As I sit outside on the plaza, people watching, chatting with friends, and enjoying this beautiful Saturday (GAMEDAY- Go Duke Football!) afternoon, I’m reminded how much I love my university. A few minutes ago, I ran into a classmate I hadn’t seen around campus yet who asked me how my summer was. “I saw your pictures from Cairo,” she said. “It looked amazing, I want to hear all about it!” Every time I get that request, my mind floods with memories. Where to begin?
This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Cairo, Egypt to volunteer and study Arabic for eight weeks. I went through one of the many DukeEngage international programs with ten other Duke students (you can “meet” them all here). Our group was truly representative of the diversity of Duke- the only definite things we had in common were our Arabic studies, an interest in the the area, and in interest in civic engagement.
I still can’t believe I had the chance to pursue my passion for social justice and activism in a part of the world I have always been interested in- all financed through the DukeEngage program! I’ve thought about my experience every single day since I’ve been back in the states and DukeEngage is definitely something I would recommend a hundred times over to current and future Duke students (it’s a huge reason why many people choose to come to Duke!)
During the day, we worked at a rehabilitation center called Ana el-Masry (I the Egyptian) teaching developmental skills, art, English, sports, and music to children as young as 3 years old to about 16 years old. Similar to an orphanage, Ana el-Masry houses these children and gives them a space to learn and grow in a supportive community. For the first four weeks, I was stationed in the nursery where I formed some of my closest relationships. The last four weeks, I taught Art to the youth and witnessed some pretty amazing talent, creativity, and, most importantly, a willingness to learn and try new things.
At night, we switched off from teaching English and American culture to young professionals at our secondary organizations, Kayan Society and Al-Resala, and taking intensive Arabic classes where we learned both Modern Standard Arabic and the local Egyptian dialect. Through our secondary NGOs, we had the opportunity to get to know some really great Egyptians closer to our age. Our conversations would go from favorite music to political debates to predictions for an upcoming soccer game; there was never a dull moment. At Kayan, where I spent my evenings, some of our students even helped us celebrate the 4th of July (my first one outside of America) by surprising us with a decorated classroom. They always provided the most welcoming environment and I really miss their spirit, insatiable curiosity, and generosity.
My group was lucky enough to be some of the only Americans in Egypt during a pivotal time of the country’s history. Living in apartments just a short walk from Tahrir Square, we were able to witness and feel the tension, anxiety, and excitement of Egypt’s first democratic presidential election. Basically, we had front row seats to something that will be written in history books soon to come! I will never forget day President Morsi was elected president, the news had me running to my apartment window and flinging it open to hear the roar of the crowd in Tahrir Square. I distinctly remember walking through the streets after the announcement of the results and finding my stride align with the melodic “Morsi! Morsi!” chants from the proud Egyptians filling the streets in celebration.
(Check out this video of a live web chat I did before the election with a fellow DukeEngager, Desmond Lee, my program leader and professor, Mbaye Lo, and other Duke scholars across the globe. The event was co-hosted by Duke University Office Hours Program and the Duke Islamic Studies Center’s Transcultural Islam Project.)
Every day was full of constant surprises. We really never knew what to expect, but the unpredictability just made things that much more interesting. Sometimes I would see or hear something that would make me stop in my tracks in awe, disbelief, or even disgust. I can’t remember a time when my mind wasn’t racing. Despite the flaws I found in Cairo and the organizations we were working with, I couldn’t help but fall in love with everything.
There is just something about Cairo… the constant honking and traffic on the streets and the laid back atmosphere of the local cafes, the bustling bazaars and the scent of the small street side bakeries, the appreciation of small things and a hot cup of tea… it just gets under your skin! I can’t wait to go back and I can’t wait to take all that I learned from my experience, along with my strengthened passions and new interests, and find outlets for making tangible change in the Duke community, the community I worked with this summer, my home community, and beyond (inshallah!)
I went to Cairo in hopes of making a difference, to provide significant assistance to our partner organizations, to give my time not necessarily to “help” others but to work with them. I went because, along with many other Duke students, I believe in the mission of DukeEngage and the positive outcomes of civic engagement. Engaging with partner organizations changed me in ways I both did and did not expect and my hope is that this change will not only transform my life but the lives of the people around me. Until I figure that all out, all I can say for now is: Thanks DukeEngage!!
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