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.