America’s Unofficial Ambassadors Encourage Citizen Diplomacy Between America and the Muslim World

“Hello, Mr. Cow. Can you come home?”

Sam Schindler deadpans into his cell phone before a classroom full of giggling teenage boys at The Carter Academy in rural Bangladesh. In Yogyjakarta, Indonesia, Katarina Deshotel is mapping close to 2000 domestic abuse cases that Rifka Annisa responded to from 2007 to 2012. In a Moroccan village in the Mid-Atlas Mountains, Rachel Wiser is making number “flash cards” for illiterate female craftswomen.

Sam, Katarina, and Rachel are three of the 22 “Unofficial Ambassadors” dispatched to the Muslim World this summer on behalf of America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA), a new citizen diplomacy initiative. They are volunteering in areas of human development to support locally-led initiatives and in the process, are dispelling stereotypes of Americans. Significantly, they are also bringing their experience home through blogs and then community presentations this fall to build mutual understanding here at home in the United States.

Sam is a high school teacher in Lancaster, PA who traveled to Bangladesh to teach conversational English. His students hail from nearby villages and wear blue uniforms as they sit in pairs at wooden desks. Sam mixed in some poetry and teacher training during his volunteer service, but he left his mark teaching conversational English – and idioms like “when the cows come home” – with humor, grace, and humility.

Rifka Annisa is an Indonesian NGO that advocates for and counsels abuse victims.  Katarina’s supervisor gave her a spreadsheet of data, in Bahasa, on 1832 cases and asked her to generate the graphs and analysis for a 5-year report. To the delight of her supervisor, she used an online dictionary, standardized the data, and then, with software she learned to use in her Masters program at the University of Pittsburgh, generated the graphs and a map of where incidents occurred.

Helping teenagers in rural Bangladesh speak English with confidence and using native data to counter domestic abuse in Indonesia are not the type of lofty national outcomes found in the performance indicator section of the average USAID-funded proposal. Yet, in the discussion of healthy lives and a better, shared future, these are wonderful development successes even before factoring in the “soft power” impact of a well-meaning American playing the role of partner in generating these changes.

What’s more, the impact of these interventions here in the United States is just as important. According to recent polls, 45 percent of Americans believe Muslims are violent, and 62 percent of Americans say they’ve never met a Muslim. Thousands of Americans will read about Sam and Katarina’s experiences, and hundreds more—from college campuses to local libraries—will hear about the people they met. Multiply Sam or Katarina’s efforts by the 20 other unofficial ambassadors who served in Morocco, Indonesia, and Tanzania this summer, and we have a growing movement of citizen diplomats contributing to a larger goal.

Of course, Americans offering their expertise or enthusiasm as volunteers in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East isn’t new, but I believe AUA is unique because of our volunteer’s intentionality and the concentrated geographic scope of their work.  We are taking the sentiment of global citizenship and leadership that runs through so many Americans and channeling it specifically into the Muslim World. Our volunteers approach their service in education, human rights, or the environment with a consciousness about how we want to represent America abroad and what we want to bring home for our communities to consider.

There aren’t enough opportunities—for education, for work, and for dignity—in the countries that stretch from Morocco to Indonesia, but there also aren’t enough opportunities for us to get to know each other beyond the stereotypes that exist between America and the Muslim World. America’s greatest asset is our citizens. While governmental interventions and assistance are crucial, they leave a lot of room for purposeful citizen diplomats to generate sustainable achievements that result from partnerships built on merit, trust, and mutual interests.

And those flashcards?

For years, the women of Tarmillat village have created and sold rugs without keeping track of their inventory or costs. Rachel Wiser, a William and Mary undergraduate, took a page from her own Arabic studies and created flashcards for the women to learn math.  After just a few weeks, the women now understand that their enterprise has been making them less than a dollar an hour. That knowledge, and what those women do with it, is a great step forward.

Math flash cards in Tarmillat, English language debates in Zanzibar, and line dancing in Aceh might not be the stuff of presidential summits. Yet these kinds of interventions at the grassroots level are creating new opportunities and shaping cultural impressions that will last a lifetime. Together, America’s Unofficial Ambassadors are influencing how individuals’ lives are lived and how outlooks on the world are formed.

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