Learning about the other is a two-way street

By Saad Eddine Lamzouwaq

A Bridge On Lake Michigan, Rabat and Nile River

By a cold Chicago Friday morning , 13 young men and women from Egypt and Morocco squeezed themselves in a warm but relatively small meeting-room in East Lake Street as they sat listening to their American instructor.

As they took notes, their heads bent down, lifted up and nodded as a sign of approval to what they were being told. Smiles and laughter spread across the faces and across the room before serious talk took over again.

Each of the thirteen people  presented an action plan he intends to conduct in his home country. They’re all part of Legislative Fellows Program, an exchange program for emerging leaders from the two countries as well as the US. As their stay in Chicago drew to an end, the fellows had to speed up the elaboration process of their  projects.

” I want to encourage 20 percent of  the youth of my home-city Mohamadia to register and vote in the coming local elections as a step to create positive change”, says Yassir, a Moroccan with clear interest in local politics. Yassir says there’s an abstinence from voting or involvement in politics in general among his country’s youth. The fact that the program has taken place at a time where US presidential race is in its final laps was a good opportunity for Yassir to see how much some of the American youth are engaged  in the campaigns as volunteers and voters.

Jihan, one of three female Egyptian participants, is more concerned about ensuring better health services among women especially over the age 40. The program enabled her to know about health policies in America. She wants to advocate for health rights for women when she is back to Egypt.

” I want people to realize that health services are rights and not a charity from the government, and that women should seek these rights”. Jihan’s goal is to influence legislations in favor of more and better health services for women.

“There’s no parliament now in Egypt, but I hope in the coming six or seven months we’ll have a parliament”, says Jihan.

Theresa Amato, an American lawyer who has been coaching the participants throughout action planning process, described the thirteen different projects as “impressive, doable and inspiring for future democracy building” of the two countries.

Theresa says that her role is to “help drill down, taking abstract ideas such as the promotion of freedom of speech or health care or reintegration of juvenile ex-offenders and make them into specific goals that could occur within six months period with specific action steps that would result in some sort of measurable output”.

Citizen Bridges International, formerly Heartland International, was awarded the program from the State Department. The Chicago based organization has in its record a two-decades involvement in developing countries in areas such as women’s rights and promoting democracy.

“We changed our name recently because we feel that it expresses the heart of of what we do, which is helping people to cross cultural divide and bring them together to understand each other better and to ultimately promote peace in the world”, says Julie Stagliano, president of CBI.

Having partners in both Egypt and Morocco made it easier for CBI to identify and select emerging leaders from the two countries. Those young leaders, most of whom are active in civil society,  are introduced to many aspects of how non-profits, community organizations, advocacy groups and political institutions in the US operate. ” Our goal is to expose people who are working in civil society in Morocco and Egypt to new ideas, new benchmarks and programs and  also to networks to forge a bond between the two countries”‘ says Julie.

Several meetings with non-profits, politicians and diplomats; panel discussions with students and different sites visits and home-stays with American families were planned to provide the participants an overview of how the US society and politics functions and how Americans live. The fellows were placed in organizations whose work would “compliment their areas of interests”.

The areas of interest that attracted fellows were indeed complimented.

Nabila ,  a Moroccan fellow, enjoyed her placement at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights. Being a human rights activist and a Ph.D student doing  research on the issue of immigration, Nabila says she appreciated the efforts by the  ICIRR “to influence policy making and enhance  the quality of life not only of legal immigrants but but also of undocumented ones”.

Mahmoud, a young Egyptian who was among the millions of youth to take to the streets during the protests against the regime of former president Hosny Mubarak, and thus became very actively involved in civil society due to the country’s several post revolution upheavals, had many reasons as well to rejoice his experience in Chicago.

“As soon as people know I’m from Egypt, they’d ultimately ask me about the revolution. They want to know what happened exactly, what is happening and to what direction things may head to after the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsy became the president,”he says.

And Mahmoud, like all other Egyptian fellows, says he was frequently beseeched by curious American citizens, eager to know what is going on in one of the key countries in the Middle East.

“Most questions would turn around the nature of my involvement in the revolution, and if I’m member of any political movement and how I see the relationship between Egypt and the US in the future. This relationship’s cornerstone is the 1979 Camp Davids Accords”.

Learning about one’s country’s politics wasn’t just a one-way street for Mahmoud. As much as he could instruct, he also had the chance to know more about Uncle Sam’s politics. “Even though we have been in a state that’s predominantly democratic, it was good to know about what people think of each party and the two party system”.

Later in the day, the fellows went to dinner meeting. This time the mood was more informal, and talks about politics gave way to the participants’s accounts of their personal experiences with the American people in home-stays, fellowship placements or the street. They cheerfully spoke about their encounters and how they appreciated people smiling or helping them with directions in the streets. Some recalled their first trick or treat Halloween experience or how they fell in love with their home stays ‘ dog.

“It was a good experience to live with American people, and the family was really amazing and great. This experience changed a lot my perceptions in many ways”, says Sherif, an Egyptian participant.

Some months later on US fellows will have the chance to go to Morocco and Egypt as part of the exchange program “to observe and immerse themselves in the political and cultural  life of those countries,  learn what’s going on there and build those links stronger”, says Julie Stagliano.

Saad Eddine Lamzouwaq spent much of his time in Chicago with the Community Media Workshop


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