the BRAC organization; and Ms. Faulkner will volunteer in the Palestinian Territories through the Middle East Fellowship program. As part of the Mosaic Scholarship program, recipients will blog about their volunteer experiences on the AUA blog, and upon their return, give presentations within their communities. These stories and presentations will help shatter stereotypes and raise awareness for the value and impact of service.

AUA Program Director Benjamin Orbach said, “We are thrilled to support these two volunteers who will represent the best of America to communities in South Asia and the Middle East as they support local leaders in grappling with their development challenges. It is equally exciting to think about the impact that these returned volunteers will have in their home communities when they return from their service and share their experiences within their schools, faith groups, and community centers.”

Explaining why she wanted to be a part of AUA’s initiative, Samantha Faulkner said, “I think I could be a good representative of a generally misunderstood part of our country. By eliminating these stereotypes and prejudices in both cultures, we open the door to a new level of tolerance and communication that would certainly not have been possible before. I would be honored to be a part of such a mission.”

From her perspective, Alison Horton emphasized the importance of the AUA initiative by saying, “I’m so thankful for the resources provided to me by America's Unofficial Ambassadors to make this opportunity possible. I'll be working with BRAC, an incredible organization that has achieved unprecedented leaps in school enrollment, childhood immunization, food security, and infant survival in some of the most desperate communities.”

Applications are being accepted for the annual Mosaic Scholarship program through August 31. All qualified American citizens, committed to volunteering in the Muslim World through an organization listed in the AUA Directory, are eligible for the scholarship. For more details about AUA and the Mosaic Scholarship, please visit here.

About Creative Learning
America’s Unofficial Ambassadors is a strategic initiative of Creative Learning, a Washington DC-based not-for-profit organization that enhances the capacity of local organizations around the world to improve the lives of people in their communities. Through the creation of people-to-people partnerships, Creative Learning is especially dedicated to protecting human rights, supporting economic and social development, and building peace. Consistent with the program’s theme that American citizens should do more to make a difference, AUA does not seek government funding. For information about sponsorship opportunities, please contact Tracy Key at tracykeyevents at

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Thoughts on Greg Mortenson

Pittsburgh - I watched the 60 Minutes piece on Greg Mortenson with disappointment. If you haven’t heard of Greg Mortenson, he is a humanitarian that has built more than 100 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea (co-written with Oliver David Relin). Three Cups of Tea is the inspirational story of Mortenson’s personal journey from a lost K2 mountain climber to the founder of the Central Asia Institute, an organization devoted to children’s education, primarily girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

If you haven’t watched the 60 Minutes piece, Mortenson is accused of embellishing his personal story and of his mismanagement of the Central Asia Institute. He has offered a partial response to the accusations – none of which are criminal – and I hope that he clarifies further the points that have been raised.
In the interim, I have two thoughts on the subject.

Read more here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

New Initiative to Mobilize Americans to Volunteer in the Muslim World

Launch of the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors Program Fills a Major Void

Washington, D.C. – March 2, 2011 – Creative Learning today is announcing the launch of the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA) program, the first initiative specifically designed to increase the number of Americans who volunteer in education, health, community needs, and civil society in the Muslim World. The goal of the AUA program is to build peace at a grassroots level in America and throughout the Muslim World by increasing the number of substantive, cross-cultural partnerships that support higher standards of living, greater economic opportunities, and increased freedoms. By December 2012, the AUA program aims to encourage 1000 Americans to commit to at least a week of service in the Muslim World.

Project Director Benjamin Orbach explained that the AUA initiative’s launch comes at a historic time. “Since World War II, our government has primarily looked at our relations with the rest of the world through the prism of government-to-government diplomacy and assistance. As we see popular-led change in Egypt, Tunisia, and other spots throughout the Middle East, it becomes clear how important America’s people-to-people relationships are and have to be in the future. Volunteering and supporting the rights and aspirations of our counterparts in the Muslim World is a way for Americans to participate in creating a better future based upon the interests we share with the rest of the world.”

From building houses in Indonesia, to teaching English in the Palestinian Territories, to supporting local organizations to raise awareness on public health issues in Senegal, there are a diverse range of opportunities for American volunteers to support citizens and leaders who seek to make a difference in their lives and their communities. Through the process of volunteering and supporting these initiatives, there is a chance for Americans to build peace and to get beyond harmful stereotypes.

Roughly 63 million people volunteered in America between September 2009 and September 2010, but less than two percent of that number volunteered overseas. A much smaller fraction of Americans volunteered in Muslim-majority countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. “One of the reasons why so few Americans volunteer in the Muslim World is that on a comparative basis, we don’t have the same number of deep familial and personal relations to those parts of the world as we do to Europe and the Americas,” said Creative Learning President Bill Kruvant. He continued, “There is much less awareness of or access to the credible and impactful volunteer opportunities that are out there, and unfortunately, there is a greater exposure to some of the exaggerated stereotypes.”

Finding the Best Opportunity to Volunteer in the “Muslim World”
To overcome this “access” issue, Creative Learning has compiled and published the first ever directory of volunteer placements that exclusively focuses on organizations that send or host American volunteers for short-term service opportunities in Muslim-majority countries. The AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations is now available and free to the public at

In producing the AUA Directory, Creative Learning researched more than 1000 organizations and conducted interviews with program staff and alumni to compile profiles of leading organizations that send or host American volunteers in a Muslim-majority country for service of a week to a year. Each organization profiled in the AUA Directory has the capacity to offer safe and meaningful service opportunities. They allow volunteers to choose their country placement, and they use people-to-people partnerships in their programs, which range from building schools in Mali, to restoring historic buildings in Albania, to training local organizations in Bangladesh to use “new media.” All of the volunteer opportunities profiled in the AUA Directory are open to the public, are non-proselytizing, and are apolitical in nature. Each AUA Directory profile includes program-specific information on past volunteers’ experience, the skills a volunteer will need to succeed, and the specifics of how to apply.

A dynamic resource, the AUA Directory is an ideal starting point for interested volunteers to find the volunteer opportunity that is right for them. As the lone resource that focuses specifically on Muslim-majority countries, the AUA Directory can be an important tool in building better relations between America and the Muslim World. Orbach said, “There are terrific organizations out there doing meaningful work that changes lives, but people don’t know about them or about and how they can volunteer. With the AUA Directory, we have created the premiere resource for Americans to identify short-term volunteer opportunities that build people-to-people partnerships in Muslim-majority countries.” Kruvant added, “We can all participate in national service. Volunteering on a short-term basis is an excellent way for each of us to play a role in building peace at a grassroots level.”

About Creative Learning
Creative Learning is a Washington DC-based 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization that enhances the capacity of local organizations around the world to improve the lives of people in their communities. Through the creation of people-to-people partnerships, Creative Learning is especially dedicated to protecting human rights, supporting economic and social development, and building peace. Consistent with the program’s theme that American citizens should do more to make a difference, AUA is a citizen-funded initiative that does not seek government funding. For information about sponsorship opportunities, please contact Tracy Key at Tracykeyevents at


Thursday, February 3, 2011

My Egypt Letter to President Obama

You are welcome to borrow as much of this as you like and send it the White House here.

February 3, 2011

Dear President Obama,

There are times when we have to ask what side of history we want to be on. Supporting human rights and governing democratically are pillars of the identity we espouse as a country. You can argue that we risk strategic interests and stability as related to Iraq, the Suez Canal, and Israel by siding with democratic change in Egypt. I argue that we risk losing the very character of who we are, any sense of American exceptionalism, if we don’t support our friends who are willing to risk their lives, en masse, for their rights.

Support the principles that we heard about in the State of the Union. To live in a democracy is a privilege and a responsibility. As citizens, we have a duty to support others who are actively struggling for that very same privilege and responsibility.

You are the leader of the free world. Support these Egyptians and people all over the world will love and respect you. If you leave them to die to tyranny, you and we will always regret it. And our country will be weaker for it.


Ben Orbach

The Mubarak Moment II: An American Duty

New York -- When I lived in Cairo in 2003, I was in on the ground floor of the protests in Liberation Square at the start of Iraq War. I took pictures, I wrote an oped, and there is a chapter in Live from Jordan about the event. The security forces roughed up some protestors that day, but the whole thing was a sham. Egyptians were upset about the war, but no one cared enough to stop working, to stop eating at McDonalds, or really to alter their lives in any meaningful way.

The opposite is true in Egypt, today. Tunisians showed Egyptians what was possible in 2011, and Egyptians, long the standard-bearer of the Arab World in so many ways, couldn’t bear to live with the shame of the Mubarak regime any longer. Hundreds of thousands of people, if not a couple million people, have taken their lives into their hands to challenge the repressive authority.

At this point in the standoff, it is clear that the regime has made its internal deals and that succession has passed over Mubarak’s son. The military – Egypt’s strongest institution – would have been shamed by the father passing the baton to his son. Egyptians are proud of their history and the turning of their faux-Republic into a Syrian-styled family business would not have been acceptable. This democratic moment preempted that discomfort for the military, and its mission is accomplished. While not securing his son’s throne must surely have been a bitter pill for Mubarak, his redline is undoubtedly a refusal to die in exile as a banished villain, to be sent away like a 21st Century version of King Farouk. The regime has dug in, and the brass has little stake in a continued confrontation.

At the same time, these Egyptian everyday heroes have lived a dream this past week. They’ve come together in the power of numbers, bound by common frustrations and propelled by common hopes. When the protests first began, they never could have hoped to gather this type of lasting attention and to win back such dignity. They’ve been kicked for years and they finally stood up and said no more. Their movement has morphed, though, from making a show of pride to changing the reality of their country and the way their government operates.

Egyptians are on the cusp of changing the very premise of what is possible. That’s intoxicating. It is light and fresh air in a teeming, dark basement. This isn’t regime change from the turret of an American tank; rather it could be a renaissance of Egyptians’ own creation.

But it is a fine line between dreams and nightmares. Together, Egyptian demonstrators are safe. Alone, they will suffer. If the plain-clothes thugs who are beating protestors at this very moment succeed in clearing Liberation Square without a formal political transition in place, then it will all end. There will be no promise of that better tomorrow. Instead, there will be the lurking fear of the knock on the door. Bloggers, Facebook posters, and photographed protestors – they’ll all be vulnerable without the strength of numbers.

Egypt has one of the most notorious prison systems in the Arab World. Many contend that the ideology of al Qaeda was spawned in Egypt’s prisons, where Islamist dissidents were tortured and radicalized further. That style of abuse is what falling short of the dream means.

Yesterday, I co-wrote an oped about this moment as an opportunity for Israelis, about how those who live in a democracy need to support those who are willing to die for democracy. This isn’t just about Israelis, though; it is about us as Americans. There is no question that Egypt is an integral strategic partner to the United States, and foreign policy is based upon interests, not sentimentality. As long as Egyptians were content to go about their everyday lives and not to seek change – as was the case in 2003 – then I didn’t have much of a problem with the practicalities of having to deal with a dictator. But people are dying in the streets to remove that dictator, and journalists are being beaten and arrested to clear the scene of witnesses.

Tomorrow, after Friday prayer, will be a big day. Without the protection of the White House, I don’t think the pro-democracy forces will tip the balance.

There are times when we have to ask what side of history do we want to be on? Supporting human rights and governing democratically are pillars of the identity we espouse as a country. You can argue that we risk strategic interests and stability as related to Iraq, the Suez Canal, and Israel by siding with democratic change in this case. I argue that we risk losing the very character of who we are, any claim to American exceptionalism, if we don’t support our friends who are risking their lives, en masse, for their rights.

To live in a democracy is a privilege and a responsibility. As citizens, we have a duty to support others who are actively struggling for that same privilege and responsibility. Contact the White House, post on Facebook, stop what you are doing for five minutes, and do something to support the citizens of Egypt.

If you want to read a short piece about what we should hope to see in Egypt, this is an excellent analysis by Michelle Dunne.

If you want to read a beautifully written piece about the importance of this moment, this is a wonderful article by Anthony Shadid.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Mubarak Moment: An Opportunity for Israelis

It is hard to believe that Israelis are watching the scenes from Cairo with anything but dread. Yet, the Arab Awakening has presented Israelis with an opportunity to secure their place in the Middle East.

Read the rest and comment here.