Friday, May 16, 2008

Student Action for Refugees

Last Sunday, I taught my last English class in Cairo. For the last two semesters, I have been volunteering with Student Action for Refugees (STAR), a student-run organization working to raise awareness and reach out to the refugee community in Cairo. Every Sunday night during this past semester, I journeyed to the northern Cairo neighborhood of Ain Shams to teach English to Iraqi and Sudanese refugees. I enjoyed teaching the classes, and I also benefited from a little Arabic practice myself. Both teacher and students learned a great deal about each other, and I will miss my students.

If I can make one last observation about STAR, it’s this: it was never about the English. While teaching English was a rewarding experience, and my students improved their language skills a little, the bottom line is that you can’t learn much English in a class that meets three hours a week for 10 weeks. That’s just a small part of what we do. For me, STAR is about bringing together communities into a common arena where dissimilar groups share time and space. As a result, we become one community, a STAR community, comprised of American students and Iraqi and Sudanese refugees. Where else in the world does this diverse arrangement exist? It probably doesn’t, and that is why STAR is such a beneficial program.

My experience was much more than a class. It was a dynamic process of building community. And I see the potential in these kinds of activities. Community building and inter-community interaction is the key to improving the well being of people around the world. A peaceful world is only possible if the citizens of the world can begin to think of themselves as a global community with shared interests. Building communities that transcend state-centered identity is a necessary component of such change. I believe in the assumption that a man who loves his brother does not fight his brother. This, I believe, is an assumption we as a global community can build upon.

For more information on STAR, visit our website at

Monday, May 5, 2008

Ma'lish: It's Just the Way It Is

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article on noise pollution in Cairo. According to a government study, the average decibel level in Cairo between 7:00am and 10:00pm is 85, equivalent to the sound of a freight train 15 feet away. And that’s just the average. People shout unnecessarily. Shop owners yell the prices of their goods. Worst of all, the cars honk and honk and honk. Cars zip through the city honking for no reason. They honk because they just got cut off. They honk because nobody is driving in a lane, nobody uses a turn signal, and traffic lights are nonexistent. They honk because there are no rules, and the rules that do exist are not followed.

“So why do you do it?” he was asked.
“Well, to tell you I’m here,” he said. “There is no such thing as logic in this country.”
And then he drove off, honking.

What strikes me is that although people seem not to care, in reality they do. Ask anybody on the street, “Does Cairo have a noise problem?” and they will promptly reply “Yes.” The same goes for other questions. Ask about pollution, the lack of democracy, poor education, poor healthcare, and corruption, and the answer is always the same. But if you ask the follow up question, “What are you going to do about it?” the answer is always, “It’s just the way it is.”

I’m extremely bothered by this attitude, even if I’m not Egyptian. The problems facing Egypt are tremendous in size and scope, and solutions are difficult. But one solution that will never work is the apathetic and indifferent attitude that the majority of the people share. If Cairenes want to live in noisy city with complete disregard to traffic regulations, that’s fine with me. But the problems are much deeper than that. What about the children that suffer hearing damage because of the noise pollution? What about the high rate of pollution-related respiratory disease? What about the civilians sentenced to death in a military court with no appeal? What about the 72% illiteracy rate (59% for women)? What about the 40% who live on less than two dollars a day? What is the answer to these questions? “It’s just the way it is?”

At the heart of Egypt’s political, social, and economic problems is a basic attitude of apathy and indifference. Perhaps I have no purpose sticking my nose in somebody else’s business, but to me this is a question of universal human rights. Egypt can do better, and the change must come from society, not the government. But as long as the attitude remains “It’s just the way it is,” the decibel level will continue to rise and the cars will keep on honking.