“Do you speak English?” was a favorite phrase of mine for the first two weeks of my three-month experience in Amman, Jordan this past summer. Living my life according to the adage, “Adventure is the best way to learn,” I took off for the journey with only four brief semesters of beginning Arabic experience and some textbook knowledge on the Middle East and South Asia (MESA) region. Upon my arrival in Amman, I quickly came to realize that my experiences there were going to help me understand more than Arabic or regional politics – it was going to open my eyes to practical lessons about life.
On June 10, 2014, almost a week into my stay, the Islamic State captured Mosul. A few days after that, an uprising of an extremist group erupted in Ma’an in South Jordan, and intense bombings were occurring in the Northern border of Syria and Jordan. Conflict in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel had also just resumed. I was in the eye of an international conflict storm and all I could say was, “Do you speak English?”
My aim from that point on was to grasp a better understanding of what was happening around me, and what it meant for the people and the place of which I was now a part of. Taxi drivers would give me lessons on the Jordanian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Saudi ways to give directions, order food, and ask questions. The Syrian students that I taught English to told me stories and drew pictures of the beauty of Syria and the comparative wretchedness of their refugee camps. The Sheikh of Khirbat ‘Ain, Al Mafraq near the Syrian border which had taken in 5,000 Syrian refugees over just a few weeks discussed the importance of keeping lines of communication open, not just between formal governing bodies, but amongst the people as well.
As a rising senior from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I am preparing to graduate with a Bachelors of Arts in Politics and International Affairs with Arabic and MESA studies. I had two solid years of studies under my belt before arriving in Jordan, yet once there I felt that everything I thought I knew was incomplete. Close to a year later, I look back upon my time in Jordan with appreciation, respect, and gravity. I left Jordan with a newfound sense of international relations and foreign policy: you can have all of the historical and political knowledge in the world, but it means nothing without understanding the sense and perceptions of the people experiencing the situations we study. Surface level dialogue and action is not enough. “Do you speak English?” is not enough.
EPIC’s mission of integrating youth in the efforts to rebuild a nation fragmented by prolonged conflict is one that supports that concept. For instance, the TentEd initiative to purchase school materials and supplies for the students and educators in refugee camps truly makes an effort to affect Iraqi society on as many levels as possible by purchasing the goods within Iraq to help vitalize the economy. The youth and the people of Iraq are the foundation of present and future Iraqi society, and the key to reestablishing peace, and are the reason why I am whole-heartedly determined to continue to learn and contribute what I can to ongoing efforts here at EPIC.