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.

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