22.33 is an audio podcast produced by the Collaboratory in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).

The podcast features first-person narratives and anecdotes from people who have been involved with ECA exchange programs. The first season launched on January 2019.

Each week, 22.33 brings you tales of people finding their way in new surroundings. With a combination of survival, empathy, and humor, ECA’s innovative podcast series delivers unforgettable travel stories from people whose lives were changed by international exchange.

New episodes are released every Friday, along with regular bonus episodes. You can listen to 22.33 right here on our website or you can subscribe using any one of these podcasting apps: iTunes, Google, Spotify, Acast, Anchor, Blubrry, Breaker, Bullhorn, Castbox, Castro, Himalaya, iHeartRadio, Listen Notes, Luminary, myTuner Radio, Overcast, OwlTail, Player FM, Pocket Casts, PodBean, Podcast Gang, Podchaser, Podnews, Podparadise, Podtail, Podyssey, RadioPublic, Soundcloud, Spreaker, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube. You can also subscribe via email updates.

Follow and tag us on social media using the hashtag #2233stories.

Latest Episode


The first of 22.33's special new series "Connecting Through Isolation," featuring self-recorded clips from 22.33 alumni from around the world who, separated though they may be are together in social distancing. In this episode, messages from three continents, original songs, and the sense that, even though we are apart, we are all very much together. 


Season 02, Episode 25 -  Special: Connecting Through Isolation, Part 1 (March 27, 2020)


Alyssa Myers:

Maybe a silver lining in all of this is that what's happening is global at this point and I come from a community where often, if folks have never been abroad, it's hard to sometimes get people to relate to the realities of another country. I'm hoping that this will help overcome some of those barriers because no matter what country folks are in, we're all experiencing the same emotions right now. My friends who are still in Central Asia, all of us are waking up and calling friends and family to make sure that everyone's okay. For all of us, the number one priority right now is just making sure that our loved ones are safe and healthy, and I'm hoping that somehow the silver lining in all of this will be that it builds a little more empathy.

Christopher W.:

Hi everybody, thanks for listening. Today we were scheduled to release a regular episode of 22.33, but as we all know, it's not a regular day. Nothing is regular these days, so we are pressing pause on regular episodes for the time being and doing something different. I wanted to take a moment to reach out to you directly. To update you on how the 22.33 family is doing and invite you to join us in sharing stories during this historic and difficult time. Our team is working from home these days and our little nook has now become little closet spaces and apartments across D.C. and northern Virginia, but even though we're working remotely, 22.33 will continue.

Christopher W.:

Of course, this podcast was founded on the idea that connecting people through international and cultural exchanges helps us better understand each other and our world, and we're here with you. In the coming weeks or months, we will continue to reach across cultural divides, connecting us home to home. We can't see each other in person, but our stories will make us feel seen and help us see others. I'm honored that we made it this far in the podcast and I'm looking forward to the changes our team is making. Today, we launch this special 22.33 series called Connecting Through Isolation and we'll continue to bring stories of isolated inspiration as long as we have to.

Christopher W.:

In this and coming episodes, we reached out to our 22.33 family. People whose stories you heard or you will hear and ask them to record themselves sharing how they're getting through these uncertain times. What gives them hope? What gives them inspiration and lastly, we'd love to hear from you as well. Tell us how you're doing in a story, a poem or a song. I'll explain how at the end of the episode. Connecting Through Isolation. It's 22.33.

Speaker 4: Politicians, scientists, and even celebrities all want us to practice social distancing.

Kristen E.:

This is a recording for 22.33 and it's in the COVID crisis.

Speaker 5: Things are unpredictable.

Speaker 14: I think that people can in their house will be thinking that they are stuck at home.

Speaker 7: So we're asking everyone to be selfless for others.

Tony M.:

We're all in this together. We all have a voice. We all have a story to tell.

Kathy Pico: [Spanish]


Hello, my name is Kathy Pico from Quito, Ecuador. During these difficult times that we are all experiencing, I invite you to find inspiration in the things that you love. What works for me is reevaluating the things I have already accomplished and what is still left for me to achieve like continue choosing happiness. What mountain should I conquer next? What destination shall I visit? And I ask you to please stay in your home with your families and remember all the blessings you have to be grateful for. There are many, many going through a really hard time now and we must think of them and be empathetic. Stand with them in solidarity. Support and help in any way we can, hugs to all. Ciao, ciao.

Michael L.:

My name is Michael Littig I am an entrepreneur, a theater artist and a teacher. Currently, I'm really inspired by these meditation calls that we've been doing at Zuckerberg Institute, which I co-founded. So every morning at 9:30 AM eastern standard time till about 10:00 AM, we gather about 60 people from around the world and we're in conversation with my friend [inaudible] who works with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, India and we use that time to talk about mindfulness, meditation and the ability to give structure into our lives in this moment of the unknown. He said three things that I've been deeply inspired by. One, it's the notion that the source of my happiness depends upon the others, and during a time now which feels opposite of what we've been living, which is more a survival of the fittest is that he says we're now in a moment of the survival of compassion and kindness.

Michael L.:

The reminder that the source of my happiness truly depends on other people is something that's allowed me to get through this moment of social distancing and being by myself. The second one is the focus on the breath. He said something so profound. He said at the time of birth, you inhale and at the time of death, you exhale. That life is between the inhale and the exhale and how you focus on your breath in the present moment. That's always helped ground me. Finally, as a quote by the ninth century philosopher from India, Shantideva who says, "If there is a solution to a problem, why worry? If there is no solution to a problem, why worry?" That has been helping me a lot and inspiring me.

Michael L.:

As for thoughts for friends I have around the world, I've been thinking a lot about the friends that have taught me the lessons that are coming up in this moment. So through my work with the connections with the State Department, I started an NGO in the world's largest refugee camp on the border of Somalia in northeast Kenya called the Dadaab Refugee Camp and I was there during the middle of a famine and there was a lot of unknown during that time and it was a humanitarian crisis. I remember I asked my friend Levon Rashid who was from Somalia, had lived in the camp for 20 years at that time and faced such atrocities, and I said, "How do you get through it?"

Michael L.:

He told me, "I can control what I can control. Every day, I do the exact same thing." For him, it was turning on the radio and reminding himself that there was a world outside of his own, or I think about my friends that I worked with in Juarez, Mexico during the height of the drug war and they always reminded me that the stories that you tell about yourself in your community is what helps you survive. So I've been telling a lot more stories these days.

Michael L.:

I'll leave you with a poem that got me through a difficult time and it's one of those poems that just imprinted itself on my soul. After my mother died in 2016, I turned to this poem as a marker, as a guide and I find that the words from the poet Rumi helped during this time. The poem is called the Guest House and it says, "This being human is a guest house. Every morning, a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor welcome and entertain them all. Even if they're a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond."

Christopher W.:

Michael Littig is the co-founder of the Zuckerberg Institute. His forthcoming 22.33 episode called Life Between Worlds chronicles his time living and studying with shaman in remotes parts of Mongolia. He's currently in New York City. Before Michael, you heard Kathy Pico, featured on the 22.33 episode One Leg but Two Feet on the Ground telling the amazing story of how she overcame the loss of her leg to cancer, and then decided to become a marathon runner and mountain climber. It was also the first time we released simultaneous episodes. One in Kathy's native Spanish and a translated version in English as well. Kathy recorded her greeting from her apartment in Quito, Ecuador.

Carla Canales:

Hi, my name is Carla Canales and I'm an opera singer. I'm in New York City and as such, taking all the precautions to be safe and stay indoors, and I just want to say to all of my friends and anyone who might be listening out there that I know it's a difficult time, but I feel that there's real potential in this time for us to be reawakened as humans. I think there's an inward journey to be had right now. Inward literally indoors, but also diving into the soul a bit and thinking about what's important in life and what's amazing to me is the knowledge that so many of us are doing this collectively at the same time around the world. I really look forward to the rebirth that that might give in our communications and exchanges with each other. I hope there will be more kindness and compassion and thoughtfulness.

Christopher W.:

Carla Canales is a mezzo soprano opera singer and longtime State Department cultural envoy bringing art, positivity and joy to people around the world. Besides her uplifting stories, her 22.33 episode On a Quest for Duende featured a wide selection of her music and if you want to learn what Duende means, I highly suggest that you listen. You can find out more about her work at the Canalesproject.org. Carla reached out to us from New York City.

Richard S.:

Hello, this is Richard Steighner. I'm the beatboxer with Freedoms Boombox. What inspires me right now is my dude, Mosita, we have been doing beatbox lessons for the past month or two, and obviously with the quarantine that is not possible. Beatboxing is not advisable in public during the coronavirus. So he's actually convinced his dad to get him a little iPad and get setup, and now we are able to continue this beatbox journey online and I wanted to encourage anybody out there who is an independent musician, if your gigs have been canceled too and you're figuring out, "Wow, how do I pay these bills?" Find new and exciting ways. If there is a community out there to be creative in tough times, it is us, it is you, it is we and I'm so excited to see what comes out in the next I don't know, two to three weeks musically. It's going to be fantastic.

Richard S.:

That being said, I have written and recorded a song about staying positive and staying emotionally level during these times and it's acapella. It's part of a new song, a week series that I started on my birthday back in November and yeah, here it is.

Richard S.: (Singing)

Christopher W.:

Richard Steighner is the beatboxing member of the amazing vocal trio Freedoms Boombox. Their 22.33 episode, not so cleverly called Freedoms Boombox, featured two live little nook performances and some pretty funny stories. You can hear more of Richard's song project at his self named YouTube channel and find out more about the trio at freedom/boombox.com. Richard is currently down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Kristen E.:

My name is Kristen Erthum and I am Foreign Affairs Officer at the U.S. Department of State. Before all this COVID crisis started, we were all really busy and I think our society placed value on and worth on how busy we are. We get up at 5:45 in the morning, we're out of the door by 7:15. We have meetings throughout the day. We have all of our social and extracurricular activities in the afternoon. In the evening, we come home. We binge Netflix for couple hours, do the perfunctory tasks that we have to do in the evening. Got to bed to get five hours of sleep and wake up and do it all again. We really focused on busy, busy, busy, do, do, do and so when COVID happens and now, we're stuck at home. We're suddenly faced with large blocks of time in which there's no structure.

Kristen E.:

For a lot of us, that's probably really daunting, but what's inspired me most recently is I'm reminded that we are who we are truly are when nobody is watching, and what I mean by that is when we're stuck in our house for days on end with ourself, who we are is really that person. So what I've been doing is taking it a strategic pause. My life like most others has been really busy, but now I actually time to do what I'm wanting to look at as a strategic pause. Stopping, reassessing, reevaluating and just catching up on myself. There's also the opportunity to reach out and connect with people that we've been neglecting that have mattered to us and have always mattered to us, and we want to say, "Dear friend, you are very important to me and I value the relationship I have with you, but we haven't."

Kristen E.:

So now that all the busyness is stripped away, I think this is a good time to evaluate what is really important to us. What is it that we want to keep? What is it that we've always placed value in being busy on that can really not matter anymore, and just take a pause to reflect on ourselves and rest your weary soul and really move forward. At the end of COVID, my inspiration is that we'll come through this hopefully stronger and at least in a mentally and emotionally happier and more connected and healthier, because this time can either be daunting or it can be something that we seize the little moments and make the most of this, knowing that this too will end and COVID will be over eventually.

Christopher W.:

Kristen Erthum is a State Department colleague. Her regular episode has not yet aired, but it's called "Don't Worry Mom, It's Only the Arab Spring" and it tells the story of a parent's visit abroad just as the country goes into a revolution. It will air sometime in 2020. She's currently working from home in Fairfax, Virginia.


I am Inusah Akansoke Al-Hassan from Ghana. I am a teacher. In these trying times of COVID-19 as the coronavirus, things have not been the same. I think that the people in the house will be thinking that they are stuck at home, and I think that this is a time for some sort of a mindset shift. I know trying times like this can... it helps me challenging for some of us psychologically, but I think that in as much that we think that we are stuck at home, we should rather have a positive mindset towards this trying times. I think that we should rather see that this is a time that we are staying at home to keep ourself safe, because it's not safe going out to meet other people in crowds, which probably increase your risk of getting the virus. So I think that staying at home gives us an opportunity to spend time with our families instead of us thinking that we might fall sick, I think that being isolated at home [inaudible] of being isolated at home is rather an opportunity for us to protect our loved ones who perhaps will have effected if we are going out.


We should try to wash our hands and not touch our nose if we are to sneeze, you are to cough, we are advised to cover our mouth or our nose. With these things, it will help us decrease our chances of getting sick. I think that we should also have a positive mindset towards the fact that we still have an opportunity to prepare ourselves wisely towards anything that will come, because perhaps we might be thinking that we run out of items, food stuff and all that, but I think that if we use our things wisely at home, we'll be able to manage. I think we should not just think so much about this coronavirus having a necessity in our lifetime.


I know there are so many things that have been canceled, our plans have been changed. Some of us have canceled our plans simply because of this challenge that we are facing. I think that in as much as we cannot control this situation that's around us, but we can control our actions. We should continuously do some breathing, some breath work to stimulate our respiratory systems, and then we can also call loved ones. We have taken this for granted, because we usually have a busy schedule, perhaps we don't call our loved ones. I think it's an opportunity for us to reflect and call our loved ones, and then get enough sleep and have proper nutrition. For some of us, this an opportunity for us to pray, continuously pray and then fixate our hopes to the will of god, the will of Allah and within this time at home, I have been able to do some other activities that I love that perhaps I wouldn't have gotten the time to do because of my busy schedule.


Because this situation, I have opportunity to read some of the books that I love to read. Books about life, relationships, business, things that we keep me inspired and going. For my family and friends in Austin, Minnesota, I wish them well. The [inaudible] family, my host family, they took care of me when I was an exchange student as one of their sons. They did everything for me. I can't thank them enough. In these trying times, I can only hope and pray for them. I hope that god all mighty protects them and keeps them safe from this coronavirus. For my friends back in Austin, Minnesota, I wish them the best and I wish they're safe. My hopes and prayers goes to them. I pray that god protects all of us during these trying times and may we live long to meet again. That's my utmost wish that I get to see my host family and friends again.

Christopher W.:

Inusah Akansoke Al-Hassan is currently in Ghana. His 22.33 story about a year spent as a high school junior in the United States was called "Doing What Needs to be Done." It was a story of contrasts. As a Muslim, he wound up living on a pork farm, but that didn't bother Inusah as much as moving from tropical West Africa to frigid Minnesota, it's a good episode.

Tony M.:

Hi, my name is Tony Memmel, I'm a singer songwriter, a speaker, a teacher and a professional guitar player living in Nashville, Tennessee. Ideas like overcoming adversity and looking at challenges that you face in a new light are subjects that I have the opportunity to speak into every single day. I was born with one hand and I taught myself to play the guitar by building a special adaptive cast on the end of my arm out of a strong extra sticky duct tape called Gorilla Tape. With that message, I've had the opportunity to visit schools and churches and hospitals to share music, but then also to have so many conversations to try and help people work through the challenges that they're facing in their immediate lives. The thing that's particularly unique about this moment in time is that we as a society, we as a world are trying to work through and figure out a way around a challenge that we have never faced before in anyone's lifetime who is currently living.

Tony M.:

So people are looking for leadership, for light, for joy, for hope and it means that now more than ever, it is so pivotally and important and crucial that you share your gifts, your talents, your abilities, it will not look the same as it did even weeks ago, but it's even more important now than ever.

Tony M.: (Singing)

Tony M.:

All my friends around the world, I would just first like to say that you are loved and that I work every single day for your joy, both at home in the United States and abroad when we're in the same space together singing our songs and having amazing conversations together. I hope that you're healthy. I hope that you're safe. I hope that your family is doing well, and I also hope in the deepest part of my heart, in the forefront of my mind that you remember that you have a unique purpose and to be looking for opportunities to shed your light even on the darkest days. You might remember that if I've been in your community in the last few years, we sang a song that goes... (Singing)

Tony M.:

And I told you on that day, that it's a song that I hope gets stuck really deeply in your minds for a time when you need it. For a time when... whether it's a day or a week, or a year after the concert itself that that pops back into your mind, and it starts ringing in your heart again that you might be able to use that to fuel your hard work ethic, your imagination, your creative problem solving abilities, and just to remember to keep going and do your best every single day, even on the hardest days.

Tony M.: (Singing)

Tony M.:

The thing that fuels me the most on both good days and hard days is my faith. My faith reminds me to rebuild my life on a firm foundation to have peace like a river and love like an ocean, and joy like a fountain in my soul, and it also reminds me that perseverance develops character. Everything else I take in and filter it through that, so one thing that I've been really enjoying is the Ken Burns documentary about country music, and I've been especially inspired by early country music that is taking place during the Great Depression in our country and the songs that came out of that, and the hope and the courage that it gave people wherever they were. As they crowded around their radio sets at night just to hear their favorite singer's voice.

Tony M.:

Now, we aren't all crowding around the radio that they did in the 1930s, but you might be sharing a podcast, you might be sharing a social media profile. Whatever it happens to be, my hope is that you remember that you have a purpose and that you were uniquely crafted for the time and place that you are in, and to remember those things and to share and shed light and hope wherever you are.

Tony M.: (Singing)

Christopher W.:

Tony Memmel is a singer songwriter from Nashville. He's also a veteran State Department Cultural Ambassador along with his band mates we will hear from in future "Connecting Through Isolation" episodes. They crowded into our little nook for two acoustic performances for their episode "Crying Out for Kindness." For more about the band, you can check out tonymemmel.com. Tony is currently in Nashville, Tennessee.

Alyssa Myers:

Hi all, this is Alyssa Myers. I work at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. I think for all of us, this has been a really strange time to navigate. For me on a personal level, I think you can guess a lot of the things that have been going through my head. On a professional level as well, I find myself constantly asking myself whether the teams I'm on are doing enough to support the public during these times and the answers aren't readily available, so that's a little frightening.

Alyssa Myers:

In terms of what I'm doing to keep my spirits up and protect my mental health, I guess I would say two things. The first as an introvert, so far I'm really liking the opportunity to work from home. I have a very spoiled cat who has become my new office mate, and I'm really liking that. He has been making guest appearances into my conference calls and video chats, so that's been fun and hopefully lighthearted for others as well. But in about two months, he and I are actually moving into a new place and although, it's really easy for me to spiral into... while all of this could go down the drain if I get sick, I'm trying not to think about that.

Alyssa Myers:

Trying to think about how I want to decorate my new place, and I've been looking a lot at places like World Market for inspiration or pieces that can help me figure out colors or decorating schemes, and yesterday evening, I found at World Market a couple throw pillows on their website that are ikat, which is Central Asian silk and I ordered them thinking that it would be really great to base my new living room around a small piece of my second home. So I'm really excited about that. It may seem silly, but I'm hoping if I can focus on the future and a couple months from now, maybe that will keep me from spiraling into all the what ifs. Sending you all well wishes and take care.

Christopher W.:

Alyssa Myers, whose voice you also heard at the very beginning of this episode talked about her time in the Kyrgs Republic. Republic during her regular 22.33 episode called "Keeping the Lights On." Her stories about what it's like to live abroad as a person with cerebral palsy are unforgettable. We are hoping that she and her spoiled cat will move into their new apartment on schedule.

Christopher W.:

22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name is Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of the U.S. government funded international exchange programs. This week, we heard from 22.33 friends new and old who were kind enough during these times of uncertainty to record themselves talking about what is inspiring them and what they are feeling.

Christopher W.:

Huge special thanks to Alyssa Myers, Kathy Pico, Michael Littig, Carla Canales, Richard Steighner, Kristen Erthum, Inusah Akansoke Al-Hassan, Tony Memmel and Manny Pereira Colocci. Listeners, we would love to hear your thoughts and inspirations as well. It could be a story, a poem, or a song, whatever you're feeling. Please send your audio to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Let us know where you are while you're at it. You can always find more information about the podcast at our web page at eca.state.gov/22.33 and of course, you should follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories.

Christopher W.:

Huge special thanks to everybody for mobilizing to send audio on such short notice. The 22.33 team working from various locations was instrumental in this special new series. Thanks to Kate Furby, Anna Maria Sinitean, Samantha DiFilippo, Edward Stewart and Desiree Williamson. Thanks to Maria Garcia for translating and providing the voiceover for Kathy Pico's clip. I edited this episode. The song at the top of this episode was Quarantine Piano Meditation by Derek Nelson, whose story you'll hear in an upcoming episode. Thanks to Derek for the use of this song. Thanks also to Richard Steighner for "We'll be Fine" and the Tony Memmel Band for "I am Never, Never, Never Going to Give Up" and "Peace Like a River." Other featured music was Only Lonesome, Our Digital Compass and Story Four by Blue Dot Sessions and Fantasy by Pottington Bear. Music at the end of the episode was Two Pianos by [inaudible] Stay healthy everyone.

Manuel P.C.:

Hi everyone, this is Manuel Pereira Colocci from ECA's Public Private Partnerships Unit working on the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs. What's inspiring me now is the advocacy. From my friends, my colleagues, my family, my loved ones all around the world, it's been incredible to see the work, the collaboration to get everybody through this time in the best way possible. The thoughts I have to my friends are to take this as a gift of time. Of time to think, time to progress, time to love, time for everything. Look at it that way and make the best use of it. Listen to musicians, make that the background and the melody of your day, it's been instrumental throughout this whole process. I wish everyone well and stay safe, bye.

Previous Episodes

Season 02, Episode 24- The Coronavirus Episode- Sabrine Chengane

LISTEN HERE - Episode 24


You had no idea when you were offered a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Nebraska's Medical Center, that you were headed for one of the early centers of attention during the first days of the Coronavirus outbreak. What you saw and what you learned will stay with you for the rest of your life. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Note: This episode was produced before the global COVID-19 pandemic. We have temporarily paused conducting new 22.33 interviews, but will continue to air curated episodes into the foreseeable future.



Sabrine Chegane:

Actually the patients who are quarantined are watched because the patients, we say patients, but they're people who were exposed to the virus, they are quarantined. They don't have symptoms. It doesn't mean they are affected by any illness. It means they are just there to be watched, to see if they will show any symptom or get sick. And the position, the location of the quarantine unit on the campus is very strategically near to the biocontainment unit. So if any individual starts showing symptoms or maybe showing signs of the illness, they get transferred to the biocontainement unit where they can get the in-patients care.

Sabrine Chegane:

So it is very important to know the rules of quarantine. And I believe, and this is something I learned throughout my program at the College of Public Health, is to encourage this culture of knowing what quarantines are used for and to implement them across the states. And not waiting for an outbreak because you never know. We didn't see this coming. So it's better to be prepared.

Christopher Wurst: 

This week, a childhood passion for healthcare, stepping into the middle of a global pandemic; and lessons about how to stay safe. Join us on a journey from Algeria to the United States and being on the front lines of medicine. It's 22.33.

Audio: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Audio: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Audio: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you read about them. They are people very much like ourselves, and ...

Audio: (singing)

Sabrine Chegane:

My name is Sabrine Chegane. I am participant in the Fulbright Foreign Student Program in the United States. I'm pursuing a masters of public health in maternal with child health concentration at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Nebraska.

Sabrine Chegane:

My background is in pharmacy. I have a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Algiers in Algeria, and I also have a degree in marketing and pursuing also an MBA.

Sabrine Chegane:

I would have been working in pharmacy. I am very passionate about pharmacy. Also, it was something I wanted to do since I was nine years old. But maybe I would have been working in business because I also was interested in that at some point. But now definitely public health is what I do best and what I'm passionate about, and I would never get enough of it.

Sabrine Chegane:

We need the culture of public health and prevention, not only treatment, in my community, in Algeria. So this was the first thing. So while I was there involved at the World Health Assembly, I noticed that some health professions, for example, medicine is more dominant when it comes to policymaking. And I really wanted to see more pharmacists as I am a pharmacist involved in policymaking and more women in leadership positions.

Sabrine Chegane:

The second thing was that I was raised from this conservative community in Algeria. And I'm aware that it's a case around the world, even in the United States, there is still stigma around women's health, mental health, reproductive health. And I was particularly interested in women's health. I want to advocate for this, for contraception, for mental health, like the lead in this, fighting this stigma around depression, anxiety. So I knew exactly I want to pursue a masters of public health in women's health or maternal and child health in the United States. So I applied for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, and here I am.

Sabrine Chegane:

I was brought up in a large family. So it was my parents and my four sisters. So we are five girls. I'm the oldest. My parents have always been supportive. They were protective, but at the same time supportive, especially for education. So education was placed before anything else. I come from a very conservative family and I am a girl, so everyone feels protective and I should finish my studies, work near where I live to stay safe.

Sabrine Chegane:

The moment I saw that my parents trusted me to travel alone and live alone abroad, and they keep reminding me how proud they are of the things I achieve. They talk to their friends. They talk to their colleagues about what I'm doing. And this motivates me more, and I want to do more.

Sabrine Chegane:

Surprisingly, I was the only Algerian on my campus. Also, I heard from some professors that I'm the first student from Algeria who goes there. So it was good to share this culture and traditions and talk about where I come from.

Sabrine Chegane:

So all the idea that I had about the US and the US culture and the people, the food was from media. When I say media, I would say movies and songs. So the idea that I had is what we see in Hollywood movies. But when I came here, I was surprised of the difference. I never thought that the American culture is this conservative, which helped me to fit in, and it was very easy to acclimate since I arrived in the US. Also, I noticed that the Midwestern culture and specifically in Nebraska people are very friendly, welcoming, willing to help, and very respectful.

Sabrine Chegane:

What I noticed in the United States throughout my experience is that there are a lot of opportunities for youth to contribute and to participate actively in policymaking, in implementing projects, in doing change in the community. And it's something that I really want to see in my country because we have one of the most important resource, which is youth. And they are motivated. They master languages. They study hard. They are active in civil society and extracurricular activities. So we have all of this. If we have more opportunities to actively participate in the discussion around policy making, that's a dream for me.

Sabrine Chegane:

So I'm active member of the College of Public Health response team. The response team has for mission to train the students and prepare them as standby task force to help whenever there is an outbreak or they're needed to support the health department. With the events of Coronavirus it happens that on our campus we have the newly opened quarantine unit and the biocontainment unit.

Sabrine Chegane:

In 2014 the university supported in taking care of Ebola patients that they were imported here to the US. And with the new national quarantine unit that has a capacity of 20 beds and also the American citizen who were on the cruise ship in Japan were brought on campus. So it was a big event to be enrolled in the public health program, being an active member of the response team and witnessing all these events.

Sabrine Chegane:

So we decided in our response team supervised by my professor, Dr. Metcalf, to monitor social media because it went on the news, people know what is the current situation, how many patients there are brought to Nebraska and how, for how long, and for what purpose. So we went on social media with my fellow students friends and we were just monitoring what are the reactions of people in Nebraska towards the disease and also towards having the patients on campus.

Sabrine Chegane:

So we pull out this data, this information, and we try to categorize is there fear, maybe incorrect information, maybe good information. And then we communicate these data with the health departments so that they can address the fears and give accurate information to the population.

Sabrine Chegane:

What I learned is that this outbreak, the United States has a very good preparedness program and especially in Nebraska. So at the university where I study, it's like a niche of the ... We have the National health Security Center and the Preparedness Program. So everything is ready to protect the population. And I would say that as public health future professional, the thing that we would expect from the general public is to collaborate and help spreading good information and accurate information and prevention.

Sabrine Chegane:

So the first thing is to encourage the people to get vaccinated against the flu. And by vaccinating and preventing any complications would help, and also optimize in the resources that we have in healthcare. And also keeping the hygiene rules, washing hands and avoiding touching your face and too much physical interaction with people I mean during these tough times.

Sabrine Chegane:

If anyone suspects that they were exposed to someone who has the illness, first thing they shouldn't freak out and they call the health department or the health provider to get information. So there are hotlines. All the information is on internet. It's simple. You just stay calm, you call, and then they will give you the guidance. Try to avoid interacting with other people. Don't expose other people to any potential virus I would say. But then it's very important to stay at home because self-quarantine helps a lot. And monitor your symptoms. So you need to be clear what you feel. And by staying calm you will give accurate information in a good way to help health providers to act quickly.

Sabrine Chegane:

For this semester it happened that I am enrolled in Epidemiology of Outbreaks class and both of my professors are working on the ... actively working in supporting with this situation of the Coronavirus, and they're encouraging us and giving us accurate information and updates and encouraging us to participate in the discussion. It's like, "You are students today but professionals tomorrow. Tell us what do you think? What would be the measures that you would think of?"

Sabrine Chegane:

We also have on campus the Davis Global Center, which is one of the biggest simulation and visualization centers where we can learn through 3D technology and holograms and eye walls. We use this technology for this class. It's like how to put patients on floors of hospital, how to allocate resources, how to think about quarantining people without exposing others to danger. So it's the best time to be enrolled in this program at this school I would say.

Sabrine Chegane:

We don't know till when this current situation is ongoing. So all we can do is to prevent any damage or maybe escalation. So what we can do, maybe having some disinfectant wipes and cleaning around where we're sitting, washing hands, limiting physical interaction. And it helps. It's good always to be ready.

Sabrine Chegane:

Like seeing this entire Coronavirus situation, how it impacted lives of many people around the world, not only showing symptoms and being sick, but also how it impacted the economy, how it impacted human interactions. Also, I would say accepting others because when a disease starts in one place and then everyone freaks out. So we need to support each other. It's very important. And to promote this culture of diversity and inclusion and treating others respectfully and helping.

Sabrine Chegane:

So throughout all this current situation, I've been looking to other countries, especially in disadvantaged communities like what they have resources, what would happen when this happens in their countries, in their communities? Are they ready? What are the measures? So this helps me think from a global health standpoint and being creative and thinking how to help other communities, not only mine.

Sabrine Chegane:

Where I see myself, I mean I start all this journey since I started pharmacy, and then public health in the US and the Fulbright Program. My ultimate goal I would say taking a leadership position in the ministry of health in my country to do the change and to be a woman in a leadership position. Well, there are intermediate steps. So now I'm very eager and passionate about what I see here as the culture of public health and the programs and the involvement of youth and the research. And I would definitely think of replicating that back home. Of course, minding the culture and adapting it to be accepted by the community and also empowering the population to take part of it.

Sabrine Chegane:

I'm very grateful for the program. I'm very grateful for the opportunity that I had. Definitely life changing. I mean it would take a long time to explain how it changed my life, but it did, and I'm very grateful. I think that it was the best decision that I've ever taken and I cannot wait to see and to know what are the next steps.

Christopher Wurst: 

22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the US state department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for title 22 chapter 33 of the US code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of the US government funded international exchange programs.

Christopher Wurst: 

This week, Sabrine Chengane told us about being thrust into the center of a major health crisis while on a Fulbright scholarship to study public health. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our web page at eca.state.gov/2233 and now you can follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories.

Christopher Wurst: 

Special thanks to Sabrine for her stories and good work in Nebraska. Samantha DiFilippo did the interview and Kate Furby and I edited this episode. Featured music was Topslides, Trod Along, Tralaga, and True Blue Sky, all by Blue Dot Sessions, and Bittersweet by Paddington Bear. Music at the top of this episode was Quatrefoil by Paddington Bear and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Stay healthy. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 23- Silence is No Longer an Option - Nighat Dad

LISTEN HERE: Episode 23


Your life has been a steady series of defying expectations and setting new precedents. Your journey has gone from being a groundbreaking girl in your family to being a ground breaker to all the girls in your country. As a mentor, you inspire countless young women, and some are taking your example to new heights. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Note: This episode was produced before the global COVID-19 pandemic. We have temporarily paused conducting new 22.33 interviews, but will continue to air curated episodes into the foreseeable future.


Nighat Dad:

I think [inaudible 00:00:38] but it's just a funny story because I told you it was my first ever flight, so I went to the bathroom during the flight and I locked myself in. I didn't know how I can get out, so I stood there for half an hour and didn't know what to do, and then the air hostess basically she started knocking and I was like, "Hey, can you please open the door?"

Chris Wurst:

This week a groundbreaking girl in the family walking the streets with no fear and mentoring Malala. Join us on a journey from Pakistan to the United States to become the perfect example of the multiplier effect. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shape to who I am.
Speaker 5: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people and much like ourselves, and ...
Speaker 6: (singing)

Nighat Dad:

My name is Nighat Dad. I'm from Pakistan and by training I'm a lawyer, but right now I'm running a nonprofit organization that I founded in 2012. The foundation name is Digital Rights Foundation. Its main work is around raising people's awareness around cyber issues. I participated in the International Digital Leadership Program in 2009. The topic was basically related to intellectual property rights because I was practicing law back then.

Nighat Dad:

It was my first time flying outside Pakistan. I never had an experience to see the plane or had an experience to be on a flight, and that was a pretty long flight. So yeah, I mean, that was my very first flight.

Nighat Dad:

I was very anxious because it was my very first travel. I had only seen U.S. or all the western countries in the movies, but then I landed here. Everything was as if I am in a movie or I was watching a movie, and it wasn't real to me. It was very interesting because I kept telling myself, "I did it. I did it. I'm here." I think I should mention that I'm the first woman in my family who studied law, but then who also got a chance to fly to U.S. under this prestigious program. So it was an honor for me and for my family.

Nighat Dad:

I belong to a very conservative Punjabi family back in Pakistan and I know that it was a pill toss to get information from them to travel to U.S. under this program. Some of my friends, they spoke to my parents, and my father was very convinced but my brothers were not. It's like a patriarchal society, and so my father was like, "Would you come back to Pakistan?" And I was like, "Of course. I'm not going there forever." It's an honor for me that I'll be there for three weeks and I'll meet with different people and experience the culture and see what is happening there and how I can bring those best practices back to the country. And I think the hardest part was because I had a divorce just recently and I had a six months old baby, so they were hesitant and they said that we'll take care of the baby. You go.

Nighat Dad:

My father was very proud of the fact that my daughter can speak English, so during the meetings when I was talking to different people, talking about different contacts, the work that we do, or the situation of intellectual property rights in Pakistan. So there were several moments when I was like, "I wish my father was here and he could see me." I'm actually talking to people who are in the bigger position in the U.S. government and we are talking to them, so you know.

Nighat Dad:

I went to, it was DC, North Carolina, New York, and Texas. It was really different culture, even accent, right. Once I was in DC I felt like it's like Islamabad, which is Pakistan's capitol, so it's like every other capitol. But when we went to North Carolina and Texas, Texas I felt like is a mini Pakistan or something because I got that kind of impression. And New York was harsh. It was such a interesting experience because everyone was just running around and so busy. And Texas and North Carolina wasn't like that. I wish I could have visited more states.

Nighat Dad:

I felt that in lots of meetings people were a little amazed that, oh, a woman from Pakistan is actually talking about intellectual property rights. So it was a little surprising for them because I think the notion around Pakistani woman was something similar like Iwan woman or, you know, like in the region that women do not go outside home or do not work. I broke that taboo in a couple of meetings.

Nighat Dad:

But then there were people who worked in Pakistan and told me really interesting stories. So it was a mix of experience. Some people were like, "Oh, Pakistani food is amazing, and Pakistani dresses are amazing and northern areas are awesome," and also felt really good when people were like, "Oh, I love this thing of Pakistan." I was like, "Oh wow, people know about us." So yeah, that was nice.

Nighat Dad:

I remember because it was my first travel and coming from a low income class family I had no experience of using forks and knife. I am very casual person, so our host in North Carolina, I believe, first of all they asked us, "Do you have any allergies from [inaudible 00:09:01] and stuff," and I'm like, "I'm a little scared of cats," so they were like, "We have three cats so we'll take you out for dinner. You'll have confident environment around you." They took us to this fancy restaurant and I didn't know how to use forks and knife and I was a little nervous, and I think my host sort of felt that, so she started eating with hands just to show me that you can do it, it's fine. It's normal. So I started doing the same. You know small little acts of kindness where they try to make the entire environment comfortable around you.

Nighat Dad:

Freedom of walking on the road, reclaiming your public space without the fear of being catcalled or harassed. I'm not saying harassment is not here, but no one is staring at you. No one gives any ... they are okay whatever you are wearing. So that was very new to me. I felt so much freedom. I remember I walked so much because you don't get that freedom in Pakistan. I still don't. The moment you step out of your homes, you start facing harassment. I can walk, I can walk myself, I don't have to get any permission from anyone. Still whenever I travel I still enjoy that freedom which we don't have back in Pakistan.

Nighat Dad:

I am a woman's rights activist as well and am very much part of the social justice movement, and also work with the young feminists as well. So a lot of work that I do, it's actually related to Digital Rights and online violence against women and marginalized communities, but also the work that people do in the offline space. As a lawyer I keep contributing into the legislations, so there's this activism part where I keep praising voices around the violation of the human rights and woman's rights in the country.

Nighat Dad:

I think the harassment and the online space is sort of similar across the world, but I think the consequences of that harassment are very different according to the context and background of different countries. The issue around non-consensual use of intimate images which people here call revenge porn, if something like that happens here, I'm not sure if the consequences were really lethal for a young woman. But when it comes to Pakistan, it's like the end of somebody's life. If something like that happens, most of the time women have no place to go to. They don't know who to seek from there to seek help. What happens is that there are so many incidents where women commit suicide and they don't know if there's a law how they can use that law. Because there's a shame attached to it that why did you share those pictures in first place? It's a shameful thing in our society.

Nighat Dad:

So what basically we are doing is awareness raising sessions in universities, but it's a big population to a hundred million people in Pakistan. So how many people you will reach out to in social media or through TV channels or through your on ground awareness raising sessions. So in 2016 we started a cyber harassment help line. It's a toll free help line, the very first in the region. From 2015 to December 2016 up to now we have received more than three thousand calls and I don't think that every month we see our list of calls, and I think we have like two or three prank calls, that's it. People who call us, they have genuine issues. So the help line doesn't just provide services. We provide three kinds of services. When people call us we see if she is in a panic situation or he is in a panic situation, then our counselors speak to them for some time to calm them down. And then if they need legal help our lawyers help them. If they need additional security support, we do that. But also at the help line we issue six months report and that report is not just the numbers. That report is also identifying gaps and if law is working for the people or not. So it's like an [inaudible 00:14:23] tool for people and also parliamentarians.

Nighat Dad:

So they'll actually wait for the report and see what's happening, what are the trends, what are the forms of violence.

Nighat Dad:

People in the law enforcement, people in the political parties, they know us. We work with the law enforcement, which is federal investigation agency, and keep pushing them, but at the same time we have our champions in the parliament who kind of keep raising these issues and the senate committees and the national summit committees, it's a very sweet bitter relationship with the law enforcement because you keep pushing them and you refer cases to them, but at the same time you also talk to media and they are not working so they don't like it. But I think that's how [inaudible 00:15:29] works. Things are getting better, I would say, that most of people know that this constitute online harassment, we have a law, we have legal remedies, it's much better than ten years ago when we didn't have any legislation or anything and people didn't even know that using online space is their fundamental right, or if anything happens to them it's a violation of their fundamental right.

Nighat Dad:

The other hotlines we have in Pakistan mostly related to mental health counseling, but there was none around cyber harassment, and we looked for examples from other western countries and couldn't find any helpline or hotline just focusing on online harassment. There were online bullying or child protection or stuff like that. So it was a first experience for us and also a lot of responsibility to set a good precedent and to do it in a way where people who will follow the suit, they will know that, all right, the bar is high, and trust me, every day was a learning day for us still. Each complained after we received. It's not a domestic violence helpline where you know the circumstances. For cyber harassment, it's different. You are either getting a call around a Facebook page or hacking or hacking against your WhatsApp or your Facebook or your Gmail and it's like every complaint is different. So you need to better be prepared that if the person is going to ask me this question, how I'm going to respond.

Nighat Dad:

Online harassment is not an online issue. It's the mindset of offline patriarchy. What I feel is that women are finding the ways to actually speak against the violation or the violence that they face, and I think that's encouraging, that they are raising a voice, even calling a helpline. I have seen that. Sometimes we get call from men who are like, "Oh, my wife is facing this or my sister is facing this or my girlfriend is facing this," then we are like why they are not calling to our helpline and they are like, "Because they have no courage to call the helpline. They cannot trust." So you know it takes a lot of courage for victim and survivor to trust anyone with their personal information. But when we receive calls we find that women are finding their voice, they're raising it, and it's good. It's good that they are reporting it and they are getting this courage to use the law, to go to the law enforcement, to reach out to the helpline. But at the same time I think it's also a sign that more and more women are getting access to technology and that's why they are facing that backlash. I remember back in 2004 when I was in my law school, I wasn't allowed to carry a mobile phone, and most of women were not, especially who belong to middle class families, because that was not the culture.

Nighat Dad:

Families used to think, especially male guardians, that it's an evil tool and a woman will have access to god knows what. So you know that's why we were not allowed to carry them. But male members had access to it because they were males. So I think that now things have changed and now women not only have access to the mobile phones but also to the online spaces, so I think it's a sign that the more they are facing violence, it's actually the more they have access to technology. And more calls means they are reporting it because they are like, "We are done with this. Silence is no more an option for us."

Nighat Dad:

I have been learning so much, and in fact I should tell you that the idea of the helpline was basically it was a dream of me and my friend who lives here in U.S. and she was running an organization working on digital safety and security and I spoke to her and I was like, "I'm so tired and exhausted of getting these complaints because women reach out to me all the time and I feel like I don't have time for myself and I'm burning out." And she was like, "You need to have a mechanism because you can't do it alone." And that's when we sort of discussed and we came up with this idea of helpline. So I think that people that I have met here over the time, they are my friends now, and it's like a sense of community and solidarity and sisterhood also that you are not alone and there are people who are working in this part of the world and then you can reach out to them any time you want to and they are there to help you in terms of ideas or see how if there are situations where you're like, I'm helpless, they are there to help you. I feel like there is a very strong bond with the people who are here in U.S. and who I made friends with over the years.

Nighat Dad:

I think Me Too has traveled far. It has reached to India and Pakistan as well. It's an interesting question because I'm also a lawyer of the first Me Too case. The woman pop star who spoke up against the harassment of another male pop star, both are pretty famous in Pakistan, actually in South Asia. So she actually raised the voice. I'm now working on her case for the last one year. I think that Me Too had an effect in different parts of the world. It took its time to reach to different countries. It's also very contextual. There are so many other elements of the debate, so many little parts of the debate that are taking place. For instance, about consent. Nobody used to talk about consent in Pakistan and people are talking about it. People are talking about marital rape, people are talking about rape, people are talking about harassment at workplace. So you know like so many things. And also harassment in unconventional ways. The case that I'm doing is actually, it has not only created a space for debate for women because so many women came forward with their own powerful stories, but at the same time I think Me Too also, it is challenging the traditional laws as well because why Me Too started because the laws failed women for so long and they didn't get justice. The justice system failed women.

Nighat Dad:

That's why they went on to internet and started this Me Too. And that's what we are seeing in Pakistan is that the case that I'm doing is actually refiled under the legislation and we found so many loopholes in the law. So it's actually challenging the traditional justice system, I would say the broken justice system. Things are happening. Sometimes it's tiring. It feels like lonely journey because they are like people who are like, "Oh, why you have gone to the internet and said this and why you are not using the laws." But then there is no due process of law. That's why women went onto internet and shared their stories.

Nighat Dad:

But I would say it's also outrage. Women are so angry and we haven't found any space, any ways to deal with the ... and we have been silent for so long. So if internet is giving you that space, why not? Because your laws have failed you. And even in Me Too, women who have spoken up, they have been slapped with the deformation suits. That's the same case in Pakistan as well. So it's actually speaking up about your experiences. It's not easy. It comes with a lot of other challenges and problems that you face after you speak up. It's a difficult and lonely journey to be very honest.

Nighat Dad:

Back in 2011 when I first met Malala, the workshop basically was around how young girls and women use online spaces safely and securely, and the idea was that it's your right to access those spaces so you don't think it's a privilege or don't think that somebody has to give you that right. So it's your fundamental right. And also if you are using it, how you can use it safely and securely. So very basic workshops similar to M21 of the workshops and she spoke there and she was a peace activist, child peace activist, wasn't really that famous. Then I did another workshop in Malala's hometown, which was a difficult place to do a workshop. But again she came and she wanted to learn, but she also said, "I'm focusing more on my studies so I'm really not using online spaces that much, but I would love to learn that once I'll be done with my exams, I'll start using Facebook and will start my page." But she was worried about the fake profile. She was like, "I don't know. I'll be attacked with so many fake profiles and trolls." Now that she's in Oxford, I went there two years ago. They invited me for the Pakistan Society in Oxford, they invited me for a lecture. So I went there. Malala went to my lecture. It was so nice to see her. And I was like, "Remember I gave you the first workshop around online safety?"

Nighat Dad:

She's like, "Yeah, I do, and now that I use online spaces a lot I now see the importance of online safety." But yeah, Malala is our pride and we are very proud of her and her achievements and the movement she started globally while risking her life, so yeah.

Nighat Dad:

I do risk assessment all the time, the things that we do, but living in countries like Pakistan, it's also very unpredictable. The things that you do, thinking that it won't have any affect, it won't have any negative impact or there won't be any backlash. But incidentally something happens and things escalate. Recently we had a women's march. We called it Olive March because olive is an older word for woman, so we had multiple marches across the country in different cities and thousands of women came out on streets. It was such a beautiful sight to see because lots of young women reclaiming roads and public space and chanting slogans and carrying colorful posters with very interesting slogans, and some of them were provocative, talking about personal agency, talking about their sexual identities, their sexual rights, and personal spaces. And I think that's where people were just upset, that first of all, how come these women are on roads? They belong to the kitchen. They belong to their homes. And secondly that, oh, we may have all the rights what they are asking for. And thirdly, why are they talking about their sexuality? Why they are talking about sexuality out in the public? So that was very ... it challenged patriarchy, so people were upset. So we faced a lot of backlash in the name of spreading vulgarity, immorality against Islam, against norms of society. We are still facing a lot of backlash.

Nighat Dad:

People tried to file a police case against us. Still there are other people who are doing it in the war. Some of the resolutions were moved in the provincial parliaments. A lot of online backlash, like online backlash with rape threats, death threats, making your Photoshop pictures or Photoshopping the pictures and making them viral with really, really obscene messages and people who are consumers on internet, they don't know if it is fake or it is real, so they don't have any idea how to differentiate between original and fake stuff. So it actually brought a lot of ... even some of the TV programs that they did on the march, they actually took those fake play cards and posters and showed on the TV. So it was a very bad episode of backlash and you feel that I'm doing this, the cost is high. You are putting everyone at risk, yourself, your family, your children. But then if you won't do it, who will do it? So whenever I face a lot of backlash I see the video where women are dancing after the march with a very beautiful songs of sisterhood and thumb and solidarity. So it gives me a lot of courage and it gives me a lot of inspiration and it tells me that that's why I am doing this and we need to keep doing it.

Nighat Dad:

My family is very proud of me now. It seems like a long journey where you were not allowed to carry a mobile phone and now you are working actually on women's access to technology. You go on TV channels, be part of panels, traveling around the world, talking about the work that you are doing. My parents are not anymore. They were passed in 2014, but until they were alive they were very proud of the fact that our daughter has done something that no one did in the city, millions of population. And they were very proud of the achievements. And it's a very conservative thing to do to talk about your daughters or sisters while you are in the village. People don't talk about them. But my father used to do it. Among several men he used to tell, "My daughter is doing this and she is traveling for this." So he was very proud. I think it was a long journey, long struggle to get to the point where people acknowledge you, and I think your struggle starts from your home. Everyone now acknowledged that something that you started became a movement. It's not just me doing one work. It's not one person's achievement. It's actually a movement that so many women, younger women have joined the organization that I started because of just one person doing it voluntarily like me and somebody else from Karachi, a young woman who was passionate about digital rights.

Nighat Dad:

And now I have 18 people and 15 are women. It feels good.

Nighat Dad:

Being a woman from Pakistan, I didn't get that much attention throughout my life. There is always a priority to sons and men in the family and we are just like second class citizens or something. So you know getting so much attention was very new to me and I felt really good and I learned that you need to give yourself credit. You need to acknowledge yourself. You need to take care of yourself. So lots of things that I have learned I did learn doing that trip. I remember one thing. I took really poor decision when I went back and when I traveled I was stuck in this low chamber. I was not happy with a lot of things that were going on. And I went back and I was like, "You know what? I'm not working here anymore." So that courage and that boldness and my boss was just like, "What's going on here? She was like this very polite person and she has just become this fearless woman." And I was like, I have so many jobs. I trust myself. I have confidence. I can find many good things. And I didn't have any job. I just quit. And then I found another job and I was like, that was the best decision because you know the courage, the confidence that the travel gave to me and meeting with other people, I was like, I can do this. I can do that.

Nighat Dad:

So I think that was amazing. It changed my life. It changed my life. It transformed me completely.

Nighat Dad:

And some of the people that I met, I'm still friends with them, so I keep talking to them about their work. It's been ten years but still we talk and they are like, "Oh, Nighat, we are so happy. We have seen your journey from this person who was very shy and hesitant to talk about stuff and now this fearless leader of young women in Pakistan."

Nighat Dad:

I went to U.S. and women are doing everything and you are just restraining me to the office, like this small little office. I want to do things. And there was so much stuff and I was like, "No. I can't deal with this man anymore." And he was a powerful man by the way, so yeah, and then I moved on. And I also learned one thing that in taking risk in your life is actually a good thing. It brings success. And I learned it here during my travels while talking to different people and different people who hosted us and casual conversations besides the work, and I was like, "Wow, it's normal, right? You can do it. It's fine." So that's what I did.

Nighat Dad:

That first ever travel in my life really changed my life. Not just me, but thousands of women around me.

Speaker 7:

Yeah, you are. You're the perfect example of the multiplier effect.

Nighat Dad:

Yeah, I would like to say so.

Speaker 7:

I think you are.

Nighat Dad:


Chris Wurst:

22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst:

This week, Nighat Dad spoke about her experiences as a participant in the International Visitor Leadership Program or IVLP. For more about IVLP and other ECA exchange programs, check out ECA.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do it wherever you find your podcasts and you can leave us a review. You can leave us two reviews. Why not? And we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ECA Collaboratory at state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and a complete episode transcript can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. Special thanks to Nighat for her courage and commitment to helping girls and women throughout Pakistan. Anna Maria Sinitean did the interview and I edited this segment. Featured music was Daymates, Decompression, Diagram K and Gaena by Blue Dot Sessions. Fight the Sea instrumental version by Josh Woodward and Full of Stars by Philip Weigl. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came. And the end credit is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.

Nighat Dad:

My family was a little amazed to see me. They were like, "Oh, you have transformed so much in three weeks." I was like, "Yeah, because I went to U.S."


Season 02, Episode 22- Read and Understand the Word Love

LISTEN HERE - Episode 22


So what happens when you leave your comfort zone to move to another country? You're forced to interact with a different culture, a new language, unique ways of life you might not be used to. Well, thousands of people participate in international exchange programs every year and they create experiences that literally change their lives and leave a deep impression on the people that they encounter along the way. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.


Benjamin Simington:

It was just a reminder that love is, for me, the most powerful force in the universe. So regardless of what a person believes in or how they understand the divine, as long as you have love at the forefront, then you can truly become a learned person.

Chris Wurst:

This week, a 30 hour train ride through India solo, swimming in the Ganges and trusting one's heart knowledge. On this episode, we take a journey from Illinois to India to help define the word love. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3:

We operate under a presidential mandate which says that we report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Speaker 4:

These exchanges shaped who I am.

Speaker 5:

When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. There are people very much like ourselves. And then it was possible to...

Speaker 6:

That's what we call cultural exchange. Yes.

Benjamin Simington:

So I'd like to start this out with a poem, one of my favorite poems by Kabir and it touches my heart. He goes, [foreign language 00:02:18]. So the way that poem translates is reading book after book, the whole world died and no one became learned. Just read and understand the word love and then you become learned. So to me, that really captures a lot of my experience. Prior to going to India for this most recent time, I had been three times prior. I focused a lot on the book knowledge and I had some emphasis on the heart knowledge. But this last time in particular was a really big emphasis with the heart knowledge.

Benjamin Simington:

My name is Benjamin Simington. I'm from Matteson, Illinois. I went to Carthage College. I was a Fulbright student researcher from 2015 to 2016. I was based in Varanasi, India. My research is focused on Kabir. Kabir was a medieval Indian mystic and poet. And I focused on how Kabir is remembered by his contemporary sect that could be an [inaudible 00:03:35].

Benjamin Simington:

So I had an opportunity to take a 27 hour train ride to go to Ujjain, one of the most famous holy cities in North India. So there's a famous festival that happens every four years called the Kumbh Mela. It's said to be the world's largest religious gathering. So the sadhus, which are monks, were going there for this festival. And I had the chance to go, too, so I get on this train ride, I missed the train that the other sadhus were taking, so I'm by myself on this train for pretty much 27 hours. Some of the things was and some of the people were kind of passing through and kind of hearing people saying, "Biscuit biscuit, chai, chai," it's very rich sing song in the rhythms of the people, "[foreign language 00:04:40]."

Benjamin Simington:

So just hearing all these different things, not only it was kind of fun to hear but made me really hungry, so I was glad I had some food and I was able to eat. And just really in terms of sitting on the train for that long, I was in a non-AC. So in my experience some of the times I've been in non-AC cars had way better conversations with people. They ask where I'm from and when I start speaking Hindi people were really surprised cause I'm not Indian. I'm an African American person. So just talking about my experiences in Hindi with them was really cool. And when I talked to them about Kabir and I'm able to quote these different poems, it was this really interesting kind of sharing these experiences with them.

Benjamin Simington:

I had the rickshaw take me to the site and when I get there, I'm with the sadhus and everybody greets me really happily. Every night we were there was really amazing because we were all sleeping under the stars. So in terms of the small building, the head of the religious order was sleeping inside and I was on the roof. My feet were sticking out from under this mosquito net, but every night around us there are all these [inaudible 00:05:58], which are these sacred hymns. So you heard things like, "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna," and, "Ram, ram, ram, ram, ram, ram, ram." So these are different names of God in Hinduism. You just hearing these being chanted and sung around you all the time and all these sort of lights and all this sort of festivities. So going to sleep with that every night on the roof was just a really special experience.

Benjamin Simington:

And during the day, I would listen to these different religious discourses. So there were just all these tents with all these different saints and sages and sadhus, some good alliteration. But all of these great mystics and different figures from Hindu traditions and monotheistic and polytheistic, pantheistic Hindu tradition. So with Hinduism it's everything and the kitchen sink. You can have people who are monotheistic, people who have image worship, don't have image worship. So it was just fascinating seeing that whole range of a just sort of religious and spiritual expression.

Benjamin Simington:

And I remember one day there was one of the pilgrims who was with us. He told me that he wanted to go to the river and he wanted to take me with him. So this is the Shipra River, Shipra [inaudible 00:07:14]. It's a very sacred river on Indian religious thought. And the idea is that if you essentially bathe in this river, your previous sins from innumerable lives will be cleansed. So I'm walking up to the water, I'm kind of nervous because I hadn't bathed in the water before. We were kind of setting our main clothes by the side of the river. I put up my glasses, I'm nervous, I'm walking up to the water, walking up to the water, and then I step in and the water just feels amazing. I go in, I do seven dips like he did. I kind of raised my hands in a sort of a prayer pose to the sun and just really making the most of this experience and the water was so good that I thought I was just going to do the ritual and sort of hop back out.

Benjamin Simington:

But by the time that I was finished doing the ritual, I'm kind of backstroking in the water, kind of looking at what's going on, looking at the temples, looking at people coming in and out of the water. And it was just, it was an amazing experience. Later that day, I went with some of the sadhus to the Mahakaleshwar Temple. So the Mahakaleshwar Temple is one of the most famous temples in India. There's a group of temples called the Jyotirling. So there's this idea that these sacred sites, there's a different inner penetration between the realms, between the earthly realm and other terrestrial realm. So being there, being in this huge temple with all these sadhus, being in this long queue, in this long line for about 30 minutes, was just really exciting. I was talking to them, we're talking about being exciting to go see, it'll be really exciting to see this.

Benjamin Simington:

And when we get up to the temple, it's just really beautiful. It's so fancy and so high tech to the point that we see a flat screen with the actual image of the actual, the idol or the sort of sacred structure, sacred building, a small kind of a idol there. But we go inside there and it's amazing. We hear people singing it, kind of going up to this image and it's just a really powerful experience.

Benjamin Simington:

And later that day when we had dinner, we had this kind of phenomenal dinner. We're all sitting on the ground. People are laughing, talking, I'm talking in Hindi about different things. [foreign language 00:09:18]. Where are you from? [foreign language 00:09:19] Chicago. Saying I'm from Chicago, and just really explain all these different things. So it was one of my favorite days in India and really just enjoyed that interaction, those interactions.

Benjamin Simington:

I guess I would just really say one of the biggest things, like I said with that kind of book knowledge versus love was those interactions with the sadhus and just experiencing not only that religious community, but visiting mosques, visiting Sikh temples, Hindu temples and things of that nature. It was just a reminder that love is, for me, the most powerful force in the universe. So regardless of what a person believes in or how they understand the divine, as long as you have love at the forefront, then you can truly become a learned person.

Chris Wurst:

I'm Christopher Wurst, director of the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA.

Chris Wurst:

Our stories come from the participants in the U.S. government-funded international exchange programs. In this episode, Ben Simington tells us about his experiences as part of ECA's Fulbright U.S. Scholar program, which sends American scholars, artists, academics, and professionals overseas to teach and conduct research.

Chris Wurst:

For more about ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can find us wherever you get your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. Write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y, and that is a mouthful, @state.gov. Special thanks this week goes to Benjamin Simington for sharing his stories and literally helping us to spread the love. I did the interview with Ben. I also edited this episode. Featured music during Ben's segment was called Ginsburg by Bandhu [Sharkirtan 00:12:21] and friend. Until next time.


SEASON 02, Episode 21- Growing Beyond Exponential with Lebang Nong

LISTEN HERE: Episode 21


Going to school in Soweto township meant that you had a lot of challenges, perhaps no challenge, however, was greater than the day your math teacher stopped showing up and the students decided one by one that they no longer needed to be in class. So what did you do? You as a student decided to become the teacher. You are listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.


Labang Nong:

In South Africa they were deprived from getting an education, and here you are coming in and you know the only thing that you have is an education. And education is the platform where equality can really take place between the poor and the rich. That's the only time where you can start competing with the rich. And that's one of the things that I learned from both my parents.

Chris Wurst:

This week, join us on our journey from, Soweto township, to the United States and teaching math to change lives. It's 2233.

Speaker 4:

We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Speaker 5:

These exchanges shaped who I am.

Speaker 4:

And when you get to know the people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves.

Speaker 6:

And that's what we call cultural exchange.

Labang Nong:

My name is Labang Nong. I'm from Soweto in South Africa. I started a program called Go Maths in 2004, and I was able to go to the U.S. In April, 2015 for the IVLP program.

Labang Nong:

I think as much as I was very poor, I don't think my mom would want us to say we were very poor because she was very proud to say that look, there's a current situation but this is not eternal. This is just temporary. So as much as I knew that I was in this position and my mother used to tell me that as much as I'm a tea lady at work, I don't want you to be a tea boy. Labang, look around and I would look around and I'd see all the trophies that I've collected from the township schools because throughout my life I would have been in a township school. So I think that's what gives me the confidence to push that my mom would say, don't up here because you've got potential. And so as other learners that we have taught over the years, that potential is important.

Labang Nong:

So in 2004 ,we did not have a maths teacher in a township school in Soweto for three months. Now in a township school, you would not even also have a substitute teacher. So for three months we went on without a teacher. And then one day the learners in my classroom started to say, you know what? Let's leave mathematics. And that's when I stood up. And then I started to teach them mathematics. And also I started teaching myself mathematics as well. Remember that apartheid, what it did since the Bantu education act in terms of stripping away the resources that were there to ensure that schools in township and rural areas, they actually did not benefit in any way. And by doing that in terms of lack of resources, the teachers that were there at the time with, they're not even qualified to teach. And those are the teachers that we had at the time.

Labang Nong:

And I did not want to fall under that trap because you know, I knew that there was a lot of things that we could achieve if only we were to put ourselves into the new pedestal of working hard beyond the status call. And I started teaching myself mathematics and then from that I was able to teach other schools and 15 years later impact of 51 thousand plus learners that we have taught and impact in the rural and township school. Giving them the opportunity to dream and to achieve whatever they think could they can and they should.

Labang Nong:

It's very important to believe in your children. My courage also comes from when I was in fourth grade. So my teacher this time was not involved in a car accident, but as a township school as well. So she was held up in a meeting, in a staff meeting, and we didn't have a teacher. I then started to set a test in grade four. I set a test, went to the photocopying room quickly. I ran there. Then I photocopy. Then I came back. Then I told the other class reps in grade four, say this is the test at them, all right. And all the learners in grade four wrote the taste. And then about 90 minutes later when the teacher came back [foreign language 00:06:27] she's like, what is happening? I'm like, no ma'am. I just decided to make all the letters, write a test.

Labang Nong:

Now I was looking at it at the time. So wait, I'm older now. I'm in grade 11, I'm 17 years old. I did that when I was 10 so it should be easy to translate it into success. And the funny thing is that when I started teaching, people started looking cause you, you would anticipate that people will start making noise. Like no you're not the new teacher who gave the promotion. But they were like okay he's teaching and everything just became automated during school hours and also afterschool hours. So after school hours I would open it up for other schools cause it's so what, you know the schools are very clustered, very close to each other. Then you'd find kids from like [foreign language 00:06:27] coming to the school just to attend my lesson. And the principle of the time, the Maloof would trust me so much with the keys. He would leave the keys for me to lock the gates of the school.

Labang Nong:

You know, one of the things that I can never take away, as much as most of the teachers at my school were not qualified, but they had passion and at the time you didn't care about, do you have a degree? Do you have a college? It is a matter of do you have passion, do you respect what we are doing? You'd get teachers like [inaudible 00:07:11] at the time who was very passionate about teaching us English and only years later she was like, you know Labang I wasn't qualified at the time. I only qualified 2012. I was like, seriously? She's like, yeah. I was like, I couldn't even tell because she was so passionate about education and I was only 17 years at the time. And I looked at it and I was like, should we continue without a teacher and should we fall into the trap of having more of learners in the township school not doing mathematics and science and the danger of that in terms of the economy of South Africa and the danger of that in terms of aborting many dreams that many people had. That's when I started the program

Labang Nong:

There was a teacher's strike. I think that's where I look at it and I'm like, okay, maybe I should do this. Because 2006 we produced the best. My school went from that forties to seventies I know it improved very well. I was like, this is very good. And then we even have a learner from that time, I think it's [inaudible 00:08:26] is not an actual scientist as like, this is good, let me continue doing this. But that year defined my leadership because now it was, it was not allowed for you to teach in the schools. If the union would find you teaching in the schools, they would make sure they hit you. They would it wasn't stories they would hit you with bricks and all of that stuff. That year, that's when we had the winter school with the kids around the neighboring areas.

Labang Nong:

And I remember very well that day I was like, great, I'm coming. I'm going to come a bit later. I just have to fix things at home. One of the tutors at the time was like, Labang, you need to come. And then I went to the school when I went to the school, I'm like, what's happening? They're like, no, no, no, no. They're going to come again. I'm like, who's going to come again? Like no, the union is going to come again. And they came. So luckily then I looked very younger than now and I was like, no, sorry, I'm in grade 12 as well because they wanted to know who's responsible for all of this because you said no one should be in schools teaching. And I was like, no, I'm responsible but I'm in grade 12 and they say, look you, cause they held me with my shirt.

Labang Nong:

Like, if you do this, something's going to happen to you, so just close up and go. And I looked at it and then we went to my friend's place with the tutors at the time and we, every tutor was afraid of, you know you're threatened, you've seen this on TV. You'd say if you teach, this will happen to their repercussions to it. I remember the conversation vividly even now and they're like, no, let's just leave it. Let's do it again next year. And I remember saying, but what about those kids? Because the way that those kids looked at us that day, they're like, you our only hope because at school we left earlier, we didn't continue complete the curriculum. So now you want us to end? What's going to happen with us? And then we decided then to go to a church, neighboring church to hold the classes there in the blistered cold in winter.

Labang Nong:

And also there's a [inaudible 00:10:31] that we actually held the classes in the netball court. That's where we were teaching kids. It was cold, but the kids wanted to be taught. And from that cohort you have kids that are electrical engineers. Cause [inaudible 00:10:46] is now a doctor, PhD in civil engineering, is a lecture now at one of the top 10 universities in South Africa. We're able to help the school, they're tied to Dell or to achieve 99% pass rate. So that for me was able to tell me that, you know, this is impact, this is what the community needs and make sure that you're able to reload a time for them so that they can answer the call or make a call to success.

Labang Nong:

Following after that 2007 stories, there's a lot of stories helping schools in Soweto with 98% pass rate 99% positive rate helping kids who move from 20% to 80% to 65% in mathematics, science, accounting, and English. Helping schools in the rural areas like [foreign language 00:11:43]. So there's a lot of work that we've been doing after 2007 producing the top line of Soweto. These are the learners that came with low marks and we were able to transform these kids. And with all the work that we've been doing people started to know a lot of media coverage with all the awards that we got at the time. When I was younger, I would say those are ones where everything, they're like the best thing. Like yeah, yeah, you've been mentioned as top hundred, that's great. But I think for me as I get to be at this stage, the odds are more on the impact that we've been doing as Go Maths.

Labang Nong:

So from there, the constant way we'll show, [inaudible 00:12:20] I think I was on a TV show talking about the importance of education, the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg was able to identify and say Labang, we think you're a candidate. And you know when they called me I was very humbled. I was like, sorry, like no, we just saw you on TV and I was like yeah yeah. And the consulate was like look, there's a program who wants you to go to the U.S. I was like, okay, this is incredible.

Labang Nong:

In South Africa growing up with those black and white TV screens, we watched a lot of movies from America. We grew up to that. You know in different channels you'd watch your police academy, you watch all these shows from America and South Africa. And I think for me it, what I imagined was the same as what I saw. Cause I watched a lot, listen to a lot of music. Also history, reading more on, on Martin Luther King, my brother used to make me watch most of the shows growing up and I was like, oh. So when I got here, the group at the time was very shocked to say Labang, how come you know so much about America? I was like from the things that I was exposed to.

Labang Nong:

A lot of people, I think, in America were very shocked to see we know so much. But I was also impressed in Kentucky, DuPont to be specific, about a ninth grade group of learners who knew so much about South Africa. And that was a very powerful exchange program because both of us were talking about each other's countries and making sure that we correct in the narrative if it's incorrect and ensuring that we're on the same line. So that was incredible.

Labang Nong:

As much as there's technology here, but the teacher remains a central piece, and that's something that I took back. So yeah, we're going to have all this amazing technology in the future, but we should never forget the value of a teacher. You can never do education without a teacher. Maybe that will change in the future, I don't know. But as long as I'm here and I'm seeing control the different countries with developed education, you get see that the teacher plays an important role to ensuring that the kid can achieve a dream yes with the emphasis of technology. Blended learning is good, but the teacher is central and that's something that I saw at DuPont manual.

Labang Nong:

I remember that the learners were so glued to the teacher, more than the computer. And I was like, this is interesting. And the teacher is like, no, I've got my dragon in there. You know, the learners use their computer, they use their things. I give them the opportunity cause you can never refuse the learners of today. The technology, they need the technology, but they also need teachers.

Labang Nong:

I think in my life I've never really felt like a foreigner. The only time I've felt like a foreigner was when that opportunity of not having a math teacher was taking place because then I felt robbed. I felt like what can I do? You know, because I was lost cause there was no GPS to navigate me to where I should go. And then only I could see, I felt like a foreigner because that concept is very subjective because what is a foreigner?

Labang Nong:

So the IVLP program, I remember saying that these are Avengers at the time, the Justice League. Because there's a group of young people who are doing great work in, in their countries, Rwanda, Morocco, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa. You get all these people doing great work and they're put in one room to share ideas with American people about how we can both exchange whatever that we use in South Africa, learn in America and increase it. And I think that's why even after the program, my thinking shifted that there was a paradigm shift. It's more like a straight line graph. Go Maths is already having a positive shape outlook in terms of impact.

Labang Nong:

But then after the program you could see that we're able to become exponential. Everything was more faster, scaling up impact. So that's what I think the IVLP did to, not me only, but I think also the cohort that we had to speed up because it's very important to have a catalyst, like a platinum catalyst and a chemical reaction for scientists. You would know what I'm talking about. A platinum catalyst is very important faster, but the reaction was going to take, the original, still going to take place, but we just needed a catalyst just to make it go faster and expose them to America in different ways, in different angles. And that's incredible.

Labang Nong:

When I left the IVLP now reminded me now, IVLP is very good. I like the fact that it spoke more about collaboration. Collaboration is a very important tool in terms of ensuring that success takes place. One of the things that I learned from that is to see use means of technology. How do I multiply Labang into a hundred? How do I divide myself into 200? And that's when after the IVLP, I started doing the teacher developing programs where I go around different regions, teaching teachers like how to teach mathematics, but not only just telling them how to teach. Both of us having a conversation, sort of having an output of a collaborative pedagogy so that you don't get there like, look, I know mathematics, you're going to listen, I'm going to teach you, but it's an issue of okay, this is how we should work and what's your view? Okay, do it this way and then it works. And you can see the schools that used to have 23% and then now they got 78% in mathematics because it's very important of that engagement.

Labang Nong:

Go maths, as much as we've been doing the underground work in the township and rural schools, we're able to be noted by the U.S. council. First, that was a proud moment and I think that one of the second proud moments was coming the site, especially in Kentucky because then we're in a smaller groups compared to being in a big group. That's when my fellow colleagues of the IVLP at the time aluminized as well. Now we're able to say Labang please represent us. Please be the person who's able to talk at the world affairs council presented cause they were able to see, the scales that we have learned that I've learned over the years in terms of presenting information because you can not just be a great teacher if you don't know how to present your information.

Labang Nong:

There was a school in Limpopo, I was in a newspaper article. The Lennar came, the teacher asked him to come with and prepared speech or prepared speech and go get an article from a newspaper, any newspaper or magazine and bring it to school. And this boy was able to present and it's like, I've got an article from an X magazine newspaper, sorry, this guy's name is Labang Nong. He's been teaching, producing the best learners. I would like for this person to come to our school. Then I got to call, hey, how are you? I'm good. Speaking to the principal of the school room. Like principal, which school? Like, no, it's [foreign language 00:20:15] High School. Oh, okay, so good thing I went to [foreign language 00:20:17] High School so I had notes on. So we went to the school and when you got the shock of our lives, it's a very rural school.

Labang Nong:

We've been to different rules schools, but it's tricky. This one, because the kids don't even have school shoes. They walk to school like five kilometers. That's a long distance walking to school without shoes. But these kids are eager to learn. So what do we do as a nation? Because, I mean we cannot rob these kids from this opportunity because education can be an enabler for them to live whatever life if they want. You know, education can do a lot of incredible things. Only if we give a proper and fair opportunity to those wanted. And you know, when you started teaching there then we were like, okay, this` is good. The teaching is good, the pedagogy, which is good, but these kids lack a lot of things and that's when we're able to knock on every door like, hey, we want school shoes, we want school shoes, we don't want anything.

Labang Nong:

We don't want food, we don't want tin, whatever. We just want school shoes. And lucky enough we able to get 150 school shoes for kids to have and they're able to take them back to that school and provide them also with application forms for them to apply for university. And some of them they're doing third year now. I think third year. There's a lot of opportunities only if we can bring them to them. And that's why we now we currently work on an app to show that we can reach them. It's not just only one region, but you can reach as much as we can.

Labang Nong:

Go Maths is what's the coming out next year? Great. A two to four ending great. 10 to 12 might come out next to November. And now with the technology means and the things that we bring into South Africa, and of course not only South Africa because calculators not only just the African thing can move it to Uganda can move to Alla, we can move to Lesotho, we can move it to any neighboring countries in Africa so that they can also have an advanced tool of writing mathematics and also using the portal Go Maths, the online Go Maths that we're going to be launching to ensure that all learners across Africa connections that are accessing us, not only just the region of Soweto. Remember the exponential graph I told you about? So we are leaving as a gold status and now we will go beyond exponential now, which I don't know which graph is that, but we've gone beyond that graph because we need to expand it across Africa. Africa learning. It's very important.

Labang Nong:

Growing up, I was always an introvert but an introvert that likes to think. But one of the things that my mother used to say to me is to say, look you, you can be shy as a child. I understand. You know, but when it comes to success and opportunity, you have to be an eagle no one is an eagle by the way. So you need to make sure that you take the opportunity right there in there. So that's the spirit that I encourage most of my learners to say being shy outside here, it's the best thing you can be. You gave me an introvert. But when it gets to mathematics because whatever that you're doing that you like, trust me, just come out. Show learners your ability because we want to see that superpower because everyone wants to see a flash.

Labang Nong:

There's even a picture where I'm sitting, where I used to sit cause I used to sit from the back, just the row ahead and I'll just sit there in my corner and just study mathematics and just write and I was like, okay good. I'm going to teach you functions, I'm going to teach you graphs today. This is the topic. Mr [foreign language 00:24:26] is not here and good thing this year I actually reunited with the guy. The teacher that left us for three months. I reunited with him, and I was like, you have no idea how you've actually changed my life. Because if I didn't, if he wasn't not in a car accident and he was not here for three months, I always think about it, where would I have ended as Labang Nong? Would I have been that passionate, would I have been a teacher? But I guess they always say that being a teacher is a calling and you need to make sure that you've got the right time to answer the call. Don't miss that call. Just answered it, at that time when it calls.

Chris Wurst:

22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. state department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22 Chapter 33 of the U.S. code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of the U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst:

This week, Labang Nong talked about his journey, which led to participation in the International Visitors Leadership Program, or IVLP and the creation of his education program Go Maths. For more about IVLP and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us@ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov that's ECA, C O L L A B R A T O R Y @state.gov photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage. At eca.state.gov backslash 22.33 and you can now find us and follow us on Instagram at 22.33 underscore stories special thanks Labang for his stories and his dedication to the children in South Africa. I did the interview along with Kate Furby and edited this episode. Featured music included four songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Nightlight, Nightwatch, No Smoking ,and Cast in Wicker. You Uh, I’ll Ah by Dr. Turtle. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How the Night Came and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 20 - Shining Light Against the Dark with Chantal Suissa-Runne

LISTEN HERE - Episode 20


This week our guest is Chantal Suissa-Runne, editor of Nieuwwij, the largest multimedia platform on diversity and interfaith matters in the Netherlands. She has founded various projects in the field of interfaith dialogue, conflict resolution, social resilience, youth empowerment, refugee support, and the prevention of radicalization. These include several award-winning initiatives, such as the “Getting to Know your Neighbors” initiative, the "Mo & Moos Jewish-Muslim Leadership" project, the "Democracy in the Classroom" teacher training, and the "180amsterdammers.nl" website.


Chantal Suissa-Runne: I love humor. If it's slightly informal, I'll start usually with a joke like, "I'm Jewish but don't worry, I'm not trying to take over the world. If you need any money, don't come begging here," sort of trying to bash some prejudices against Jews, I guess, because in my country or I think in the entire world, there's a lot of prejudice around Jews. In the States, it's a much bigger minority group but in my country, we're not even 1% of the population.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: I think it's a sign of intelligence to make jokes about your own group. I wish more people would joke about themselves and not take themselves that seriously, because it will be much more fun in the world.

Chris Wurst: You know firsthand that people can change. You've seen incredible divides be crossed with love and respect. Your religion, Judaism, is a small minority group in your home country of the Netherlands, but you grew up connecting with people of other faiths. Now your mission is bringing people together, creating understanding and illuminating the truth. You work to grow communities based on respect, across religious divides, promoting peace. You discover that ingredients to connection are persistence, standing together for what is right, and a good dose of humor.

Chris Wurst: You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: So my name is Chantal Suissa-Runne, and I'm from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and right now, I'm on the IVLP alumni program. I was original on the first Faith and Service program of IVLP as well. I'm a social entrepreneur, and a lot of what I do, I direct my own consulting firm. A lot of what I do is around religious freedom, interfaith and intercultural understanding, also prevention of radicalization, and basically everything around that field.

Chris Wurst: This week, sowing seeds of peace in times of conflict. A gang member hears God, and little flames to light up the dark. Join us on a journey from the Netherlands, to Israel, to the United States, where we hear stories of people finding faith in each other. It's 22.33.

Audio: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Audio: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Audio: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves, and ...

Audio: (signing)

Chantal Suissa-Runne: I've always been interested in how cultures and people of different faiths interact. Being Jewish, myself, growing up in a pretty small village, I was a really clear minority. There were hardly any other Jewish kids in school, and therefore I felt immediate connection to other people that had different backgrounds than the majority had, like my Muslim friends at school. There was like one Muslim, and one Hindu, and the rest was like mainstream Christian or secular, and I'd be Jewish. There was always this feeling of being the same, but different.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: So it always had my attention. I grew up in a very peace-minded Jewish active youth movement that also has a branch in the U.S., by the way, Habonim Dror. And what really enhanced my ideas of the importance of interfaith relations, and standing up against all shapes of discrimination, and standing up for each other's causes was my year in Israel, working amongst others with Muslim Bedouins. That really shaped the feeling of necessity to do something about this.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: So when I got back to the Netherlands, I was affiliated with a Jewish student organization that started then to reach out to other faith groups, and that was a new thing, like the Muslim student organization, and the Christian student organization, and the Hindu student organization, and sort of set up that framework.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: I loved it so much. I wondered if I was in the right career or study track. At some point there was a position vacant, like a part-time position when I was still studying to become the first coordinator of actually an American program called A Classroom of Difference started by the ADL to combat every type of discrimination in the classroom in a very interactive, fun, deep, experience-oriented way. So I got that job. It was like a pregnancy leave. I loved it so much that I did so much acquisition that when the lady, my colleague returned to work, she couldn't handle the work anymore alone. So I stayed on. And that sort of started my new career path towards diversity and inclusion issues.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: So that sort of spiraled out of control in a way, that I loved that so much, I decided to stay in that field. And what I saw didn't really exist yet was like Muslim-Jewish initiatives by young professionals. Because there were programs for schools. There were interests groups talking together, but they had like ... How do you say? They had like political agendas. But what didn't exist yet was a group of young leadership-minded individuals that were young enough to still be flexible but old enough to take up responsibility for their own communities. So I thought, "This is what I have to do." And it became a more pressing issue because the 2014 Gaza War started, had a huge impact on our communities.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: I was already involved, heavily involved in the Jewish community. It was the same year that I became a board member for the Liberal Jewish Community, which is the largest in my country, in Amsterdam. The Mayor started a dialogue group in his residence with Jews and Muslims. Everybody advised me not to go there with my young professionals program for Jews and Muslims for leadership, especially because of the Gaza War. They thought I wouldn't pull it off. But I did. Actually last year we won a peace award. And it was around this time that somebody of the U.S. Embassy was advised to have a conversation with me. And that's how I got to know to network and how I got nominated to be a participant of the Faith and Service program.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: And it was... It was just amazing. It was such a multifaceted trip. But also I think as participants, we learned a lot from each other. What I specifically valued is the relations between us, but also between the Americans we've met. Some of them, I still have working relationships with them or friendships. There was one specific person that worked in the administration then for the White House, the Faith-based and Neighborhood Initiatives, and there was somebody I met who's now the President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. And these two Americans, I invited them back on the first Cultural and Religious Diversity Summit in my country. So this is how concrete these relationships were built during my IVLP program.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: But it's so rewarding to unite forces to help whatever group is in need. Just human need. I think universal love is the answer to a lot of our questions. If we can reach that combined in force, the combined forces and reach that and also show people we're not enemies. We can actually, especially for the Jewish and Muslim community to stand up together. And sometimes it does involve speaking. And it made me more comfortable. I've been with imams on this trip to reach out to other religious leaders. Like when the 2014 Gaza War happened, a lot of tensions arose between the Jewish community and the Muslim community, and we had some anti-Semitic incidents and threats.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: And then my friend, the imam from one of the mosque in Amsterdam called me up. I was on vacation. "I worry about the fact that some people in my congregation don't distinguish between Israeli politics and Jews in Amsterdam. What do I do?" "What do you need?" And I thought, "Wow, this is a great opportunity." So I asked him, "Please in your Friday sermon for one time distinguish between anger or political feelings people might have and how they treat their fellow Jewish citizens, and just raise awareness about it. And I will be forever thankful." So not only did he do that. He went to the overarching institute of all Morocco mosques and asked all other imams to do the same. So there was a huge impact.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: And, then we from the Jewish community thought, "How can we do something for them?" So we started educating our children together, on the stories in the Quran and in the Torah and how they might differ and on what level they are the same and how we can help each other. So one of the ladies of the mosque said, "Jewish community is always so good at debating and arguing and advocacy and discussing." I was like, "Yes, we are grown like that. We grew up to not agree with our parents." In my culture it's not seen as something bad if you have a different opinion. It's fostered. It's like, "Yes, she wants to discuss with me."

Chantal Suissa-Runne: And they say, and that, and not everywhere but in large part of her culture, it's seen as disobeying or not being polite to the parents. So it's like, "Can you teach our kids to be more assertive and to not just shout or ... They don't know in which way to express themselves if they don't agree, but really teach them how to debate, teach them how to ask the right questions and still in a polite way stand their cause." So we could help them there, and they could help us be aware of other things.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: What I think was really moving is there was a lot of imams from conservative countries that had really strict rules of how to deal with women. One of them was very uncomfortable with me because I'm very open like that and touchy and enthusiastic and that like, I remember walking up to him and I want to shake his hand and he's like, "No," like shaking his head. He's nodding his head like, "Hi, hi, nice to meet you," like making this bow like, "Salaam-Alaikum." I'm like, "Oh, Alaikum-Salaam." I know some Arabic.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: At the end of the program, like after three weeks I was ... It grew on me, how to greet him. So I put my hand on my heart and I bowed liked to say, "Salaam-Alaikum." And he walked up to me and said, "Are you kidding?" And he gave me a hug. I thought that was so, like that was also America growing on him a bit these two weeks. He sort of stepped over his own principles. Not that I would want people to do that, but it was a big deal. It was a big deal.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: I really loved the home hospitality, but what I also loved is there was something that happened sort of on the side of the program because we were talking to a church with mostly African-American members that were facing a lot of hardship due to ticking the box and jail time and crime and all kinds of problems with their youth. Then we had ... I'll never forget him. We had these amazing two young people come to our hotel basically in their free time, and they were former gang members. And one of them found God. The other didn't. But that didn't matter. They found each other.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: They, at some point in their life, that was so out of my comfort zone what happened there that it really highly impacted me. They wanted to kill each other before. They really had, like they were from opposite gangs at some point in their life. And faith put them back together after they've done, went through jail and everything. For some reason they started to appreciate each other and build a friendship and they wanted this all to stop. And now they went into schools and community places where there's youth at risk, falling into the trap of violence and a path that doesn't help to better future and they have become the biggest ambassadors for change.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: And that really impacted me because they still looked the same. One was like two by two with golden teeth like you see in the movies, right? I thought I was caught up in some rap video, and there were two little something ... Like Too Short and Big B. Yeah, they were their names, like their stage names. That for me was something I wasn't expecting at all.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: So imagine imams and faith leaders from various countries, people from Lebanon and from different countries in Africa and from ... There was many people from Middle East and there was Turkish participant, Lebanese participant, like myself, and there was also somebody from Sri Lanka and India. There's all these faith leaders and two huge look like rappers also that were promoting peace. One really told me his story about God, and that story really hit me.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: He's Christian by the way. He said he was laying in his room and he said, "God, if you have a different path laid out for me, give me a sign." And nothing happened, right? So this guy, this huge tall guy that was supposed to shoot him, shot him. And there were flashes coming from the gun, but he wouldn't die. For some reason nothing happened. The guy that was shooting at him didn't understand how this was possible. The guy who never died was like, "This is a miracle." Like, "God exists." He was laying in his room and then he had a vision later, and he told me, "God, I told you to give me a sign and I'm still waiting for the sign." And then he said he heard a vision that said, "What? I gave you, like I flashed at you three times today. What sign do you need?" And I thought, "Wow." And that sort of brought him to God.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: But the beautiful thing is he never tried to convince the other super tall guy to also believe in God. He just stayed secular. And still they deeply respected each other and were like best friends. I thought that story really touched me. That was something I would have never expected to meet. And that was because of our local liaisons there by the way.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: The thing is I established really, really warm friendships with the people I've done dialogue or interfaith work with. And they are my beacon of hope when things go wrong. That's also amazing because when you sow seeds in times of peace, you harvest them in times of conflict. So what happens is I'm one phone call away of people I work with in various communities, and we try to counteract any acts of violence or extremism together. So we know how to find each other and where to find each other pretty rapidly.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: At first you feel the setback and all your hard work is being like diminished. But the thing is you really, you can really show what you're worth in times of conflict. And that's when you can really make the change, because like Dr. King said, darkness doesn't ... How do you say it again? Wait. With darkness you cannot find ... Fight darkness only with light.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: And, to add to that, in a dark room, one little flame can make all the difference. So I see my mission, almost my mission in life, not to light lights or candles or whatever where there's blazing sunlight and everything's amazing. I see our biggest challenge to light little flames in places where it's really dark or really hard.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: So there was a very significant incident where some ultra right wing white supremacist made a horrible doll of the Prophet Muhammad and hung him in front of one of the largest mosques in our country, and said, "Muhammad's child raper, pedophile, like will come from you." It's horrible, was like very clear and obvious threat to the Muslim community. And this was a super conservative Muslim community to be honest. Not one I tend to work with. But I stand for religious freedom and for the safety of all religious or nonreligious people to live in freedom of religious and conscience. So I decided as a representative of the Jewish community to go and attend their Friday prayers. And that was really highly appreciated by the imam.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: Yeah, it's something ... This is a super conservative mosque, right? So it was, for me was also stepping over my own shadow because with a moderate mosque, it's easy for me to work with them. But this was for me an extra stretch, and it was also in a different city. But I took my car. I drove up there. I covered my hair and I went inside saying, "We, the Jewish community, do not support this." I think, I hope that that sparked some light.

Audio: (singing)

Chantal Suissa-Runne: At the end it's so much more rewarding because you can have a real impact. I don't say talking to each other, learning from each other's values, having in depth discussions, sending out statements when there are terrorist attacks or other atrocities, standing up for the other group. It all helps, it's important, and we should always continue doing it. So my epiphany moment was like the action-based learning. So basically these people believe something and then they go out and do something with it. So what it made me want to do is go home and do more stuff.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: So I hope that I'm the founding mother of some of these projects on religious tolerance. And actually don't like the word tolerance. I prefer the word respect. Right now I'm building the national Respect Movement in my country and with 16 municipalities. So that's sort of hopeful.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: Another really nice thing is that this small Getting to Know Your Neighbors project, with my synagogue and schools, we built that out to four large cities and we have 13,000 students who have attended. So I hope that the snowball effect will go on. I hope that the first generation Muslim-Jewish leaders I trained will take over, not the world, but just my work. Right? So that they will plant seeds everywhere like I tried with them.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: And some of them, I scouted them on what I thought were leadership skills. It's always, like you always have to wait to see if that really happens. One of them is Deputy Mayor of Amsterdam. Wow, that's amazing. One of them is a big publicist and is like a national TV famous person. There's authors and writers and businessmen, and they're amazing. We're now five years past the first program. So it's like 2019, and that was 2014. And I see them as the next generation peace builders.

Chantal Suissa-Runne: So my hope is very optimistic, is that they will train the next generation and the next generation. And I'll just be there advising them if they need me.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statue that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs. This week Chantal Suissa-Runne shared her experiences bridging faith divides and building religious respect as part of the Faith and Service International Visitor Leadership Program or IVLP.

Chris Wurst: For more about IVLP and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can find it wherever you find your podcasts. And hey, leave us a nice review while you're at it. And we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And now you can follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories.

Chris Wurst: Special thanks to Chantal for taking the time to meet with us. I did the interview and Kate Furby edited the segment. Featured music was Memories of Egypt by Schmiddi the Wave, Raining Rome by Anitek, Past Ice and Ice and More by Land of a Thousand Rappers, Busy by Bru-oro, Or Midbar and Rutz El HAmerhavim by Human Signals. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 19 -  Saying Adios to the Tamale Guy with Susie Meyer

LISTEN HERE - Episode 19


In this week's episode, we bring you an interview with Susie Meyer, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) from Philadelphia who shares her experiences living and working in Aguascalientes, Mexico as part of her ECA exchange program.


Susie Meyer: It starts like, (singing). It was a very long song and just keeps going, and I was determined to learn it and at the beginning, I'd just be like, (singing) and whatever. And then a friend of mine sat down with me and was like, “All right, Susie, we're going to learn this.” And we spend about like over an hour playing a bit, pausing it, trying to say it, playing a little bit more, learning a little bit more. And so eventually I learned that the whole song and that was one of my most proud moments.

Chris Wurst: You arrive in your new home in the middle of the night. It's your first time living alone. Growing up in Philly, you dreamed of  living in Mexico, but now you're here. Your goals, find Mexican street corn, sleep in on Saturdays, and create connections across countries. Your advice looking back, avoid camping near burning rotten onions and remember that as an educator it can be just as important to learn as it is to teach. You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Susie Meyer: First, I remember hearing the tamales guy who would drive down the street and had this little jingle that like, “Tamales Hay de Rojo Hay de Verde” Like very loud and would wake you up in the morning. And at first I was like, Oh, I'm in Mexico. This is so great. I love hearing these sounds. And then by the end, on a Saturday morning, when I'm trying to sleep in and I hear, “Tamales!” Oh gosh, I just want to sleep. So those things that were so new kind of changed about halfway through. And then I think again towards the end that I'm constantly was changing how I was interpreting my surroundings. So then by the time I was leaving I was like, oh gosh, should I say goodbye the tamales guy? I'm going to miss him a little. I think I went through kind of ups and downs.

Chris Wurst: This week, the teacher becomes the student, rats become roommates, and everyone learns to sing. Join us on a journey from Philadelphia to Aguascalientes and learning that building community far from home can change your perspective. It's 22.33.

Speaker 2: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Speaker 5: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people very much like ourselves and ...

Speaker 6: (singing)

Susie Meyer: Buenos dias mi nombre es Susie, and I'm going to be working at the Universidad Tecnologica del Retoño.

Susie Meyer: My name is Susie Meyer and I'm from Philly and I participated on the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship Program in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Susie Meyer: Aguas is pretty much dead center. It's about like five hours north of Mexico city driving. I think it started as like a small pueblo and now they have more automotive industry coming in, so it's growing bigger. But beautiful little town. I sort of didn't know exactly what to expect. I remember I sort of messed up my scheduling and arrived a day early, so everything was sort of just going with the flow and meeting people and rolling with it and rolling into the city in the middle of the night in a small neighborhood and it's dark in there. And I walk up the stairs, drop my stuff off and go to sleep. I have no idea really where I am, but I'm going to wake up tomorrow and see what happened. Yeah, it was great.

Susie Meyer: So I lived in this tiny little apartment. It was above a Vans sneaker store. So I'd have to walk through the store and say hi to them and then go up to my apartment. I was there for a while and then I started seeing red dots all over my legs and woke up one night and saw little bugs on my legs. So there was like, they call them chinches, but it's bedbugs infested in this apartment.

Susie Meyer: For weeks after that, I'd feel any kind of tingle and be like ahh! I hadn't really had much experience living on my own. And then my first experience was, you know, I had a washer but no dryer, so trying to figure out how to hang my clothes up. But there was a rat in my backyard, so I had to fend it off with a broom as I'm trying to go wash my clothes outside. And then figuring out how to cook, because I didn't have a stove, so I had a tiny electric stove. And trying to make food there and get water, you have to buy in these huge jugs called jarafon. And so I couldn't really carry it myself. So befriending the man at the corner store and he would lend me his little cart to wheel my water home. All these kind of intricacies of the lifestyle that you don't really know from the outside.

Susie Meyer: And I also had this eagerness just to connect and meet people, make friends. So I was talking to this woman about having a cell phone and in my head I'm like, “Maybe she'll want to get a drink later, maybe people we'll be friends.” Just sort of this eagerness to really latch in maybe made me feel a little lonely. But because I didn't have that community there yet, so also this kind of, I just had such a anxious need to build that community and throw myself.

Susie Meyer: Just the sense of community in that neighborhood was wonderful. And it wasn't just I would go to the store and buy whatever I needed to buy, but I would go and I'd have a conversation with him and ask how he's doing and everything felt a little more like having that human connection with someone was very valued and necessary, which I also had with the family who rented the house to me. There was a mom and her two daughters. And so we had a really wonderful relationship and they sort of looked out for me and in turn I would buy them Victoria's Secret underwear from the U.S. and bring it back for them.

Susie Meyer: Building those very close relationships was really essential for me during my whole experience as a Fulbright.

Susie Meyer: I think as a female athlete too, it wasn't as common to see women running around. I was definitely recognized in the city as like, the "la guera", who's always running around the city. I had several taxi drivers who recognize me because I would be running throughout the city center and they were like, “Oh yeah, I think I've seen you before.” I think I stood out in that way in my own personal active routine.

Susie Meyer: In the university, I was on the crew team and did track and cross country growing up. So I've always been very active and my idea was that I wanted to incorporate movement into the classroom to stray away from the lecture, Socratic style of students sitting and someone's preaching to them. So it was hard to get them out of their chair and invested in that. And I think I also realized the times when maybe that wasn't the most effective method, especially in my second year when I was there as an English teacher and I realized that there's a lot I can learn from the other teachers and the methods that they have, which might be more didactic.

Susie Meyer: Yeah, I definitely had some crazy ... I would take them outside and we would have games running back and forth like Red Light/Green Light, and just kind of to freshen up the group. And these students were very creative. And so seeing that side of that willingness to be active and taking a more creative approach to learning was great.

Susie Meyer: I think once I got there, all of the teachers wanted me to touch in there with their class. So I would bump around throughout the whole week to multiple different classes. The goal was to be sharing U.S. culture and dynamics and synergies between U.S. and Mexican culture also in the classroom and kind of having conversations about that more so than being an English teacher, like grammar, which I did do a little bit of as well. I stayed another year after Fulbright working in that university as well just because I loved it so much.

Susie Meyer: Every month, I sort of structured it and a lot of the other ETAs took a similar approach as looking at, okay, it's October, that's Halloween month. Let's talk about the tradition of Halloween and how is that similar or very different from the dia de muertos, for example. But I remembered during Women's History Month I was like, “Okay, we're going to talk about feminism this month.” So I was in this, it was like a technological school, which was kind of on the outskirts of Aguascalientes, so we had a lot of, some students from the city, but most were from like ranchos or more rural areas.

Susie Meyer: A lot of the topics I brought up were probably pretty different than what they would normally do in class. And I remember one lesson I had and I was sort of anticipating it to be a little bit controversial and new. And I decided I wanted to, as we were talking about feminism and then we started talking about gender and identity and what if we have a debate about the topic of trans people in the Olympics. Thinking that, that would be something totally new, that it would be interesting to see what their perspectives were. And I was very surprised when one of my students spoke up and he very openly and honestly shared with the whole class that his sister was trans.

Susie Meyer: I didn't expect to hear that. And so I sort of had to check myself in that moment too of like, you know, I think I'm coming in here talking about like, oh let me share what feminism means to this group of students who are coming from a rural background when really some of them knew some of the topics that we were talking about way more intimately than I did. So that was just an example of one of my lesson that really checked me and was a moment where I was really learning from my students. I'm there to stimulate conversation and bring out these sort of topics in multiculturalism and cultural differences.

Susie Meyer: I think in Mexico, people, the sense of community is different. The sense of sharing and what's mine is kind of ... I know there's the classic phrase of like, mi casa es tu casa or aqui tienes tu casa, which is very true. But that extends to a lot of other things as well in the sense of showing up to a social gathering and you have to go around and saludar a todos and you have to give everyone a kiss on the cheek, whether you know them or not, if they're old or five years old, it's just expected. And at first, that would be like, “Oh my gosh, we have to go around and say hello to everyone. It's to take forever.”.

Susie Meyer: But I remember going home for Christmas and I walked into my aunt's house who was having a Christmas dinner, and so people were there and getting things ready and I kind of walked in, I hadn't seen anyone and I like, “Hi.” You know, ready to kind of go greet everybody and also with the expectation that I would be received. And it was this shocking moment of everyone just kind of kept doing what they were doing and were busy and they needed to get the Turkey ready and they needed to put the food on the table. And for me it was kind of a realization of, I'm sure they were there happy to see me, and then in the moment when it was, you know, they were ready to check in and be like, “Oh yeah, how are you?” But the sense of priority felt different.

Susie Meyer: And I realized that was something I really loved and appreciated about Mexico is just the people to people, and that, that's always the first and foremost is to make someone feel welcome. And so that's something that I try to remind myself and bring into the way I interact with people today, to make people feel included and valued.

Susie Meyer: When I came back to the U.S. several times, visiting home throughout, changed my way about how I understood certain cultural dynamics and social dynamics here that are things that I want to adapt and change. I feel like I've enriched my life, not just myself and my memories of the experience and what I learned, but I also still have these relationships and people who I keep up with and have changed my life and my outlook. And so I think I would say to people who haven't been outside of the country that it really changes the way how you perceive your reality and enriches you with new skills and teaches you a lot about who you are and who you want to be.

Susie Meyer: I wouldn't be where I am now without it. I feel very blessed and very lucky that I've connected so deeply with another culture. A lot of times people, they'll hear me speak Spanish and they're like, “Oh, but ... So where are you from?” And I'm like, “Philly.” And they're like, “No, but like, where are you from?” And they ask if my parents are Mexican or Latino. And I'm like, “No, I just really love the culture so much and the people.” So I feel so blessed that it's something I've been able to keep such a significant part of my life. And that I show up to work every day and I'm working in a region that means so much to me and whose people and communities have really welcomed me with open arms. And I hope that I can continue to give back and show my appreciation.

Susie Meyer: I've tried a little here in D.C. working with CARECEN to teach English for the citizenship test and trying to connect more with the Latino immigrant community here in D.C., and then giving back here. And then also for my own selfish needs of wanting to live in Mexico again, going back there and working for, I don't know, for a nonprofit or we'll see what comes down the line.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is named for Title 22 Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Susie Meyer shared her experiences in Mexican classrooms as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program, or ETA. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and leave us a nice review while you're at it and we'd love to hear from you.

Chris Wurst: You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's ecacollaboratory@state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. We also encourage you to follow us on Instagram @2233_stories.

Chris Wurst: Special to Susie for taking the time to meet with us. Kate Furby did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Mexican Lake by Jay Martinez, Begin Sailing Trip by Dan Ianqui, We Wish You A Merry Christmas instrumental by Production Music, and Mexican Love by Blue Jay Studio. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How The Night Came and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 18 -  Women Heroes of Peace and Security, Part 2 (Recorded Live)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 18


This week, 22.33 brings you a special two-part collaboration with ECA's International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Listen to a live recording of interviews with the participants in this year's "Women Heroes of Peace and Security" delegation. Part 1 features Deborah Awut Mayom (South Sudan), Humaira Saqib (Afghanistan), and Shorouq Shatnawi (Jordan). Part 2 features Sally Mboumien (Cameroon), Silvia Adrianzen Quintana (Peru), and Hend Elarbi (Libya).


Chris Wurst: Thanks for tuning into part two of a very special live episode of 22.33. Again, this was the first time we ever attempted a live episode. Each episode features three stories from incredible women who were in Washington DC as part of the prestigious Women Peace and Security Program hosted by the International Visitor Leadership Program or IVLP. A quick apology at the top. We considered ourselves so lucky to hear these amazing stories of courage and strength, but unfortunately, the sound quality is not always what you are used to. And, of course, not what we would have wished. I apologize for this, but it's worth it. There was no way that we were going to leave these stories on the shelf. You're listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Chris Wurst: This week, how one earns the nickname 'The fighter' in Cameroon, taking grassroots inspiration all the way to Parliament in Peru and giving up all your time to empower others in Libya. Join us on three journeys of courage and inspiration. It's 22.33.

Speaker 2: We report what happens in the United States, Wurts and all.

Speaker 3: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Speaker 4: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They're people very much like ourselves.

Music: Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange.

Chris Wurst: From downtown Washington, DC, you are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories. I'm Christopher Wurst, director of the Collaboratory an initiative within the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the US code, a statute that created ECA. Our stories come for participants of US government funded international exchange programs. On today's unique and very special episode of 22.33, we'll hear from six courageous and inspiring women from every region of the world they're in the United States participating in the women peace and security program under the auspices of ECA International Visitors Leadership Program or IVLP.

Chris Wurst: Over the course of three weeks the IVLP participants will examine how women leaders and organizations in the United States actively engage in mediating conflicts and disputes arising from political, socio economic, ethnic, religious, and regional differences. In addition, they will explore strategies for directing positive political, social and economic change in a democratic society.

Chris Wurst: A quick word about 22.33. We in ECA believe that international exchange programs are transformative in people's lives. Not only the participants but those they meet along their journey. We also believe in the power of human stories. So our goal is to reflect the profound impact of ECA exchanges one powerful story at a time. Today we are truly privileged to hear six such stories.

Salim: I'm Salim Bumien from Cameroon. I'm a social advocate and I am the general coordinator of a coalition of women led organizations that came together to fight the crisis that is to contribute in solving the crisis that exists in the English speaking regions of Cameroon. Cameroon is not very peculiar because it's a common norm for African countries. What is happening in Cameroon is normal within African countries that have crisis. And I would not want to start with the crisis because it is the end product of what has been going on we have institutions of inequalities that stems from governance, that stems from policies that discriminate, there is marginalization, there is poverty, and the normal barriers that are cultural and socio cultural barriers that limits or press down some parts of the population.

Salim: All of that leads to a lot of disgruntleness. And at the moment because of our historical lineage, there is high tension in Cameroon and there is an armed conflict and when I talk there is an armed conflict. You understand how difficult it is because we are now talking of internally displaced people. We are talking about refugees. We're talking about women who are now having orphans to take care of living in bush, struggling to feed the caregiving level has increased. That's the picture of Cameroon which is not different from other African countries.

Salim: Some people who know me call me Salim Bumien, the fighter, probably because I'm alone daughter. I grew up with my brothers. And in a typical African context, my mother would serve us food in a tray and you eat, eat what you can. It was a question of surviving. And when you live in that setup, my brothers will decide the kind of play we will play, they will decide everything. I became a very faithful follower but at some point I say no wait a minute, I also have an identity that I need to uphold. So from there within a polygamous setup with so many children, you are girl we are on special needs, the boys feel they can do anything. I started marking my way to get in what I want.

Salim: I moved on my adolescent life, brought it's own challenges. Where I had some setbacks because of my sexuality. I almost did not complete education. I went on to be a teacher and I discovered the girls within our schools were still going through what I was going through. So I decided, oh, it's time to come up and talk for the women. I became a mentor in girls clubs. Later on, I created my own organization, Common Action for Gender Development, curmudgeon where I get the girls opportunity to talk. I realized the more you have the safe spaces for these girls, the better for them. So we're discussing the taboo issues of the community things that the community will not want us to talk about, especially sex women in Africa, you do not have a sex life, just forget it.

Salim: But within this clubs, we're talking about these issues. So walking in the light, I could give them education, tell them where to see some services, and walking towards touching the policy. Then came the crisis. Now, these girls that I worked with, were in the rural communities. And the crisis in Cameroon is intense within the rural communities because the fighters need the bushes and all to hide and do the hit and run. So you get phone calls, or we're sorry, last night, we didn't sleep in the house. We are in the bushes and all of that. I started by responding through humanitarian aid, but I knew that that was not all. Because we are only responding what happens to the problem that is causing all of these?

Salim: The general coordinator whom I succeeded came with the idea of creating a coalition of women led organizations, because we were responding to the humanitarian needs of the people. But we realized we had to go above the humanitarian needs to touch in the cause of the problem. I must confess at that point, resolution 1325 was not very popular and personally, it was of no interest to me. So we started, we realize nobody cared. When you listen to the A faction, it's per, when you listen to B is proving that I am the tough guy. And there is nobody really caring what a woman has eaten, what a woman is seen. So we decided to come together as women and we started advocacy. That is how I found myself into leadership.

Salim: Because I realized I was choking, there was a lot that I had to contribute to what is going on, but who gave you the space? So we decided to use the coalition to create a space and we started making the noise even when nobody cared to listen, we spoke and I was a regional coordinator then for the Northwest. We decided to say, okay, you will be saying what you want to say. We are also telling you the issues of women. From there, we started engaging the women within the rural communities, to see how they can come on board to talk about these issues within the crisis and there to get into proposing solutions on how the conflicts can be resolved.

Salim: I use the word there, because it took us time to make people understand that we have something to say. We had lamentation campaigns that I lead within the region and the coordinator for Southwest also did that. We were threatened. I had to come to the United States sometime in March this year to attend the Congress for the non-state armed groups here, leaders who had a conference in Maryland, just to talk to them I was almost beaten up in a hall because they asked, "What do you have to say? I say?" I said, "I have a lot to say. Discuss your politics for all I care. But remember, women and children and dying, and in your leadership, I'm yet to see a woman, which means you don't know what we are going through." It is that fighting that I said, this darkness cannot cover me. All the women and I were going to push it and get it done.

Chris Wurst: I love that you say you were making noise even when people weren't there to listen in the beginning. Was there a moment because you were going up against the current, you were going the wrong way and against the current. The current was wrong, but you were facing that. Was there a moment when you said, Well, maybe we can have a positive effect? Maybe we can do this?

Salim: Personally, and I think my other sisters too are leaders are the frontline defenders, they can attest to that. I thought we had relevance when I started getting attacks. Because I realized at some point on social media, my pictures were everywhere, cross on my face, my forehead, the call my children, threaten them, call my mom, retina touching everybody. I told myself, "Oh, the noise is relevant. I am going to continue. I will not stop. I'm going to continue." At that point, sometimes is really frustrating. It is lonely and cold because as women leaders, conflict is never prepared for, it just comes and you have to respond to it.

Salim: At this point we felt like we don't have the technical expertise, we do not have the resources, we do not have the connections, the allies to join us on base. But we have the most powerful thing now with the willingness to contribute in ending that crisis. That's why we started with what we got and started sources for what we do not have. We started with the natural phenomenon of our tears. If you see me those will be noticing me around here, I'm always this color orange, and something black. That is advocacy, we made it a point of duty of just dressing like that all the time. And if somebody notices that and asked you, you say, "Okay, advocating for peace, to return in Cameroon."

Salim: That's why everywhere I am I tell people if you want to support the cause of the women in Cameroon, put on black and orange, send us a pic we'll put on our website and we'll see how we got that momentum. Like many other African women in leadership, we should understand that when a woman in Africa stands up to fight, especially in armed conflict, she's up against not just the conflict but the cultural barriers that there is the government that has its own way to look at it. The other faction the opinion holders within the conflict, they consider you a straight up enemy because at peace builder is a bigger enemy, to those who fund violence. These same women are people who have the will and need all the support they can get.

Salim: So sometimes it is very lonely. You really sit and ask yourself, "Am I doing the right thing? Is this worth doing?" Especially when your children and your family become a target, or when your mother calls you like my mom did two weeks ago and said, "My daughter, please talk, I will lose you. I am tired of all of this." I cried because it's like I was seeing something, she was seeing a daughter going, but I was seeing myself leading something that is my passion. And something that is like an assignment that I cannot put down. So I just needed to talk to her. But what is sometimes very rewarding is the recognition that a program like this gives to fighters because at some point, you say, somebody sees it right. And he's given me the technical know how to move on. So that will is always there but the desire for support is always there also. We need to blend it.

Chris Wurst: This is the last question I have if you could briefly tell me what you want your daughter when she's worried. Tell me about the Cameroon that you hope that she's living in.

Salim: Talking about my daughters. I want them to come into Cameroon where the stakes have changed. The understanding of what equality can do to develop men is very clear. And the right positioning for women has been done. Because we suffer a lot as women leaders, because we do not have the best positioning. We have all the legal frameworks that it takes. But we do not have the position that is needed to push this legal frameworks to work in our favor. So I hope that's one of the programs I hold dear in my heart. And I pray I have people who subscribe to that view, to help me train girls in Africa to get interested in political leadership. Because it is the power of the pen that makes the difference. It's not all the noise that you make around.

Salim: But one of the panelists in the morning told us about what Hillary Clinton did as a secretary of state when she announced about resolution 13.25 that we're going to have an action plan in America, that was the power of the pen. So I am dreaming of a society in Africa in Cameroon in particular for my daughters where us leaders have to be would have created the position in that they need so that when they advocate beauty and legal frameworks, their policies pass with a snap of the finger. That would be for better Africa.

Chris Wurst: Thank you very much. Sally, the fighter.

Salim: Thank you.

Sylvia: I'm going to speak in Spanish. This is here for me. I'm Sylvia I actually represent the women parliamentarians caucus in the Congress of Peru. There are 39 women who are working Congress out of 130 Congress people. We took a break about a month ago. That's how we're going to call it because of political reasons. So I am here because of that. I was invited just two weeks before the program started. And thank you so much.

Chris Wurst: Can you talk a little bit about you alluded to some challenges. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges that you face in Peru?

Sylvia: Well, in spite of the fact that we have certain freedoms, there is respect towards the Constitution in general. There are some circumstances that worry me and they are very similar all throughout our countries. The polarization that we have, we have the left we have the right, and I think we need to be in the middle. I think we have to focus on common objectives so that we can advance. Something else that's important to mention, we have different areas in Peru we have the rural areas, we have the urban areas, we have to work with self-esteem, we have to understand that we are human beings with values with potential. And I think we have a whole history throughout our continent. But I think it's something that is also seen in the rest of the world.

Sylvia: I think that also education is paramount. Because without education, we don't understand why we have different interests or why sometimes education is more focused on creating us all according to the same shape like cookie cutters, and we are all different. We have our own identity, we have our own personal interest. And it's not just about math, social sciences. And that said, it's not about becoming accountants and lawyers, we have to open up and we have to really accept the different intelligence that we all have, and the different identities that we all have, and I have seen things like that in Europe and the Middle East and the United States. I think that things are changing, but it's changing slowly.

Sylvia: Something else that I think is happening in our countries and an economic level. And I have been an entrepreneur as well for a long time. And I think that there's a huge potential in all of the countries and that's with like small businesses and entrepreneurs, 90% of the people who work in Peru are entrepreneurs and that's why our economy works. However, the reality is that we don't have any support, in the sense that yes, there are certain programs for innovation, and it's very average, we're not really covering or meeting all our needs. We need entrepreneurs to be vital and to move forward. They are a constant engine. Those are the small business people, the small entrepreneurs, and that applies all over the world and in throughout every different level. I think we have a lot to do.

Sylvia: There is a huge potential in Peru, we are considered one of the best entrepreneurial countries, we have great food, great cuisine, we have great tourism, as you might know. But yes, we have a lot to do.

Chris Wurst: What was your story to get to where you become one of the most powerful leading women in your country? And at what point in your life did you know that that was the course that you were on?

Sylvia: In this case, I would like to tell you a little bit about my personal story. And I think that you might find many commonalities with your own stories. And I can tell you how I discovered my own potential. When I was little, very little, I would observe people and I would ask my father, "Well, Dad, why aren't we all equal?" Because I felt that we should all be equal. And I felt that not all of us had access to the same things. And he would tell me, "No, we are not all equal." And I was very disillusioned by that because I found that we all needed to have the same opportunities. And there was injustice. And there was this sense of not being able to understand why we couldn't have access to the same things, not only in the physical sense, like structure or actually material things, but also referring to education.

Sylvia: And that made a huge difference. I had some issues with my family because I always wanted to give things away. I love giving things away to people and people would just joke around and they were telling me, "You're going to become really poor, you're going to live up in the hills like in a farm," Because I really felt that I wanted to give everything away. I wasn't really focusing on having money or an income. That wasn't what I was interested in. So when I grew up, I started developing educational programs, games. Actually I've 20 years in creating innovative and educational games focused on developing math, science, communications, but also in developing citizens.

Sylvia: Also on the other hand, just because I worked in the social area, Chris, what I did was that I started working as a volunteer in jails. For 10 years, I worked in jails and we would actually have classes for children about values, self-esteem, identity, and we worked on life projects for children. And I did that in jails for about 10 years in Lima. I was really impressed. We will do it in the yard. And in spite of the environment, it's already a difficult environment, the fathers who were in jail, they would come and they would say, "I want to also listen to what you're saying," Because they felt accepted. And I learned that changed me and I confirmed that we are all equal. Yes, there are people in jail, who made mistakes, who screwed up, but those are human beings with emotions and they just took bad decisions. They made poor decisions.

Sylvia: So I would actually have games that I would play with these kids at their fathers and there are two things that really made me be who I am today, I actually created a game so that children could learn to read. I wanted to learn and see if the games were actually effective. In Peru, we have a very multicultural country, we have over 50 languages. And I wanted to confirm that the games were actually working in different areas that was in Lima, Arequipa and Iquitos, there is a lot of jungle in those areas. And so I got to see a different reality and that changed my life I made teachers, parents, children, and I got to see the reality and the true needs these areas had.

Sylvia: And with just a little game, you would actually be able to change the life of all these people, these teachers life and that actually really changed me forever. And I realized that the reality in Lima was very different from the reality in our areas. So in the capital things are very different from the rural areas. And let's refer again to potential we all have potential. And also when it comes to the jails, we held a prevention, a crime prevention program at the jails, so that we could avoid violence in areas that were far away from Lima. And we had some people who had been exiled from Cuba, and there are some areas called the Cuban neighborhood. And a woman from there. She was eight years old at the time, that was like about 15 years ago or so. But that woman, that girl she was perseverance in spite of the fact that her mom sold drugs. Her brother sold drugs and her father pretty much ignored everything that was happening.

Sylvia: There was this process of teaching them identity, self-esteem, and we helped them develop these life a project and she decided she wanted to become a flight attendant. And when she made that choice, she was very passionate. And she had difficulties she had some difficult behaviors. She had a lot of problems at home. But she made that choice. And today, she's a flight attendant. And that also was important for me. That's when I realized that, yes, the people can change and you can affect change. It took her about 10 years, she was very young. But these are stories that really changed my life. Because I had this situation where I felt like I need money so that I can survive and support myself I have to work. But then I had, what I was passionate about the social aspect, and I had an inner struggle inside me. I could hear my parents voice in one end, saying, how are you going to support yourself? What are you going to do with your life?

Sylvia: And then I had the other voice, my own inner voice, telling me what I really wanted to do. And then I had the opportunity to join the women parliamentarians caucus. I had been invited before but I hadn't accepted the invitation. And then when I did, I got to see a different context of all these women and people that you can actually help. And it was really incredible. I was able to learn about working with identity issues, with economic development, political development, obviously, because we really needed women to participate in politics. And we develop these special project that is called Woman Awaken the Power Within. And we did that for a while. And just to be able to see women in different socio economical contexts, and that they were actually responding to the same needs. That was important.

Sylvia: A few days before I was invited to come here, our friend told me, "But Sylvia, don't you realize that what you're doing is politics?" This is a friend who's a journalist, and he closed that gap for me. I finally understood that this was my calling, to be able to support people, help people and many people Then I received the invitation from the American Embassy. And I was really surprised. And I'm here today.

Chris Wurst: That's amazing story. I'm curious, just briefly, because we're running out of time. Because you're you have such amazing ideas and such a great insight on how to connect with people at a very grassroots level. Now that you are in a place that's dealing in a more bureaucratic, more traditional level, how are you able to continue to be innovative and have these ideas in an effective way?

Sylvia: I think that the most important thing, well, my own personal proposal is that every human being should be unique. We are all unique anyway when we were born, and sometimes we don't realize that. And my insight about this is that we need to work. And when it comes to women issues, we have to focus on women issues. Women have potential. And they have intentions and perseverance. And not many people have that. And I think when we look at men and women, it's important. And what I see is that we need to keep working. And I think we shouldn't lean towards one side or the next we have to work together as a group. Because what has happened before is that everyone has their own opinion and they have their own things that they want to do, but we don't have a common ground and that we have seen that in Peru.

Sylvia: My proposal and suggestion is that we have to find a common denominator and we have to work together and with a new generations we have to bring onboard and we have to work with them, give them a voice to the new generations. My own personal expectation is that the young generations have their response, the answer, they are going to change what is happening and we will be their mentors and their guides. And when it comes to personal development, that has to be constant. And that's something that is paramount. Thank you.

Chris Wurst: Thank you so much.

Speaker 4: My name is Hand, I'm from Libya. What I do actually, I do a lot of things. But mainly, I work with the civil society, the local as an active as well as international organizations, where I've been engaged since the revolution ended until this moment and/ a trainer on different trainings, actually women empowerment, elections advocacy debate. It's such a...

Chris Wurst: Can you talk a little bit about the situation in Libya and the challenges that you're up against in these areas that you just talked about?

Speaker 4: Well, actually the biggest challenge in Libya when the, let's say the activity within the civil society started in Libya, it's the comprising of the civil society work. Because back in the old regime, we used to have that stereotype thing that civil society means charity only. And we have no law controlling the work of the civil society. So people have that background, that whomever works with international organization, he is an agent/spy, has double-standards, etc. So that was one of the biggest challenges back home, I guess too many others will share the same opinion, especially from the Arabic world that that was the major change there. As well as when you wanted to get engaged in that civil society actually, as a woman, you need to give up your social life.

Speaker 4: It's one of the biggest challenges because you need to convince your family that you're doing good for the society. Yeah, sometimes maybe unpaid role, but the outcome and the impact it's kind of a payment for myself. That was one of the major challenges I faced working with civil society.

Chris Wurst: I'm going to do it again. I'm going to ask a different question than the one that's there. But I'm leading up to this question. Can you talk a little bit about what it was that motivated you to want to do work in the civil society and knowing the challenges as a woman that you face doing that. Can you talk a little bit about how you got there?

Speaker 4: I'll start by being inspired from the countries that they were pioneer. And this was the society work, such as Tunis and Egypt, because they were really playing a very long role. We used to have during the, not the old regime, the regime that I haven't been alive since then to judge, but I've been told that there was a woman movement. Unfortunately, I've just knew about it after the revolution because we didn't have that access to those movements, because she had been destroyed. But I was looking around and seeing why Libyan woman cannot do the same. We are capable enough yeah, we may need to develop some skills, but we are there, we can exist and reflect a good image, because through the media of the old regime we've always been pictured as Sub-Saharan or uneducated or man playing the first role women are not in the scene at all.

Speaker 4: So I wanted to show the world that we do exist. Yeah, I may not be at the first role, but I can still exist by providing Libyans, Libyan woman with training and building up their capacity. I don't care if I've been in the front, middle or the last role, but there must be a fingerprint to be done there for Libyan woman to be shown into the world. So that was one of the motivation actually. I've been motivated, motivated by Tunis, Egypt because they are doing a great job.

Chris Wurst: Can you tell a little bit the story of when you have felt the proudest about the work that you've been doing and what happened and what were the outcomes of that?

Speaker 4: There were two things I was really touched and really proud of myself. Because when I first joined the civil society work across the personal promise on myself, that I would do whatever, to help women in my country, as I said to shine and to show their themselves in a very impressive way and also to gain actually money for living. But to create that balance between what to do and what not to do, and how to reach my target. I remember that then when I first founded the organization with the personal efforts of mine and with another person who believed in education and culture to change the mentality, because actually, we've been facing issues with the stereotype, thinking of the culture is just a music dance again, this is it, because I'm afraid this is reflect of the old regime philosophy about culture.

Speaker 4: I remember that when we launched that organization, and I've been inviting friends and those who have been active and stakeholders, etc. After all that hard work, after all that efforts, I've been paying sometimes money from my own to support the events. There were no donation because people were not really believing in what we were doing. It was everything personal efforts. I remember that day when we launched the work of the organization was unforgettable because I felt the people's feedback was really amazing. Yes, we wanted culture, we wanted cinema, we wanted to play music. This is what we wanted. We've been waiting for too long to have such organization such club hosting such activities. And I was like, Oh my god, there were a lot of people, because I thought they're all the elite who are really attracted to that sector. But the outcome amazed me.

Speaker 4: And also I remember the second part of what I was interested in, when I started working on women empowerment. Back to work with international organization because that is international organization. That's why they hire local officers because they do understand more the culture and the need. I remember back then when my manager came out with 20 points or 20 listed training courses for official elected woman within the municipality, and he was telling me that tender because it was holding the woman file and youth as well. He said "These are the objectives, and these are the trainings and they're where we want to go." I said, "Excuse me, you got to be kidding me." And he was looking at me and, "How dare you?" I said, this is not realistic. We can't execute those trainings. Because the woman within the municipalities came from background teachers, housewives, and they've been elected according to the political parties, but they haven't been trained. They've just been pushed.

Speaker 4: Now you go, you need to work and this is it. So I said to my manager, are you looking forward for long term outcome, or you just wanted to reach the objectives? He said, "Well, this is good a question. What about both? You need to convince me?" I said, okay, I remember that night you've been in US and I was back home. Due to time difference people were like ping pong with emails. And I wanted to sleep but I was like, no it's an issue you want to fight for it. I tried to convince him going back to the basic, let's say case study. And I've told them that these are housewives, teachers. They have no qualifications. How could you ask them to be politicians where they know nothing about attics and how to, let's say, perform in a public conferences, how to reflect their opinion. They need to be trained.

Speaker 4: He said, "We don't provide soft skills." I said, "Okay, then why don't we call that training, advocacy or debate?" Then he said, "Okay, you win. We will change the philosophy of the training, but we will stick to the objectives." It took us while it took me a while, as I said, I've given up social life, I can't see even my family because I strongly believe in them. The way they were looking at me whenever we have a training sessions, I don't know, I felt like I'm going to rescue them. They were putting a lot of hope on what we are going to do. And by the outcome I gained out of that experience, it was very impressive. Yeah, there were still little way to go.

Speaker 4: But at least they were trained. Thank God they were more developed in their skills, and they know more their rights and they know how to fight against the municipality that's full of men and since I've left the place that I've been working there, but I still keep on tracking their news, what they're up to, now they have their own counsel. So it was really very touching that they reach what I plan for. And hamdulillah now they are doing a great job and some of them been now pulled out and some they're continuing to go for the other election which is... when I step back I said, "Okay, then part of my objective I reached it. Now let's let's think about something else in different sector." Where I'm engaged in entrepreneurship because politician, enough politician, we will go to economic empowerment and I'm just starting with the other category where very soon I'll see the outcome.

Chris Wurst: One last question before we wrap up, and it's the same one that I asked before, as you meet people here in this experience in the United States, what impression about your experiences and about your country do you hope to leave with them?

Speaker 4: I hope to leave an impression that Libya is a beautiful country. People are very friendly and educated, they're not ignorant or just wealthy with the oil and this is it. Now there are a lot of potential there. And women are very inspirational. They are keen and they are open to cooperate with different nationalities, as well as we are open to cooperate with others in terms of exchanging experience. Seeing what we can do in the future. I just wanted to shed the light on something I shared with a very gorgeous lady yesterday when we talked together. I said, when I looked at that room yesterday and the first time I came over, I said, gosh, I wish that the world is that room, because we did with each other with full of love, full of respect, in spite of the difference in language, in spite of different of religion.

Speaker 4: I wish that the whole world and the politicians could learn from the woman, the leader woman here to do the same thing. Would have been in better situation than what we are in now.

Chris Wurst: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Speaker 4: Thank you very much Chris.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name is Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is name for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the US code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of US government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: For more about the IVLP women peace and security program, and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov we encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 leave us a nice review while you're at it, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov, that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage@aca.state.gov/22.33.

Chris Wurst: You can also now follow us on Instagram at 22.33-stories. Special thanks to Sally, Sylvia and Hand for sharing their stories thanks to our colleagues at IVLP and thanks to all the women peace and security participants for making so much beautiful noise during this program. Music heard at the top and throughout this episode was quatrefoil by Paddington Bear, and the incredible music is two pianos by Tiger loose until next time.

Chris Wurst: And then selfishly, I'm going to ask if I could get a picture with everyone on stage so that I can show my grand children me with world leaders because I have no doubt.


Season 02, Episode 17 - Women Heroes of Peace and Security, Part 1 (Recorded Live)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 17


This week, 22.33 brings you a special two-part collaboration with ECA's International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Listen to a live recording of interviews with the participants in this year's "Women Heroes of Peace and Security" delegation. Part 1 features Deborah Awut Mayom (South Sudan), Humaira Saqib (Afghanistan), and Shorouq Shatnawi (Jordan). Part 2 features Sally Mboumien (Cameroon), Silvia Adrianzen Quintana (Peru), and Hend Elarbi (Libya).


Chris Wurst: Today on 22.33, part one of a very special live episode. The first we ever attempted actually, which we are simultaneously releasing in two parts. Each featuring the stories of three incredible women who are in Washington DC as part of the prestigious Women, Peace, and Security program hosted by the International Visitor Leadership program or IVLP.

Chris Wurst: A quick apology to start. We considered ourselves so lucky to hear these amazing stories of courage and strength, but unfortunately the sound quality is not quite what you are used to and not what we would have wished. I apologize for this, but there was just no way that we could leave these stories on the shelf. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Chris Wurst: This week, the vital importance of girls' education in South Sudan, risking one's life to get to the truth in Afghanistan, and claiming a woman's rightful place in Jordan. Join us on three journeys of courage and inspiration. It's 22.33.

Speaker 2: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Speaker 3: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Speaker 4:When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves, and...

Speaker 5: Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange. Oh yes.

Chris Wurst: From downtown Washington DC. You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Chris Wurst: I'm Christopher Wurst, director of the Collaboratory, an initiative within the US state department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. 22:33 is named for title 22, chapter 33 of the US code, a statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of US government funded international exchange programs. On today's unique and very special episode of 22:33 we'll hear from six courageous and inspiring women from every region of the world.

Chris Wurst: They're in the United States participating in the Women, Peace, and Security program. Under the auspices of ECA's International Visitor's Leadership Program or IVLP. Over the course of three weeks, the IVLP participants will examine how women leaders and organizations in the United States actively engage in mediating conflict and disputes arising from political, socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, and regional differences. In addition, they will explore strategies for directing positive political, social, and economic change in a democratic society.

Chris Wurst: A quick word about 22:33, we in ECA believed that international exchange programs are transformative in people's lives. Not only the participants, but those they meet along their journey. We also believe in the power of human stories, so our goal is to reflect the profound impact of ECA exchanges, one powerful story at a time. Today we are truly privileged to hear six such stories.

Chris Wurst: Good morning.

Deborah: Good morning to you.

Chris Wurst: Can you please tell me your name, what you do, and where you're from?

Deborah: My name is Deborah Awut Mayom, I'm from South Sudan. I work as the school administrator. There are vast issues in South Sudan that affect our operations all the time, but one of the key issues that I know need to be addressed urgently is the girls education and women empowerment.

Deborah: If I am to begin with my own personal story, I wish to start by acknowledging the vision and effort that my father made who stood by me all the time. And despite the pressure from the community and the society, they want always to get me married off at the early age. The idea of marriages in my community is not just to have a family, but in order for them to receive a dowry, they pay head of cattle. In my culture you have, they have to pay a number of cows, a hundred plus, to marry you and it is all driven by the economy crisis of the country. Me being the girl child in pastoralist community, I felt that we need to challenge the world by bringing education to the young people in South Sudan, especially girls.

Deborah: And also creating an enabling environment for women to participate in leadership program in any sort of decision making. Because in the community where I was raised and is still living there right now, the only right that is given to a woman is the right to decide what to cook for a meal. So in my opinion, and maybe to the opinion of the rest of the world that are participating in this program today, I believe that we need to empower women also so that they can be part of key decision making process in the world.

Deborah: At my early age I did not really have a lot of stand to do anything by myself, but I had a father that was always standing behind me that set me as an experiment of the community to value girls education. So I accept to go to school and he was trying his best to keep me in school and after finishing I get out of my comfort zone and as they put it, and I went and get my high education in Kenya. And I have an opportunity to remain in Kenya for the rest of my life because it's more like East African countries. With South Sudanese it's like a second home. But I said no. If I just remain in a city just to enjoy a better life for myself, my service is not needed here. I have to go back to the community and give back to the community.

Chris Wurst: Was there a moment that you had some kind of enlightenment to say, this is what I need to do?

Deborah: I began a little bit early from my high school level. I started my high school in 2008. I was in the pioneer class of the school where 69 students and only three girls out of 69 in the school. So when I finished it was a talk of everybody that where will I go next? You will just get married after this. I said, no, it's not like that. I will have to continue with my studies until university. So they say we are going to poll your year. If you finish university, you will be married in the next few months. I said, fine, challenge accepted. Immediately, well I was just being strong to face the boys challenges, but I did not really know what I will do next because I did not have the resources that would take me to university. My father did not have money to take me to university and I do not have any relative that would do that.

Deborah: So a few months later, American missionaries doctor in South Sudan came to our school and he had a speech with the students. So I was representing the students and later he called me and asked me how I feel about being in this school. So I told him how I felt about being at secondary school. And from that point, yes. Do you have any idea where you will be next? I said, I have an idea. I want to go to university, but I don't have a capacity to go to university. He say okay, what if I tell you will your father accept and forget about the 200 or 300 cows? I said, he is here. Yes, ask him. Because we were together with my father. So my father said I don't need 300 cows, but I need education for my child.

Deborah: So Dr. Clark Macintosh accepted and sent me to Kenya and I got my degree Bachelor of Commerce in Catholic University of Eastern Africa. And then I started my small business. I used to make handbags made of beads and I sell them also to continue supporting my siblings. When in 1998 my mother died I was only four years old, and my youngest sister was three months old. So she woke me up and she put the baby on my lap and passed away.

Deborah: So as I grew up I realized, and I was kind of imagining maybe my mother told me to take care of these kids. That's why she left the baby on my lap and died. So as time moved and the responsibilities get intensified, I realized that I was not only to take care of my siblings, but the rest of the children that are less fortunate around me. So today I head a school. I'm working at that school as an administrator and the school is having over 350 students that have less opportunities. And it was this call that I felt in me that made me get out of my comfort zone and leave Kenya immediately after my university in 2016 and went back to South Sudan by 2017 and start working.

Chris Wurst: Can you think of a moment in recent times when you have said to yourself, I wish that my mother could see what I have accomplished?

Deborah: Well, it always send me back to be so much emotional about the situation, but as time I would think about it anyway and I will always tell myself anything happens for a reason. Maybe if my mother was alive, my father would have not. It resists this society from pushing us to get a better education. But because he knew that we are orphan, we don't have our mother, he would always blackmail the society for us, having no mother to make sure we keep in a school. And if my mother would be alive anyway to witness this, that would have been a great fortune for her and for me as well.

Chris Wurst: When you look forward into the future, you think about the school and the situation, tell me what makes you optimistic.

Deborah: The world is changing at a very high speed and the country I come from is just as young as, I don't know what I can compare it with, it's just eight years old. We got independent in 2011. Whatever that I'm seeing happening around the world, I'm always hopeful that education is just the best key to transform the society. So I am so optimistic that if I give the knowledge to people that do not know what is happening in some part of the world so that they are also able to know what is happening, I will have made an impact in the life of others.

Humaira: Hello everyone, I'm Humaira Saqib from Afghanistan. I'm a journalist, I'm head of Afghan Women's News Agency and head of ACSON civil society network for peace.

Chris Wurst: Can you tell me a little bit about the key problems and challenges in your country and how they have affected what you do?

Humaira: Let me switch in my language. Okay. [foreign language 00:13:19]

Translator: In our country, Afghanistan, we have some of the challenges in our country. I'm sorry that I'm saying this one, but we just very recently, a few minutes earlier, we received a news that one of our colleagues, her mother was attacked by the Taliban in one of the provinces of Afghanistan. And she is in a coma condition and this is like the condition in situation of our country right now, unfortunately. The other one is that it is a key challenge for us is the radicalization in also the warlords and also being like a male dominant society that men in Afghanistan, they think that they can do anything they feel like doing it. Being an empowering woman in different arenas of social and political life? Of course it's very important.

Chris Wurst: I'm very sorry to hear about your colleague.

Humaira: Thank you.

Chris Wurst: It must be even more difficult if you are aspiring to tell these stories as a journalist and even more so as a female journalist. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Humaira: Yes, sure. [foreign language 00:14:54]

Translator: We are part of the journalists that when we are talking about issues in Afghanistan and publicizing the news that is about Afghanistan, particularly in the year 2017, if I remember correctly. One of my journalists, a correspondent, she informed me that I want to tell you that there are a lot of like women journalists in Afghanistan they use with the different names, with nicknames, because they don't want to be identified. So this person, this lady journalist, informed me that unfortunately ISIS and one of the regions, they have attacked and they have kidnapped some of the children and women in that area. And I said that we need to publicize and publish this one. And then she told me if we do this one, then we will be criticized because the government has said do not publish this news. Even the female journalists mentioned do not publish this news.

Translator: And so because this is a kind of fame and family name and reputation, and this is because we cannot say that the women were kidnapped because it will have a bad name and fame for that community. So I felt down and I felt that that was, what should I do? That was a moment that it was so difficult that I feel that I am nothing and I'm very weak. So how can the destiny of these women that they are in the hands of Daesh or ISIS, that it would be like that we can say that the same thing that happened in Iraq or in Syria is happening there. So I tried to contact the government and I contacted the security forces, but I didn't get any results. And then they said, you know this is the enemy area. We cannot go.

Translator: But I was not convinced and I was really feeling inside me so down. I was thinking that there are some women that even their men cannot hear their voices. So I was in a kind of situation that I was feeling so down and then they were thinking that the men, because of that poor traditional cultural merit that the Afghan men will have. They said that it's good for them that now they have left the house, but we cannot take them back because now it's a kind of bad name and bad fame for us. So that was terrible for us and we didn't know whether they return back or not. And then in one of the sessions in the Afghan government till I was thinking about that incident that took place in Sar-e-Pol which is a provincial state in the Northern part of Afghanistan.

Translator: I was there and there's one of the discussions that took place in that meeting. The government of Afghanistan and needed to make a kind of commitment to the international community that they are for this commitment that they have made whether they have accomplished it or not. But because I was thinking about incident and I said, what can we do to bring that peace and security? So I talked with the men and I told them that we need to do something for women. When there's the war situation, when the children, women, they don't have any weapons to defend themselves. What can we do to protect them? This was like, it was in my mind. So one of the generals from the ministry of defense that was there, very sharp he told me that should I go and kill the enemy or should I go and defend the women?

Translator: I am a general of the government. I know that even my wife, my daughter goes to the university, but my wife is still is using that burka, that cover up from head to toe and I was really felt down again and I said that, are you really satisfied? Are you happy now that these women that they have been raped and been kidnapped and we cannot do anything, isn't that important for you? But he was also very confident and he was serious and he said, please do not discuss and do not debate with me on this issue. And so there are the other people that they were in the meeting, they were sitting silent, but the only the general and myself we were in this intense debate and conversation. Only the one person from the Ministry of Women's Affairs, was also was a woman sitting next to me.

Translator: I knew that as part of the Afghanistan's government's commitment that we had already been ratified this, the United Nations security resolution. And then I told myself, you know what this is what the Afghan government has committed, we need to have a commission in this kind of emergency, in this kind of forced situation in order to protect these women, poor women and children. And then the general said, well, who cares whatever the president had said. So he is still, he did not budge off, and instead he was trying to insist on what he was thinking about.

Translator: But then I became a little bit, I lost my nerve and I said that this is the commitment of the government. So he had to do something for the women of Afghanistan and my voice became louder and louder. And then one of the people told me that what is that you are discussing about? And I said, this is what I'm talking about because the government has made the commitment we need to take care of these women. And finally I was able to, one of the commitments of the governments of Afghanistan based on designing and preparing a commission and a committee that is protect, will be protecting the rights of the children and women during the war and the emergency cases. I tried to make sure that these people will accept that one.

Translator: And I was following that case, It was really that part of that commitment that has become a reality or not. And I saw on the website that that is actually now they are taking this initiative and so this is a very important step that I took and that is important that we need to take care of women during the such as emergency situations.

Chris Wurst: Well I think you're fearless. I wonder if you could step back before you got to the point when you were leading in this way, to a point more in the beginning when you realized that this was the work that you needed to do. And how did it feel to make that decision because you knew you were going into something that was a little bit risky.

Humaira: Yes, I was thinking that this was my responsibility as a woman who believed in law as the base, in laws and regulations. And I was thinking not only in Afghanistan, but it is also around the world. I could say that the woman's work around the world is a tough job. It is very difficult and Afghanistan is even more difficult because, as you know before, we say that we see this male dominant society that even we could see it from the homes, our homes. We would say that even if somebody dies they say the name is not the issue, but rather they would say the wife of this person, for example, passed away. The daughter of this gentleman, for example, passed away. So this is the kind of the tradition, the mindset that people are as but, but because it was my human responsibility and because I have always accepted that I need to do good in this approach. At the same time I've taken all the risks.

Chris Wurst: One of the amazing things about these exchange programs is that they are truly exchange programs. You will have the opportunity to meet amazing people doing amazing work in America, but you will also be sharing all of the amazing things that you know with people in America. And it's very much a two way street. And so my last question for you is what is a message or what is something that you want to share with the Americans that you meet on this trip?

Translator: I'm coming from a country that is, that's been in war for the past 18 years. Afghanistan women's is really the red line for the Taliban. I'd like to thank the country of the United States and the people of the United States and the international community, especially the United States for helping us. But we are living in a very sensitive time and arena. So it is very important that we do have the support for the women of Afghanistan. So we find you the people that you like to take care of the humanity and that is important for us.

Chris WurstVery much.

Shorouq: My name is Shorouq Shatnawi, Shorouq means sunrise because I was born when the sun was rising, you know. That's why. My mother chose that name for me because there is an occasion. I came from Jordan. I live in the capital, Amman. I am now work as a freelance consultant in my country on gender mainstreaming in different fields, you know in training, consultation and I also just established my new NGO called SHOURA for Building National Consensus. Our situation in Jordan, not that sad as I heard it from my colleagues. But of course Jordan is located in the heart of Middle East where we are surrounding with conflict and the cross border, violent extremism. So this is the prevention of violent extremism was one of the most urgent challenging that the Jordanian government is dealing with, especially with the influx of the Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Shorouq: Also, hosting more than 1,700,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan is really challenging. But we are doing very good and we have best practices in this regard. I will go through deeply in what women's that discrimination against women. What happens in the context of legislation and the laws. First of all, the citizenship law in Jordan prevent the woman to give her citizenship to her children. But man, Jordan and man can give the citizenship for his wife, foreigner wives, and his children. So that the Jordanian woman is suffering from discrimination in this regard. That's why the children of the Jordanian women are deprived from their fundamental rights, like access to education, access and limitation for travel and issuing papers and formal papers. Civil society organizations are deeply and in a strong way advocating for the government of Jordan to give the children of Jordanian women the rights of citizenship.

Shorouq: So this is one of the key role that the citizens now are working on. My origin is from Irbid, it's another governorate in Jordan and I moved in Amman 12 years before. So I can, you know, enhance myself, my personality. The capital of Jordan has many opportunities of work. So I go to the Civil Service Bureau so I can update my papers in Amman. So I told them I need to change where I stay instead of Irbid, I will change, I stay in Amman because I will get a new role, a new update of my role and in my line of employment and I will maybe be employed more faster when I am in Amman. So they told me you have to bring your father's consent. So I go to my father, I told him, Father I live in Amman for 10 years and I need to move, to write in the papers in the office of employment that I need to be in Amman.

Shorouq: He told me, okay. And he signed the paper to me and I took it to the Civil Service Bureau. Then they refused, even with my fathers consent. They told me your father should be living in Amman and changing the identity so you can take the same identity, you know. So you should, your father have the identity and the proof that he lives in Amman. We don't need your father consent. So even with my fathers consent, it's not approved. So you see how this kind of little discriminate clauses and phrases in this law, which you find it after experiences. And I would never find that out or explore that out without this story. So, and I think many civil society organization maybe won't know this discrimination in this, on this civil start to law.

Chris Wurst: Can you talk a little bit about the work that you're trying to do to make these changes and how you have found success?

Shorouq: Because I had resigned from my ex-work as national advisor on business security, that's why I established my new establish NGO and I called it for building national consensus because what we missing in Jordan among the civil society representatives are the building the consensus on our priorities. Everyone is working separately. That's why the efforts are not collected. The efforts are not in a, you know, it's not a big one because everyone is work independently according to the funds he received. So we need to build this kind of participatory approach among the civil society and building consensus on what we really want to achieve. So if we all put our hands together, we can, for example, change. It begin step by step. Let's begin with the citizenship law.

Chris Wurst: How have you been able to convince the people in power to change?

Shorouq: This is a good question because if you need someone to change something, you have to make him play a role. So he should be engaged in what you're doing. For example, if I speak with you I'm not speaking with my colleagues. She will feel out of the game and she will go out. She would go and leave us alone. So if you need someone to change, he should be on the table. So this kind of conversation among all consultations with all is really important and this is, comes here advocating for something you should, everyone should be engaged. Everyone. Yeah.

Chris Wurst: I want to ask you when you look in to the future in Jordan, if you feel optimistic and tell me why you feel optimistic if you do.

Shorouq: If I optimistic? The questions are not the same questions in the verbal.

Chris Wurst: Sorry, I always do that. Why do I do that? It's a bad interview technique. It's cause I get really interested. You know, and then I don't pay attention to the questions I prepared.

Shorouq: I get that, I get that. I feel optimistic about that women someday will have the right to take the citizenship rights for her children. I tell you a secret here in front of those leader ladies because I may be someone, a parliamentarian. Because I working now, a member with the Arab women parliamentarian board, Arab women parliament. So I may someone. If I, became, I promise I will change the slope. I send you pictures.

Chris Wurst: Yeah. It's a campaign promise. You heard it here. Thank you so much for telling us your stories.

Chris Wurst: 22:33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 22:33 is named for Title 22 Chapter 33 of the US code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of the US government funded International Exchange Programs.

Chris Wurst: In this special live episode, part one of two, we heard from Deborah Awut Mayom from South Sudan. Humaira Saqib from Afghanistan and Shorouq Shatnawi from Jordan. For more about the IVLP Women, Peace and Security program and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22:33, and leave us a nice review while you're at it, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratry@state.gov that's ECA, C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-R-Y @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our website at eca.state.gov/2233, and now you can follow us on Instagram at 22.33_ stories. Special thanks to Deborah, Humaira and Shorouq for sharing their stories. Thanks to our colleagues in IVLP and special thanks to all the Women, Peace, and Security participants for making so much beautiful noise. Music heard at the top and throughout the episode was "Quatrefoil" by Podington Bear and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 16 -  The Food We Eat, Part 14

LISTEN HERE - Episode 16


This week's episode features another tasty selection of crazy food stories from ECA alumni while on their international exchange programs. Bon appetit!


Chris Wurst: I know that song, and so must you do you dear listener. When I hear it, I have a veritable Pavlovian response. My mouth waters, my stomach growls, and I know that it's that time again. Time to celebrate the food we eat. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange and food stories.

Speaker 2: There's so many varieties of food. You can to go to a restaurant, you see there will be a menu, it'll be chicken this, chicken that, chicken that. Or like beef this, beef that. So it's a very difficult, but when I'm in Malawi, I'm going to go to a restaurant and they'll ask me two to three questions, they will know what to give to me. So I get very confused sometimes here with so many varieties of food.

Chris Wurst: This week, training yourself to eat spicy food, eating all the tacos, literally all the tacos. And mac and cheese. Seriously guys, mac and cheese. Join us, on a journey around the world to tickle your taste buds. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, there are people very much like ourselves.
Speaker 6: (singing)
Speaker 7: Bagels. Gosh, bagels. I need to get like 100 bagels with me back home, and like ship them all the way.
Speaker 8: I was traveling to Aminabad, India in Gujarat. And I knew that I was traveling there for a few months prior. So I trained because I really didn't like spicy food, but I knew that Indians loved spicy food. And I hadn't been on that many international trips before. And so I wanted to really show off and I wanted to eat spicy food. So for a few months before I ate a lot of spicy food and I gradually ate more and more spicy food as the time went on. I think I had a lot of spicy chicken wings. I probably had a lot of hot sauce. So finally we had a traditional Indian meal in the rural area in Gujarat, outside of the city Aminabad. And we all sat down in this beautiful area. And prior to the meal we did this dancing with the Indian participants that were on our trip.

Speaker 8: And it was so, it was so fun. It was so beautiful. And our meal was so cool and unlike anything I'd ever had before. There were over a dozen little tiny dishes, all with a different food inside of them. And I really didn't know what many of them were. But then I recognized a pepper and I thought, "Okay, I've been training for this for months. I am going to eat this pepper." And before anyone could warn me, I ate the pepper hole. And it was the spiciest thing I have ever had in my entire life. I frantically looked around and tried to find something to drink. There was some water, but that didn't really help. But I did it, I ate that pepper. And it was very proud of myself. I didn't really enjoy the rest of the meal because my mouth was on fire. But I will always say that I did actually eat the really spicy pepper during my trip to India. I do think you can train yourself to like spicy food.

Speaker 9: Oh, I do have a crazy food story.

Speaker 10: Love to hear, it, please.

Speaker 9: Well, once we said that, "Okay, let's go and eat Thai food." And Thai food is usually spicy and Americans love sweet. So they have added some sweet into the spice. And we love the salt. And we went there and the spicy food came with sugar and we added the salt. It was the food that I would never love to eat. It was so crazy. But I ate first time Mexican food here, I loved it. To be honest, before coming to America, I had a bad small culture shock in Arabian Emirates. So after that, I wasn't able to go to any fast food restaurant like for a year. That's why I couldn't go in the fast food restaurant. But I went to the Mexican restaurant a lot here. And I loved banana split ice cream here also. It was so delicious. I really love ice cream a lot. So I was missing all the years ice cream. Like I was buying in packs. Also banana split. I missed ice cream a lot.

Speaker 11: I got to Mexico city and made my way to the hotel that we were staying at. And I remember the traffic was really crazy. The taxi swerving in and out of lanes. And I was just kind of overstimulated. And then getting to the hotel and realizing that I was the first one out of my group to get there. And that people wouldn't be arriving till the next day. Which was sort of a great way for me to slowly introduce myself into the city because I hadn't really explored Mexico city either. So I remember I got in and then I settled down and I left and I really wanted to have, it's called [chaska 00:00:06:45]. And it's like shaved corn with mayo and queso fresco and some chili. So I was like, this is going to be the first thing I eat in Mexico. So I remember that was sort of like my inauguration of Fulbright, was on the street eating this chaska.

Speaker 15: When I visited Oaxaca, obsessed with chocolate. So it's the city where you walk around and you can actually smell the chocolate. This, Mayordomo is the name of the, one of the main companies that makes chocolate. But they're kind of grinding it up and mixing it and you can just smell it as you're walking down the street. And they have milkshakes or hot chocolate or just the bars. And so I was in paradise there, walking around smelling it and eating it all day.

Speaker 15: I think everybody gets some sort of, I don't know, parasite or bacteria infection or something while they're traveling. And so I think it came from a salad that I had had. Maybe the lettuce was out too long outside. And then I had some weird infection. And we decided, a group of friends and I, that we wanted to go camping on a friend's, she had a, her dad worked on an onion farm. So I'm feeling pretty sick, but I was like, "Well, I don't want to miss out on this camping experience." So we go and I feeling okay at night. And then we wake up in the morning and it's the smell of rotten, they were burning all of the rotten onions. So I wake up feeling totally sick to this smell of burning, rotten onions. And I was just like, "Oh God, I need to get out of here." I almost fainted and it was pretty crazy, crazy experience. Still not really sure what I had eaten that caused that, but I don't think going to a rotten onion farm was the right remedy.

Speaker 15: Ate some bugs while I was there, cockroaches, beetles. I was pretty open to eating, I think I ate every kind of taco that there was, except ... Like eye, cheek, tongue. The only one I didn't eat was the brain taco. I think that was just one level too high for me to fathom. So I had the taco de ojo, de cabeza, lengua. What else did I have? Lechon. There was champurrado, which is when you have a mix of different meats in your taco, so you don't really know what you're getting. I can't even remember all the names, but a lot of different parts of the cow.

Speaker 16: We are sitting in the room and we're going through the agenda. The Americans are on one side of the table, the Bangladeshis are on the other side, and I'm kind of in the middle. And they're going back and forth about what things should look like. And then you know, someone brings up tea, what about tea breaks? And what about lunch? And the Americans were like, "Oh, well no, we're going to do this half a day." Just kind of the very American, let's get in, let's get the work done. And I could tell that was not the answer the Bangladeshis were looking for. And then they started talking in Bangla. And at that point I had been taking some lessons. So I kind of understood what they were saying. And essentially I looked over at the head of, the head delegation from the American side.

Speaker 16: I was like, "Look, yes, I understand you want to get this done in half a day and we want to be judicious about it. But you can't do a meeting here, you can't do a meeting in Bangladesh and not offer your guest, and you're convening the meetings so they're your guests, tea. At the very least, tea." It is ending at lunchtime, so you could offer lunch as well. But you got to at least do tea and cookies or biscuits or something. And it that kind of simple little bit of a like, "Oh, okay," well you know, "This is how we're going to get these people to the table."

Speaker 16: And it was something that my American counterpart hadn't quite think of. That significance, right? Of just taking a moment, having some tea, taking a little bit of break from the work that was going on and just a different way of doing things. And then once we all convened back together in our meeting and it was offered, "Okay, we'll adjust the schedule to fit in a tea break here or whatnot." The tone of the meeting changed completely, right? It's just a different way of doing business. And so that was a really like nice way I could bridge two sides, literally, by sitting in the middle.

Speaker 16: Sylhet is really famous for its seven layer tea. So it's in a very small glass, almost like a shot glass. And they make seven different types of tea with different leaves and different kinds of consistencies. And they pour it into this clear glass in a way where it's layered so you can see all seven layers. And as you drink it and go through each layer, it's the flavor changes dramatically. It was really cool.

Speaker 17: Because I grew up in an environment with my mom, my two brothers. I'm the last born, I'm the last one to come out. So my mom used to be a tea lady growing up. And we didn't have like, always we would eat pop. Porridge but hot porridge. It's very delicious. You don't have it here, which is very tricky why? I'm sure that's what Trevor misses the most. But we didn't have pop. My brother, what they used to do, they used to collect cans and bottles to recycle. And with the little money that they would have then they would buy food. So on maybe every three Fridays, on the third Friday they would come with this food. And that would be the most delicious thing ever. And that's the only time I got acquainted to takeaways.

Speaker 17: But they used to tell me that, we having this food ... And little did I know, I didn't even know that they were doing the recycling thing because I was a kid. Only now, like this year, in June, 2019, they're like, "You know, we used to recycle for you to get that food that you used to talk about. I was like, "I didn't know." Little did I know the sacrifices that my brothers did for me not to only have a limited mindset to life, but to appreciate the little that I had. And that was just like chips and bread. And that was everything, that was a culture that we would appreciate. But my mom would always say, "You have to work hard. Work hard, be focused, don't get derailed. And stick to the vision." And that's what's being echoed right now.

Chris Wurst: So 2015 IVLP flipping pizza. Oh, I think it's delicious. Then I bought my wife 2019 this year for the American association was for science and I took it to the pizza place. Oh, it's crazy. It's delicious. You know, the first thing I wanted to, when I got here, Mr. Glenn was like, Hey, let's go here. I'm like, look, I don't want to go to those places. I know those places I just want to go to the pizza place. Like flipping pizza is amazing and you can pass it by, you won't even notice it. But when you enter you'll see a queue cause people know that place. It's like the hidden place where you find treasury. It's delicious. That I'm actually going to go with after here.

Speaker 5: So I am a German American. My grandmother is from Munich, Germany. She came over here when she was I think 21 on a U S army boat because my grandfather was in the army and was stationed at the consulate in Munich I believe. And she was a translator I think at the time. And that's how they met. And within six months she had a ring on her finger and came over here. All of her friends, her life was back in Germany. And the way she, I guess kind of dealt with the homesickness was through cooking and cooking traditional German food. I always appreciated her cooking, coming into her house on Christmas Eve, which is a big deal in German culture and just smelling the amazing foods that she was cooking. She would make this dish called [foreign language 00:16:02] which is a staple for us every year.

Speaker 5: And it's been definitely a connection between my grandma and me and something that I'm passing on to my friends and my community here in D C. I had the opportunity to go with my grandmother and my family to Germany and it was really great to see my family over there just sitting around the table, have the foods that I grew up with in the context of being in Germany, in Munich, in the apartment that is directly next door to where my grandmother grew up. The gathering around the table with your family, whether you understand each other or not and just laughter is multi-lingual.

Speaker 8: what bothers me in America the most is that everything is ready and frozen. And I tried everything because I was trying, okay, let's buy something frozen, microwave it and then we're good to go. It doesn't taste good guys. No, it doesn't taste good yet, you need to cook. And I noticed that not a lot of people cook. And this also bothers me like guys, if someone comes from another country and he doesn't know how to cook, you have to cook for them. So that's me. Like guys, seriously, I was dying to try Mac and cheese and unfortunately because no one knows how to cook and the frozen one sucks. I died until I finally tried it after one month in Washington DC and it was a very good Mac and cheese. Other than that, it was awful, but Mac and cheese guys is the best.

Chris Wurst: 2233 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U S state department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 2233 is named for title 22 chapter 33 of the U S code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of the U S government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: In this episode, our taste buds give thanks to our guests. We thank them for their stories and their willingness to try new things. For more about ECA exchanges. Check out eca.state.gov we encourage you to subscribe to 2233 you can do so wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us@ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@ State.gov. Complete episode transcript can be found at our webpage at ECA.state.gov/2233. And now you can follow us on Instagram at 2233_stories. Special thanks this week to everybody for trying new things and for living to tell the tale. The various interviews were done by Ana-Maria Sinitean, Kate Furby and me. And I edited this segment. Featured music during the segment was Now's The Time by Art Blakey and his all-stars. And Sport and Crowd by Art Blakey and the Jazz messengers. Music at the top of each food episode is Monkeys Spinning Monkeys by Kevin McCloud. And the end credit music, as always, is Two Pianos by Ted Gearloose. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 15 -  The Arc of the Moral Universe with Savon Jackson

LISTEN HERE - Episode 15


This week's episode features Savon Jackson who grew up in the borough of Queens in New York City. Savon traveled to New Delhi and Kolkata, India as part of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) Programs. In honor of Black History Month, he describes how he taught his Indian students about Martin Luther King Jr. and about how India's Mahatma Gandhi served as an important inspiration for MLK and the civil rights movement in the United States.


Chris Wurst: You grew up in Queens, not far from an area called Little India, but Little India wasn't enough for you. And so on two extended exchanges, you found yourself living in New Delhi and then Kolkata, very much a piece of the real India, and there was nothing little about it.

Chris Wurst: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Savon Jackson: Durga, who is this multi-armed deity... She is the epitome of what's referred to as Shakti, or feminine energy, and she is just the baddest that ever was. She has several different weapons. She was basically formed from different parts of Shiva and all these other deities, and she rides a lion, which is already pretty cool as-is. Essentially, Durga is the patron mother-goddess and deity of the Bengal region, and Durga Puja is essentially her homecoming.

Savon Jackson: So she's coming back to visit her children, who are other goddesses like Ganesh, like Saraswati, like Lakshmi, but then also the people of West Bengal. Essentially, the streets are flooded, school's canceled for 10 days, and it's just a revelry. And so throughout the city, and even, in particular, within the villages too, you have these large, what are called pandals that spring up.

Savon Jackson: Essentially, these pandals depict the scene of Durga eliminating and killing this demon king. The main pandal that everyone was at, my year, for Durga Puja, was a hundred feet tall, and she's just towering over this area. And it's just one of those things where it's just like... I am literally going past every day to school in an auto-rickshaw, just seeing this thing being built, and that's that moment where I'm just like, "Where am I? What is this statue? What is really going on here?" It's like, "I'm definitely on another planet."

Chris Wurst: This week: Durga, the baddest female deity in India. Gandhi, the ever-present symbol of freedom. And MLK, the attentive student of Gandhiji. Join us on a journey from Queens to Kolkata and using differences to find similarities. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Speaker 5: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves, and-

Speaker 6: (singing)

Savon Jackson: Hi, my name is Savon Jackson. I'm originally from Queens, New York. I currently work as a India and Vietnam Programs Manager for CET Academic Programs, which is a study abroad organization based here in Washington D.C. For my exchanges, I was first a Gilman Scholar in 2014 for New Delhi, India, and then second I was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Kolkata, India in 2015.

Savon Jackson: Before I hopped on the plane, I don't think I really knew what I was getting myself into, to be honest, especially as a junior in undergrad, thinking that I was an adult, growing up in New York City, having classmates who were Indian, and then obviously the influence of Bollywood, maybe having Indian food once or twice, but not really knowing too much about the cuisine or that much about the culture. And so once I got there, it was definitely a shock.

Savon Jackson: So I land in New Delhi, I get through immigration, and then luckily enough, as I'm waiting for my two big baggages to come on the carousel, I see one of the other women who was going to be in my study abroad program. So I'm like, "Oh, yes, perfect." Because I knew I had to wait outside and find [Promoji 00:04:53] so that he could take us to our hotel for the first couple of nights while the program is starting. We get our bags and we're about to exit the airport, and then, because I think that I'm smart, I tell my friend Charlotte, and I say, "Hey, just watch the bags. I'll keep an eye out for Promoji, and then after that I'll grab you from inside and then we can just hop in the car and go.

Savon Jackson: But what I did not know about Indian airports is that, once you leave, you cannot come back in. And so for the first couple of minutes I'm looking outside, looking around, seeing if I can find Promoji, and then I can't find them, and so I kind of give up. And then I was like, "All right, let me just go back in and find Charlotte, and then we can go about our way." But then I am greeted by two very tall Indian soldiers with automatic rifles, telling me that unless I have a ticket for a departing flight, I can't get back into the airport.

Savon Jackson: So basically the scenario is me in front of these two guards with automatic rifles, and then I'm just like looking at what would be my future classmate through a glass window, and she has all of our bags, and I'm basically freaking out. And in that moment I'm just like, "Why did I choose to come here? I need to go back home right now."

Savon Jackson: Within probably the first two or three months while I was at my school, I was definitely struggling. I had done some informal teaching before; I worked at summer camps, I volunteered at schools, but I wasn't a full-time teacher to that extent. And so it took me a while to really find my niche.

Savon Jackson: When we are, with Fulbright, taking on this role as kind of an unofficial ambassador, I was really toeing the line between, "All right! I want to talk about American culture!" and making sure that I'm still staying on what's relevant to these students. And then, really, that "aha!" moment for me was in... One day during class we were talking about different family lineages, and all of my students were talking about all the times that they could trace their families back from Saint Teresa sanctuaries, and their family had always been in this village for hundreds of years, and all these historical aspects.

Savon Jackson: And then when it turned to me, one of the students asked me, "Oh, Savon, sir, what about your family?" And it kind of hit me at that moment. I was like, "Oh, wow. I don't think I've really explained my version of being an American, as a black man." And so that was one experience where I was able to really share my identity as an American, but as a black man in America, in terms of telling the students, "Oh yeah, I can kind of trace my family back to a certain area in the South, but beyond that, I don't really know where my family or where my lineage really comes from."

Savon Jackson: And so that led into a larger discussion, in terms of really sharing with my students, in terms of talking about the history of slavery in the U.S. and what that means in terms of social issues today. But I really saw that as an opportunity for me to lean in, and also express my culture. That made me be a little bit more comfortable, because I was using texts and introducing ideas that I was already familiar with. So once I became a little bit more comfortable, I started doing poetry with some of my older students who were in grade 9 and 10. So I introduced them to Langston Hughes' "I am America Too," I introduced them to "Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, and helped them bring that literature and that poetry into context, in terms of how I interpret it, and also get in their interpretations of what it means, maybe from their own perspective, as well.

Savon Jackson: One of the things that I noticed, just from both of my experiences in India, just because of the amount of time that I was there, was how there was really a lot of overlap in terms of the different social issues that both American society and Indian society really wrestle with, in particular when we think of the context of Indian society today. You have this parallel between "What to do with Hindus and Muslims?" and also "What to do with blacks and whites?" within an American context. And I think, for me, I really saw how there's so much overlap between these issues. We may call them different things, but really the issues, the struggles, the concepts...

Savon Jackson: I would say, in terms of being in that kind of minority status, you can also relate to individuals who are really just trying to fulfill their own dream, whether that be an American dream, whether that be an Indian dream, whatever that vision of prosperity is. I really saw a lot of overlaps in terms of the conversations that I had with my students, some of my teachers, and then other peers that I made in both Delhi and Kolkata.

Savon Jackson: One of the things that I saw myself, in this kind of unofficial ambassador role, was correcting some of the stereotypes that either students or my peers may have had about Americans, but then also about African-Americans. I think a lot of what my students digested, in terms of if they saw someone that was black, was either they were a rapper or they were Barack Obama. There really wasn't an in-between. You can be what's considered a degenerate of American society, or you can be the epitome of what is success for someone in American society.

Savon Jackson: And I wanted to show them that, "Hey, you can just be me, someone in the middle, someone who can be successful but doesn't have to be the president." And they can also be successful and they don't have to be a rapper or a NBA player. There is a lot of people like myself who are in the middle, and who are doing really great things. And also showing them, too, that you don't need to be these opposite ends of the spectrum to be someone who is successful, someone who is admired, someone who can be a mentor to someone else.

Savon Jackson: During my Fulbright experience teaching in the classroom, as I became a lot more comfortable with talking about my experience, talking about my background, being an American, being a black man in America, one of the things that I really wanted to show students was the connections between American culture, black culture, and Indian culture.

Savon Jackson: So one of the units that I did... Students usually know who American presidents are, just from their own general knowledge studies, but I would say students didn't necessarily know who Civil Rights leaders were, for example. One of the classic examples that I gave to my students was that I had a two-class session talking about MLK, and one of the things that I did was really connect MLK and basically the equivalent in India, which has Gandhiji.

Savon Jackson: And so I really talked about how MLK was inspired by Gandhiji, how MLK went to India with open arms and he learned about the concept of nonviolent resistance. And that's definitely a term that the students know, because Gandhiji is everywhere. He's on the money, he's in every school, everyone knows about Satyagraha, which is nonviolent resistance. But I don't think that they... My students that didn't necessarily know that this concept was being taken thousands of miles away, and it was what inspired and what sparked and what led to the successful achievement of the Civil Rights era within the United States.

Savon Jackson: And so, really, that was one moment where I felt like I was able to knock those lessons out of the park and really see that "aha!" moment where students were like, "Oh, wow, this MLK guy is kind of like Gandhiji." And it's like, "Oh, wow. Gandhiji is cool. I didn't know that he had this impact," in terms of this struggle that is similar to the struggle that our forefathers had when they were also trying to fight for their independence, also trying to fight for their rights to be free, to be seen as citizens, to be seen as human.

Savon Jackson: The U.S. consulate in Kolkata was very close to where our schools were. We were brought in to help lead this new pilot program that the consulate was starting. It was called [Balo 00:14:07] American English, and "balo" in Bangla means "speak." So essentially it was a program called Speak American English, and it was designed to be basically a job-readiness and professional development program for college age students, so students who weren't that much younger than our own age as ETAs.

Savon Jackson: So I would say, one of those moments that those students left an impression on me is that we basically had eight weeks of workshops where we did readiness training on doing PowerPoints, doing group interviews, doing public speaking, and really the moment that made me the most proud, or that left the biggest impression, was the final banquet that we had. So at the final banquet, we're in the biggest room that the consulate has. It's huge. There are so many guests that are brought in. It's all of the different teachers and faculty members from the respective universities that the students are coming from. The consulate general is there, all of the different FSOs are there.

Savon Jackson: And with that final banquet, the task that we had the students perform was to do a five-minute public speech about anything of their topic. And so throughout the eight weeks, we really made sure that we scaffolded different types of activities so that the students, one, felt comfortable being on stage and having their air time, and then also, two, making sure that they can be persuasive and make the case for them.

Savon Jackson: And I'll tell you, those students knocked it out of the park. There were about 15 of them, and that was really the moment where I was like, "Wow." Something that I was able to contribute to helped these students, in terms of being able to gain tangible skills. In particular, being able to stand out amongst the crowd when we're talking about such a large job market, like India is. Or even in general, just being able to gain that confidence to feel fine talking in front of a group of people, and really important people as well.

Savon Jackson: One of the things that I was also really struggling with was trying to figure out what my students liked. Oddly enough, it took me two or three months to actually ask my students, what would they like to read in class? And the one commonality that I heard is that, "Sir, we really want to hear scary stories." And I was like, of course they want to hear scary stories. These are kids. I really wasn't connecting the commonalities between kids in the States and kids in India. Kids also just like to be really scared and they like to hear about weird stuff.

Savon Jackson: So one of the things that I saw as an opportunity for me to insert there was the collection of stories, Scary Stories That You Tell in the Dark. And in particular, one story that the students really liked was the story of Harold the Scarecrow. Basically, Harold the scarecrow is... These two kids beat up a scarecrow in this cornfield, and then one of the days, at nighttime, while they're beating the scarecrow up, Harold the Scarecrow eats one of them. And then the kid turns into the scarecrow.

Savon Jackson: For us as adults, that's laughable, but for kids, at least my students, they were like "Sir, one, what is a scarecrow? And sir, two, this story is awesome." That was really a moment where I could like, "Oh, okay, this is a good opportunity for me to explain American rural culture and talk about cornfields and talk about scarecrows," but also see the kids actually be engaged and want to hear more odd stories.

Savon Jackson: While I was doing my Fulbright, there was one weekend where both of my friends that I had studied abroad with in Delhi, they were both in India at the same time. We all met up in Varanasi, and then one day, we're walking along the ghats... If you haven't been to Varanasi, it's one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth. On one side you have the Ganga River, which is this holy river. People dip themselves morning, noon, and night, in terms of being spiritually blessed. And then on the other side, you have these ghats, which are basically large stepwells that lead into the Ganga.

Savon Jackson: And so there's one day that we're kind of just walking along the ghats, and then out of nowhere it just starts to be torrential downpour. The rain is coming down, it's pelting us, it's not one of those storms that you're just like, "Oh, all right, well, we can just hide somewhere, and then maybe it'll go away after five minutes." Like no, this was consistent rain downpour. We're trying to find trees, we get under the tree, the tree isn't helping, and we're just soaked at this point in time.

Savon Jackson: As we're hiding under one of these trees, we see this man who's in one of these haveli-style homes that are pretty common in Varanasi, and he sees us from his porch, and he says, "Hey, come over here. The rain is not going to stop anytime soon. You can at least dry off at my place." And so we have that moment that I think a lot of foreigners have who have traveled, where it's like... You're looking at your friends and it's like, "Should we do this?" You're giving that look of uncertainty, you're not really sure what to do, but we're like, "All right, either we can still stand under this tree and be rained on for who knows how long, or we can see what's up with this man."

Savon Jackson: We end up going up to his house. It was definitely, I think... Even just a simple act of kindness, right? Really showing someone compassion and saying, "Hey, I see that you're struggling. I see that you're hurting." Whether or not it'd be physically hurting, or just, you're soaked in rain. And so he invites us in his house, and we really connected with him. He didn't have that much to give, but he already had a pot of dal, which is basically lentils, cooking on the stove, and he had some chapatis. We were sitting in his haveli, rain's coming down, and we're just sharing a meal of dal and chapati. And that was really, I would say, one of the kindest moments that I reflect on, still, to this day.

Savon Jackson: One of the main things for me with India is that it can constantly, a lot of times, be an assault on the senses. And depending on where you come from, that can either be a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes it's in the middle. In particular, when you are going into these different holy spaces, whether it be a Hindu temple or a mandir or a Sikh gurdwara or a Buddhist temple, you really feel those vibes once you come in. It's, I would say, a little bit different than the Western traditions that maybe Americans or most Americans would be used to. You walk into the place and it's really about the feeling, the right practice rather than the right thought. So making sure that you're making the eye contact with the deity, you are in the zone, sitting down, taking in the different ragas that are there.

Savon Jackson: And I would say, for me, one of the repeated experiences that I had, maybe with the transcendent, but feeling like, "Wow, this is different," was with my Service Learning Placement that I had when I was in Delhi at the Sikh gurdwara. Every day we would go into the main hall. So, in Sikhism, the main hall, you have what is the holy book, which is the Guru Granth Sahib. It sits squarely in the center of the chamber, and then surrounded by the book, you have all of these musicians. And so they're playing tabla, they're playing what would be the equivalent of an accordion, and everyone is sitting and bowing back and forth, but they're sitting cross-legged and everyone's nodding back and forth.

Savon Jackson: And really, this is how we would start off our first 15 or 20 minutes from our experience, just to sit down, have that moment of meditation, that moment of relaxation. It sounds cheesy, but it's one of those moments where you like feel that connection to other people. And you're not necessarily touching anyone. Everyone kind of... This space is big enough that you have your own area where you can just sit down cross legged, take in the music, close your eyes, and just have that experience be whatever you want it to be. And I would say that's a weekly repeated experience that I really looked forward to, and that I definitely miss now, just having those moments of tranquility, whether or not it be me relating to a religious being, or finding my own center, finding my own peace, and taking in what the experience has been thus far.

Savon Jackson: You have this term that's called "bideshi," and so "bideshi" basically means "foreigner." As we got into our experience and we got further in, we had that little bit of sense of confidence that comes with knowing what your route is in terms of hopping in a auto every day, getting to the program house, you know who your chaiwala is, you know the person that's going to be giving you momos every day, and as soon as they see you they already have the food ready for you... You kind of get this confidence, and then when you start seeing other foreigners, one of the inside jokes that we would have is like, "Oh, look at the bideshis over there."

Savon Jackson: I mean, it's not necessarily the nicest of words, but it's one of those things where it's like, you are going through this process of... At least for yourself, the foreign is starting to feel less foreign to you, and so you can see the look on other people's faces where they're like, "Wow, where am I? What is this?" Even though that was just us, maybe three or four months ago, we felt as if we had progressed to the point where we were just slightly less bideshi.

Savon Jackson: I think for me, if I didn't have the experience of studying abroad, being a Gilman Scholar, being a Fulbright scholar, and not having gone to India, I definitely think my worldview would have definitely been a lot different. So even though I am from New York City, from a very cosmopolitan place, really mixy in terms of the different types of cultures, I think there is something to be said about taking a person out of an element and out of a place that they're familiar with and dropping them in something that is totally different, totally turns them upside down, may seem like an alien world at first.

Savon Jackson: And I think I would've not been able to value and get a better understanding of what it means to be an American, in the context of being an American through the eyes of someone that is not American. And I think also, too, being able to see the similarities between cultures, in particular in terms of similarities as it relates to social issues, different struggles, different identity crises that generations, countries, society has, and realizing that although India may be thousands of miles away, there's so much overlap, there's so much parallel, between the different struggles that may be going on in India, within a city like Kolkata or a city like New Delhi, or even within rural villages, and rural areas that are in the United States, too.

Savon Jackson: That experience, as well as my experience working with students, really led me to pursue a career in international education. Before going into the experience, I kind of knew what international education was, but I wasn't really sure. It was still really foggy for me. But after coming out of that experience, I was like, "All right, I know I want to do something related to it," but I didn't know just what yet. And so after my Fulbright experience was over, I moved to Washington D.C., and I would later become a study abroad advisor at George Washington University. For me, one of the things that I really wanted to pass on was... In particular, from the experience that I had being a black man in a space where not too many black people go to, I wanted to change that stereotype and help promote study abroad to students who either looked like me, had a similar background, first generation college student, Pell Grant eligible.

Savon Jackson: One of the biggest things that I feel most proud of during my time at GW was working to help other students who were Pell Grant be awarded the Gilman Scholarship, because I know for me, without that money and without gaining those skills, I would not have been able to study abroad at all.

Savon Jackson: And then even from that experience, even after transitioning out of GW, and in my new role now as a Program Manager at CET, one of the things that I'm really excited about in my job is that I'm able to continue working with programs in India. I'm really excited to continue to help create those spaces where students can feel comfortable going to India, yet still challenged at the same time with their experience, and being able to help them wrestle with those different social issues, and making sure that they're prepared for what is definitely a whirlwind experience of being in India, being an American in India, and all of what that encompasses.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of the U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Savon Jackson talked about his two ECA exchange programs to India, one as a Gilman Scholar, the other one as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, or ETA. For more about the Gilman, Fulbright, and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov.

Chris Wurst: We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts, and hey, leave us a nice review while you're at it. We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A, C-O-L, L-A-B, O-R-A, T-O-R-Y @state.gov.

Chris Wurst: Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our web page at eca.state.gov/2233. And now you can follow us on Instagram, at 22.33_stories.

Chris Wurst: Special thanks to Savon for his stories. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was "The Zeppelin" and "City Limits" by Blue Dot Sessions, "Burgundy and the Trumpet" by Dana Boulé, and "Love of My Life" by BoxCat Games. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came, and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.

Chris Wurst: Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 14 -  Falling in with the Gauchos with Lindsey Liles

LISTEN HERE - Episode 14


In this week's episode, we interview a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant from Little Rock, Arkansas who traveled to Brazil and soon found herself becoming part of the Gaucho community, and the centerpiece of their annual parade.


Chris Wurst: You didn't know what you were getting into when you booked an Airbnb experience to go horseback riding in Southern Brazil, but soon you became a part of the Gaucho community, and the centerpiece in fact of their annual parade. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Lindsey Lyles: I just had this moment where I'm just galloping down this dirt road, really thinking I'm going to fall off, which I later did. Just, my God, what would people think? I'm a tennis player from Little Rock. I don't gallop down dirt roads in Southern Brazil in a back race.

Lindsey Lyles: And I lost, spectacularly of course. I lost my knife. I lost, lost the race, later fell off, but still definitely put it in the good category.

Chris Wurst: This week, being told you have horse in your blood, dressing like a Gaucho, eating like a Gaucho and riding like a Gaucho. And a reminder that you're never too old to discover a new passion. Join us in our journey from Little Rock, Arkansas to Porto Alegre Brazil, where we pick up some horses along the way. It's 22.33.

Lindsey Lyles: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Intro Clip: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am. When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, very much like ourselves and-

Lindsey Lyles: My name is Lindsay Lyles and I'm from Little Rock, Arkansas and I've just finished a Fulbright teaching assistantship in Brazil.

Lindsey Lyles: My second day, I had gone to the supermarket. I had sort of dipped into Portuguese before coming, but not too much. And I was thinking that my Spanish would help me more than it actually ended up helping me as I found out quite distinct, quite different. So I went to the supermarket and tried to buy an avocado. So I get my avocado and I walk up to check out and the cashier is just pointing at my avocado and pointing at the back of the store, and just talking, talking, talking. I have no idea what she's saying and I'm so embarrassed because there was about 20 people behind me.

Lindsey Lyles: So I'm totally humiliated. I'm just pointing at it and saying, "I want avocado. I want avocado," like a three year old. And so finally, it turns out she's got a walk me into the back of the store and I find that you have to weigh your vegetables before checking out. So that things like that certainly make you feel like a foreigner, because such a simple task suddenly becomes this almost insurmountable obstacle.

Lindsey Lyles: How would I have known that you need to weigh your vegetables at the back of the store? It's an adjustment, but you just have to be able to laugh at yourself and know that it will get better. But you just feel like an idiot, for lack of a better word.

Lindsey Lyles: I actually lost my keys in an Uber. Completely my own fault. I just left them. So I went back to my apartment, realize I don't have my keys. I'm totally locked out. And it's my neighbors that made me feel like I was really part of that community. I had about six neighbors come and try to help me. The first offered me his keys to his own apartment, so that I could get in because they had about three doors. So he was trying to give me his keys so that I could at least get in the building.

Lindsey Lyles: I had someone give me the number to a locksmith, and then my favorite, someone came and very clearly meaning it, said, "Oh, we'll just break into the unused apartment upstairs, and then I'll let you down to your patio using my bed sheets."

Lindsey Lyles: I said, "Oh my God. No thank you." It really made me feel like I was part of the building, I was part of the community and people were willing to go out on a limb and help me, and eventually I did call the locksmith and he did come. And I was so excited to get in my apartment because it had been about two days at this point of me struggling along. He asked me if he could [foreign language 00:04:39] the lock and I didn't know the words. I just didn't care and I said, "Yeah. Do whatever."

Lindsey Lyles: He just shatters my door. Just takes a hammer out and totally breaks it. So it didn't end up so well for me, but I did feel like part of the community.

Lindsey Lyles: So I ended up, through a stroke of luck making friends with a Gaucho woman, who then introduced me to the whole community. From the moment she met me, from the first time we rode together, she just told me very matter of factly, "Horses are in your blood. I smell it on you."

Lindsey Lyles: And I'm like, "Oh, this woman is crazy." And I say as much to her, and she said, "Yes, I'm crazy," as if it were normal. And so we always had a running joke that she was crazy but she wasn't stupid. She had such a deep love of horses, respect for horses, understanding of them, which she was able to pass on to me. She made every effort to show me so many aspects of Gaucho culture. Everything I got to do was because of her.

Lindsey Lyles: She was a vet, but she wanted to be closer to horses, so she actually lived in a barn. She was wild. There was nothing this woman wouldn't do. So I ended up staying in the barn with her many nights to go on early rides. We took our horses swimming in the lake together. There's very little ground that I did not cover around that area with her.

Lindsey Lyles: So I guess an assumption I had had about the Gaucho community was that it was very much about the men. And that the women were more stay at home, than the men are out, the ones actually on the horses. And this was just absolutely shattered. The women are as tough and as rowdy as the men.

Lindsey Lyles: So I joined a women's Gaucho riding group, and we would go out on some Sundays and all ride together. They are nothing like the meek, stay at home type whatsoever. And they wear the pants that the men do. The traditional bombachas, those wide pants that you think of when you think of the South American cowboy. So I think I was totally wrong about the women. I would bet my money on one of those women in any fight.

Lindsey Lyles: I basically started riding there from scratch. I had always really liked horses. As a little kid, I had the classic obsession with horses. I read a lot of horse books. But I lived in the city and I was a tennis player my whole life. So I never had the opportunity to really learn. So when I moved there, then I saw an Airbnb experience. She only had two horses, so I said, "Why not?"

Lindsey Lyles: So I did that, and then I got to be very close friends with her and she taught me everything. I suppose I spent about seven months learning to ride in the traditional Gaucho way, with the saddle that they use, as well as bareback, sidesaddle. I learned to jump, I learned to lasso. I did things I probably should not have been doing, given my experience level.

Lindsey Lyles: Most of them just asked, "Oh, you rode in the States, and you just wanted to keep up your experience?" And I had always had to say, "No actually, I'm just learning from you all." So I actually think they quite liked that. I think they felt that I was legitimately very interested in their culture and in their way with horses. They've got their own way of training, they've got their own way of saddling, they've got their own equipment.

Lindsey Lyles: One of the reasons I was able to integrate as well as I was is that I was learning from the ground up. I didn't come in saying, "Oh, well this is how I do it at home." I took their word for it. So I think they did appreciate ... Anything I know about horses, I learned from the Gauchos.

Lindsey Lyles: I think in terms of observing the Gaucho horsemanship, I don't know that it was crazy, but it was certainly impressive. They have a competition called [foreign language 00:09:01], which is reining. The way that they're in tune with their horse, the idea of the competition is to make your horse do crazy things without appearing to have made your horse do crazy things. So they turn these wild circles and they gallop, and then they stop, all without any verbal or visible bodily commands.

Lindsey Lyles: I was invited to watch one of those competitions and I was just floored by the harmony between the horse and the rider. I've never seen anything like that because they've got the horse just turning circles. Circles, circles, circles, so fast. And then stopping so fast, they almost sit down, all without the Gaucho even appearing to have asked them to. It's really amazing.

Lindsey Lyles: For the majority of the time that I was there, this woman that I was friends with, she had two horses and she always gave me one called Helena, who was smaller. And as Karina always said to me, she has a mind of her own, so if the rider tells her to do something stupid, she'll ignore you. So Karina would always tell him, "That's why I give you Helena, because if you say something stupid to her, she's happy to disregard you."

Lindsey Lyles: So I rode her for months and months. And then finally one day Karina told me, "Do you know what? Today I'm going to let you ride the other horse, [foreign language 00:10:31]", who she said, this horse would do what you told him, even if it was stupid. So I felt like, Oh, I've actually made progress, that I'm to be trusted to ride this horse that might actually obey me.

Lindsey Lyles: She let me take him out by myself. And I just ended up galloping all around the dirt roads. Very, very proud of myself.

Lindsey Lyles: So Karina and I had just taken our horses to a beach on a lake, and we had taken them swimming, which was an experience in itself, as much horrifying as it was enjoyable. And so we'd just come up onto the beach, which is sandy, and it's sort of a swamp-like looking ecosystem. So I didn't really know what to expect.

Lindsey Lyles: So we're just riding along the beach. I've never ridden on a horse on sand before. And suddenly, as far as I can tell, Helena starts sinking and I'm just absolutely terrified. So I start screaming, "Quicksand," because I thought it was quicksand. There's nothing like thinking you're going to die that makes you refer it to your native language. So then I translate it into, "Areia rápida," which is fast sand, which is not the word for quicksand.

Lindsey Lyles: And she's laughing at me. And I jump off the horse, still convinced that we're dying in quicksand. And then Karina is just laughing, laughing. And I turn around and my horse was rolling. She was like a dog. You know how they'll roll after the wet. So we laughed. She could not contain her laughter at me because I was in true terror. I thought I was sinking in quicksand and that my horse was going to die and that I was too. Oh gosh. And of course she told everyone. There was not a Gaucho who didn't have to hear that story from her. So, definitely laughter at my expense, but well deserved.

Lindsey Lyles: Even the way that I would get out to the Gaucho community was a bit rough. I would get an invitation from somebody and they would say, "Oh yeah, you take the bus and then you get off at the weird shaped tree, and then you turn left at the car thief's house, and then you walk until you start to get tired, and then you'll recognize my horse out front." so that was sort of what I was working with, and it took me about two hours to even get outside of the city every day that I went out there. And it was through the poorest areas. So, there was certainly, I suppose some risk involved, but I always felt like once you're part of the community, then you're known around there, then nothing is going to happen to you. Pretty much everybody knows everybody.

Lindsey Lyles: So on Sundays usually there's quite a few opportunities for traditional rides, and that might be mixed company, that might be just a women's ride. So I just sort of bounced between. I did all sorts. But I always enjoyed the women's rides because they would have one man who had ride with us in front of us and then we would all be behind. And so that was nice.

Lindsey Lyles: What Southern Brazil is known for is chahasco, which is a cowboy barbecue, for lack of a better term. So after the traditional rides, you would all go back to a barn, and they would have this big brick oven, and every rider would bring an offering of meat. That could be ribs, it could be steak, it could be chicken, it could be sausage. And then they would grill it all and serve it on a huge wooden cutting board. Nobody had plates, nobody had anything. It's all communal. So as the meat comes off, then you come and you take your little Gaucho knife and you cut yourself a piece.

Lindsey Lyles: So chahasco definitely was my favorite food. And it's not just the food itself that's excellent, because it's just salty meat, but the community around it and the communal experience of eating chahasco.

Lindsey Lyles: The Gauchos are very proud of their knives. After doing one of the rides, when I didn't have the clothes, I didn't have the traditional clothes, which everyone does wear, then Karina had taken me the next time and we were on horseback and she said, "Lindsey, we have to make stop." So I said, "Okay great. I love to make stops." And she takes me to the store and she's like, "How much money do you have?"

Lindsey Lyles: I said, "I have $50."

Lindsey Lyles: And she said, "Okay." So she walks in and this man is there to help us and she says, "We have an American and she needs to be a Gaucho. What can you do?" I just am totally out of it. It's like when you see somebody on TV getting a makeover and they've got no say whatsoever.

Lindsey Lyles: And so they had me just sitting down, they bring me bombachas, they bring me the boots, they get me a hat, they get me a belt, and I've got no say whatsoever. So finally, I've got my outfit, and then finally they say, Okay Lindsey, this is the one thing that you get to choose. You can choose your knife." So they walked me over to this case of knives and I've got to hold every knife, because apparently the knife makes the Gaucho. There's a certain way they tuck into your belt when you're riding. So I lost one that way, so I had to replace it. But now I've got the trick down. I carry my knife even now. My Gaucho knife. I didn't bring it today, I probably wouldn't have gone through security.

Lindsey Lyles: Towards the end of the grant, I was invited to join a group that was going to ride in a traditional parade. Yearly, Porto Alegre puts on a month long celebration of Gaucho culture, which culminates in a parade through the city. So I was invited to join a group and I was invited to ride sidesaddle as the centerpiece of that group, because not many people will ride sidesaddle, because frankly it's quite uncomfortable, a bit unpleasant. And not that many people even have a sidesaddle, but Karina, my friend, she had a sidesaddle, so she sort of had trained me.

Lindsey Lyles: And so I think when I was riding in the parade, I was looking out at all these people looking at me, riding sidesaddle on my horse, and I realized that they didn't know that I wasn't Brazilian. I think that was a moment when I felt particularly like, oh, I've actually done something here. I've become a part of the Gaucho community, but I am American. And everyone in my riding group knew that, and they joked the whole time like, "Oh, we've got an American is our centerpiece." But they were quite proud too, because they thought it was neat for them to have a foreigner writing with them, a foreigner that they had formed into this Gaucho.

Lindsey Lyles: The Gauchos are a very traditional, very conservative, closed community who take care of their own. And what I would hope is that in opening their doors to me, then maybe they saw that something different doesn't always have to be something to resist. And I hope that they would maybe be more receptive to differences and more receptive to foreigners.

Lindsey Lyles: I'm 26, not that that's particularly old, but I had thought that at that by that point of turning 26, I would have figured out already, okay, what are my strengths? What are my hobbies? What do I like to do with my time? But then in falling in with the Gauchos and learning to ride, I just discovered this whole new passion of mine, and I discovered that I sort of have an aptitude for it.

Lindsey Lyles: The main thing I learned is that it's never too late to find a passion of yours and never too late to learn something new, and it's okay to be bad at something. I discovered something that I love more than I've almost ever loved any hobby is horses and the cultures that develop around them. So yeah, having the freedom to take nine months and explore something that you would never otherwise have the flexibility to explore is invaluable in both professional and personal development I think.

Lindsey Lyles: I think one of my main takeaways from my time in Brazil was that if you're adaptable and if you're open minded, you absolutely never know what can happen to you, because had I not signed up for this Airbnb experience, it never would have happened. And so I guess it just made me think, if you're open to things, if you say yes to things, then any number of things might happen to you. So there's never any closed path in life, because even when you're on a path, you can certainly have multiple branches that you can take while there. So I think, yeah, that makes me optimistic because leaving somewhere that you've made a life and you've made relationships, it's very, very sad. But on the same note, knowing that that can happen again and that it will, that'll keep you optimistic.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the US code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Lindsey Lyles reminisced about learning to ride horses with Brazilian Cowboys as part of the Fulbright English teaching assistant or ETA program. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, you can check out eca.state.gov. We always encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, leave us a nice review while you're at it, and we'd love to hear from you.

Chris Wurst: You can write to us ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-E-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33. And you can find us at Instagram at 22.33_ stories.

Chris Wurst: Special thanks to Lindsey for taking the time to share her stories. Anna Maria Cenetine did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Brazil by Les Eldert, Larry Eldert and their music. Entwined Oddity and Paramo Ocho by Blue Dot Sessions, Whiplash String Swell by Podington Bear, Better Get Off Your High Horse, by Woody Herman and his orchestra, and Italo Texan Interlude by Fizz Itch.

Chris Wurst: Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian, by How the Night Came, and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 13 - You're My Reason (Valentine's Day Special)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 13


This week, using your fiddle to send light out around the world, a calling to spread love and with that in mind, and putting your money where your mouth is. Join us on a journey from Oklahoma to Nashville to China and Kuwait in a very special Valentine's Day bonus episode.


Chris Wurst: A childhood dream came true when you made your debut at the Grand Old Opry. For you apparently this wasn't memorable enough, so you took it a step further. Well, you actually took it a lot of steps further. You're listening to 22.33. A podcast of exchange and this week in honor of Valentine's day, love stories.

Kyle: Mm muah!

Kyle: That's our first pod kiss.

Kyle: Pod kiss.

Ginny: You just coined something too. The pod kiss.

Kyle: Our first pod kiss.

Chris Wurst: This week, using your fiddle to send light out around the world, a calling to spread love and with that in mind, putting your money where your mouth is. Join us on a journey from Oklahoma to Nashville to China and Kuwait in a very special Valentine's day bonus episode, it's 22.33.

Intro Clip: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people very much like ourselves.

Kyle: Hi, I'm Kyle Dillingham, Oklahoma's musical ambassador. I've been playing my violin internationally for over 20 years, in 41 countries. Very proud to be a veteran of ECA programs, American Music Abroad, Arts Envoy, Cultural Crossroads.

Ginny: And I'm the new Mrs. Dillingham, Ginny Dillingham and it's an honor to be here with my husband.

Kyle: Mm muah! So all you lovers out there, okay. Oh my funny Valentine. I met Ginny a few years ago. I was doing some music with this pianist and Ginny was just somebody sitting sipping some chamomile tea, and the whole thing was happening impromptu at a hotel restaurant with a pianist and I'd busted in with my violin, decided to open it up and joined the pianist on the spot, Ginny had witnessed, she started writing letters to me and explaining that she had witnessed and experienced these things and said, "I believe that you have a calling on your life to bring healing to the nations through your music." And that's when I knew that she had seen me and she'd heard me and knew who I was.

Kyle: Something happened this year, when I go through the year and talk about what happened to me this year, it's fun to talk about co-starring in a musical theater production in Thailand, American Music Abroad tour to Kuwait and Kosovo in the spring, tour of China in September, but in July there was something really, really special that happened. I had my Grand Ole Opry debut as a guest artist. It's a pretty big deal in the life of a musician to be able to go out on that stage and be introduced on the stage that made country music famous. But I knew there had to be something that happened that night to make it really memorable so I would never forget that moment. And that is when we bring Mrs. Ginny into the picture.

Ginny: It was surprising. At the end of the show, we're in the green room and there are about 40 people squished into this little green room and he goes around and he's thanking every single person for their participation in the event that night and at the end, I'm just taking a video of all of it, everybody, all of the thank you's, and at the end of the night, he gets down on one knee as if there wasn't enough excitement for the day. And he invites me to join him on this mission, on this journey of inspiring and bringing hope and being a partner in this mission for his life and there's no one that I'd be happier to do that with or more honored to be sharing this journey with then Kyle, he truly loves and inspires every human being that he meets. It's a genuine thing and people know it when they meet him and they know it when they hear him play and it just penetrates their hearts and it was a great day that night and it's a great life now, so I'm really excited.

Kyle: She said yes.

Ginny: Oh, I said yes.

Kyle: And we were wed.

Ginny: And we were wed, yeah, a month later.

Kyle: A month later we were wed and then ...

Ginny: A few weeks later we were in China.

Kyle: And a few weeks later we were in China.

Ginny: Yeah. Many times he's going into these regions that have never heard American music before and there's a peace and a freedom that he and the team and that Horseshoe Road bring with them and a joy and a lightness that they might not see in their country. It might be war torn or it might be not a democratic nation. The freedom they bring with them and the America they bring with them it changes lives and the amount they're able to channel that energy and that piece from, the wheat fields and cattle country of Oklahoma, they're able to bring it and it comes through the strings and through the music and people are just surrounding them, taking photographs and wanting to meet them and just being inspired. It's just really an amazing thing to see how music can inspire in a moment and create other things and make bonds exponentially more strengthened.

Kyle: In Kuwait, this year there was a big theater at the Abdullah Alshtail theater in Salmiya but the U.S. Embassy had invited a group of these stateless people as they're sort of referred to because they're actually Kuwaiti, they're Kuwait born and they live and die there their whole lives, but they somehow or another weren't counted when Kuwait became a state. So they are without identity. They don't have papers for anywhere and they're kind of considered almost like illegal foreigners. But the U.S. Embassy really reaches out to them and they brought a big group of the young stateless kids to our show and we spent twice as much time after the concert on stage, which was supposed to just initially be a meet and greet and say hello, we ended up spending like two or three hours.

Kyle: We were there to like, I don't know, 11 o'clock at night at the theater just hanging out with these kids and playing and then pretty soon they were singing. They wanted to sing and they started singing this American pop music and stuff like they were holding it in and then we were jamming and talking and laughing and smiling and this young man came up to me and he said, "I don't know how to explain, but when you're playing," he said, "It's like we were sitting here and it's like there's so much light, there's so much light. And it's like, anything that was bad or evil was just being replaced with good and it was ...

Ginny: It's light, it's freedom though also because there's so many regulations in that particular country. A lot of restrictions.

Kyle: Yeah, seriously. We were shut down when we had our normal bust the violin out at the restaurant. Correct. Well more just more reserved, much more conservative and reserved.

Ginny: Yeah, maybe more reserved. And so, having this venue where they could actually be free to enjoy was something special and new for them.

Kyle: We're all called to love one another. I think that's our greatest calling as human beings and that transpires in our personal relationships, like with my beautiful wife but that also transpires with every single person we meet no matter where we are in the world. Undress the morning softly, I don't even care if it's going to be costly. I've seen the message, you left it up in the back of my mind, that was kind. I was blind to think that it would be so easy to find but wait, I keep forgetting its you that I'm trying to impress upon myself and wants to be able to believe that it was wealth that brought us to this place of common ground. I hear no sound. You say I'm lost but I say you're found, up struck my vision. If you care I won't even mention the way I feel is really out of the question, but I'll keep trying to come up with another suggestion that's simple enough of a plan for the rest of your life if you can.

Kyle: As for me, I would really hate to see a girl like you to settle for mediocrity is the only disease that will leave you all alone. Girl, I'm asking you please try to forgive me a chance. Just throw my way one single solitary glance to see I dance. Don't miss this moment for romance. The wind can't keep from blowing by my side, ways to express that I'd never lie to you, I confide in you. To think you ever left I denied it to be true. You're gone but if you think about it, I'm gone too and it never would have crossed my mind. Through the window, through the front door, fresh air there that I've never felt before. You make your final decision. I wish to make it clear that I'm a man, a provision because a man without vision will parish but to spend my life with you that I've got to cherish. I'm not embarrassed to say that. For three long years now I've thought about you every single day we're a part. You know it's like torture for my heart and I thank the sun for falling . And I thank you for calling.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of a U.S. government funded international exchange programs. This week, newlyweds, Kyle and Geena Dillingham reminisced about coming together before a life of worldwide traveling in part with the American Music Abroad and Arts Envoy programs. For more about cultural and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and leave us a nice review while you're at it and we'd love to hear from you.

Chris Wurst: You can write to ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at state.gov. Photos of each week's interview and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233 and you can also find us on Instagram at 22.33_stories. Special thanks to Kyle and Geena for sharing their engagement story and for our first ever pod kiss. Kate Furby and I did the interview and I edited this segment. All of the music on this episode was by Kyle Dillingham and Horseshoe Road from their album, Fear or Faith, including excerpts of, Oh, I Love You So, The Basso, What is Success? And You're the Same as me. The song, You Are My Reason was featured in its entirety. For more about Kyle Dillingham and Horseshoe Road, check out www.horseshoeroad.net. There was also a short excerpt of my Funny Valentine by Jackie Gleason's orchestra. Music at the top of this episode was Quatrefoil by Paddington Bear and the end credit music as always is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 12 -  The First 100 (Bonus Supercut)

LISTEN HERE: Episode 12


This week, we celebrate the one year anniversary of ECA's podcast. We want to express our gratitude to all the incredible storytellers who have taken the time to stop by our humble little studio and share their exchange experiences with us. We also offer our sincerest thanks to all the listeners out there for supporting 22.33 and for believing in the the positive impact of exchange programs. In honor of our 100th episode, we present to you a super cut of profound, humorous, inspirational, soulful, bizarre, unique, and unforgettable moments. Join us in our journey from episode one to episode 99.


Chris Wurst: Dear listener, who would have thought that just a little over a year after 22.33 is launched, we would have already arrived here at episode 100. And so in honor of all the wonderful and inspiring storytellers who have taken the time to stop into our humble little nook and share their experiences with us, we lift a cup of kindness. And to you out there listening, we offer our sincerest gratitude for listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories. And this week some very special, profound, humorous, inspirational, soulful, bizarre, and many, many unique and unforgettable moments. Join us in our journey from episode one to episode 99. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people very much like ourselves and ...
Intro Clip 4: (singing)

Speaker 6: And that's why I love these programs is not because I get to coach soccer, it's because I get to deeply impact the life of another human being.

Speaker 7: [foreign language 00:01:41].

Speaker 8: I have to be optimistic, because I look at myself, I am a captain of a big ship. And this ship, that's full of those kids, it must go all the way to the end to the shore.

Speaker 9: I had gotten so accustomed to my friends going to heaven that I even thought that when it's my turn to go to surgery, I might also go to heaven.

Speaker 10: We walked past this well that was covered in ice when we first got there, and it's now surrounded by flowers. We're walking along that path and the children come from all these different houses and they join us at the well and they start singing the ABC song in English, which we taught them over the last six or seven months. And they walk with us, singing the song unexpectedly, as we make our way back to that train station.

Speaker 11: So I said to him, "You're rude. You are deficient in manners" I guess is the way you'd translate it. And Oh my gosh, this guy lost his mind with me. He was so angry. He was like, "Deficient in manners, how could you ever say that?"

Speaker 12: Every time when you feel dark or hopeless, you don't give up, you make a voice. Then the echo, they're going to come back to you and those are the hope, and I see the hope in them and they see the hope in me.

William: And they'd say, "[foreign language 00:03:06] How are you, white guy? Very friendly, and I'd say, "Ah, [foreign language 00:03:10], don't call me a white man. [foreign language 00:03:13], I have a name. [foreign language 00:03:17], my name is William. [foreign language 00:03:20], or my name is teacher.

Speaker 14: I knew that I wanted to learn the language and make it not only a part of my professional development, but also a part of my personal life to love another is also to love their culture. And when you're talking about a Bengali woman, it absolutely means to love her language too.

Speaker 15: [foreign language 00:03:47], what you say after you have a meal, especially if someone prepared it for you. That has gotten me like marriage proposals.

Speaker 16: I'm a vegetarian. I have been for seven years now. I got into this very rural community and they asked me to kill their pig.

Speaker 17: We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

Speaker 18: In 2017, we had this project we said, #feedsomeone, telling them that no amount is too small for you to donate. So it was really interesting because you find people who do not really have much really contributing something little for another person to eat food.

Speaker 19: There's a disconnect among cowboys. You know you're raising food. We all eat steak, we all eat hamburger, but you're caring for the life and the wellbeing of a animal, a beautiful one at that with a lot of personality, you develop a real sweetness for, and you have to apply that to the job because they're frustrating buggers. They're going to make you mad. So it's kind of like a child. You've got to have love for it to see yourself through that. Otherwise, they'll just drive you crazy.

Speaker 19: There's this one picture, the herd had split and there was a gap. And right in the middle of the gap, there's a herdsman silhouetted against the sun and in front of them is a baby horse and the sun rays are shooting like fire around its mane and then the next photo, it's gone.

Speaker 20: We are equipped, fully skipped right now, 12 powerful young ladies. Each one of us has their own goals, but we already share the same love for sports, the love for soccer, love football.

Speaker 21: And it wasn't like one of those weird things like, "Oh, you're a foreigner, we're Taiwanese." Like what I explained in the beginning of this, it was just like, "You're cool, we're cool. Let's just dance and bug out and have a good time."

Speaker 22: For me specifically, her husband decided to cook some python in the Crock-Pot. Despite my fear for snakes, I felt like this was me overcoming my fear of snake is getting to eat one. Right?

Speaker 23: There was one point at which these two old grandmas on the border of Austria and Italy up in the Julian Alps gave me a goat.

Speaker 24: So even though, you know, I don't identify as Hindu, I was not brought up with that upbringing, I think still being able to feel the respect for that type of spirituality and feel the energy of that practice was something that really affected my perception of religion, not just in the United States, not just in India, but across the globe.

Speaker 25: As a Muslim woman, I give a good picture about our culture, our religion too, and who we are.

Speaker 26: I am really convinced that without women leadership, the societal problems will never be solved, and we must never give up. And this perseverance is an absolute must.

Speaker 27: And I made it through the Amazon and went through an extreme journey of self clarity and put myself through a lot more than I maybe should have, but in theend was able to find my way back.

Speaker 28: (singing)

Speaker 29: This is America, how hot could it be? Yes, give me the devil's blood. And so he poured a couple of drops and I said, "Some more please." And he did some more and I said, "Some more please." And I went to the park and I sat on the bench and I took my first bite and it almost blew off the top of my head.

Speaker 30: The effects of the YES program and how it changes our lives is amazing. It helps shape the world in a way that is a win-win for everybody. I believe it has a major role in deradicalizing some people that might have gone wrong ways.

Speaker 31: The call to prayer will be broadcast five times a day, and life kind of structures its way around that. During my time in Bangladesh, I was very, very lucky because the summer period for CLS just so happened to be capturing the entire holy month of Ramadan. That month, Ramadan was everything.

Speaker 32: And here I am talking about unconscious bias on stage and I caught myself diverting my eyes from the side of the room that was, as I call it, very dark because they were shrouded in dark burka. And I caught myself sort of mid sentence realizing that I was being biased, that I wasn't really giving that side of the room as much attention because it was intimidating to me. And so I made an effort, sort of one of these split second decisions in my mind as I was on stage, and I looked over and I picked out one woman and I looked right into her eyes and I just smiled and she lifted her head and sort of nodded at me with acknowledgement. She knows I can't see her mouth. She knows she had to give some sort of gesture of encouragement to me that yes, she was following me. Yes, she was with me. Yes, she appreciated what I was saying. And I had this moment of appreciation that there's a woman under that robe. There's a woman who understands what I'm saying because we're both women.

Speaker 33: I was sort of shocked because I was the only foreigner there. They seem to recognize that in a lot of ways. They'd make jokes about what languages we were talking, and what it was like where I lived, but it didn't seem to occur to them that I was the only one who wasn't keeping a guinea pig in my kitchen, ready to be eaten at any time.

Speaker 34: Okay. So I was told that I just have to try deep fried Twinkie because that's like Midwest thing. And I did try, I tried the fried Twinkie and I tried deep fried Oreo cookies. So yeah man, you love deep fried things. It's like deep fried pickles. That's what I tried as well. It sounded better than it tasted. It was just hot pickle.

Speaker 35: I like got up into a tree and looked behind me and there's a saki monkey looking at me. Saki monkeys are these weird things where their body is actually pretty small, but they have this huge, really fluffy fur. It looks like a little old lady wearing a giant fur coat or something like that. It's like that feeling that something's looking at you and then you turn around and see this creepy looking monkey just staring at you.

Speaker 36: There are no heroes, there are only heroic acts. And I believe that's true. And I think all of us are capable of being better than we really are. And you know, maybe we haven't done much to distinguish ourselves, but we have to hope that when the time comes and there's a really important choice to make, we make the right choice. I guess I'm always optimistic that people who maybe haven't done anything so great yet, actually will.

Speaker 37: (singing)

Speaker 38: When you are Brazilian, we are born playing football. Even when you are inside of the moms, you are just kicking.

Speaker 39: I remember looking up at the sky at one point and seeing the stars and just kind of feeling this night air and realizing, there is absolutely nowhere else in the world that I want to be right now.

Speaker 40: And I stumble across this pomegranate farmer who was like, kneeled down and covering his harvest of pomegranates. I'll show you this, when I snapped this picture of this farmer, and then when he heard my camera click, he turned around. It was this very intense moment because I didn't know what his reaction was going to be and it was fascinating before he asked me who I was, what my name is, what I was doing, before anything, before he even said a word, before he even said hello, he cracked open one of his pomegranates and he extended it to me.

Speaker 41: I'll never forget the multitude of stars was so ... It felt kind of thick and like a blanket covering us.

Speaker 42: I don't really think it matters whether our president is male or female, we just need somebody that's going to give a damn about everybody.

Speaker 43: You know, when a politician gets up in front of a group, the group generally thinks he's asking for something. He or she is going to ask for a check maybe or a vote or what have you. When an artist gets up in front of a group, generally people think they're going to give us something. They're going to give us a song, they're going to show us their painting, maybe get us a piece of their soul.

Speaker 44: Well, after a short while in Romania in 1994, where there wasn't a lot to choose from, I would bring home a box of Uranian cornflakes labeled, Taste of the West. My children would squeal with excitement and they'd say, "Quick, get the powdered milk."

Speaker 45: Many countries in West Africa have their own version of jollof rice and they all think that each other's is the worst and only there's is the true best one.

Speaker 45: I don't mind going on the record here and saying that from my own personal perspective that I think Nigerian is the best one. I always found it to be the most flavorful and spicy, which is that's what I need. I need the heat.

Speaker 46: If I close my eyes, I see squirrels running around and I didn't know, but I'm afraid of squirrels, and I found out that I should be.

Speaker 47: I just remember this one day after spending the whole day with her, she has this five gallon or so water can that she is ... She has several children, some of whom are hers, some of whom are orphan children that she's picked up along the way, caring for all of them. They're all trying to supply themselves out of this one water can. Well, later that day, I went back to the hotel where I was staying, which was rundown, rural, terrible hotel that also lacked running water, but they brought in a can of water for me to use to shower and everything. It was a very same yellow jerry can that everyone in the refugee settlement had been using that day. The exact same one. And I took a shower and I had used like more than half of the can by the end. That to me was like, it really put into perspective what people are dealing with there.

Speaker 48: My host parents were actually farmers, they raised pigs. Yeah, and I'm a Muslim.

Speaker 49: When I'm asked a question, what's the most important quality for a diplomat? I always say curiosity. You have to go abroad with a curiosity, a desire to learn, not to think you know everything. And I guess my first brush with that kind of life was coming to Kansas city and actually having to ask people questions about why things were the way they were and getting their answers and then processing their answers and gradually developing my own view of the world.

Speaker 50: It was just the most amazing thing that I have ever seen. All of a sudden now I like jumped in the water and I'm excited and everything is great. And it was in that moment that I realized that I don't know what this experience is going to be, but we're going to ride this train and see where we go and it's going to be great. It's always going to be worth it and amazing and mind blowing and life changing in the end.

Speaker 51: And with the whole table watching, I'll look up at this eyeball that's looking back at me and I make sure there's a glass of water really nearby, put it down the hatch, and it slips and it slides and it jiggles. It barely went down, but I got it down.

Speaker 52: You know, you hear quite a bit about all the bad going on. This gave me hope that the students that are out there now have experienced this. They're going to make a difference because they're open to talking to other countries and solving problems and they know they can do it and it's really going to change the world.

Speaker 53: Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. America is a revolutionary idea and when we settle back and wait for others to do things or blame others or decide that we're powerless, we become part of the problem. And what we try to do in Parks & People is to say, we all have a responsibility to be part of the change that we seek.

Speaker 54: If you want to make a change, if you want to do something differently, if you want to create something new, then you inevitably have to make mistakes. So if you change your perception towards failure, maybe you're just going to get there faster.

Speaker 55: The stories that you're told living in the United States and the news that you get often is very different from the experiences on the ground that you're able to have when you're really able to connect at a human level. That people deep down really want a lot of the same things to share, in food, to be joyful, to laugh, to find connection. And it was really powerful in this ancient city in Syria, having that aha moment.

Speaker 56: The incredible thing about this country is that we don't see race here. It's all melting pot. [foreign language 00:19:32]. Everyone does [foreign language 00:19:32] the same, you know? My friend's face is a cup of cream. Our parents sow skin, fix hearts. Our hands are soft as clean gauze, our necks are smooth, our breaths confident. When we smile, our teeth look like boarding passes. We are smiling in a restaurant in the old colonial city, perfect slices of stewed goat on our white plates. I look down and think, I see the goat's heart. I want to say there is a faint bleaching coming from my plate, but I don't have the mouth.

Speaker 57: So in Cambodia they eat tarantulas and I think they're called fire ants, crickets, and most of them are deep fried. A lot of them are disguised. I have to tell you, I really tried to be brave enough to do it and I just couldn't get the tarantula in my mouth.

Speaker 58: This was my goal that I wanted to be the person who is mentioned the most in the yearbook of that year. I'm mentioned on 27 pages. That's a separate thing that I was in the yearbook class so I sneaked my name in in some places, but I was the spirit captain for swim team. I was the secretary for international club. I performed in a high school musical, Oklahoma. I sound very Southern already as you see. I did dance, never doing it again. I was really bad. People were really nice, they didn't boo me off the stage. I was a DJ. I did stand up comedy. I just thought that if I could make people smile.

Speaker 59: I hope people will walk down the street and smile more because smiling is something that's so natural. And if someone is just walking down the street and smiling, you know they're genuinely sincerely happy. I mean it sounds cheesy, but a smile can be very indicative of the world going right.

Speaker 60: As I'm crossing this bridge, I see a Frisbee cut through the air in the distance. The amount of relief that, that flying piece of plastic gave me, it just was this wash of relief come over me like, there are my people here.

Speaker 61: Because our reason for being is mutual understanding and clearly 9/11 was a brutal reminder about hatred and violence in the world and a fierce lack of understanding. What could we as a bureau do to respond? And what we came up with was the U.S. government's first high school exchange program for the Arab and Muslim world. The program has been in existence for 15 years now. It's reached about 10,000 participants, and I would say it has exceeded whatever expectations we had for it and what does it enable to accomplish.

Speaker 62: My biggest priority was to give these young Americans the opportunity to look at something beyond the picket fences of their own homes. I think that is something that is in very short supply in the country.

Mid-show Clip: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Speaker 63: (singing)

Speaker 64: Every street corner has a guy selling coconuts. He's got a coconut in one hand and machete and the other and he's cracking these open like nobody's business. You're afraid for his fingers, but he's not, at all.

Speaker 65: When you're in your living in a spaceship and your way of going to bed is floating or flying over to the module where we have windows and looking out at Earth and saying hello to some of the places that you love and looking out at space and realizing that it's a huge, vast place, and our planet is a spaceship in space. I mean it is the spaceship Earth. And many people feel like we're off in space, but really what I feel like is that it just makes me realize how big Earth is. I mean, Earth is part of space and space is part of Earth.

Speaker 66: But while doing this, it wasn't only about Lebanon I was thinking about, I was thinking more about the human element in general, humanity and how are we organized? Why is there dysfunction and communication? Why do we get to conflict and armed conflict at some point? Not only in Lebanon, all over the world because we know even today, while I'm talking to you, there's many places in the world where there's armed conflict. Why can't we resolve these things in dialogue, or even a heated debates, but at least in words, not in actual physical action against each other?

Speaker 67: (singing) I can translate it, oh, my beloved God, if you love me and like to bless me, just give me a sweet voice and heart full of compassion so that I can always pray for you and pray for others.

Speaker 68: Going against conventional wisdom to try the thing that is supposed to work. If you do it right, maybe it could. The reason that conventional wisdom is that way, it's because it's easier to do the things that you're supposed to do the way you're supposed to do it, the way people have always done it. It doesn't mean the harder road isn't ... It doesn't also get you there. In fact, it might get you there and be an incredible journey in the process. It might be harder, but it'll be worth it. And frankly, that's when it gets exciting. I think the conventional wisdom is just kind of boring.

Speaker 69: One thing that really sort of defines me, I think now is art is life.

Speaker 70: So I would encourage young people to be empathetic and do their best not to harm anyone. Don't be responsible for putting people through pain, try to bring people the good news in whatever situation that you can, think the best of people. Because then your vision will be transformed.

Speaker 70: We have to teach our young people that they have to have an eye to always see the best in people and to always extract something good. And if someone is hurt or traumatized or in pain, we should have enough social intelligence to be able to address it and to be able to provide a platform for people to heal. At least as a chaplain, that's how I'm looking at things.

Speaker 71: My slogan is, "Keep your heart busy with God, and keep your hands busy with the people."

Speaker 72: So he gets me to his office and hands me over a corn dog and I am like halfway through this corn dog and all of a sudden I realize that the meat, it does not taste like beef, it does not taste like chicken, it tastes like something else. So I ask David, is there meat in this corn dog? And he says, "You never had a corn dog? Of course, corn dog has meat in it." "What kind of meat is it?"

Speaker 73: While I was in Singapore, people were so generously sharing with me traditions that make sense to them. And one of the things, even before I had lost my grandmother, my last grandparent, I was really struck by this idea that people would just like go to the grave and pour someone a cup of coffee and be like, "You like coffee, we're here, we're drinking coffee, you get one too." And I just loved that so much. And my grandma loved tea. And so being able to think creatively about like, well maybe I pour a cup of tea for her. And it felt, at a distance, being removed from my family and my home, really comforting.

Speaker 74: Right after sunset, you started hearing everyone scream. I was confused, I couldn't speak the language, so I really didn't know what was going on. People were running and then eventually I noticed that there's canisters of tear gas being thrown from the cops into the crowds. I didn't know what to do. I knew I was on a student visa, I didn't want to get arrested. And so I immediately ran down to the bottom level, close to the street, and ran inside a KFC, and just stayed there until everything just blew down.

Speaker 75: It's a simple realization that people are the same around the world. It's a simple truth that a lot of decision makers are trying to hide from their people the detriment of these people because it's much easier to divide and rule. And that mechanism of dividing and ruling has been used forever. That's why large segments of societies around the world are being programmed from the very early beginning to say, this is us, we are special, we are unique, and the rest is enemies or something we need to fight. And it's done purposely very often by very smart people who don't believe this themselves. For the purposes of holding onto power, they will feed anything to their people.

Speaker 76: I responded to an ad in the newspaper when I was living in Germany. They were looking for English

Speakers to do the voice-over for a German cartoon and so I said, "I'm an English

Speaker. You know, I have those skills." And I went and auditioned. They wanted me to read the part of a cross-eyed cat, so I read it once and they said, "Okay, good. Now, read it more cross-eyed." I just had no idea what it meant. I was not asked back. I was not given the job. So I realized that my foreignness only got me so far. It did not make up for real talent.

Speaker 77: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks only one language? An American.

Speaker 78: A friend of mine was driving me, I didn't have a car, an undergrad. And the first song that popped up in the radio was, It's a Great Day to Be Alive by Travis Tritt and I thought, "This is fantastic. What an upbeat, good song." I think the line goes, "There's some tough times in the neighborhood, but it's a great day to be alive." A person does acknowledge that there are difficulties, but he's got rice cooking in the microwave and he has a three-day beard that he doesn't plan to shave and it's a great day to be alive. And that's how I was hooked on Country because although people have certain opinions about Country music, I think the poetry and the milieu that it seeks to evoke speaks to a lot more artless, guideless, more fundamental aspects of human existence, where it's the man, the truck, the bottle of beer and that's about that.

Speaker 79: 10 hours in, you've really bonded with your fellow passengers. About probably 10-13 hours in and the guy behind me pulls out his handle of vodka, his liter of vodka, and that's when the fun really starts.

Speaker 80: She's like, "So the turkey's alive, how do I pick a turkey?" This is not going to end well is what I'm thinking.

Speaker 81: I think the thing that makes me laugh the most where I live, in Mozambique is watching the monkeys. They're so much like us. It's almost scary. You can watch them interact with each other and you can almost come up with this sort of soap opera dialogue of what's happening in their little society and like who's mad at who and who's in love with who and whose baby is that.

Speaker 82: Poop actually has a pretty interesting life on the Savannah. It's funny because we don't really think about what happens to poop in the wilderness, but all of those animals that are out there are pooping every day, usually several times a day.

Speaker 83: [foreign language 00:32:23].

Speaker 84: When the finish line was in sight, I reflected on all the years, all the pain, everything that has happened in my life, and it was worth it all. 200 meters away, I gained strength and I thought, "I did it. I did it. Dreams come true."

Speaker 83: [foreign language 00:32:50].

Speaker 85: And there were a lot of times that men would want to lift me and carry me down and I would be like, no, I'm not fragile, I just need to hold onto someone. You don't have to carry me all the way down. There's this perception, I guess a lot of people saw me as breakable, and there are people in the U.S. that see that too, but I have felt that it was my duty to convince them that I'm not as fragile as you think and I'm a human being.

Speaker 86: And there she was, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I can't, and I was breathing the same air that she's breathing.

Speaker 87: In Washington Cathedral, we often played solemn music, but we can have an element of whimsy if the occasion demands it. I've played for some events where it might be a corporate evening event for some lawyers, and I was told that this is a young crowd, they like music of the '70s. So Stairway to Heaven, works for me. It sounded good on the bells too.

Speaker 88: When I could touch the soil and I could feel that the soil that I touched in Bangladesh and the soil I touched in the U.S., they felt all the same. And I realized that it's just borders, and the borders are just manmade. The Earth, it's just one thing without border. So I kind of felt like I'm a global citizen at that point.

Speaker 89: (singing)

Speaker 90: I lived in Hamburg, but I'm a Berlin Currywurst fan, so everybody at home hated me. I actually had a discussion with my host dad that I thought Berlin Currywurst was better and he locked me out of the house for a little while.

Speaker 91: (singing)

Speaker 92: So I would just encourage people to not lose hope when things look negative, when stories and narratives are negative, to remember that there are hundreds and thousands of people whose life's work is to connect us all and to make the world a better place.

Speaker 93: Imagine you're back in the Philippines now and you're fiddling around on your car radio dial and a song comes on and it takes you right back to that time, what's the song?

Speaker 94: That was 2009, so it's definitely Miley Cyrus' Party In The U.S.A.

Speaker 93: I forget. How does that go?

Speaker 94: I'll to go for the lyrics. And I think everybody can like wave their hands, right? Okay. Everybody now, (singing).

Speaker 95: At that time, Pakistan have a very bad impression of Americans, unfortunately. We think that most of the states are not Muslim friendly. It was a stereotype, but at that time I searched that, what is the Muslim population and how are the Muslims, are they happy over there? I was able to know that anywhere in U.S. You have like full religious freedom. So my stereotyping thing, it got killed during the process of Fulbright.

Speaker 96: As I was coming back, not only have I contacted my representative when they've passed legislation that I don't agree with, I've also become an avid voter. I truly don't know if I would be an avid voter without that experience. So meeting other kids definitely taught me how to be engaged civically.

Speaker 97: All these people were taking pictures of us today at this street fair and he's like, "Well, what were you doing?" "Sitting on the ground eating." He's like, "You're sitting on the ground? Don't you know that makes you infertile?" I'm like, "What?"

Speaker 98: But you know, I kept going. The way that I was able to get out of that was that I thought again of my dreams.

Speaker 99: (singing)

Speaker 100: On my way to work every day, I would go to this little cafe across the street from my apartment and I chit chat with the girls behind the counter. Then I mentioned that I was going to be leaving pretty soon after that, that I only had a month left in Ukraine and we both started crying in the middle of the coffee shop. I don't even know this girl's name.

Speaker 101: So we show up at his house. It was not just a home-cooked meal, it was a home-cooked meal with an accordion because it turns out our prosecutor, besides being a legal expert, plays the accordion. And for four hours we sat and ate Bosnian food and listened to music and heard stories and watch people danced and realize that there is so much joy left in these towns and there is so much looking ahead as well as looking backwards.

Speaker 102: There's just a feeling to this and that. There's something ... Nothing's quite resolved, and still we're home. You know, there's a journey that's just woven into the fabric of harmony.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is named for Title 22 Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code. The statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, I just want to give a simple but very heartfelt thank you to my entire 22.33 team, who work incredibly hard on all of the aspects of this podcast and also have a million ideas how to creatively use this as a tool to highlight for people the power of international exchanges and to make the world a smaller and hopefully kinder place.

Chris Wurst: So thank you very much Ana-Maria Sinitean, Edward Stewart, Kate Furby, Samantha Difilippo, Desiree Williamson, Manny Pereira Colocci, Usra Ghazi, Mary Kay Hazel, Rana Thabata, Josiah Patterson, Carly Coaty, Laurel Stickney, Cynthia Ubah, and Kelly Zhang. Special thanks to all our ECA colleagues who work hard to secure the interviews and help spread the word about 22.33. And to our ECA leadership for their faith and support in what we're doing. Bringing you these first 100 episodes was nothing short of pure joy. And so with that, here's to the next 100, until next time.


Season 02, Episode 11 - The Prosecutors with Leslie Thomas

LISTEN HERE - Episode 11


This week's episode feature's an interview with Leslie Thomas, who took part in ECA's American Film Showcase program. AFS brings award-winning contemporary documentaries, independent fiction films, and documentary know-how to audiences around the world, offering a view of American society and culture as seen by independent filmmakers.  Leslie's film, The Prosecutors, is a feature-length documentary that tells the story of three dedicated lawyers who fight to ensure that rape in war is not met with impunity. Filmed over five years on three continents, it takes viewers from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Bosnia and Herzegovina to Colombia on the long journey towards justice. For more information about the AFS program please visit americanfilmshowcase.com.


Chris Wurst: You've built a career around using art and images to raise people's awareness, and impress upon them the importance of peace, justice, and equality. And after a long track record of success, and the creation of an established NGO, you decide to direct your first film, a feature length documentary shot on location on three continents. And you actually think to yourself, "How hard can it be?" Seven years later you know the answer to that question. What you also know, is that it was all worth the wait. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Leslie Thomas: So I said, "No problem. Give me a year, I'll make a feature film." So that was like I said, five, six years ago, because I knew nothing about feature-length documentaries and what it would take to make one in three countries, in eight languages on three continents. Eventually we decided that Bosnia in the Balkans, Columbia in South America, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, would be a really great place to start, that those three countries had different approaches to a similar problem. And so if we set our film there, and we followed a lawyer in each country, we could really bring audiences a variety of ways, a number of tools, with which to approach this problem that often seems intractable, but actually isn't.

Chris Wurst: This week, three hero stories, falling off a motorcycle and persevering in the search for justice. Join us on a journey from the United States to Bosnia Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Columbia, in creating a testament to courage. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all. These exchanges shape to who I am. When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, they are much like ourselves, and... [Music]

Leslie Thomas: My name is Leslie Thomas. I'm from Chicago, Illinois. I am the founder and former Creative Director of ART WORKS Projects for human rights. Now I'm happily on the board. And I came to ECA through the American Film Showcase program. I'm incredibly honored that my first feature length documentary has been selected for the exchange program this year. It's called The Prosecutors and it's about ending impunity for perpetrators of conflict related sexual violence, or perhaps in lay person's terms, holding people accountable for rape in war.

Leslie Thomas: About 13 years ago, I was reading an article about the genocide in Darfur. What struck me is that there was a photograph attached of a little boy, who had been killed simply because of his ethnicity, for no other reason. The person who killed him didn't know him, had nothing against him except for who he was. And I was a new mom at the time, I was reading this in the middle of the night, insanely sleep-deprived as people are, had woken up, fed the baby, and then couldn't go back to sleep. I was struck by the fact that, if someone could kill this child for who they were, they could do the same to mine, and this just seemed unacceptable. I wasn't sure what I could do, possibly not much, but that didn't seem a reason to stop. So I got together with a group of friends who were journalists and fellow film makers. We created something called Darfur/Darfur, and it was a series of projections that we held outside of major museums around the world, and cultural and civic centers.

Leslie Thomas: And it basically showed the story of the lives of Darfuri people. And the real takeaway from that was they're just like us. Wherever you are watching those pictures of people who are impacted by genocide, they get up in the morning, they feed their families, they try to create an education system during conflict, they're married, they're divorced, they need healthcare, they give, they love, they laugh, they die. Except they were dying because they were being extinguished. So we put this together in a series of projections. The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles said that they would take it. It went from there to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, to the Jewish museum in Berlin. And in the end, dozens and dozens of places in cities around the world.

Leslie Thomas: Our goal was to take this issue outside of the kind of policy and NGO community and really bring it to the greater public. And really sort of said we can use art, we can use multimedia projections, we can use digital work, to add to the work of human rights campaigns. So we went on and formed this organization, ART WORKS Projects for Human Rights. 13 years later, we've exhibited on five continents in front of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of viewers. But most importantly, we've gotten to work with photo journalist and musicians and editors and other filmmakers, to bring their work, their documentation, that is in turn made in collaboration with the people that they're documenting, to new audiences. And then our job is to step back, to let local civil society organizations use these tools to communicate, to move, and to make change.

Leslie Thomas: We're an equal opportunity partner. We really find that the best thing to do is to use our creative skills to make communications tools, and then work with everyone. We work with the U.S. State Department, with foreign ministries around the world, with public affairs officers, with local civil society groups, with academics, grassroots, victims advocates, and on and on. Our best projects, our most effective work, is when we're incredibly far in the background and different organizations that are local, whether they're internationally there or homegrown, are working together to use our tools to move the needle. And sometimes the most important thing we've done is created a platform where new people are talking to each other, and long after one of our projects has come and gone, they're collaborating, and we hear back years later, "Oh, they did this, they did this, they did this." Not to pat ourselves on the back, but we feel great about that.

Leslie Thomas: I found that many of my initiatives were around conflict related sexual violence. A lot of the countries and issues in human rights abuses, that we looked at included rape and other forms of sexual violence, in war or on battlefield situations. Six years ago I was asked by the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is kind of the think tank for the U.S. Government across the street from the State Department, to film a whole series of experts from around the world, who were working on acknowledging, preventing, and ending conflict related sexual violence. And what I realized is there was a huge movement to hold perpetrators responsible, to end impunity. And I thought, "Wow, maybe documenting what these lawyers are doing could help garner support for them."

Leslie Thomas: So somewhere in a hard drive, which I've long since lost, I'm sure, there is a budget, which is a fantasy, very small number, and a schedule of 12 months to make this film. That was so wrong I can't tell you. Six years later, I now know what it takes to, get to a very rural court, in a very rural country, with a film crew, how many translators you need when the court proceedings include four different languages? What due process really means when there's a war raging and everyone involved is a hero? What it takes to get a defense attorney to show up to represent someone who they may feel as guilty, but they are so committed to justice, that they will put themselves on the line to make sure that whatever verdict is achieved is a true verdict? And what a holistic judicial process is?

Leslie Thomas: It means you need to have a road, to get to the court, you need to have a court, you need to have power, so you might need to have a generator, you need to have witness and child protection, you need to have enough education for everyone involved to understand what the proceedings should include, and you need to listen. At the end of all that, my biggest takeaway is that we as a country, have so much to learn from countries that are emerging out of conflict. Lots and lots of them are getting this right. They are really saying, "We have to look at our constitutions. We have to look at our laws. We have to be flexible. We have to keep our eye on the big prize, which is justice." And it might not be smooth all the time, but they're doing the pieces and parts that are essential.

Leslie Thomas: I'm very proud of being an American. There's so many things about this country that are just impossible to describe how much joy they give me, and the most important one is that we have a vibrant, open, and civil society. And that when we don't, we protest that too. That is not the case all over the world. But we have a long way to go about making sure that we're sharing those values, and that we shine a light on ourselves and on everywhere else that we go. We have to be fighting constantly to make sure that we are documenting what happens, here at home and abroad. Making a film about justice at a time when there is a lot of debate about what my own country does, means always being willing to discuss who I am and where I'm from. Always having a crew with me that represents different countries, backgrounds, ethnicities, trying constantly to hire local collaborators who would push back, on what we were filming and why, and make sure that the product that we came out with was reflective truly of what we were seeing. Because it's not just translation, it's understanding.

Leslie Thomas: I can tell you one day I was sitting in a Bosnian courtroom, a translator was sitting next to me explaining the proceedings. This was a 20 year old case about sexual slavery and rape that had happened during the Bosnian War, after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. And after about an hour and a half, the translator turned around and said, "You do understand that you are the only person in this courtroom who doesn't know all of the people here, who is guilty and who is not." And I asked her, "Then why does everyone think that they need to be here?" And she said, "Because we have to do this. So when you're making the film, be sure that you don't just document it, but show the urgency and the commitment that we have to the process." And it was a very nuance thing to say, but it gave me marching orders for that country.

Leslie Thomas: In Congo, the lawyer Amani Kahatwa from the American Bar Association Rule of Law comes from three generations of law. She has been threatened, her children have been threatened, her family has been under siege for the work that she does. And when I ask her, "Is it okay if we follow you? Is it okay if there are cameras?" She looks at me, because we have this conversation all the time, and she says, "This is my job. I don't care that you're here. My responsibility is to end impunity for perpetrators of rape. You can come. You can go. We are doing this work. I can be threatened. I can not be threatened. I don't have a choice." That was the story there.

Leslie Thomas: In Colombia, Sandra Moreno Geovanna, the entire crew with the Fiscalia, they are just starting this process, and when you ask them, "Why do you do this? Why do you do this when it means that you have no privacy? You have no security, no one can know where you live." They say things like, "This is the tip of the iceberg. We're just beginning and we're never stopping."

Leslie Thomas: One day, the lawyer that we're following in Columbia, Sandra, she had to go and take a deposition from Marco Tulio Perez, who is also known as El Oso, an unbelievably dangerous and incredibly brutal paramilitary leader, who held this small town in the region around it, Libertad, the coastal Colombian region, under his thumb for years using forced killings and rape and trafficking and disappearances. She had to go see him in his prison. She was describing this and how absolutely frightening it is in some ways, and this is a woman who I would stand behind in front of any fire. She's so brave, but she's in this very small room with this man who will do anything and has done it. And she says, "I don't have a choice. This is the work I have to do it. Day in, day out. It's in my dreams. It's in my time off. It's never goes away. The threat of this, the fact that he has endless connections with people outside of the jail, the fact that at any time something can happen to myself, to my colleagues, to the victims, to the witnesses."

Leslie Thomas: And she said, "So we just go." The story really impacted me, not because it was one single event of bravery, but because it means that these people's entire lives have been taken over by this. It will never go away. It will never leave their dreams, but they don't back down.

Leslie Thomas: In the democratic Republic of Congo, the country has had unbelievable violence, really since the colonization, the occupation of the Belgian government, for decades and decades and decades. There has just been brutal ruling in a primarily non-democratic manner. The elections, including the current one, have been marked by more violence. And so democracy has not been a simple evolution. It is particularly tragic because the country is one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest in the world in terms of natural resources. In Eastern Congo, in Goma where we are following Amani and Charles Guy and Adean, who work with the American Bar Association Rule of Law initiative, as lawyers for victims of grave crimes. We see them go into courts on a regular basis and go to investigate cases. And it's that investigation process that is just markedly heroic.

Leslie Thomas: The particular issues that come to my mind are when Amani and her colleagues are working to represent child victims. Children who have been impacted directly by conflict related sexual violence and then forced to be perpetrators of war crimes. Women like Amani who herself is a mother, going forward in the middle of conflict to small towns where everyone knows why she's there, were convicted and unconvicted war criminals can see her, as she fights for the rights of these children. You can't describe the heroic qualities that it takes to do this. They do these things in a sensitive manner. They make up stories and excuses as to why they're visiting children to make sure that nobody knows why they're being spoken to. They turn their own lives upside down. They have to arrange for someone else to care for their children, and yet they go forward.

Leslie Thomas: They can tell you chapter and verse, as to what these war criminals have done, and then turn around and get a cup of coffee and do it again. I'm quaking, ridiculously nervous. "Should we do this? Should we not? Should I walk home at night in this community, where they're going out and have a target on their back?" But they just go forward.

Leslie Thomas: In terms of what we as a crew, and I as an individual learned around conflict related sexual violence. There is no braver person then a whistleblower, then a witness, then a victim who is also a witness, then a person who comes forward and says, "This happened to me." Globally, we're in kind of a convulsive movement of, me to of recognition, of understanding and awareness of sexual violence and due process of how these things work together, of how we provide access to justice for those who have accused someone and those who have been accused. When you throw conflict into the mix. When you have a system which is broken and this is happening together, it stress test every ability of ours to do this.

Leslie Thomas: I also learned a lot about perceptions of gender and perceptions of women. Women in conflict are perpetrators, they're victims, they're observers, they're survivors, they're everything. If you come to the table with an assumption about a particular gender in a particular place, you are wrong and you are not going to see the truth. We saw this in courtroom after courtroom, after courtroom. That's a really big deal. There's so much perception about this. There's so much thought that a woman isn't a perpetrator, or a woman is a perpetrator or this or that or the other thing. Your allies are in unlikely places, and if your eyes are open, you can find them. When you decide you know nothing, you can learn everything.

Leslie Thomas: The other thing that I learned is that your translator, your fixer, your translator's translator, is your best friend. We had situations where we had a woman who spoke Kinyarwanda, speaking to someone who spoke Swahili, translating to someone who spoke French, eventually translating it back to me who pathetically speaks English and a bunch of other things terribly. You have to tell the story in the language that it's told and you have to get the nuance right. We ended up with eight languages in this film, and it meant that we have worked over time, double time, triple time to try to get it right. We've probably made some mistakes. We're still catching them and it matters. Filmmaking is an iterative process, even while you're still making the film.

Leslie Thomas: I had the pleasure of working with some of the best photojournalists in the world, in projects based on still photography and when we started this documentary, it was very important to me to work with photojournalists who were doing motion but had a background in conflict photography, and specifically an understanding of the particular region that we were shooting. Best case scenario, you're working with somebody who is from, where you're shooting. Juan Aredando and I spent months and months and months, along with Jared Mussi and others in Columbia. There was a moment when Sandra, and she hates this, but that's too bad. Sandra, our very tough lawyer started to get very choked up and emotional, about the impact of war criminals on civilians in Columbia. And she began to cry and I was sitting in the back of the room and I'm trying not to say anything but I'm desperately wanting to say to Juan, "Promise me you have this, promise me you have this." I can't say anything because she'll stop crying. And afterwards he just looked at me and I was like, "Okay."

Leslie Thomas: There are times when your camera is there and when you are there, and you're not sure if you should be. I made a decision that this film would be in honor of survivors, their communities, legal victims, of conflict related sexual violence, but that we did not need to interview people and ask them to share their stories. These people have already had this experience, and it is not for us to simply say, "Can you tell us about it? Because we don't know." It was our job to document the legal process. You only see survivors discussing stories, when they are in the legal process. That's how it was done. But sometimes still you're in the room, while a deposition is being taken, while someone is describing what has happened to them or their child.

Leslie Thomas: And you have this instinct to raise your hand and say, "Are you sure you want us here? Is it okay?" It's a fine line between protection and patronizing. And when someone says to you, "I want you here and I want you to document this." Your job is to shut up and do it. And then make sure that they understand afterwards that if they've changed their mind, it's okay. So we were there for the fullness of whatever happened. We said afterwards, "Are we good?" And we were good.

Leslie Thomas: Someone asked me once, why didn't we make the film focused on the individual survivor and victim stories? And I gave them exactly that answer, that this was about due process for those people. The person who asked me wasn't satisfied. They said, "What you have to do is simply tell these stories over and over." And I said, "That's another movie. This one's called The Prosecutors."

Leslie Thomas: In talking about this film, one of the things that's come up is the global advocacy community around sexual violence, in all situations, has spent a lot of time discussing the words, survivor and victim. And what do they mean? And how do we parse them? And when do we use them? And one of the things that's interesting is that in the making of this film, I spent five, six years with lawyers. And in the outreach for the film, I'll spend another several years with lawyers all the time. And a crime has a victim. The word victim has no connotation of lack of agency. It doesn't mean that someone has accepted what's happening to them. It just simply means there is an illegal act happened and there was a victim. And so when we talk about the film and we talk about the victims in the film, that can be a little bit challenging for some people in civil society community, because they'll say these are survivors.

Leslie Thomas: And I found myself almost being a little bit defensive sometimes because I also use the word survivor. So what I did is talk to victims and survivors and said, "How do you want us to do this?" And that made it very clear because they said, "When you're talking about a case, these are victims or these are witnesses and they might be the same person. When you're talking about the larger issue, those people who do not lose their life are survivors. Some people are killed in the process."

Leslie Thomas: People, often men, have treated conflict related sexual violence, rape in war, sexual slavery in war, sexual trafficking in war as collateral damage. This has been addressed as, "Put down the guns, give back the land, provide access to the river, give me your diamonds or the whole mine, and we'll ignore the whole rape thing. We did it. You did it. We don't need to get into that during the treaty making. Let's just sort this out." The reality is there's tons of precedents for this being a crime and now we're developing all kinds of case law, which will help people moving forward.

Leslie Thomas: In my first trip to Congo, I'm supposed to get on the back of this motorcycle. It's called a boda boda and it's how you get around. I have all of my backpack, my shooting stuff. And this young man and I who cannot converse because unfortunately I speak neither Swahili nor French. It's dark. I'm trying to get on his motorcycle and I am so incredibly uncoordinated, that I fall down, I take the whole motorcycle down, I'm now laying underneath it in the mud, the beautiful red Congolese clay. I'm horribly embarrassed, and he's frantically trying to figure out whether he has killed me. A truck shows up with 20 armed soldiers, and they see this woman lying under this motorcycle and this guy, and they all clearly decided it's his fault. And the guns are trained on him, and I'm yelling and screaming in this completely useless English and saying, "No, it's me. It's me. It's me." And if I was him, I would've thrown me under the bus to save his own life.

Leslie Thomas: And all he does is ignore the guns, ignore the guys, picks up the motorcycle, cleans me off, explains everything to them. I'm just mortified. It's like this worst American kind of cliche, coming to a town, getting somebody in trouble. Drives me to dinner, doesn't take my money and wishes me well. And it was probably the littlest thing to him, but for me it was just like, "Welcome to Congo. We are nice people. No matter what you do."

Leslie Thomas: We had been shooting in Bosnia. We had met a number of people who worked in the war crimes office in this rural town. We had gone with our prosecutor to a number of different investigations. We had met incredible people who'd come forward with stories that had happened 20 years ago. People who had been held in captivity, people who had investigated cases 20 years ago and then kept silent about the stories, but kept them so that one day they could bring the case to light. We were all exhausted and we were just visitors. Imagine being there constantly. And we were going to leave the next day after a long filming trip. We were a little demoralized, there had been some dead end cases. We had seen victims come forward to try to tell stories and then discover that there really might not be enough evidence, and have to rethink whether after all these years they were going to give up. And it was the last night and I got a call from our prosecutor Jasmin Mesic that his wife and he, wanted us to come for dinner.

Leslie Thomas: So we show up at his house. It was not just a home cook meal, it was a home cook meal with an accordion. Because it turns out our prosecutor, besides being a legal expert, plays the accordion. And for four hours, we sat and ate Bosnian food and listened to music, and heard stories and watch people danced. And realize that there is so much joy left in these towns, and there is so much looking ahead as well as looking backwards.

Leslie Thomas: We started this film to document efforts to bring justice to victims and survivors in their communities, of conflict related sexual violence. I thought that we would find examples of it, and I thought that we would find people to support. We want to generate support for those folks globally, but I found more than that. I found brilliance. I found bravery. I found that if you go anywhere, you can find heroes to learn from, to stand behind, to stand alongside of. And yes, they need resources. Yes, we better get there and provide what they need. But even more importantly, we found lessons to share. So the most important thing we want out of this film, is for folks to see it, who are practitioners, to learn best practices. For folks who aren't yet practitioners, but maybe in the field of law to get inspired to join these folks.

Leslie Thomas: And for those of us who are voters, who are funders, who have the right to call elected representatives, to get on the phone and say, "Hey, let's do this. Put my vote behind this." We want foreign policy. We want domestic policy that ends impunity, that supports those that are doing the work. And that believes in justice.

Leslie Thomas: When we found out that we had been accepted by the American Film Showcase, we did the happy dance. It is so exciting to have the international network, the global network of embassies and consulates and posts in American corners, disseminating a film like this. Of saying that we as a country believe in justice. You know, it's a long journey. It's a marathon, it's not a sprint. That's a cliche, but it's absolutely true. And every day that you support due process, is one day closer to a just world.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the Director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Leslie Thomas described the making of her first feature length film, The Prosecutors, which was accepted as part of the 2019 slate of American Film Showcase. For more about the film, check out theprosecutorsmovie.com. For more about American Film Showcase and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We of course encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts. Leave us some nice review while you're at it. We'll appreciate it. And we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov that's ECA, C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. You can find photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233.

Chris Wurst: Special thanks to Leslie for sharing her stories and for her commitment to making the world a better place. And extra special thanks this week to Tomas Pierre Serate, the composer of the original score, which was heard throughout this episode. Songs heard were The Struggle, From Goma to Masisi, Can't Stop Thinking About It, War Crimes, Heal Africa, From Bogota to Tunia, Seesanlayho, Jasmin's Case, Mood one and Kluge. I did the interview and edited this segment. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by how the night came. And the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 10 - Disinformation Across Borders with Nina Jankowicz

LISTEN HERE - Episode 10


This week we interview a Fulbright Public Policy Fellow, Nina Jankowicz, who went to Ukraine to advised the Ukrainian government on strategic communications and disinformation. Nina is an expert on the intersection of technology and democracy in the Eastern and Central European regions. Her writing and analysis have been featured in numerous websites, newspapers, magazines, and television shows. You can find out more about the FPPF program here: https://www.cies.org/program/fulbright-public-policy-fellowship


Chris: It's one thing to live and study in another country. It's something else entirely to be installed in another country's government, advising leaders on vitally important issues. But when you do it and you do it well, you not only benefit people in your foreign home, but the people in your actual home as well. You're listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Nina: Ukraine has a very robust coffee culture, which I was very appreciative of. In Ukraine, you can get coffee in these little pods that are all along the street. And a lot of cafes have pretty good coffee. And so on my way to work every day, I would go to this little cafe across the street from my apartment, and I'd chit chat with the girls behind the counter. Then I mentioned that I was going to be leaving pretty soon after that, that I only had a month left in Ukraine. And we both started crying in the middle of the coffee shop. I don't even know this girl's name, but I saw her almost every day for the entirety of my time there. And we just developed this rapport together, and then she gave me my coffee for free that day. And I gave her chocolate, I think I brought her Hershey's Kisses on the last day that I was in Ukraine to remember me by, because Hershey's chocolate, who doesn't want American chocolate?

Chris: This week, an American in the Ukrainian ministry of information, hiking in the Carpathians, and singing the National Anthem in a foreign country. Join us on a journey from the United States to Ukraine to combat the scourge of Russian disinformation. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all. These exchanges shape to who I am. When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves. [Music]

Nina: My name is Nina Jankowitz. I grew up in New Jersey and now I live here in the D.C. area. And in 2016 to 2017 I was a Fulbright public policy fellow in Kiev Ukraine, where I advised the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine on strategic communications issues.

Nina: I was prepared for a fair amount of adversity, because I had worked in the former Soviet Union before and had studied abroad several times in Russia. So I was used to kind of that bureaucracy, but it's very different studying abroad as compared with working abroad, and being embedded in a government that is not your own.

Nina: So I think it took a long time to build the trust between me and my colleagues. But when it did, it really paid off in spades. Every day in my work at the ministry, it was about exposing my colleagues to the American way of thinking and American way of doing things sometimes. I think they were pleasantly surprised. I think efficiency and enthusiasm and optimism are not things that come very easily to an extremely bureaucratic post Soviet bloated government. And I think it was eye-opening for them in some ways to encounter that.

Nina: It's certainly not an easy time for Ukraine either. I mean they're fighting a war. They're dealing with a lot of small issues on a day to day basis that I was involved in. I loved attending with my boss, the spokesperson of the ministry, the OSC Conference on Freedom of the Media in Vienna. So she and her colleagues from the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were there. It was very interesting to see how they were interacting with a bunch of other countries, including Russia who are at the table talking about media freedom in places like annexed Crimea.

Nina: And I also got, as an observer there at the conference, or I guess a representative of academia in some ways, I got to see my own country at the table, which was very interesting. And I made a few statements on my own behalf, not on behalf of the United States. And being in the room with all those folks and seeing how this diplomacy is done, it felt like an achievement. It was near the end of my time there. And again, I don't think any of that would have been possible, I don't think my boss would have invited me along, had we not developed a really close collegial relationship, where we could both confide in each other and support each other. And those friendships and relationships are the thing that I look back on with most pride.

Nina: I don't think there ever wasn't a time that I was proud to be the American in the room. I was there in a very confusing time for Ukraine, because with the election of Donald Trump, the Ukrainian government, like most other people, was surprised at the result. And they were navigating changing how their foreign policy would look vis-a-vis the United States, with the new administration coming in.

Nina: Despite all of that, despite the uncertainty, the one thing that I could always talk about, was the strength of our institutions, which is the same message that we would deliver to democratizing Ukraine today. That these institutions are the bedrock of our society. No matter who comes in and out of office, they're going to be the strength of our country going forward. And so we actually had a lot to draw on as Ukrainians and Americans in that context, that democracy is not a short term project. And I felt strangely happy to be going through an uncertain time in my own country, while I was in Ukraine.

Nina: My experience in Ukraine was pivotal for my career, now. I was advising the ministry on strategic communications issues, which because of the conflict with Russia are on a day to day basis, it deals with disinformation. And this was something that I had always been interested in through my work at NDI, when NDI was dealing with propaganda that the Russian government was spreading about it. And then I came to Ukraine and found myself dealing with a more robust version of that in Ukraine. And all of this was before the 2016 election, of course.

Nina: And I was watching these issues in Ukraine, the election happened. I wrote a paper as part of my Fulbright research project about the different ways Western governments were supporting anti-disinflation work in Eastern Europe, comparing them, giving some policy solutions about coordination, and ways to instill a bit more longevity into these very short term projects that were happening. And then came home and found that I had this wealth of knowledge from the research that I had done there and my on the ground experience working with these issues every day. And so now my job is basically doing analysis and research around Russian disinformation and more broadly just malign disinformation.

Nina: And all of this has been of course at the forefront of the news cycle, even this week as we're talking. And I was lucky that the timing worked out, but also lucky to have that on the ground experience working in the ministry on these issues day to day. Because it's one thing to look at a bunch of bot and troll armies online, and it's a completely different thing to see how it impacts the people that you're working with, and the systems that government uses to counter that stuff.

Nina: In terms of disinformation, I think my time in Ukraine gave me the perspective to understand that you can't just fact check your way out of an information war, because Ukraine is constantly under a barrage of all sorts of fake stories coming from inside the country, outside country, from people that are sponsored by Russia who are working inside Ukraine. And it's very confusing and very difficult to parse, especially for the average person.

Nina: And so when I came to Ukraine, a lot of Western governments and institutions were very big on this fact checking thing. We've since moved on from that, but it became clear to me early on, and I was one of the only people saying this at the time, that we needed a solution that was more holistic, that empowered people to make these conclusions and decisions for themselves. So that it wasn't just them being told by some third party that, this is right and this is wrong. But they were given being given the tools to sort through this absolutely ludicrous flow of information that is coming our way all the time now. And that perspective, understanding how individual Ukrainians dealt with that, and what the government's role in all of that was, which I think is just to be as transparent and truthful as humanly possible. It's critical to the understanding that I have today of how we have to fight disinformation, whether it's coming from outside the country or inside.

Nina: So after the election, my colleagues at the ministry really wanted to make it clear that Ukraine still wanted and valued its partnership with the United States. And I thought it might be a good idea for the minister to publish an op ed in a Western newspaper. And so we went through as a team to draft an op ed for the minister. He went through and made his edits and we pitched that to the New York Times, and it ended up getting published.

Nina: But there was definitely bumps along the way. That's the sanitized version of how that all went down. But it was great to be able to deliver that message, to deliver an idea of why the U.S. Ukraine relationship is so critical and important at such a pivotal moment. And it was really gratifying to see our work in print, and that opened the door to a lot of other collaboration down the road, during my time in Ukraine.

Nina: I don't think I, in general, am a lot like what they might imagine an American to be. And I probably went pretty native when I was in Ukraine, in terms of how I dressed and how I talked. So it might've been a bit of cognitive dissonance for them. Although I am quite loud and I smile a lot and I talk pretty fast, so that probably fit into their stereotype of Americans. But I think I viewed those lectures as a chance to reinvigorate or invigorate and inspire a class of people that might have felt like they were being left behind. Now the revolution is almost five years old and reforms are stalling. Ukraine had a big hole to dig itself out of. And I think a lot of people were losing hope, but I was happy to tell them that, from my seat in the ministry, seeing the challenges that their fellow Ukrainians were meeting on a daily basis, I still had that hope.

Nina: On a daily basis was filled with wonder at the sacrifices that Ukrainians had made for their country. Walking on the Maidan, walking on these squares where very recently people had been killed by the government. And thinking, what would we do? What would I do first of all, and what would Americans do in a similar situation? And I think it's been so long since we had to make that consideration for ourselves. I thought about that a lot when I was talking to people about Maidan or going down the ... There's an area of Maidan that has all the people who were shot, the Heavenly Hundred, because it's over a hundred people who were killed, with their pictures. And some of them were much younger than me. Some of them were much older than me too. There were grand grandmothers and grandfathers who were out there protesting for their rights. And bringing that home, making that ... It just made it so much more personal, that I was there to support this really important cause.

Nina: One thing that made me uncomfortable on a daily basis is just the limited number of women in power in Ukraine. They have more parliamentarians than the United States does that are women, but much like in the United States, although to a greater degree in the national security apparatus, there's very few women. And I was lucky to be working with a very confident and passionate woman, who was spokesperson Mariana Betsa. She's now the ambassador to Estonia and is a great inspiration to me. But I think even in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has a higher percentage than most other ministries, the disparate nature of gender representation is pretty evident. There were many, many meetings where Mariana and I would be the only women in the room.

Nina: And the way our ideas were interpreted, much like in the United States, was often different than the way something our male colleagues would say would be interpreted. And that was difficult sometimes, especially because I was there, I had been sent by my country to provide assistance and support. And sometimes I think some men in a variety of situations not just at work, were confused as to why I was so outspoken and why I was so confident. And I think if that served anything, it just made me more of both of those things.

Nina: The best thing that we can do is to keep speaking out and identify allies amongst us. There were some great guys within the ministry and outside of the ministry who made sure that our voices were heard. But it's a difficult thing coming from a privileged position in the U.S. and not quite understanding how to make yourself heard and make yourself be taken seriously. And since I've returned from Ukraine, I've encountered similar situations here in the States as I've moved forward in my career.

Nina: On Diplomat's Day, which they celebrate at the end of December, they made sure I was included in all of the festivities, even though I technically was not a diplomat. And they all came to a birthday party that I threw for myself, because that's how you do it in Slavic cultures, and said lovely things about me. And that wasn't just my colleagues, like I said, Ukrainians are just these wonderful warm people and I feel really lucky to have spent a year amongst them.

Nina: I got to go to my colleague's wedding. I don't know that this was a very normal Ukrainian wedding, but this was a opulent, very, very long affair. It started, I think, at two or three in the afternoon, and was still going when I left at midnight. And I was watching my friend's dog, so I had to leave, because the dog needed to get let out. But it was really, really beautiful, lots of toasts. I was made to get up and give a toast in Russian in the middle of it, which I am told is on video and I never want to see. But it was just a really raucous party with ballet dancers and all sorts of things. It was a great time.

Nina: One colleague in particular, Natalia was always just really sweet and caring, and could tell when I was in a bad mood, and made time for me, made sure that I had everything I needed, wanted to go and take walks with me and interpret what was going on in the city for me. And similarly, the deputy of the department Alaina, always brought me these little gifts. She'd bring me little notebooks that were in Ukrainian colors, or pottery from different regions of Ukraine. And before I left, she sent me away with this big bag of Kiev souvenirs and things like that. I mean, again, these are just little things on a day to day basis, but especially when you are abroad and don't have your normal support network, they really matter. They are able to keep you going when you have people checking in on you, even if at the beginning, you don't know them very well, they become your good friends by the end.

Nina: I've never been to a city like Kiev, and I've been to a lot of post-Soviet cities. It's just such an interesting mixture of these ancient, ancient religious sites. It's where the Orthodox, Russian Orthodox church was founded. And they've got these beautiful monasteries and cathedrals. And on the other hand, there's a lot of Soviet architecture, brutalist architecture. A lot of the scenes in The Death of Stalin were filmed in Kiev actually, because Moscow was probably too expensive to film in. So the main Boulevard in Kiev has that very traditional 1950s Soviet architecture. And it's also got a lot of beautiful new, not even architecture, but murals and things like that, that have happened post Maidan. So it's just this interesting fabric of a city.

Nina: I was really lucky to live right behind the Opera House when I was there. And I love music and theater, and so I just loved sitting in my apartment with the windows open on a warm day. And the opera would have the windows open, and they'd be rehearsing and I could hear the orchestra playing, or some tenor or soprano practicing an Aria and it was just so unique. But down the street from my apartment, there's golden gate, which was the historical, now reconstructed gate to the city. And walking down further from that to the ministry, which was my walk every day to be Kilskaya and Sofiyskaya Squares, where there are just these two beautiful cathedrals on either side of the ministry, which is again, a Soviet building but still very beautiful.

Nina: There's not much that compares with that walk. And then Kiev also has a lot of nature. You can cross over the river and go onto this lovely island. Where on my last day in Kiev, I sat with a friend having beers, looking across the river at the city scape, and it's just such a special place.

Nina: I came home to my apartment one night and I had a pradukti, which is this little store right next to my apartment. And outside of the pradukti there was a cat sitting in a baby carriage. She was like, "Okay, great." I never really figured that one out, but I have a picture of it.

Nina: Near the end of my experience, I was lucky enough to be in Kiev on July 4th, and I do a lot of singing and performing outside of my day job. And the embassy got wind of that, so I got to sing the National Anthem at the Ambassador's July 4th party. And a lot of these, like at any Embassy, this is a lot of who's who in Ukrainian society, tons of politicians, and pop stars, and entertainers, and civil society people were there, along with my colleagues and friends. So it was lovely to be able to close it out that way. And afterward I met an MP who I had known from his days on the Maidan, and I got to meet, and this was huge because she's a singer. The winner of Eurovision Jamala was there, and we all took pictures together and it was just, it felt great to be representing both the United States and Ukraine at such a special occasion, at such a special time in both country's history. It was something I'll definitely never forget.

Nina: I knew I would travel, but I really developed a love of hiking when I was in Ukraine. I've always been kind of an outdoorsy person, but at the end of my Fulbright, about two weeks before I left, a friend and I went out to the Carpathian Mountains, and we did a three day backpacking trip. Carpathians are a bit like the Shenandoah Mountains. They're not big and rugged like the Rockies, but you still have quite a elevation climb. So all across these beautiful mountain, we barely saw another soul for the three days we were out there.

Nina: And then at the end of the time we decided to engage in this Slavic tradition of going to the banya, which is like a sauna. It was in this tiny village that we had to take a special cab to get to where we started and ended our hike. And I spoke with this guy who owned a guest house there, and I had read online that they had a banja. He was speaking Ukrainian. My Ukrainian is passable, but my Russian is better, and my Polish is probably somewhere in between. So I was putting together all these three languages to make sure that we could get in. And he fed us this amazing meal, and it was just Ukrainian hospitality at its finest, and a memory that I definitely will always treasure.

Nina: He gave us special Carpathian tea, and after hiking like 35 miles, it was pretty much the best thing. And then he put out this whole spread of amazing mushroom soup and fresh salad from his garden, and these pancakes with meat in the middle, so blini they're called with meat in the middle. And it was, I'm kind of tearing up just thinking about it now, because it was an incredible, really once in a lifetime experience.

Nina: I want to see Ukraine a member of the European community, the way that Poland and the Czech Republic and the Baltic States, all these countries that were under similar circumstances were able to make that transition. I want to see that for Ukraine. I want to see Ukraine's territory returned to it. I want to see Ukraine whole free and at peace, and I would love to see Ukraine as an economically viable state. It's got so many resources, natural and human, and to be able to turn that around would change, I think, the economic paradigm in Europe. Ukraine could feed the world through its land, if it produced wheat at the right ratio. So I think all of that is within Ukraine's reach, but there are so many obstacles in the way right now, and not the least of which is this occupation of its territory by Russia, and the corruption that it needs to start fighting. But I think just like all of those other countries that I mentioned have fought these issues, Ukraine can do the same.

Nina: At the same time, I have to say, especially post Euromaidan, the revolution that happened in 2014, there are so many young dedicated people in the Ukrainian government that really want to see change. And that's true not just in the government, but at all, all levels of Ukrainian society. And I think that Americans or Westerners in general who think of Ukraine as, they think of it just based on the corruption reports statistics, right, as this ridiculously corrupt country. I think there is a lot to be hopeful about in Ukraine. And all of that hope in my view lies with the young people who have dedicated their lives to changing how the government operates in the past few years.

Nina: My last day leaving Ukraine was obviously emotional for a lot of reasons after having lived there for a year. But my colleagues saw me off to the airport, and my colleague's husband drove me with my two other colleagues in the car with me. They put me through security and then watched me go through. And I had to wave to them from beyond the security checkpoint. And I've seen one of them since then, the other one has been posted to a different country now, so I haven't seen her when I've gone back to Ukraine. But it was those personal connections that, I mean I guess I knew intellectually they would happen, but they're the things that I hold dearest to me in my heart, after having been back for almost two years now. I mean, I'll never forget those friendships that I made.

Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded International Exchange Programs.

Chris: This week, Nina Jankowitz talked about her time in the Ukrainian Ministry of Information serving as a Fulbright professional fellow. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and you can do that wherever you find your podcasts. And while you're at it, leave us a good rating, huh? We'd also love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A- C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov Or you can check us out at eca.state.gov/2233.

Chris: Special thanks this week to Nina, for her stories and dedication to seeking the truth. Ana-Maria Sinitean did the interview and I edited this episode. Featured music was N.R.C. Jump by Red Norvo and his Overseas Spotlight Band. A Slight Minority by Shelly Manne, Wellness by Paddington Bear, and three songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Paper Napkin, Rodney Scopes, and Up, Up, Up And Over. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How The Night Came. And the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 09 - A Cup of Kindness Can Lift Your Spirits Up with Humming House

LISTEN HERE - Episode 9


This week the American Music Abroad program presents, Humming House, a band from from Nashville, Tennessee to who traveled to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan in Central Asia, lifting spirits along the way. The band proudly presented themselves and their music to strangers around the world, and in so doing, quickly replaced feelings of foreignness with the spirit of sharing and common language of music.


Chris Wurst:  You proudly presented yourselves and your music to strangers around the world, and in so doing, quickly replaced feelings of foreignness with the spirit of sharing and common language of music; the common language of amazing music. You're listening to 22.33: a podcast of exchange stories.

Bobby Chase:  When we were traveling on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, which is rated one of the most dangerous roads in the world, there's no guard rails, and it's straight down in the Fann Mountains in the Pamirs, which is beautiful, just terrifying.

Quintin Flowers:  Flying through these streets. The drivers are not slow at all.

Joshua Wallach:  It's amazing.

Bobby Chase:  We got stopped at the bottom of the hill, thankfully close to a small restaurant and facilities, which were not adequate, but existed, and they said there's been an avalanche. And this is early March, I suppose. So a lot of the snow is melting and they're like, "No problem. We're going to get it cleared in an hour." And we're like, "An avalanche cleared in an hour? That's impressive." So within-

Quintin Flowers:  This happens all the time.

Bobby Chase:  Within an hour, it was very clear that it was not going to happen within an hour, and there was this bottleneck traffic jam at the bottom of this hill, and there's probably 500 vehicles and hundreds of people all gathered around and just hanging out 'cause they have no idea how long this is going to take, and there's not really a way to turn around at this point because the traffic is so wedged in. And so there's a truck bed there and we're like, what's a really great way to not be noticed would be to get up on this truck bed right now and play a concert for all these people that are trapped in the Fann Mountains.

Bobby Chase:  So that's what we did. A couple of the guys' instruments had gone on, so all we really had was a guitar and Nathan's percussion. And so we kind of played an acoustic guitar, percussion, and vocal performance on the back of a truck bed in front of four or 500 Tajiks, and we played a couple of our songs and some American covers. And then we went into this song called Chaki Chaki Ben Mari, which is one of their classic folk songs, from the 70s, and then everybody flipped out because they're like, "Oh my God, these Americans know a Taji classic song that we all know."

Bobby Chase:  And so there's this video of us on this truck bed, stuck in this avalanche in sweaters performing and having everybody sing along, and it was great. After that, we were friends with everybody and we went to the restaurant and they bought us lagman, which is a local soup and they bought us breads and probably eight bottles of vodka. And it ended up just being a really joyous night, which could have been terrible, and that was truly a connection in those mountains with everybody that was on a similar level. Everybody was stuck. Nobody could go anywhere.

Quintin Flowers:  No one was happy to be stuck.

Bobby Chase:  Yeah, nobody happy to be stuck. And so, thankfully us presenting ourselves as foreigners didn't turn out into a bad situation. So it could've-

Chris Wurst:  This week playing not-so-incognito in our traffic jam, overlapping traditions, and exclusive little performances of Wishing Well and The Great Divide. Join us in a journey from Nashville, Tennessee to central Asia, lifting spirits along the way. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip:  We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip:  These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip:  When you get to know these babies, they're not cry like you. You read about them. There are people very much like ourselves and...
Intro Clip:  [Singing] That's what we call cultural exchange.

Justin Tam:  My name is Justin Tam. I'm originally from San Diego. I live in Nashville, Tennessee and we are in a band called humming house. We went on two different programs the last year in 2018 and the first was an American music abroad program in Kazakhstan, in Tajikistan, and the second one was an arts Envoy in Turkmenistan.

Bobby Chase:  My name is Bobby Chase. I'm originally from Falls Church, Virginia actually, and I'm have been in Nashville now for a little over 10 years and all of us live there now and I play violin and keyboards in the band. Viola, occasionally.

Joshua Wallach:  I'm Joshua Wallach. I was born in Detroit but I've lived half my life in Nashville, Tennessee as multi-instrumentalist and writer.

Quintin Flowers:  I am Quintin Flowers. I grew up near Houston, Texas and I play bass. I live in Nashville now, play bass in some regional orchestras and bands and different contexts.

Nathan Wallman:  I'm a Nathan Wallman. I'm from st Louis, Missouri originally and I have also lived about half of my life in Nashville, Tennessee, play drums and that's the majority of what I do.

Bobby Chase:  Part of the joys of being a musician is getting to go and travel to unique places. The idea of being a diplomat for the American government was kind of a foreign concept to us. We basically had mostly toured in the States and the Caribbean, previously, and then we found out we were going to central Asia and all of us had to look at a map very quickly as did our partners. When we started saying names with -stans in them, some people got rather concerned about where we were going.

Bobby Chase:  I immediately went and bought some books about central Asia, long I, we bought long underwear. We went and we went in February into Kazakhstan, which is very frigidly cold. When we arrived in Astana it was negative 40 degrees and I'd never experienced that level of cold. I'm from San Diego originally, so it's pretty temperate there and we also arrived at night and it's completely foreign compared to what you're used to. We didn't know the language. You don't recognize how letters are written, the alphabet. Astana is a very new city. It was sort of built by the Kazakh government in the last, I guess 25 years or so. And so I don't think I was expecting such a glistening new city full of really fascinating contemporary architecture from architects all over the world with gorgeous gardens. And granted it was winter, so all the trees were barren, but like it was unbelievable. I mean I felt like going into space or something. I don't know. It was like Star Wars or something like landing on a whole different plane than we're used to.

Bobby Chase:  Once we got there, it was very clear that some of the traditions were pretty similar. They have a lot of acoustic instruments. We play kind of a modernization of American folk music, which is immigrant music to begin with, right? So a lot of the music from Ireland and from Europe that came through Appalachia and then has transformed into kind of narrative folk songs in the United States. And they have very similar instrumentation, like a fiddle. They have a kobiz, which is a cousin, I guess, to the violin you would call it. And they have a dombra, which is also kind of a folk strummed instrument with a couple of strings, very simple chord structures as well. Similar to a guitar or a mandolin almost. And they have a lot of traditional songs that are passed down and people all know and they play together and collaborate.

Bobby Chase:  And that was very similar. Having played a lot of folk festivals in the United States and going around and seeing people know the same canon of songs and being able to participate in a communal sense. It was very similar there. And I don't know that I expected that, but it was a really beautiful connection and we were able, even in our first couple of days to kind of collaborate on some of their songs and some of our songs in a live setting, having really never heard the music before. Everybody was able to just jump right in and it was beautiful. It was cool cause we didn't speak the same language, we didn't come from the same traditions, but yet those traditions clearly overlapped in a human sense. Yeah.

Bobby Chase:  What really impacted us was one of the first cities we went to was in Sumareh, which is near the Russian border and near where Russia did a lot of their nuclear testing. Our first show, we went to this theater and a group of high school students had learned the chorus of one of our songs, like the whole song. And we went to, they said, "well we'd like to sing this with you for the performance." We're like, Oh okay, well let's try it in rehearsal. And so they showed up. I mean, they immediately knew the whole song and it was gorgeous and most of them didn't actually speak English, but they were able to memorize the sounds of the words and sing along with us in unison, the whole thing. And I mean all of us were in tears practically because you know, we don't speak the language.

Bobby Chase:  We are literally on the other side of this planet and yet this song is bringing us together and connecting on an emotional level with these, with these people. And that is a profound experience. And I think, it really hit home for me why I like doing music, why all of us enjoy doing music in this band. I think that is really the point of everything. You get caught in the commercial rat race of trying to make a living at music and as difficult as that is, and trying to be something in order to get people to pay attention to you. But at the end of the day, that human connection, that experience on an emotional level is something you can't really describe until you experience it. You know, and we experienced that multiple times on these trips with people that we did not speak their language, but yet they would sing along to our songs within a minute. Once we went through the first chorus, the next chorus, everybody's like doing the call and response points of the song and it's just a beautiful thing. I mean it happens in English all the time too. But to have it happen with foreign language speakers was just, I mean it was mind-blowing.

Justin Tam:  My favorite moment of human connection from our trip to Tajikistan was actually at a musical boarding school and I feel like the boarding school experience overseas was very weird for us because immediately like no matter how young you are, if you show aptitude at anything like sports or music, they're like, okay, well that's what you're doing for the rest of your life. You're just doing that. So we're in this school with kids from babies to young adults who've all been doing pretty much just music all day, every day for their whole lives. So that's immediately an intimidating group to play for. Yeah. Right? But they give us their little performance and then all the kids are just stoked. Like they just want to meet us and see us and play our instruments and everything. And I'm looking at this kid, he's like probably like 14 year old kid and he doesn't know any English.

Justin Tam:  He was real shy, but I'm looking at his instrument and I'm like, Hmm, that looks a lot like my instrument. And he's looking at my mandolin like that looks a lot like my instrument. So we're watching each other play. And then finally we just kind of lock eyes and nod like, okay, let's do it. And we just switched, pass it over. And I know there's not an English word for his, I think they call it a rubab prima or bat prima or something like that. But it was way different than any other rubab I'd seen. And it's tuned exactly like a mandolin or a fiddle. So we're just like playing each other's instrument. Like, okay, we can't talk at all, but this is awesome. And then the kid goes on to play us like this beaut, was it a Bach piece?

Justin Tam:  Yeah, so he plays the whole thing on my mandolin, which is a double string. He's never touched it before, doesn't even know what it is and yeah, he just, just this flawless composition with it and I'm just sitting over there like, well I guess we could play some folk songs for you now. But it was great. Like we didn't talk really at all, but there was clearly such a depth of our shared experience that was immediately visible, like without a word spoken. And I was just, I was flying sky high for the whole rest of that day. The horse of the trip after that, really

Quintin Flowers:  The collaborations stick out as something that was just really, really cool. And I didn't have a part in writing any of the songs that we performed actually, but as a strings player didn't plan the bass. Sometimes I use a bow and there was a couple of times when we had a local string quartet join us on a couple of songs and I think it was fine. "What Waits" in particular we were at a school and it's just this beautiful ballad, a great string arrangements and parts that Ben Jones and Bobby Chase wrote together and sent ahead of time and, and they had just read the music and without really any explanation we said, Hey, we're going to do this song. And we start going into it and they just read all the measures down, came in and, and it was just, I mean, no one could keep from crying. It was such a beautiful moment. So to be a part of that being in that moment was, was one of the most beautiful things that's happened in my life.

Quintin Flowers:  [Singing] Be patient with the ones you love. 'Cause we're not here for long enough to judge. No, just living is a stroke of luck. A cup of kindness can pick your spirits up. We're all lovers, we're all leavers, finders and seekers at the wishing well, at the wishing well. We're all dancers, we're all dreamers, losers and keepers, at the wishing well, at the wishing well. Enjoy your ride around the sun. 'Cause each of us only earn a little one. We shoulder them from what you overcome. Cause there are lessons in this race to be run. We're all lovers, we're all leavers, finders and seekers at the wishing well, at the wishing well. We're all dancers, we're all dreamers, losers and keepers, at the wishing well, at the wishing well. Well, well. Well, well. Well, well. Well, well. We're all lovers, we're all leavers, finders and seekers at the wishing well, at the wishing well. We're all dancers, we're all dreamers, losers and keepers, at the wishing well, at the wishing well. Be patient with the ones you love, 'cause we're not here for long enough.

Bobby Chase:  This afternoon we played in Turkmenistan in music school.

Nathan Wallman:  After the performance, which was just, you know, again, like we're doing our thing, people are liking it and then the standing ovation at the end is like the whole room is flipping out and all of a sudden the bouquets start coming and there's five of us, there's five of us, some having like an okay day. And then I'm like, Oh, a bouquet. Wow. Just a bouquet in the afternoon. Like, yeah. Then there's like a second and the third and a fourth and one that's like bigger than your whole face. Like just huge. And we're like, we flew there for the day, so we end up walking out of the school with like 11 bouquets between the five of us. Like just trying to carry them back to the van. I don't even know what happened to any of them.

Joshua Wallach:  We, we gave them away.

Nathan Wallman:  We, yeah, we tried to give them everybody we could meet like, Hey you, you're a beautiful, have a rose. Enjoy yourself today. So immediately that transforms the day. We're like, okay, I'm just like another day to like, wow, I forgot. We're really making huge impressions on these people and the show that we played that night, the end of that turned into absolute Beatlemania madness. Like there were like over a thousand kids like pounding at the doors of the theater. We had security like force them out of the way so we could get back to our vans and like, I always want to say like, yo, we're not that important. You can just, you just settle down. But it's the truth is this was like a monumental moment and nothing like that ever happens there. And it was just, I don't know, it's so easy sometimes in life to forget how special the moment that you are in actually is. And sometimes it takes that disruption of travel or that really changed from what's expected to slap you in the face and say, no, this is beautiful. This is amazing. What you're doing is spectacular. Do not forget that

Bobby Chase:  While we were being hosted at dinner in Kazakhstan and Sumareh, the hosts, I mean a lot of different city officials were there, so I don't remember exactly who was who, but you know, he just seemed like a very important man. And then he busts out a dombra, which is like a mandolin and just belts out in this beautiful baritone voice, like these really like bellowing, haunting Kazak folk melodies.

Bobby Chase:  And we're all, we're a bit drunk now because now they've been serving that cognac in that kumiss hard and they will not let us have anything but a full glass. So I just like stare over at Nathan, my jaw drops like who just like stands up in the middle of a meal and just like diva level belts out?

Nathan Wallman:  He asked us to not let him singing stop us from having like conversations.

Bobby Chase:  Yeah. Like it's just like, don't mind me, I'm just going to yeah. It'd be like if some like, I don't know, some beautiful aria was represented by like the most diva-like the performers just like next to you while you're eating the sandwich. No big deal.

Bobby Chase:  So then he finished and I'm immediately brought to tears, I want to drink more. I'm begging the translator like, Oh please, please tell him his voice is amazing and I love his soul and the passion he puts into the translator just like, okay, okay, hold on. He condenses it and I watch him deliver it to this guy and he just looks like dead-eyed straight ahead, like not really at me, kind of like over me and just, "Mm-hmm." That's it. That's it. And then we all started like cracking up nervously. Like we just showered you and compliments like you guys said. I ask our translator could not like, Hey, what's, what's with that? Is that like normal? And he was like, Oh, well there's not really a Kazakh word to say in response to something like that. It was like, wait, you mean like when someone gives you a compliment about how good you are, your performances, there's, no word, there's nothing to say in response to that? He was like, yeah, not in Kazakh, no we don't. We don't really do that. It's like, okay, well thank you anyway, that was

Bobby Chase:  I think Samareh really was one of the highlights. It was one of our first experiences and perhaps that's why, but it also, I think we were treated almost like royalty. We went, it was late at night when we arrived and we were at Gates of the city and these people had been waiting for an hour to meet us there in traditional dress. And they greeted us with dried fruits and confections of their local cuisine and said how much they appreciated us be there and how much they love America and how they wanted to treat us as their guests. And that continued for four or five days.

Bobby Chase:  I mean we had private meals with them where there were toasts to, you know, Kazakh and American relations and all of us are just sitting there going like, we're a couple of musicians. I don't know that we're qualified to represent the United States in these settings, but cheers, here's some more vodka. And I think that sort of hospitality and generosity was just overwhelming and it just felt amazing to have that level of connection and it felt like we were actually accomplishing something on a diplomatic level. And I think I really understood the function of the State Department in those settings in a way that probably the average American never experiences.

Joshua Wallach:  Just like an hour after we arrive in Dushanbe, it was like the second week of our trip and we had no idea really what to expect. And we're seeing that it's a little dirty but very colorful at the same time. Like there's a lot of life, but a lot of the streets look a little worn down and there's really pretty pastels, but there are time aged and worn. So it's a very strange mixed impression. And we had some free time, so we were just walking with our tour manager Mickey, trying to find this market. We're thinking like, Oh the fruits and vegetables are going to be amazing here. We ought to go find the market and we get to it and it's completely razed. Like it's been gone, it looks like for years. Like great, I'm glad this was on the hotel map.

Joshua Wallach:  Now what do we do? And none of us have SIM cards yet so we have no service and we're just like standing around all these people like, well we're very obviously not from here and we're the only ones like this. And we'd obviously been briefed by the state department on like, you'll be safe there, you'll be fine, but lay low, don't do anything like draw attention to yourself. And we're just standing there on the corner going like, well we got nothing to do now and this guy just rolls up in this beat up blue sedan. Just like my friends, my friends. Where are you trying to go? Where are you trying to go? We're like, Oh, we're trying to go to the market but I guess it doesn't exist. And he was like, Oh the market. Yeah, I will take you there, hop in, come on.

Joshua Wallach:  And we all look at each other and our tour manager's with us, like, "Uhh?" The guy is so friendly. This is why I look at Mickey and he's just like, ah fine. Sure, let's go. And we pile on in the backseat of this guy's little sedan and he's not a taxi driver. He's just a dude. And he, I guess he had just spent the summer before that working on his English in India. And the fact that he immediately recognized us as non-native speakers just like gave him like all the information he needed to just spew like every single word he knew at us and he was glowing and he had these big braces and he takes us to ends up taking us to the mall, which we're like, okay, fine. It's a mall. That's, that's great. It's not a market, but you know, they sell things, it's fine and we're going to leave it at that.

Joshua Wallach:  But it turned out like all day and the day before, like this was the week that "Black Panther" came out in the States and we're all big Marvel fans were like, Oh, we got to see "Black Panther" but we're in Dushanbe. And then we walk up to the mall and see this big "Black Panther" cutout and it starting in like five minutes from when we got there. So we're like, okay, I know we're supposed to be doing Tajik things right now, but the Tajik man did just take us to this "Black Panther" cut out. We have no excuse not to go watch this movie right now. And we went and the theater was like, I mean we think of like big stadium seating, big American movie. No, it's 12 seats. It's 12 seats in a room like maybe four times the size of his office.

Joshua Wallach:  And they were pretty great recliners, I'll say it, I got to really lean back and enjoy it. But it's also out of all the Marvel movies, that's one really about like colonialism and colonization and the fight against that and the way that cultures that would otherwise be subjugated learn to stand up and empower themselves. So I feel like in that way it was a really fitting thing to see in the context of Tajikistan.

Joshua Wallach:  It's like the reason that moment sticks out so much to me is you have like as a traveler, just like this low-grade anxiety all the time, you don't know what to expect. You can't speak the language and you're always just a little afraid. And then to see something that overwhelmingly friendly, that would've never happened here, that would have never flown in America. Slap you in the face with that kind of kindness immediately. It just, it wrecks whatever preconceptions you had. And I'm just like, okay, well everything that I've been told about this place just doesn't seem to line up at all with the reality on the ground here. And that was the light bulb going off for me. Like, well, I guess I just have to keep an open mind about all of this because I don't understand where any of this is going to take me. But now I'm along for the ride.

Justin Tam:  I think my fear going into it, I felt there was a chance that we would be presented as having it all together and being experts and what it really felt like was an exchange. Truly we learned as much about their culture and gained as much individually from learning about their instrumentation, about their traditions, and their landscapes and their topography and like things that I just had never even thought of before. I think that that was what we gained more than anything out of the whole thing.

Justin Tam:  We could see the longterm outcomes of investing in people. We had no idea that English access programs existed, that the State Department was investing in low income students and teaching them English and giving certain ones the opportunity to come to the United States and have an experience at a high school for a whole year. We had no idea that the State Department was bringing filmmakers over or dancers or sports stars and that they utilize those opportunities to work together with foreign governments to form friendships. And you could see when we were in Tajikistan, some of our handlers had been through English access programs. One of them had been to high school in Montana and this woman is now 35 years old and she's working with the U.S. State Department. I mean you could see because we invested in people, they were investing back into our country and that's such a better long term investment than in bombs. Like to be honest with you. Than in weapons. To see that interpersonal connection last longterm was just really cool and I could see why we're doing it and why we should be investing in it.

Nathan Wallman:  And I know Justin said it earlier, but I think that was also a moment where we realized like, Oh, this is a true exchange. We're not coming here just like preach America, we're coming here as American citizens using free speech, being ourselves and taking up and soaking in everything that this culture had to offer. It made me feel a lot less like this star of the story and more the recipient of the story.

Chris Wurst:  22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for title 22 chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of the U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst:  This week, a special visit by Nashville's own Humming House, the largest band we've yet squeezed into our little nook. Humming House is Justin Tam, Bobby Chase, Joshua Wallach, Quintin Flowers, and Nathan Wallman. For more about the band, check out humminghouse.com Humming House talked about their recent tours of central Asia as part of American music abroad and the Arts Envoy Program. For more about these and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and leave us a nice review while you're at it. Hey, we'd love to hear from you as well. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233 and hey, now you can check us out on Instagram as well @2233stories. Massive special thanks to Justin, Bobby, Joshua, Quentin and Nathan for their stories and music and I guess for their willingness to cram into the little nook to play some music for us live.

Chris Wurst:  I did the interview and edited this segment. All of the music that you heard was by Humming House including instrumental versions of "The Great Divide," "This Hell Where We Belong," "London Hitchhike," "Gypsy Django Mix," "Wishing Well," and "I Am A Bird." The versions you heard of "Wishing Well" and "The Great Divide" were recorded in our little nook and yes for those keeping score at home, that was a standup bass. We squeezed in music at the top of this episode with "Sebastian" by How The Night Came. And the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.

Nathan Wallman:  I was, I was shocked at our briefing. I don't know if you guys remember this, but we were expecting like this laundry list of things to do and not do and how to be polite, not, you know, how to not offend anybody. And they were just like, ah, well you're Americans, you have free speech. Use it and enjoy yourselves. Like wait, that's it?

Chris Wurst:  Cause you don't know.

Nathan Wallman:  And if somebody asks you, you're dependent on opinion on something, you should tell them your opinion on that. Like, Oh, so just like normal conversation then. Great.


Season 02, Episode 08 - The Food We Eat, Part 13

LISTEN HERE - Episode 8


It's the end of the month, which means, of course, that it's time for another bountiful banquet from the 22.33 international menu of magical culinary experiences. So grab a seat at the table and prepare to dig in. This week, finding wonderful food through the magic of wasta, eating beast -literally, eating beast-, and the ritual and tradition of mate. Join us on our journey around the world to tickle your taste buds.


Chris:  It's the end of the month, which means, of course, that it's time for another bountiful banquet from the 22.33 international menu of magical culinary experiences. So grab a seat at the table and prepare to dig in. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange and food stories.

Speaker 2:  The smell of horse meat and oil is one of the best things I tasted that entire trip. And that we had at that dinner as well with the goat's head. It was delicious. Yeah, it was incredible. That's mostly what I think of about that whole trip. Yeah, generally, it's most of what we did.

Chris:  This week, finding wonderful food through the magic of wasta, eating beast. Literally, eating beast. And the ritual and tradition of mate. Join us on our journey around the world to tickle your taste buds. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip:  We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip:  These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip:  When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people very much like ourselves and ...

Speaker 6:  I don't know how to express it, because I need hot sauce. But I asked them "Is it hot?" "Yes." But it's not hot. It's sour and sweet. We don't add chili and sugar in sweet things. So when I taste that, it's not good for me. It's crazy for me, because you add salt and the chili, the red chili, which is grinded and it has some process, but adding to that a sweet thing, it's not good for me.

Speaker 7:  I was also thinking of in Dushanbe with our guide there in Tajikistan named Mahmood who just had all the teas, an Iraqi word wasta. He has just so many connections anywhere you went. Just if he said "We're going to be here and we need a half a lamb slaughtered." We showed up at that time and there was our lamb. And so, I love food and that was one of the first nights that we went to dinner in Dushanbe in Tajikistan. Mahmood just said "All right, we're going to this place. We're going to pick up a couple of vegetables from this local market and then we're going to drive to a restaurant and eat. And it doesn't exist on a map, but I know the owner. He's going to hook it up." That was everything with Mahmood. I know the guy, he's going to hook it up. We're fine. And we were always more than fine.

Speaker 7:  So we're go to the market, we're looking at different things. He's picking up some different produce and looking at it. Pretty similar, you know, onions and cabbage, carrots and stuff like that. And so, we go down these roads, all of it's pretty foreign. And then, the streetlights stop existing and then the pavement stops existing and we're going through these really winding ... It's like there's streets and alleys and then the streets are alley. So we're just real thick in the weeds. We come up to this like house and we walked through this garage, there was a car there and we like kind of scooped past the car.

Speaker 7:  And then there's this other room attached to this garage-looking place and it's covered in a carpet and so everybody takes off their shoes and when we sit down. It's this beautiful ornamented carpet and a low table and they had done a quick pickle on our vegetables and presented those out. We kind of gotten used to a lot of pickled vegetables around meals. That turned out to be a very good idea.

Speaker 2:  And the fermented yogurt.

Speaker 7:  Fermented yogurt. Yeah, that was really great. Lots of dill. It was-

Speaker 2:  So much dill.

Speaker 7:  It really, yeah, opened up the mind in the food realm a lot. That's a lot of what I took away from it. You know, the music was great too and stuff. But this night, we go down and we have our pickled vegetables and we eat that and then there's huge plates of ... Panjakent. It was Panjakent, so it was near Dushanbe. Panjakent Plov is the world's best Plov and these huge bowls of rice and there's yellow carrots and you smell all these different oils and fats that we learned came from lamb and cottonseed oil and sunflower oil is something that they use there too.

Speaker 7:  And we're sitting there, so we get fork and a spoon to eat this rice dish. And it just smells amazing. Not like a pot roast or anything, just something, it was delicious. It's kind of hard to describe.

Speaker 2:  And just like one giant plate that they serve on. That think was was like an 18 inch dish.

Speaker 7:  At least, yeah.

Speaker 2:  And then just everybody just dig in with their hands.

Speaker 7:  Yeah, so there's 8-10 of us around here with the embassy people and our drivers and we're eating with a fork and spoon because that's what they were served us with. And we see the local guys using their hands to scoop it on the side of the bowl and they're like "Oh, you got to try it like this." And Mahmood is very silly. So us Americans who've never done this before are like leaning over and almost falling over on this carpet. And scooping it on the side and then the rice is just falling through our fingers because you have to hold the fingers really tight and pressed it up against the side of the bowl and then like shove it into the side of your cheek. But when you get it right, it really tasted so much better than eating off a spoon. I can't explain why or how that happened, but that time in particular Mahmood's really hooked it up with some just delicious lamb and Panjakent Plov.

Speaker 7:  Australia as well. It's not really available. But another food story. Do you want to tell this about Shushleak or the-

Christopher:  Oh, happily.

Speaker 2:  Okay. You got it.

Christopher:  So we were in Tajikistan traveling and again, we try to eat everything. Like I want to at least try it. If I'm not allergic to it, I will try it. We do better with things that don't look like what they were before they were cooked, but you know, whatever. Like we'll try things. And so we stopped, I think we're in Tajikistan. We stopped in the North of the country to have a lunch before we headed off to do a workshop. This workshop, by the way, was going to be in a community which has one of the highest rates of young people defecting to ISIS at the time when we were there. So it was really important to us to be engaged with what was happening. So we needed a good solid lunch for this. We were really excited about this.

Christopher:  And we went to a place and had just pounds of Plov, which is rice and some veggies in there and delicious fresh tomatoes and oil. So many good things. But they brought us some Shushleak, which is kind of a generic term for cooked meat, for grilled meat. And they brought us different kinds, some skewers and things. And we just did our due diligence and asked what the different things were. And we were told there's some chicken here, there's some goat here. There's some lamb, lots of lamb. And then there was another one, a very gray one. That's what I remember. This very gray dish. And we asked what does that one? And our interpreters kind of stumbled into "Ah, I don't know how to say this. I don't know what the word is."

Christopher:  We were like "Oh, what does it look like? What does it sound like?" And she said "Honestly, I don't know. It's beast." And we were like ... So we started going down the list of, up until then, edible beasts. So we tried buffalo, bison, bear, horse and it was none of those things. So I mean, we still don't know what it was. It tasted gray. I mean, it looked gray and it tasted gray. I still don't know what it was, but we talk about that a lot whenever we're at a place now and something tastes awful. Like it's probably just the beast that you got. I mean, literally, what is it? Is it a Yeti? What? I don't know. I still don't know. I don't know. But I do know that I glow in the dark now at night, so. So. I'm like that last bit was a lie.

Speaker 2:  We did some work in Taiwan and you travel around and one of the easiest foods is they do a food box. And it usually consists of like ... Usually you have a hard boiled egg, some form of beast maybe and-

Christopher:  Rice.

Speaker 2:  Rice and cabbage or something like that. Pretty much the same. Every village or town that we went to and said "This is the most famous lunchbox in all of Taiwan."

Christopher:  All of Taiwan.

Speaker 2:  Every single place had the ... It's delicious. But I just remembered there was like you don't want to miss this one. This is the one.

Christopher:  Do you have one?

Speaker 2:  Yeah, absolutely. The same thing with the Plov.

Christopher:  Plov.

Speaker 2:  Ours is the best Plov you'll ever ... But it's just inverted or like they put the meat on the side, but hey, I mean it was the best I had that day, so

Christopher:  They wanted us to try it all.

Speaker 9:  To me, this is the best food that I've had on our travels is when we went to Georgia. Georgia was, wow, if I would've stayed there longer than a week, I would have definitely gained like 20 pounds. But the part I remember the most was I ordered a hot chocolate and I was like "Ah, I could really go for some hot chocolate." And they bring it over and it was like this full cup of just melted chocolate. It was not a hot ... I was like "Oh wow, this looks a little ... Okay, little different." I just thought like oh, maybe they use real chocolate instead of that generic powder. And then I took a sip and it was like oh, this is actually chocolate. It's just like I was supposed to pour it on the dessert or something like that. Right, exactly. I was like I took about three sips and I was like oh, okay. I can't. I was like that was different. That was different. But the food was incredible there.

Speaker 7:  Cheese bread.

Speaker 9:  And it was only a quarter. That was trouble. That was trouble.

Christopher:  Do you want a bad food story?

Speaker 7:  Sure.

Christopher:  Okay. So we were in Jordan and the thing that I was looking most forward to in Jordan, aside from the work, like the touristy thing I was most looking forward to was going to Petra. I mean, it's in Indiana Jones. If you don't know this, Google it, just Google Petra Jordan, you'll see the most glorious photos. It does look like that. It is breath taking. Like every time you turn a corner you're like, I can't believe this is real. And so, I had been looking forward to that the entire trip. The day prior we did a huge workshop. We actually did a big show and we had a bunch of local dancers join us for the show. It was a really cool event. So we couldn't leave during the day. So they brought us food, they brought us really yummy Shawarma from like a fast food kind of joint.

Christopher:  And it was really, really yummy and we all devoured it. But one of the things that my grandma used to tell me was that you should not eat anything that has egg in it if it's not cold, like once it's made. It's just the thing she used to say and I don't know if that's actually true from a scientific standpoint. I don't know if it matters. I'm sure it's fine. But I had carried around this thing about egg. So long story short, the Shawarma was delicious, but they brought us all these packets of warm garlic mayo and I just had a feeling like just my spidey sense tingle and I was like, you know what? This is great without it, I won't have it. As it turns out, everybody who did have the garlic mayo paid a hefty price for the egg being warm thing.

Christopher:  And so, the night before and in the morning of our day trip up to Petra, pretty much our entire group was really sick. Really, really sick. [Afreda 00:13:57] was really sick, but still dragged himself out for the many mile hike up the many mile high mountain.

Speaker 7:  Brutal.

Christopher:  But I remember thinking like lucky me, like firstly, selfishly like good for me. I'm not ill. But then I thought what a bummer. I'm pretty much the only one enjoying this and like the others came with me. But I was like "Look at this guys", you know taking selfies and they're all like I need to sit quietly. I'm like "Just a few more steps." They're like "Christopher, I need to sit down." I'm like "Guys, what's going on? The sun's going to set." So I just remember that. So note to all wary listeners, just leave the mayo off. If you don't know, just don't eat the mayo. That's my bad food story.

Speaker 10:  Food, I wanted to take Mac and cheese because I really love making cheese and I would say my host mom is a very good cook even though she's busy more like all day, mostly like all the days that she's busy and like she works like from sometimes from 4:00AM till five. But she does like ... Which I really appreciate. She comes back home and she makes dinner for all of us and it's always good. I'm like the enchiladas. Like she cooks mostly like Mexican food. I really love it. I wish I can learn everything and just take it back home with me.

Speaker 10:  I failed really bad once actually. So we had like this dish where you put like flour and like you boil it in some big bowl of water. Instead of flour, I put sugar. I mean, it was like really thin sugar like you know? So it really didn't look different. That was like one big failure I've done. But then again, I think like eventually I made some like a decent meal, which I'm happy that my host family had the chance to try Libyan food.

Speaker 10:  I've tried alligator meat. So my local coordinator, she's like one of the ... Like she's amazing. She's like one of the most wonderful people that I will never forget everything she did for us because she was always there. She offered all the help she can and she was always finding opportunities for us and stuff to do. So one thing she did on spring break is she took us like for a cross country trip all like along the Route 66, just across 66. From Arizona we went all the way to Chicago and then New York City, DC then we went all the way down. We didn't go to Florida, though, but we stopped by New Orleans and Texas and fun places.

Speaker 10:  And I think it was in New Orleans, there's like a place that sells like alligator meat. And I've read it like on menus. I was like okay, that sounds interesting. I should try it. But I didn't like think it was an actual alligator meat. So I soon as I tried it, it tasted like chicken. It felt like chicken. But then like more friends came up to me, they were like, this is like a real alligator meat. I was like oh yeah. Well. So whenever I tell someone back home, I've tried this, they be like "You did what?"

Speaker 11:  We tried having lobster rolls as well. In Newport like had a lot of really good seafood places. They even had like lobster pizza, which was really fancy. We were kind of like we never see a lot of lobster before. But yeah it was pretty, pretty fancy. So we're like let's treat ourself. We don't go to Newport every time. So it's pretty pretty nice. Yeah.

Speaker 11:  The first thing that we were actually like pretty surprised about were the portions of the food is so different to the portions back home. I was kind of like this is good for like two people. We're like these really small Asians coming down to the restaurant and we're like oh, so we probably should have shared. But yeah, it was really great. We were always like subconsciously leaning towards Asian food. So for me it was like ... Because I love Korean food as well. There wasn't a lot of Malaysian and Indonesian food close to where we were staying in Providence. So I was like Korean food, Chinese food, it's all good. Like I guess that's for me, like because I've traveled quite a bit because my dad's also a diplomat. So we've kind of moved around the world quite a bit. And the thing that I've always found comfort in and found myself feeling like I was home was always in foods. So, yeah.

Speaker 11:  We have like this traditional food which is basically ... I don't know how to explain it. But it's from this plant ... I'm messing this up. But it's this product called sago and it's like a ... Oh god, I don't know how to explain it, but it's like white and translucent and it was essentially a rice substitute back in the days that became kind of a staple for people when we didn't have access to food because of the World War II. And it kind of becomes like a traditional food now and you've got different sides to it, which is like pickled mango. It's really, really different stuff for different people. So it's pretty exciting, yeah.

Speaker 11:  I love your Uruguayan food just because it's like a lot of meat and I love steak, but one of the crazier foods from Uruguay that I can't forget and I haven't had it in forever, so I don't even know how it's coming back to my brain right now. But it's called Chivito and it's this sandwich. I mean, no, it's not a sandwich. It's a mega sandwich that it has egg, it has avocado, it has whatever you want to put on it, but it's just this massive undertaking of a sandwich that is delicious. And I will never forget them.

Speaker 11:  So one Mate in itself was already a foreign experience. So drinking Mate, Uruguayan culture, it's all about it. So you feel like a foreigner when you don't know what you're supposed to do, how you're supposed to serve it, when do you pass it, when do you ... You know, everything about it. It's just such a ritualistic part of their culture. And so, that was already a part where I was like okay, I'm out of my element.

Speaker 11:  It's interesting because you do have to know how do you like your Mate it and you need to know how to ... insert the gourd. It's not actually super complicated once you get to know it. I mean, it's just about putting the Yerba in and then pouring the water in such an angle in which it's not necessarily going to get like all mixed. It's not like a tea in the way that you steep tea normally. And you put in the metal straw basically and then you take out a few sorbos or you sip from it.

Speaker 11:  And then it's when it's time for the next person to ... Because it's normally shared or can be shared. And so, you'll pour another little bit of water and then you'll pass it on to that person. But I, for example, one of the things that I learned was that I didn't love the strong Mate, which is the way that it was mostly drank in Hawaii or in most of the places that we shared in Mate with. But I liked it with a little sugar and that was something that it was totally acceptable to drink it with sugar, but I didn't to learn that until much later. And that was another one of the ways in which you could drink a Mate.

Chris:  22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the Director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Chris:  In this episode, our taste buds gave thanks to Richard Alfredo and Christopher from Freedom's Boombox, Quentin and Joshua from Humming House. Anas Ali, Mazza Harun and Maryland Rodriguez. We thank them for their stories and their willingness to try new things. For more about ECA exchanges, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. Complete episode transcripts can be found at our web page at eca.state.gov/2233. And you can now check us out on Instagram at 2233_stories.

Chris:  Special thanks this week to everybody for trying new things, for living to tell the tale. The various interviews were done by Ana Maria Sinitean, Manuel Perreira Colocci and me. And I edited this episode. Featured music during this segment was "I've waited So Long", "Philadelphia Mambo", "Laura" and "China Nights" by Cal Tjader. And "Unidos" and "On A Clear Day, You Can See Forever" by Cal Tjader and Eddie Palmieri. Music at the top of each episode is "Monkeys Spinning Monkeys" by Kevin McCloud. And the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 07 - Life in an Open Fridge with Hodabalou Anate

LISTEN HERE: Episode 7


This week we interview a Fulbright Scholar from Lome, Togo who is conducting research on the deconstruction of ethnicity in African literature at the University of Michigan-Flint. For more information about the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program please visit: https://www.cies.org/program/fulbright-visiting-scholar-program.


Chris Wurst:  You knew that your home in West Africa would be warmer than Michigan, but come on, you've got to be kidding. This winter thing is ridiculous. It's not just the air that's a little chillier here. The longer you're here, the warmer you get. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Hodabalou Anate:  This place is chilly right now. When I want to talk about cold here, I simply tell them this is an open fridge, because cold is a word too weak to translate how cold it really feels here.

Chris Wurst:  This week, Life In An Open Fridge, poetry on demand, and learning to appreciate where you come from. Join us on a journey from Lome, Togo to Flint, Michigan, and a search for warmth. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1:  We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2:  These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 4:  When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves and it's-
Intro Clip 5:  (singing)

Hodabalou Anate:  My name is Hodabalou Anate. I come from Togo, a French speaking country in West Africa. I am an assistant professor of literature, African literature, of course, in that university. I'm here in University of Michigan-Flint on Fulbright. I'm conducting a research on deconstructing ethnicity in African literature.

Hodabalou Anate:  Hodabalou in my ethnic group means a boy, somebody who is born on Monday. If it is a girl, then it is Hodalou.

Chris Wurst:  What if you were born on Tuesday?

Hodabalou Anate:  If you're born on Tuesday it would be Piyabalou for a boy, and Piyalou for a girl.

Hodabalou Anate:  I was asked by one of my supervisors here to write a poem or two within two hours. I said, "Well, is it possible to do this in such short a time? No." But I went on and I wrote altogether five poems and they were deemed to be good poems. I said, "Wow, I shouldn't use the word impossible in my life. Everything is possible." I was very proud of myself.

Hodabalou Anate:  "The other day I met the ghost of my last love at the apple woods. She looked at me, but she didn't see me. I looked at her, I smiled. I laughed. She was motionless and she moved towards the museum where our love belongs." It is only a few of verses of the poem, anyway.

Hodabalou Anate:  My vision about America... Everybody thinks about America as a great nation in terms of military power, economic power, technology. Research is much easier here. Indeed, when I came I did find all those things, but then I found that there is an issue about the climate. It is too cold here, too cold. It is an open fridge. There's an open fridge, because I'm not used to such low temperatures. I come from an African country where it is warm throughout the year.

Hodabalou Anate:  What I also found is that I had to unlearn some of my tradition, some of my culture, some certain things, in order to integrate easily in the community. Because the first time I asked for directions here, somebody kindly told me, "What if you check with Google Search, Google Map will help you." I was, "Oh," because I didn't have any network that day. That was terrible for me because in my country you would just stop, ask anyone and say, "I would like to go to some place, would you please help me?" But here they rely heavily on technology.

Hodabalou Anate:  We meet people here. It's no use trying to greet anyone that you meet on your way just like in Africa, because in Africa you would meet somebody and say, "Hi. Hello," even if you've never seen the person, you've met the person. I met somebody and I said, "Hello," and the person said, "Hello, have we met?" I said, "No, just to say hi." He said, "Hm, hm," and then the person just went away. The person was, "Oh, why is he greeting me when we have never met?" This is part of our culture, greeting everyone. Of course, I don't mean in the supermarket, or market, or church you can greet anyone in Togo. No, that's not what I mean. But if you meet somebody in a corner, you can say hi. This is culture. I'm not frustrated anymore because I can understand. Yeah.

Hodabalou Anate:  I was talking about greeting people, saying, "Hi. Hello. How are you doing?" There is too much indifference here because some people would be just looking at you and say, "Oh, this one, where does he come from?" In my country there's a lot of solidarity. I don't mean there is no solidarity. Of course, I know there is solidarity here, but what I mean is just saying, "Hi, how are you doing? What about your family?" I know sometimes people think it is time-consuming to just stop and greet people. I think is one of the positive things that we have.

Hodabalou Anate:  There's poverty all over the world, that one I'm not naive. I know there's poverty even in New York, in Paris, and China. Everywhere there are townships, so I wouldn't say that I'm surprised. But quite on the contrary I see that this city is clean, much cleaner than my own city. Because I live in Lome, which is a capital city of Togo, but I find this place much better than Lome. About poverty, no problem. There's poverty everywhere. Those who are thought to be poor here are rich people in Togo.

Hodabalou Anate:  One of my neighbors there asked me, "Come on, you come from a French speaking country, you speak English. You speak English how?" I told him, "Oh, of course we study English back home." He said, "Okay, but is it true that you leave in the holes and in caves?" I said, "No one lives in the caves, in holes, anymore because we are in the 21st century." I explained to him that I live in a house which is built with concrete. He asked me whether it is costlier to build a house in Togo. We discussed, and I was, "How come people still believe we live in holes in Africa? This is...

Hodabalou Anate:  But I had to show him a picture of Lome City to convince him that we did not sleep in holes and caves there, because he told me he never went outside Flint.

Hodabalou Anate:  Somebody said, "Hey, hey, where are you from?" I said, "I'm from Togo." He told me, "Togo, ah, I know the country, I once been there. Somebody said there was an accident and 10 people and three white men died." I didn't understand, "10 people and three white men died? What does that mean? Do you mean white men are not human beings? 10 people." It made me laugh because I know people were teasing him, because they also say that somewhere, I don't know whether it is fictional or a real story, that there was an accident and people died and say, "Ah, 10 people and three black men died." I think they were just teasing him. It made me laugh. It made me really laugh. I even wrote a poem talking about those things.

Hodabalou Anate:  "Just give it a thoughts. Close your eyes, if you cannot see. Maybe you have opened your eyes too wide. Close your eyes and give it a thought. Feel what your friends felt when the other day you told him that 10 people and three blacks died in the accident. Remember, humanity is more than what our own blind eyes can see." That is only a few lines of the poem that I wrote.

Hodabalou Anate:  Through my stay here I have learned many things, hard work and cooperation between researchers of different field here. This is a positive thing that we could experience back home. Also, I learned that Americans are very informal. There is nothing like hierarchy. Back home in my university people see you are full prof... Before you talk to a full prof you have to bow. There is no such thing in America. People are very... They are professional, they are friendly, but they are, at the same time, simple and easy going. What I mean is they don't have any complex of superiority, or inferiority whatsoever. What links people is profession and there is a very good atmosphere in the workplace, not just like, "I'm your boss and you have to listen to me." There is no such thing here and these are very positive values that can be implemented in my university.

Hodabalou Anate:  There was a meet-and-greet at the Flint Cultural Center. It included many people from different areas, from Asia, from Africa, from Europe and America. We met and shared experiences. I had to talk about my country there. Everybody was listening to me because I was explaining them how do we greet people in my country, what are the different cultural manifestations that we have in my country. I was very proud to share my country's culture with other people. And then I thought, "Ah, wow, you see." I wished people back home could see me here talking about my country. I was there with my Togolese flag. I was very happy to talk about my country.

Chris Wurst:  22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of the U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst:  This week, Hodabalou Anate shared stories from his Fulbright scholarship at the University of Michigan's Flint campus. For more about the Fulbright, and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do that wherever you find your podcasts, and leave us a rating while you're at it. We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. Special thanks this week to Hodabalou, born on a Monday. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was Heliotrope by Blue Dot Sessions, Pitsy and Climbing The Mountain by Podington Bear, and A Perceptible Shift by Andy G Cohen. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How The Night Came. The end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 06 - Homemade Wine & Hockey Pads with Annie Erling Gofus

LISTEN HERE - Episode 6


For Annie, life in Slovakia as an English teaching assistant was often similar to what she was used to in the United States, but always just a little different, and often in humorous ways. 

For more information on the Fulbright ETA Program visit: https://us.fulbrightonline.org/about/types-of-awards/english-teaching-assistant-awards.


Chris:  You start by wanting to teach your new students better English skills. You end up teaching them all about American culture and even more about their own culture and themselves. It takes time, but the resulting friendships run deep. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Annie:  On its face, it looks and feels like home, like an American city. And anyone you encounter, you can meet anywhere in the U.S. And then you dig in a little bit deeper and you realize that, "Man, this is a lot different than home." And maybe that's what made it, it's like the uncanny valley where puppets, they look so human that they're not. Where it just this looks like home, but it's not like, it's just a little bit different.

Chris:  This week, the dangers of sitting on the sidewalk, homemade wine among hockey pads, and holding up a mirror for students to look at themselves. Join us on a journey from North Dakota to Slovakia to help put the U.S. In focus, it's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1:  We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2:  These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3:  When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, there are people very much like ourselves and...
Intro Clip 4:  [music].

Annie:  My name is Annie Erling Gofus. I am originally from North Dakota, but I've lived on the East coast since 2009, mostly in DC. Currently I am the head of content at TripScout, which is a travel app. I was a Fulbright ETA in Slovakia from 2014 to 2015. I studied history undergrad with no intention to teach. My first job out of college I worked in the Senate for about nine months and then I worked at the Holocaust Museum for about three years. And while at the museum I worked with some Fulbright scholars, and the program sounded amazing, so I had no teaching experience is essentially what I'm getting at. I applied for a Fulbright ETA in Slovakia, got it, with this idea that you are an English teaching assistant, it's what ETA stands for. So I was never worried about lacking teaching skills, I just thought that someone would give me some direction or there would be an actual trained teacher there.

Annie:  So I show up in Bratislava, I'm sent to this school gymnasium Belikova. And I show up and the principal of the school assigns me 114 students where I'm supposed to teach English conversation, which I can do, I'm a native English speaker, American studies, which I felt pretty confident about because I studied American history, British studies, and geography. And I mean I probably could have faked my way through geography, but British studies, I had no idea where to start. They gave me no lesson plan, no textbooks. It was a Monday in classes were starting on a Wednesday, and I had to have lesson plans for these 114 students who ranged in age from 14 to 20 and I was super overwhelmed.

Annie:  So the first day of class I prepare this American history lesson and I thought we'd start at the basics. I had a giant map of America and all these sticky notes with different landmarks, and this was my class of students who were 19 or 20 years old. And this one kid, Philip, who I will never forget, he was so annoyed. He was grumbling under his breath and saying things to me in Slovak, I had no idea what he was saying, but all the other students looked mortified. So I'm, "Uh, this is really bad." And it was really hard standing in front of this classroom of kids to start with, and then all of a sudden realizing that I had given them this task that was beneath them, that they were like, "Why are we doing this?"

Annie:  So class ended, everybody left and I cried at my desk. I was like, "What am I doing here?" So that night I went home and I'm like, "You know what? I'm going to do what I want with this." So every single one of my classes turned into American studies, and it was essentially just conversations for the entire time I was there. We debated everything from country music and jazz to gun control in America. I've never seen kids so excited about the Bill of Rights, it was... it worked out.

Annie:  So it was really easy to pick out the topics that we were going to talk about to begin with, just the really big ones. Right before I came over the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri had happened, so my students had heard about it and were really curious to talk about civil rights in America. It's always amazing how hungry they were to learn more, but also give me an opportunity to learn more about my country, because we talked about topics that I had to research before I presented to the class about it. So there were so many times that we would have these amazing conversations, "Man, I'm so lucky to have been placed at that school." There were, I think 11 other ETAs in Slovakia at the same time as me, everyone else was an English teaching assistant, so they actually got the job that they thought they were going to get. I got lucky that I was at a school where all of my students were fluent, I mean we could have debates and talk about things. So a much different experience that I thought it was going to have.

Annie:  Everything having to do with race, that was something that I learned a lot about in school, but it wasn't anything that I had really thought that deeply about in my professional life. And then I got to Slovakia and that is... not only the students want to talk about it a lot, how it is in America, but also just seeing how in Slovakia, how people approach it. It's just interesting that these kids would look at America one way, they're very critical of race relations in the U.S., and civil rights, and very worked up about Ferguson, Missouri. But they are very suspicious of outsiders, very suspicious of all outsiders.

Annie:  There was a student in one of my classes whose mother was Hungarian, so she looks like everyone else and she has a Slovak last name, but everyone knew she was Hungarian. Man, no one ever let her forget that she's half Hungarian. And I knew that about her, and to me, it seemed like such a small thing. But she was just a little bit more of an outsider because she wasn't fully Slovak. So yeah, I think that I learned a lot about race while living, and being more aware of it, while living in Slovakia.

Annie:  It's just interesting in... here in the... my experience I should say, we learned about the civil rights movement, we learned about racism. And I guess maybe that's something that needs to be taught, but these Slovak students at home they're hearing about how bad the Roma is, at school they're hearing about how bad the Roma is. There is no one who are telling them, "Hey Roma are just people, they need different opportunities for this to change", no one is telling them that. And when we would talk about... we'd be spent in my classroom a lot of time talking about Native Americans, and these kids were just horrified to hear about reservations and what had happened to native people in the U.S. And then at the end of that unit we started talking about Roma and Slovakia, and at first they were, "Wait a second, is that what we're doing?" And then they would always say, "No, no, it's not that. We don't like them because they do this and they do that, not because of who they are, so it's different."

Annie:  In Slovakia, very western, my students who love American culture are... they were raised by their parents who grew up under communism. And I think a lot of that has really trickled in to the culture and personalities in small ways. People in Slovakia are kind, but it's really hard to make friends with people. Once you do make friends you're in and they're the best kind of friends to have, but I like to make conversations with people at cafes and you don't do that. And whenever I walk into the classroom and greet my students and would say, "Hey, how's everyone's day going? What did you do this weekend? You guys do anything fun?" And the answer was always, "Why do you want to know?" They were so suspicious about why I wanted to know more about their personal lives. And once I got to know a handful of my students better, then we could have a relationship, but it was not natural for them to give up information freely, I don't know, maybe that's an American thing. Where we're... I don't mind small talk, I want to, "Hey, how was your weekend? You do anything fun?" It's not a Slovak thing.


Annie:  Slovakia also has a culture of gifting, there's air quotes around gifting, where it's never, "I'll give you 20 Euro if you give me an A", But it's kind of a little nudges towards that. So I had a student who's very, very quiet, and part of my grading was participating. That is the reason I was there, a cultural exchange, but also practicing English. And he knew this, this was in the syllabus, that class participation will be part of the grading. So at the end of the first semester I submitted my grades for all my classes and he, I think overall he got a B, maybe a C, but in class participation he got the Slovak equivalent to an F, which I think was a zero. So he had brought me candy, some chocolate, to my office and that night he must've seen his grade, and he emailed me and said, "My grades were wrong. Check again. How did you like that chocolate? Winky face", little winky emoji.

Annie:  The first week that I was in Bratislava, I went to the street fair with my roommate, she was also a Fulbright ETA, another American girl, and we bought food, I think it was sausages. And there was no place to sit, so we just sat on the curb. It was right on... the street fairs was going on and we sat on the curb, it wasn't dirty, and so many people staring at us. Two separate couples stopped and took photos of us sitting on the curb, people were baffled. And that night we went out with some local Slovak friends and I was telling one of them about, "These people were taking pictures of us today at this street fair." And he's, "Well what were you doing?" "We were sitting on the ground eating." He's, "You were sitting on the ground, don't you know that makes you infertile?" I'm, "What?" He's, "Yeah, women aren't supposed to sit on the ground because it's bad for your fertility." But then I was wondering, if people really believe that and thought that enough to take a photo, why didn't anyone warn us? Why didn't anyone come and tap us on the shoulder and say, "Aren't you worried".

Annie:  When we got to Slovakia you have to get a visa, and Fulbright hired some kind of agency that does these visa, helps you with the visa application process because it's nightmarish and I don't know how people do it without help. There was one day where you need to go to the foreign police, you need to go into the office, and so we went to the foreign police station and it's an entire day ordeal. The agency had hired somebody to sleep there, to sleep in line for us the night before. So we showed up at 7:00, we paid this guy, we got our spot in line and we are there until probably like 4:00 in the afternoon. You take a ticket and the woman who was with us who's Slovak was, "Okay, I think it's good. We have two hours." She's like, "Let's go drink."

Annie:  So we went on the block to this store that sold used hockey equipment. I don't know if... she must've known this guy, but this guy had behind the counter homemade wine, where it is cloudy and it's in the process of making wine but it hasn't quite gotten there but it has lots of carbonation and gas in it. And you can't buy this in the store, people make it in their basements I'm assuming, and it's always stored in old milk jugs or old two liters, it looks super sketchy. This was my first time that I had, had it and this woman was, "All right, let's have a seat and have some drinks." So we're with this woman who I had just met, who's trying to give me this visa to stay in the country, and is feeding me this homemade young wine at this used hockey store in Bratislava.

Annie:  We did end up getting our visas though. When I first got there I was really homesick, it was really hard to adjust. And at about Thanksgiving I feel like I crossed into feeling like I was part of the community. And Christmas in Europe is magical, and it's no different in Bratislava. It is Christmas markets and people are super festive, and the teachers at my school throw this annual Christmas party and they make this massive vat of this Slovak Christmas soup called Kapustnica. And everyone stays after school and we eat this soup and they do a gift exchange and they drink wine and everyone was speaking Slovak, I had no idea of what was going on and I felt, but I felt so cozy. It was, that was really magical, and I think that was kind of the turning point in feeling like, "Okay, I've survived. I've gotten over my culture shock. I'm here. I can do this."

Chris:  22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the Director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for title 22 chapter 33 of the U.S. code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs. In this episode, Annie Erling Gofus shared her memories from her time as a Fulbright ETA in Bratislava, Slovakia. For more about the Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, you can do that wherever you find your podcasts, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov, that's eca C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov

Chris:  Special thanks this week to Annie for her stories. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was River Went Dry by Josh Woodward, Freedom by the Lenny Tristano Trio, and Walking Shoes and Spunk Lit both by Blue Dot Sessions. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How the Night Came, and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 05 - I Was the Foreigner with Gretchen Sanders & Cash on Delivery with Bob Kochersberger

LISTEN HERE - Episode 05


This week's episode features two stories. The first, follows Gretchen Sanders as she travels from Georgia all the way to India to learn Hindi through the NSLI-Y program. She shares how her new life in a completely foreign culture helped her better understand herself as an American. The second story is a slice of surreality and follows Bob Kochersberger teaching in Slovenia through the Fulbright program. He shares what happens when you get what you ask for, literally.


Chris Wurst: You travel far from home to a very foreign country, let's say India, with a small cohort of Americans from all over the United States. You expect the Indians you meet will teach you new and different things and they do. But what you didn't prepare for was just how much you would learn from your American colleagues. You traveled 8,000 miles, only to become a more active U.S. Citizen. And also a short story about money, lots and lots of money. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Gretchen Sander: So, I had a friend named Shahira and they were riding somewhere on the highway, and they saw elephants on the side of the road and that wasn't an uncommon sight. And Shahira was like, "Oh man, I really want to ride an elephant." And her host dad's like, "okay." and pulls over the car and goes and talks to the guy. This is all on the side of the highway as cars zoom past, and pays him some rupees and comes back to the car and says, "Let's go." And Shahira's like, "What?" And he's like, "Get on the elephant."

Chris Wurst: This week, coming to terms with xenophobia, learning to become a better citizen 8,000 miles from home, and cash on delivery. Join us on two journeys, one from Savannah, Georgia to New Delhi, India, the other from North Carolina to then Yugoslavia, to learn that while citizenship is priceless, huge bags of cash aren't bad either. It's 22.33

Intro Clip: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, very much like ourselves, and it is...
Intro Clip 4: (Singing) That's what we call cultural exchange.

Gretchen Sander: When I view India, I see the Taj Mahal, my friend Shahira in the program riding on an elephant along the highway in India, which was a sight to behold. I see monsoon season and flooded streets, and us enjoying and hating the rain. I see my excitement when I found a Starbucks in New Delhi and being able to get my favorite drink at home. I see burning my tongue off with spicy food repeatedly. It was very loud and very colorful.

Gretchen Sander: Hi all. My name is Gretchen Sanders and I'm from Savannah, Georgia in the United States. I haven't declared a major yet, but I'm very interested in healthcare. I participated in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, also called NSLI, in 2013. So I went to New Delhi, India with the State Department to study Hindi, a super high needs critical language and to gain more cultural understanding.

Gretchen Sander: So, before going to India, I'd never been out of the deep south. I have vague memories of a field trip to Washington D.C. in elementary school, but that's about it. So I'd never really been out of Georgia. And I met someone at a summer camp who said, "Hey, I went to this program in Turkey and you should apply." And before, I'd never really considered study abroad because it wasn't financially possible for my family. But to hear that there's a full merit based scholarship from the U.S. Department of State, arguably one of the safest organizations in the world to study abroad with, I was very excited. So, I applied, not really knowing what I was getting into, and suddenly got accepted and traveled to India. And looking back, I probably could have found an easier way to leave the deep south, but it was a good headfirst experience.

Gretchen Sander: So besides the obvious language speaking skills that I gained, two things really stuck out to me on my program. One is that I love my home in Georgia, it's beautiful, it's warm, I love the food, but there is a rampant xenophobia, that plagues the south, and that can be really difficult. And before I went to India I was definitely empathetic, but I don't think I was as understanding. So suddenly going to a new country where I was the foreigner, where I didn't speak the language, follow the religion. That really gave me an insight into how difficult it must have been for non-Americans living over here. And it gave me understanding and even courage that when I would hear xenophobic comments from people in the south, I could say, "Hey, I lived with a host family in India and they were gracious and wonderful and they let me into their home and we should do the same here.

Gretchen Sander: And I feel like a lot of people assume that the deep south is just bigoted, and I don't think that's the case. I think most of it down here is just xenophobia, the basic fear of being different. And I had a lot of people in my life be like, "Why do you want to go to India, there's all these other English speaking countries you can go to like England." And I think it really scared them. So me being able to come back and say, "Oh, I had a wonderful time. It was great." I feel like that's given me the courage to stand up to that.

Gretchen Sander: And the other thing was I met wonderful kids from across the U.S. There. My program had 19 students from across the U.S. And we were all studying at Delhi together. While we had individual host families, we all went to Indian high school together and we were all in our classes, taught in English to learn Hindi. So we spent a fair amount of time together and this was my first time really being exposed to people from across the US that again, weren't from Georgia. And Georgia tends to have a uniform way of thinking, whether it be religion, politics, voting, or just pretty stereotypically uniform in their way of thinking. So being exposed to people from across the U.S. That that weren't raised in the religious upbringing that I was, was really inspiring, and it also gave me courage in a way that I could speak out against things. So when every adult in my life, ever, because I was still a child at this point, I was 17 I was in high school, thought a certain way, it can be terrifying to disagree with them.

Gretchen Sander: And to meet kids from across the U.S. Who were active, who emailed their congressmen when they had an issue, who weren't scared to say what they thought, it gave me the courage to do the same thing. And since coming back, not only have I contacted my representative when they've passed legislation that I don't agree with, I've also become an avid voter, and I truly don't know if I would be an avid voter without that experience. So meeting other kids definitely taught me that it's okay to disagree with people in your life and just how to be engaged physically. So it's given me a beautiful understanding and without NSLI it's probable that I still would have never left Georgia. I would have never left the deep south, and now I want to do more. I want to go back to India, I want to go back to other places.

Gretchen Sander: And I think that State Department cultural programs have a huge impact on the world. I was reading something the other day about how when 9-11 happened, there were only a handful of agents in the entire FBI that spoke Arabic, and how we couldn't understand threats to global security, and how to promote world unity without speaking other languages. And you know, a program called called YES was created in response purely to 9-11 and now there's so many State Department programs. Gretchen Sander:  And I think that's really the key to world peace and safety, and it's understanding other people.

Bob Kochersberger: My name is Bob Kochersburger, I have taught journalism at North Carolina State University since 1986 which came after I spent a number of years as a professional reporter and editor. My first Fulbright experience was in 1991 in Yugoslavia, what was then Yugoslavia, followed by other Fulbrights in Egypt, Thailand, Slovenia and Slovakia. I've been very fortunate in the Fulbright program

Bob Kochersberger: I've been teaching in Ljubljana for three or four weeks. Things were settling down, I was getting to know my students. I knew where I was and what was going on. The only problem was that we were running out of money. I had brought return tickets and a certain amount of American cash with me, but was waiting for the transfer of money from the Fulbright commission in Belgrade to our bank account in Ljubljana. I went to a Lubljanska banka shortly after we arrived to open an account. To do that, I had to go to the back of the bank and find the the desk labeled "Desk for Strangers," which in which I thought was kind of kind of funny, but I got our account opened and I transmitted the account number to the Fulbright Commission in Belgrade so that they could transfer the cash. Well, I went back to the bank about every other day, and continuing to check and found that no money had arrived, we did not have the deposit that I was hoping for.

Bob Kochersberger: Finally, I really was literally running out of cash. Now, there would have been some other things to do, but I was eager to make sure that I was getting the money I was owed by the Fulbright Commission. So I called Belgrade and spoke to the contact there, a guy named Boyan and I said, "Boyan, if we don't have our money in the next day or two, I'm going to have to go back to the United States because I have no more resource here. And he said, "Oh no, no Robert, don't do that. Don't panic. We will take care of it." I said, "Well, that's great. I hope I'll have the money soon."

Bob Kochersberger: The next day I was back at the faculty teaching. The classroom door was closed and I heard a banging on the door. This is pretty unusual. So I paused, whatever I was doing with the class, went over to the door and opened it up, and there standing was a messenger from the Yugoslavian postal service. I thought, "Well, this is interesting." And he said, "Are you your professor Kochersberger?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "May I see your passport?" I showed him, and he walked into the front of the room and from his satchel pulled out huge wads of Yugoslavian dinars, 70,000 altogether, and counted it out on the table in front of my goggle eyed students.

Bob Kochersberger: They had never seen that kind of money and of course I was not prepared to carry the thick wads of cash with me, so I was stuffing them into my pockets and the messenger laughed, I turned back to the students and resumed the class.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22 Chapter 33 of the US Code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs. In this episode, Gretchen Sanders told us about her experiences as a national security language initiative for youth or NCLSIY fellow, and Bob Kochersberger reminisced about an indelible moment as a Fulbright scholar in what was then Yugoslavia.

Chris Wurst: For more about ECA exchange programs, including both of those, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Special thanks this week to Gretchen and Bob for sharing their stories. I interviewed both and edited this episode. Featured music during Gretchen's segment was, Thanks for Coming, by Josh Woodward. Bob's episode featured some vintage Serbian folk music, what I imagined to be the perfect soundtrack for the comical episode he described. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by "How the Night Came," and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 02, Episode 04 - Finding Help Far From Home with Shahbaz Ahmad

LISTEN HERE - Episode 04


Shahbaz Ahmed, a PhD scholar in medical physics and radiation oncology, came to the United States from Pakistan to study at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Listen as he shares the story of his time in the United States and how many false stereotypes he held about Americans were shattered as he came to better understand his new home. For more information about the Fulbright program visit: https://eca.state.gov/fulbright/fulbright-programs.


Intro Clip: (Music)

Chris Wurst: All your life was spent moving further and further from home, from a village, to a bigger village, to a city, and finally abroad, in your quest for a better education. But, now, living half a world away in Michigan, you find that the sacrifices and distances are taking their toll, that for the first time you are truly struggling. So you do something that is at once the hardest and simplest thing to do, you ask for help. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Shahbaz Ahmed: I have noticed here in the US, people manage their time quite efficiently. Everyone would just go on to Google Calendar or any other type of calendar and add up all the slots on that calendar to help manage their schedule. Back in Pakistan, we don't do like that. We just go with the routine, whatever is going on we would just be with them. If I'm a teacher, back in Pakistan, if I'm a teacher, I would simply plan for my classes only. I would not plan for having a meeting with students, I would not plan for having a time with my family, those basic things. So we just take them as granted. But, here in the US, people would set up time for meeting their parents. Back in Pakistan, we think it is odd that we should have some certain time slot for our parents, because parents, they think that they should always have time for us. So definitely, we have all this time for them. But, to help our schedule, we should have some slots specifically arranged for our parents, for our family, for brother, for sister, for friends, for a specific friend, for students. So I think this is something that I would take away with me.

Chris Wurst: This week, moving further and further from home, a Muslim majority in Michigan, and finding strength by asking for help. Join us on our journey from Islamabad, Pakistan to Detroit, Michigan, and helping yourself to help others. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 2: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 3: These exchanges shape to who I am.
Intro Clip 4: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people very much like ourselves-
Intro Clip 5: (Music)

Shahbaz Ahmed: Hello, this is Shahbaz Ahmed, I'm from Pakistan and I'm a Fulbright PhD scholar at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. I'm doing my PhD in medical physics and specializing in radiation oncology.

Shahbaz Ahmed: My story starts right in my school. I didn't have a very good high school in my village, so I started cycling, like using a bicycle to travel almost 10 kilometers from my home to go to a small town, another small town in which we had a good high school. Then, for my upper high school, I ended up going another 100 kilometers. In my bachelor's, I was again in the similar travel thing, I was away from home. Then, in my master's, I went all the way from one part of Pakistan to the other, from Islamabad to Karachi, 1000 kilometers. Then, I realized, I should go to the other part of the world, because I'm a travel and adventure guy. I wanted to explore how the people in that world would be in terms of their culture, in terms of their food, in terms of how they excel. I wanted to learn a lot about different questions that I had in my mind, and I thought traveling to the other side of the globe, it would always be helpful for me. So this led me to have a decision that I would go to the U.S. for my PhD.

Shahbaz Ahmed: During the process of Fulbright, and even before the Fulbright process, I was always trying to convince my family that I should go out of Pakistan for my PhD. My wife, she didn't want it. The reason was because she wanted to stay closer to her parents. So she was writing her restriction, and I was also right. Sometimes I had bad fights with my family, "No, I'm going, this is my life. You can't dictate me." Things like that. Sometimes I was polite, and the polite thing worked. So with a heavy heart, they allowed me to opt U.S., but then they said, "We still have restrictions that U.S. people might be bad for you."

Shahbaz Ahmed: The moment when there was a political change in the U.S. and there was speculations that U.S. would not grant visa to most of the Muslim countries, the list of six countries it did not come out, but we were fearful that even if we have won the Fulbright Scholarship we still might not get the visa. That was a crazy moment. Most of my friends who got the Fulbright, we all were in contact through Facebook and WhatsApp groups, we were having discussions that what would happen if we don't get the visa, we already had resigned from the jobs. Having another job, it is very difficult in Pakistan. Those were the crazy obstacles that came on my way when I opted the Fulbright. But, with the help of friends, with the help of some teachers, I was able to overcome all those obstacles.

Shahbaz Ahmed: Whenever I go back to Pakistan, or even if I talk to someone on call, they ask me, "How is it in U.S.? We thought that U.S. was not good for Muslims. You have a beard, you dress up like Pakistanis, so would they feel bad if you have a beard or would they feel bad if you have a Pakistani clothing?" I was shocked that people have very, very odd thoughts about U.S. I clarified them that this is not how it works here in the U.S., they allow you in terms of your religion, in terms of your culture, to roam around very freely. I was able to convince my family that U.S. is not bad, then at the next level I was able to convince my relatives, and a third stage now, I'm planning to have some videos shot, videos about U.S. and also this podcast. It would help explain to the people that U.S. is not like you think. Also, the reason tensions among the U.S. President and Pakistani Prime Minister, they had a fight on Twitter. So these are the things that happen with every country, everyone has disagreements and agreements. But, it has nothing to do with an individual like me. So as long as we are doing good, as long as we are fulfilling our requirements for the visa, we are good.

Shahbaz Ahmed: Michigan was never priority, because I didn't know much about U.S. at that time. So this was the time when Fulbright people came, this is a scholarship in which you can go and, not only you can study, but also you can share your culture. I thought it was cool, I should go and the American people they would learn more about us, and we would learn more about them. So when I got the interview call, I did my best on the interview, I got the scholarship. The moment I got the scholarship, that was a changing moment in my life that, "Okay, this is the thing. I have it, I should go."

Shahbaz Ahmed: There was some family issues. I'm a married guy, I have a baby, my family was not very prepared to come to U.S., they had their reservations that, "Okay, U.S. is too far, so what if something happens to my family then I won't be there with them. Like if some family member dies we cannot travel because they have to bury a family member very soon as per our religion." So that was a quite tough situation because my family was not willing to send me even, they were having a heavy heart to send me here. But, I was able to convince ultimately. I had to quit my job to come to U.S., that was also a tough decision to quit that job, but I made it for the sake of being in the U.S. and Fulbright.

Shahbaz Ahmed: When I was applying to Fulbright program and I was ... a part of our application, they required us to name three universities. At that time, you know Pakistan had a very bad impression of Americans, unfortunately, so we think that most of the states are not Muslim friendly, it was a stereotype. But, at that time, I searched that what is the Muslim population and how are the Muslims, are they happy over there? I came to know that there is a small town called Hamtramck in Michigan and it is the Muslim majority town. I was surprised that how come a town in U.S. have Muslim majority, and they have specific laws allowing Muslims to be more free in terms of their religion. Also, I was able to know that anywhere in U.S. you have full religious freedom.

Shahbaz Ahmed: So my stereotyping thing, it got killed during the process of Fulbright. I was not that guy who was believing in those stereotypes, I always knew that Americans are good, but you always have some fear. So Michigan was my preference in terms of community, then when I came to know that Wayne State has accepted me for their medical physics program. Then, I explored a little bit more and I found out that there is another town, Dearborn, in which they have a lot of Middle East people, and I can have Halal food as per my religion, I can have everything for my day-to-day religious activities, as well as my living. So I was happy that this is the best university for me.

Shahbaz Ahmed: Back in Pakistan, whenever I was roaming around in different cities of Pakistan, I always had experiences of being inspected at different entrances of the city and even entrances of different buildings. I had a mindset at that time that whenever I would go to U.S., everyone would question me, everyone would question me, "Who you are and where you came from?" I had beard, I had a cultural grasp, so I thought that whenever I would go from one state to other state, or even from one city to other city people would question me, and that would be a difficult situation for me. But, the moment I landed here in the U.S., I was amazed that people won't bother you unless you bother them. I never have been encountered by someone while you are here.

Shahbaz Ahmed: I recently went to a camping adventure thing with some of my American friends and also some of Asian friends, it was sort of a multi-ethnic group. Part of that adventure, I realized that everyone is a human and everyone has similarities. If we work only on our differences, if we just think of our differences they might be a lot, but if we want to think about our similarities, there are a lot of similarities. I ended up having a good connection with America and having a good grasp on how to deal with American people, how to immerse in that culture. I'm still learning, but I feel that it is always a very easy, if you are entrusted to bridge with people from different cultures. So it has been so good so far.

Shahbaz Ahmed: I would like to just share a little moment when I was in my first month in the U.S. When you're moving in a gallery, people who are moving forward, they would be on their right side, and they would be pretty organized. You would find two lines, one coming and one going. Back in Pakistan, people move haphazardly. I found this thing very interesting. I thought I should share this with everyone in Pakistan. I want to tell this to everyone, that when you are in a gallery and you want to avoid the collisions between people, if you are around a blind corner you want to avoid the collision, the best way is to use the American way. It is not all about you are going to be an American, you would still be Pakistani, but you would just learn a new thing that helps you.

Shahbaz Ahmed: In my first semester here in the U.S., I was pretty much struggling with almost everything, so when I got my visa, I also applied for the visa of my family, and they joined me here in the U.S. right away with me. I was struggling very much with my academics. Then, my family, they could not get adjusted here. My wife, she was feeling very lonely, she's a housewife. So the moment when in the morning I was going for class, she would be left alone in the apartment and in all the apartment buildings she would be probably the only woman in that apartment because everyone would be on job. So she was feeling very depressed. She said that, "Okay, I feel that at this moment I should go back. Later, if I found that I would be able to cope with this culture, then I can come again." At that moment, I could have gone to a psychologist or a counselor to help my wife bridging into this culture, but I was struggling with my own academics. I just decided that, "Okay, you want to go back. You would have a better environment over there, you won't have me but you will have other people over there." So when she left me it was another struggle without family.

Shahbaz Ahmed: I was able to pass all of the exams, but I noticed that I was skipping most of the deadlines of the assignments. The faculty was kind enough to allow me to relax in terms of those deadlines, but I was feeling bad that I should not skip a deadline. At that moment, I decided that I should consult a counselor how to succeed academically as well as professionally. I was lucky enough to get psychological services of Wayne State University. They were kind enough to listen to my story, listen to my problems, and figure out where is the problem. The moment when I entered the CAPS building, before that moment there were a bunch of things going always in my head, "Why am I here in the U.S.? Why am I away from my family?" I quit a job, a decent job, and now I am in a student status. I was having a good professional life, a good salary, so now I'm struggling with my finances. "Why is this thing happening to me? My kid is away from me."

Shahbaz Ahmed: I consulted the counselor on these aspects, and she said, "Okay, look, make a list of what are your problems? Then, prioritize which problem you want to address first." So my counselor, she helped me to get ideas out of my brain, not out of her brain just to help me to solve my problems. At the end of my, I think, 10 sessions with them, I realized that I am now a changed individual. This was an amazing thing. Back in Pakistan, whenever I had a problem, I got support from family, but sometimes family might not be the best venue to consult about some things. Here in the U.S., every university has a counseling department or psychology department for students. I personally think that if you have an issue, discuss with someone, it is beneficial for you only, not about ... don't think about what other people what they would think, they would think you are mad? No. Even if they think that you are mad, keep them thinking and just go away with your life.

Shahbaz Ahmed: After my experience with counseling and psychological services of Wayne State, I realized that my academics are now good. My recent experience at Wisconsin Medicine, a Fulbright Seminar where I was mentored for the first year Fulbright Grantees. Part of that experience, I came to know that I am the happiest PhD student, that was amazing for me, because everyone else they were always complaining about their program, about their city, about their finances, about their supervisor. But, I was not complaining, and the reason because I knew that problems are always there, you just have to either solve them, or wait and see how it goes. I found that counseling and psychological services helped me.

Shahbaz Ahmed: I plan to start this thing first for my family, so I would figure out that the people who are always freaking out in the family, I would just discuss with them. Either I would discuss with them or I would help them indirectly, because it is still bad in Pakistan if you recommend someone to go to a psychologist. They might even slap you, "Why are you recommending us to go to a psychologist? Do you think that we are mad?" So what I have done until now is that I have given full privileges to all the family members and friends that, if you are feeling sad, call me, anytime, even if I'm sleeping, call me. The moment when I would go back to Pakistan, I would implement this thing, this strategy to help other people by providing them privileges in every capacity. If I'm a teacher, I would do this to my students. If I'm a supervisor, I would do this to my subordinates or my colleagues over there. If I'm a family member, I would help my family. In a friend's cohort I would help my friends to better solve their problems. I might not directly counsel them or to direct them to psychological services, but I would definitely help them in their mental health problems. I would share with them my story.

Shahbaz Ahmed: Recently, I had an experience of a Pakistani student here at Wayne State. He came here and he was always complaining. I was worried about him that this guy, he ended up coming in the U.S., and now he's freaking out. So I started it by telling him my story. Then, he said that, "Okay, I think I also should go to counseling and psychological services." So I did not mention him directly that you should go, but he got the point. So this is how I want to do it in Pakistan as well.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the Director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Shahbaz discussed his experiences as a Fulbright Scholar in Detroit. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out ECA.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, you can do so wherever you find your podcasts. You know we would love to hear from you, and so you can write to us. You can write to us at ECACollaboratory@state.gov, that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. You can also find photos of each week's interviewee and a complete episode transcript at our webpage, that's at ECA.state.gov/22.33. Special thanks to Shahbaz for sharing his stories and for sharing some delicious sweets when we sat down for the interview at Wayne State University Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Missy Dreamer, A Little Powder, Gullwing Sailor, Petaluma, and Stuffed Monsters, all by Blue Dot Sessions. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian, by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 03 - FLTA Party in the USA (22.33 Live!)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 03

Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant


This week, ECA is releasing a special episode recorded live during the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) conference held in Washington D.C. This was the first live podcasting event that ECA has organized and takes the 22.33 podcast to a whole new level.

You can learn more about the Fulbright FLTA program here: https://foreign.fulbrightonline.org/about/fulbright-flta.


Chris: Hello. It is so great to see everyone and kick off this live 22.33 event. This is only the second time we've done this, and by far the largest audience that we've done this in front of, but we are confident that with the guests like the ones we have today, we cannot go wrong. From Downtown Washington, D.C., you're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories. I'm Christopher Wurst, the director of the Collaboratory, the senior advisor of innovation at the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA.

Ana-Maria: I'm Ana-Maria Sinitean, program designer in the Collaboratory, and frequent contributor to 22.33. This podcast name comes from Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, which is the legal statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs. On TV's unique live episode, we'll hear from three inspiring teachers that participated in the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program. Sponsored by ECA, the Fulbright FLTA program is designed to develop Americans knowledge of foreign cultures and languages by supporting teaching assistantship in over 30 languages at hundreds of U.S. institutions of higher education.

Ana-Maria: The program offers educators from over 50 countries the opportunity to develop their professional skills and to gain firsthand knowledge of the U.S., its culture and its people. Today's guests represent teachers from India, the Philippines and Jordan.

Chris: A quick word about 22.33. We in ECA believe that international exchange programs are transformative in peoples lives, not only for the participants but for those who they meet on their journey. We also believe in the power of human stories. Our goal is to reflect the profound impact of ECA exchanges, one powerful story at a time. Today, we are truly privileged to hear three such stories. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves, and ...
Intro Clip 3: (Singing)

Ana-Maria: Hello, and welcome. Can you begin by telling us your name, where you're from and where you were place during your Fulbright year?

Madri: My name is Madri. I'm from India, and I was placed at NYU during my cultural exchange, New York University. Ana-Maria:  What were your expectations before you arrived? What did you expect?

Madri: Well it's New York City, you expect what you expect when it's New York City. I expected everything. I expected new friends, new passions, a new understanding of the world, new understanding of myself, new understanding of the language that I was going to teach. I expected to learn more about my culture. I expected to learn more about the U.S. culture, and yeah, all of those dreams did come true.

Ana-Maria: You just answered my next question, which was were your expectations met?

Madri: Yes, they were actually. As far as my teaching is concerned, as far as my subject and the understanding of my subject was concerned. In fact, my exchange met more than my expectations because when I came, I discovered that I had to unlearn a number of things in order to learn what the experience was teaching me. There ere certain things that we are used to doing as teachers, especially as Indian teachers, we are not used to being told that you are wrong in this instance or you're wrong in that instance.

Madri: Personally also, I'm not used to being told that I'm wrong, so yes, the university and the way my course was designed and the way I interacted with my students, the way I interacted with my primary advisor and the secondary advisors, both of them in fact, they made me see the fault in a number of ways in which I was working and I was able to change that for the better, so much so that when I went back home, I could see where I was going wrong, and I made special efforts to change those things, not just in the curriculum, but in the pedagogy that I was following.

Ana-Maria: Did you ever feel particularly foreign, especially at the beginning of the program?

Madri: No, specifically because it's New York City. There's so many people who look like me, who do not look like me, so it's like it's a kaleidoscope of people. It's a group of people so different from each other that together we make more sense than separate. All these foreign elements together, they make more sense than just one element. New York City actually really helped me understand that even though I might look different, I might sound different, I'm not really that much different from anybody else in the world. If I can, if I want to, I can make a space for myself in that big huge crowded city. I still can make a space for myself even though I'm different.

Madri: As far as being foreign is concerned, no I did not because I also lived in an area, I lived in Queens, in Jackson Heights, and everyone, I saw people from everywhere around, and specifically from India. There were a lot of people living in Jackson Heights from India. In fact, there's a very interesting story because the first day, I took the subway and I was walking through the streets of Jackson Heights just getting to know the streets where I'm in. I'm in Roosevelt Avenue, I'm walking, and I suddenly hear this music in the background. I'm walking, and there's music in the background, and it happened completely like a Bollywood film.

Madri: There was winds blowing, and it touched my face, and the music behind me was the music from Veer-Zaara, a movie that is a Shah Rukh Khan movie. Everybody knows Shah Rukh Khan. It was as if Shah Rukh Khan is standing ... the typical image of Shah Rukh Khan is him standing in the middle of a mustard field, and there are yellow flowers everywhere and he has his hands out, and that is what exactly I felt, as if New York City is my shadow and New York City is standing with its hands out because that's what, I'm walking the steps, I'm walking in Roosevelt Avenue, and this is the music behind me. I felt home from day one.

Madri: It never felt as if I stepped outside of India. Somewhere that was good, somewhere that helped me, and somewhere ... maybe, I don't know, I don't see any negative sides to that. Never. I never felt that I was in a foreign land.

Ana-Maria: Did you begin singing and dancing to the soundtrack of your life?

Madri: I wanted to. I wanted to, but it was basically just background music. Yeah, it felt good.

Ana-Maria: You mentioned that there were a lot of things that you had to unlearn, but did you have any assumptions? Did you come to the U.S. with any assumptions that were proved wrong?

Madri: Oh yes. I had this assumption that students in the U.S., they do very little study and a lot of partying because the movies that we see usually give that kind of a vibe and that kind of a picture, that kind of an image. I thought that there would be a lot of partying going and the students won't be much interested in what I'm teaching, and specifically also because it is a language subject, and it's not really ... students won't be really interested in learning Hindi. I was proven very, very wrong because from the day one itself, they were extremely interested in what I was saying, what is being taught and this was an elective, so they had actually chosen to be there.

Madri: Then gradually throughout my exchange program, I realized how hardworking these students were because one of the students was a psychology major, and I think she was a pre-med because that's what psychology majors are. She was already shadowing a psychiatrist and she had 18 hours of our day packed with classes with TAships that she was doing with shadowing this particular doctor and she was coming to my classes, which were three days a week, and then she had tutorials because she was not able to understand some of the things, so she would spend extra time with me.

Madri: It's not just her. I found students like her in every semester. There were law students who came for Hindi classes, and they were people who were doing extra work. They were not getting any credit for that kind of work, but they were still doing it. I was extremely surprised at the amount of hard work that American students have actually ... they actually put in, and how serious they are about everything, about the curriculum, about if something is in the syllabus or not, about their grades and they would come and argue. For us, when we were students, if we get a bad grade, that was the end of the story. There was no way you could argue with the teacher, or you would even tell them that you have made a mistake, you should be giving me more marks.

Madri: Probably that would land us with a letter to our parents that your son or daughter is disrespectful and asking for more marks. I saw that, that was one major assumption which was proven wrong. The second one is time management. I had an assumption that concept of time would be as flexible in America as it is in India. I could tell you a very short story that one of the first days when we joined the university, the department threw a welcome party for us. Me and my Pakistani roommate, she was the Pakistani FLTA for Urdu, both of us were invited. It was not basically for us, but for the new students of the department, the new TAs in the different departments, et cetera, and someone new had joined the administration as well.

Madri: For everyone, it was a welcome party, and it was at 6. We got ready, we got dressed up, and then we took some photos and we reached the venue by 7. By 7, everything was over. Not just the food. People were also gone, so it was almost like we were late to our own party, and my supervisor had stayed back specifically to tell me that this is not done. Day one we had this welcome party, and day one I do that. Yes, I knew on that moment itself that I have to be more conscious about time, and it's not as flexible and not as stretchable as Indian standard time is.

Ana-Maria: Can you tell me about a time when you felt very inspired during your program?

Madri: Oh, during our exchange, I felt inspired in fact from the day from the orientation itself. I feel like I am repeating myself that from day one, from day one, but it is true that that is actually what happened because during our orientation I met a few students, and it was eye opening that some students, situations like that can have happened in lives of people and they have come out of this. For example, I met one of the FLTA's, she was from Mexico, and she had come out of an abusive relationship to be in the program. In fact, her husband had told her that, "If you apply for this, then I'm leaving." She had three kids, and she decided that she's going for this program because it is better for her life, it will be better for her kids, so it was important for her.

Madri: That's why she decided, "No, I'm going." She applied for it." To have come out of such kind of relationships, she inspired me. Then I met Alexandra. Alexandra was from Belgium, and she spoke seven languages. I was astounding by the fact that how can ... and not just seven languages, seven languages of the world. She spoke Russian, she spoke Spanish, she spoke Portuguese, she spoke German and three more ... of course she spoke English. She was speaking to every FLTA she met in their language. I was so surprised, and I was so amazed and impressed. I was like, "Why am I not like her?"

Madri: The inspiration continues. It's just something ... it's a program where you inspire, you find inspiration almost everywhere.

Ana-Maria: What is something that you learned about yourself during your FLTA year?

Madri: That I'm adaptable. I never thought I would be as adaptable as I turned out to be. I have a notion that I am very strict and very single minded. Not single minded, but very adamant about my approach towards life, and I know what I think, and I know what my opinions are about certain things, and I don't want to change them. This program, it made me realize that I have the ability to listen to somebody, to respect somebody else's ... it taught me actually to respect somebody else's opinion because I saw that my opinions were also being respected, despite the fact that they might be different from somebody else's.

Madri: I was able to ... For example, if I would disagree with my primary supervisor about a particular item in the class, about a particular way this particular thing is being taught, I could tell her, and she would respect my opinion and she would see if there was any position or if there was any way we could reach a common ground. That kind of effort to make things possible between people to make communication easier, I never thought that that would be possible for me because for me, it was either my way or the highway, but now it's different. Now I think that's something that I have discovered about myself. I hope it's good.

Ana-Maria: Is there something that you learned about India being outside of India?

Madri: Being outside of India, learning about India? I think, yeah, because when you are outside, you take certain things for granted. You complain a lot about your country, that this is not good, this is not correct, and oh we are so lazy, oh we are so dirty, et cetera, et cetera. Outside you tend to see that there are always silver linings to certain things, and you do miss your country. Not just your people, but you do miss the environment, the culture that you were in, and specifically because we are cultural ambassadors to America, we have to kind of show the best side of our country, and doing that, you realize, oh, this is the best side of my country.

Madri: You understand that there are so many different things about your country that's beautiful. I realize that my people are extremely hospitable. We like having guests and even though I am not much of a social butterfly, but I still liked having people over. I still liked having them introduced to my culture, my food. In fact, I learned cooking in the U.S. I had never been inside a kitchen before that. In the U.S., necessity is the mother of invention. I had to cook because the stipend was not much, so we had to cook our food instead of eating outside every ... No, I'm joking.

Madri: We had to cook our food. We wanted to cook our food, and that's why I had to learn. Yeah, and I could ... Yeah. I hear you guys.

Ana-Maria: I think everyone just congratulated you on learning how to cook your own meals.

Madri: Yes.

Ana-Maria: Can you tell me about a person that really made an impact on you during your exchange and someone that you won't ever forget?

Madri: Oh that's hands down my supervisor. She is Gabriella Nikleava, and she's an exceptionally strong woman. She has a degree in Indology and she studied Indian culture, she's studied in language, and she has excellent language skills. She also knows like nine, ten different languages. She's just amazing. She's like this ball of energy, which his always constantly working. I look at her and I think when I grow up, my level of success would be to be more like her. I would measure my success by thinking how much of Gabriella is in me. How much of Gabriella have I been able to incorporate in my life?

Madri: She would work throughout the day, and I have never seen her ... She was so, not worried, but she was so conscious about the things that she would do in her life as examples that she would set in front of others. For example, she would recycle. She never used coffee cups. She never ate in places that don't recycle. I think her adamance about these things, they made me realize that no, there are certain issues that you do not take lightly. There are certain issues that you have to think about, that you have to take a stand. Her entire worldview and the way she conducted her classes, the way she conducted her life, everything was extremely inspiring to me, and I have learned so much from her.

Madri: I hope to learn so much from her, because we have been in touch for the past five years. In fact, I'm meeting her in two weeks as well. She's coming to India.

Ana-Maria: You've been back for five years now. What have you done since returning to India to keep the momentum of the FLTA program going and to continue to practice what you've learned?

Madri: In the last five years, I have been able to, because of Gabriella and because of my association with her, I have been able to teach online at the University Master's Program in Hindi Pedagogy. I have been able to teach two courses, design two courses and taught one of them for one semester. That was an online thing. I did it from home. Then I have been able to design modules for the STARTALK program. STARTALK is the federal government's program for language teaching initiatives. That I have been able to do.

Madri: I have been able to co-found, not co-found, co-found with my father an organization which specifically helps students, helps children in underprivileged backgrounds to help get the education that they need. Right now we have designed an English language program for students, for kids in that particular underprivileged area, which happens to be my ancestral village. They do not have access to good schools. They do not have access to good English teachers. So I am trying to take it to them. It has been in the process for the past three years. This year we are starting with the English program. For the past three years, we have awarded students who have excelled in their academics and we have helped them find education opportunities outside the village at better institutions.

Ana-Maria: That's great. That's amazing. It sounds like you've made quite an impact at home and in your home community. What do you think is the biggest impact you've had on your U.S. host university?

Madri: Oh, the U.S. host university, I was part of a few ... I don't know. I haven't really thought about it in that way, but I would like to think that I participated in a number of things and probably brought my side, my culture to it. For example, I'm a very big Harry Potter fan. NYU has a Quidditch team, and I made it a point to join the Quidditch team. It's actually very silly. They run around. We ran around with the poles like stuck between our legs, but it was very funny. Yeah. We won a few tournaments. There are people who play Quidditch in other universities as well.

Madri: I also joined their TaeKwonDo team, and I did win two of the tournaments in which I participated. So I have a 2-0, I have an unbeaten record as far as TaeKwonDo is concerned. Thank you. I also won my blue belt in TaeKwonDo at NYU, as I gave my exams, my blue belt exams at NYU and then my black belt exams back, I hope. Yeah, that's the thing. I think that I have contributed to the sports fraternity. Other than that, I also worked with the magazines, a fashion magazine which NYU has and I was also part of the Asian community in NYU and we organized the Bali and we organized fashion shows and Bollywood nights and things like that.

Madri: I would like to think that I have contributed, yes.

Ana-Maria: I know you've been anticipating this question, and we're going to end with this one. What song do you hear that immediately brings you back to your FLTA year and your time in New York?

Madri: The song that brings me back is Taylor Swift's Welcome to New York because it has these beautiful lines in the middle, which go like, "Every real love, it keeps you guessing, like every true love, it's ever changing. Like every great love, it drives you crazy." I think these lines, they encapsulate the essence and passion that New York has and the love that I have for that beautiful, beautiful city.

Ana-Maria: Great. Thank you so much Madri.

Madri: Thank you. Thank you.

Chris: Okay, we're going to start the same way. Can you tell me your name, where you're from and where you were placed on your FLTA?

Anito: Hi Chris, I'm Anito, I am an English teacher in the Philippines and I was assigned at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois.

Chris: You told me that this was the first time that you had been to the United States. I want you to go back to the weeks that were leading up to this exchange and maybe even the airplane ride over to the United States. Tell me what the expectations you had of the United States were.

Anito: Well yeah, it was quite a long flight we had from Manila to Japan, and then of course the long flight from Japan to the USA. I had a lot of expectations actually. One of them really I found very challenging because I'm a high school teacher, and being an FLTA required me to be a teacher for college students. I think I had to make some adjustment and ask people how it works there. The second one is of course it's going to be something that was exciting because I'm going to spend an entire nine months in the USA and something that ... because I thought of really ... of course I have to come back to the Philippines and continue my teaching, so I took that opportunity of being in the USA to really explore and enjoy and have fun, and really find it very exciting.

Chris: What did you think DeKalb, Illinois was going to be like?

Anito: Well it's very different from the Philippines. You would have mountains and then of course you had had the ocean, but there it was all corn and it was all flatland, so that was really a different topography. It's a different experience to be in DeKalb. Interestingly enough, because NIU is a community there, and so it's also like some of our public universities in the Philippines where it's open and there are dorms and there are also housing for faculty, so something like that. There are some similarities to that.

Chris: What were some of the assumptions that you had that were proved wrong?

Anito: I really thought of being alone in the task of being an FLTA and being able to do all of it without help from others because I thought people might not be polite enough to help me. Then I realized that if you just ask or if you are able to email somebody, people are very open and helpful. That was something that I thought that wouldn't happen. Of course, everybody would have that feeling, especially if you don't have your transportation and people would be emailing you.

Anito: This was in 2009, they would be emailing you and then saying, like, "We're going to this place and that place, and would you like to come?" Something about planning, about your day with the help of others is something that I appreciated from there.

Chris: Tell me what it was like to feel, or maybe you didn't, but you came from the Philippines, you landed in DeKalb, Illinois, it was very different than what you were used to. Did you feel foreign?

Anito: Well the concept of space was a bit foreign for me. Of course there were highways that were ... there were no people in the highways. The Philippines, people cross the highways. Then of course, you have of course the buildings and the spaces. It's very different from what we have, and of course there's also that notion of the personal space, the people that you interact with. Of course, in the Philippines we kiss, we hug, we're very sociable with people and we always make sure that everybody's comfortable or okay. Of course, there are different ways in how it is here. I actually learned and appreciated that at the end.

Chris: Can you think of a time when you really confronted your comfort zone and you really kind of crashed through your comfort zone?

Anito: Yeah, I'm not very fond of small talk. I'm more of an introvert I guess. When people approach me, that's the only time I get to talk. That's something that I've also appreciated and learned and something that I also tried to overcome, because here you have to make sure that you're able to also express yourselves and your opinions, and if you don't tell them that, you don't expect them to actually listen to what your head is, and what's on your head. You have to express that. You have to tell people what you feel or tell people what your thoughts are, what your opinions are.

Chris: Was it difficult?

Anito: Yes, it is. Until now, it's still a struggle because it's something that although I am a teacher and I have always been very vocal and approachable to my students in class, but in a very personal level, I keep things to myself. I think that's something that I had to ... it's a struggle that I had to do and really overcome.

Chris: I'm a former teacher and I remember how nervous I used to be every year before the very first day when you get in front of your class, and I imagine it's the same for all teachers, but I can't imagine how difficult it must be to come from a completely different culture, a different place. Tell me about your first day.

Anito: Yes, what I remember was my teacher giving me the numerical keys to our laboratory, and she said, "If something goes wrong with pressing those buttons, the police will come, so make sure you press the right buttons and then you close it and you open. That's how the security is in those laboratories." I've always had that ... I was very anxious in my first time with my students because they would say, "Are you sure you know the numbers to that keypad?" Okay, I think I can do this now.

Anito: Well there was another thing that happened because we had an incident where a student had, I think he collapsed or something. This was my first time to really have paramedics in the classroom, and then they would say, "You have to step out of the classroom," and then all of that. So that was like, wow, this is really happening in your classrooms here.

Chris: That's pretty intense. Can you think of a time in your classroom when you really felt like you were making a connection, that you were getting through to your students?

Anito: Well I think most of us here in FLTAs, we're always prepared for cultural nights, and I think that's just something that I also looked forward to. We did two actually, and the first one was we did a performance. That was like a Christmas lullaby and we presented it to all the southeast Asian participants and the students in the community from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and they really enjoyed that. Although it was just one song with all that instruments, having to train the students to have that smooth seamless performance was something that was a connection with them beyond class hours because we did the practices after class.

Anito: Then on the next semester, we already did the song, so the second semester we did a dance, which was literally a dance on benches. Nobody fell, fortunately nobody fell, and they were all dancing and they were applauded for their dance. That was something that I was really proud of that because they were able to accomplish that. I was also there. I was in the center, so that they would all follow.

Chris: You said the word pride, so I wanted to ask you about that. Can you think of a moment during your exchange when you felt particularly proud of something?

Anito: Well it was actually this conference. I was in my mid year conference, and I was one of the presenters. Of course, the presenters here felt of course butterflies in their stomach, but I really felt very proud to represent no only my country but also our university because we were presenting with what we were doing in our university, what we were teaching. That was something I was really proud of and I wish my parents were able to, my friends were able to see that also because it was also my first time to be in an international conference being part of the FLTA.

Anito: It also helped me be more confident in speaking in front of people and sharing my ideas, and attending and participating in international conferences.

Chris:  When you think back on your time at Northern Illinois, can you think of a specific time when you said to yourself, "I wish my friends or family back home could see me right now"?

Anito: Well aside from the experience from the FLTA, I've always ... Sometimes there are parts where you get to be on your own, so you wish that they were there, and I have felt the love and support of the Filipino community that is in Northern Illinois. We have a lot of Filipinos who are working, who are studying, and I really wish that my family and friends were also there with me because I really enjoyed having dinners. We always had things to take home. Interestingly enough, my fellow FLTAs would always wait for me to come back to the dorm because I always brought food from all of these gatherings, and they enjoyed that food.

Anito: I wish I could have shared that moment also with my family and friends. Interestingly enough, because this is for 2009, and I use social media to post pictures, so my sisters and my family at home were able to see where I was and what I was doing. That was something that was very significant also. Chris:  I want to talk a little bit about the ripple effects of your FLTA. Imagine that you were back in the Philippines and you never participated in this program. What wouldn't exist?

Anito: Yes. I think it's all about the network and the connections that I was able to do. When I was at NIU in 2009, there was a program, which was the Philippine Youth Leadership Program. I think it was still in its seventh year, in its run, and there were young Filipino youth leaders that were flown from Mindanao to NIU and have a leadership training. Back then, I was just a volunteer, so I was able to lead them in their excursions, be in their discussions and being their elder brother because we are Filipinos and they were there. Of course, these are young kids.

Anito: With that, when we came back, I got reunited with them, and these young kids, they were amazing because years after that, I was working with them. I was working with them in creating projects, in coming up with programs from funding from the U.S. Embassy because they're also U.S. grantee alumni, and that sparked an idea for me to really focus of course in helping youth in their leadership because until now, even if I'm older than they are, we work as if we're really professionals, and now they're very successful. Interestingly enough, my professor, after a few years, invited us, me and other FLTAs, if we could be the in country coordinators.

Anito: This time around, we were the ones inviting, screening these young leaders in Mindanao and to give them that opportunity, just like, just like any Fulbright FLTAs to have ... it's actually a shorter course, like it's a six week course, but it has changed them and changed them for the better and made them better leaders for Mindanao and the Philippines, and something that I've considered also as an advocacy.

Chris: It's been a decade since your exchange. Do you feel like you came out of the exchange more optimistic than you were when you looked to the future?

Anito: Yes, definitely. One of my advocacies is really on teacher training, and I've been inspired by a lot of my professors in NIU and until now, I'm working with teachers in making sure that they are able to adapt to new technologies and of course new ways or methodologies in teaching, and being part of the community of FLTAs, I think more and more there's really a need to have more and more FLTAs in order to have that better understanding of our own culture in the Philippines, at the same time being able to share that experience to students in the United States.

Chris: Okay, Anito, this question wasn't, we didn't talk about this before. This is something we do in the studio that we have sometimes. We'll ask somebody that we're interviewing to close their eyes. It's tough to do in front of 400 people, but I will warn you if anyone makes any quick moves. Tell me, when you think of DeKalb, Illinois in 2009, what do you see?

Anito: Well I see a lot of cornfields, and then of course the windmills, or rather the wind turbines. I can see that. Of course there's the welcoming sign right across the highway that says, "Northern Illinois University," and then there's the castle in the campus at the center, and that's a very beautiful NIU campus there. I can see it.

Chris: Beautiful. You can open your eyes. Now you're really, really hungry, it's 2009 and you're in DeKalb, Illinois. What are you going to go eat?

Anito: Before then ... Well there's always Panda Express, and there's Japanese and then of course other restaurants in town. They're very accessible.

Chris: Now we're going to talk about what you hear, but we're going to frame it like this. Imagine you're back in the Philippines now and you're fiddling around on your car radio dial and a song comes on and it takes you right back to that time. What's the song?

Anito: That was 2009, so it's definitely Miley Cyrus, Party in the USA.

Chris: I forget, how does that go?

Anito: I'll try to go for the lyrics. I think everybody can wave their hands, right? Okay, everybody now. "I put my hands up, they're playing my song, the butterflies fly away." Woo. "Nodding my head like, yeah. Moving my hips like, yeah. So I got my hands up, they're playing my song. You know I'm going to be okay. Yeah-a-yeah-a-yeah-a-yeah, it's a party in the USA. Yeah-a-yeah-a-yeah-a-yeah, it's a party in the USA."

Chris: We have our episode title. Thank you so much Anito.

Anito: You're welcome.

Chris: Same question. Can you tell us your name, where you're from and where you were placed during your FLTA?

Hiba: My name is Hiba, and I'm from Jordan, from Amman. I was placed at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Upstate New York.

Chris: Same thing. You are preparing to come to the United States. What are your expectations? What's your vision of what you're coming into before you got here?

Hiba: Well I mean this is a bit difficult because for me, when I applied for the FLTA grant, I already had my PhD and a lot of people were questioning my decision to go abroad to teach Arabic in the U.S. "You're an English teacher. You already have a job at university. What are you doing going over there to teach Arabic?" For me, I knew this would reflect positively on my teaching skills, on my degree because I'm an assistant professor of English literature and I do focus in American literature in my classes. So I knew that being here and living with Americans, experiencing the culture firsthand would give me a new sense of understanding of the text that I'm teaching to my students.

Hiba: I did expect a lot, positively in that sense. I did not know exactly how this would affect me but I knew it would be a very positive experience, and I remember the minute the plane landed and I just walked out and I had this feeling, and it was like this is it. This is when my life is going to turn around. I just didn't know how, but I knew that it was going to be great. So far, it's been the best thing I've ever done. I don't regret it, not a single minute.

Chris: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about some moments when you realized that, "Yes, I'm really in a different culture, people do things differently, maybe they think differently."

Hiba: Well there isn't much that I found strange or like I couldn't understand or I found foreign in that sense, but having said that, I mean I've said this earlier today. I did have problems adjusting to the weather in Geneva. It was super cold for me. The first time I kind of noticed that people were kind of a bit looking at me sideways was when I started wearing my coat and my boots in October, and they were all like, "What are you doing? Where are you from? Now we know that you're not from here."

Hiba: That was an instant or a moment in which I felt that things are different a bit. Otherwise, people were very welcoming and the students were very warm and I felt at home. I mean I didn't really experience any difficulties in that sense. I've enjoyed every minute. I was happy I was here, and I had great friendships with people around me. Even with the FLTAs as well that we were with. It was just great.

Chris: It sounds like you really got into the swing of things right away. Do you think that there was a particular aspect of your personality or your outlook or your willingness to try new things? What was it that you think made you succeed?

Hiba: Well yeah, I think this was the year ... the y ear that I did my FLTA was the year in which I felt like I have to do more and I have to get out of my comfort zone a bit more. I have my roommate, the German FLTA to thank for this because she was so full of life, and she was very passionate about everything around us. She would make a point of dragging me out of my room every single day and be like, "Okay, we're only here for one year. I'm going to do this today. I'm not going to do this alone. You're coming with me, whether you like it or not." She kind of pushed me and gave me that attitude as well, and we did things together.

Hiba: Yes, the willingness to try new things and meet new people and do different things every day was there, and it did definitely impact my experience positively.

Chris: Can you think of a time when you did something that was particularly not something you would do at home, but fit right in in your new culture?

Hiba: I mean I can't really think of ... Oh, yeah, I do remember this thing. I remember when I first came to Geneva, we didn't really know what to expect. We knew it was more like a college town. I did look up some information on the internet, and it said that it's a city but it's like too small. It's like a large town. People are not sure why they call it a city. So we didn't really know what we would do there. Then we also learned that a lot of the elderly retire in Geneva. One night we were just walking out, and we saw these fliers and apparently they had Geneva Night Out, where basically people just hang out by the lake and they dance and they sing and they just share food and they have a good time.

Hiba: ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​We went there, and I was surprised to see these elderly people singing and dancing and there was a moment in which I felt that, okay, these people are living their life to the fullest, and they're like double my age, so I have to do it too. I'm not usually the type of person who would just dance around or be chatting with everyone, so we did that. We actually, I went there and there was this old man who just was like, "You okay?" I said, "Yes, I am." He said, "Why don't you dance with me?" I just got up and I danced with him, and that was something that I would never do back home.

Hiba: ​​​​​​​I never imagined myself doing it, but I enjoyed the moment. I think that's when I learned that you only live once, and you should just try your best to enjoy life when you can.

Chris: I absolutely agree. That's fantastic.

Ana-Maria: Hiba, you mentioned that your roommate often dragged you out the door and forced you to do things with her. Can you think of a time when you took initiative and when you were the one that had an idea and took the lead on doing something during your exchange?

Hiba: ​​​​​​​Well yeah, in terms of these activities, I do remember I'm the one who asked her to plan a trip to New York City. We actually did this on Columbus Day, we went ahead and we went there, we enjoyed the city and we attended the celebrations that were happening in the streets and so on. On other terms, in a different respect, on campus, I was not the first Arabic FLTA, but there was no Arabic department. The Arabic classes were part of the political science department, so when I wanted to start teaching, I did not really find anything that I can use. I did not know what my students learned in earlier classes. There were barely any syllabi available. So I took it upon myself to prepare material that would make it easier for the next FLTA to know what I've been doing and maybe provide resources that they could use on campus.

Hiba: ​​​​​​​I discovered, for example, that there weren't enough resources, not because the campus was not willing to provide it, but I guess people probably never really asked for them. So I did bring in DVDs and CDs for movie nights. I left them at the library. I also bought several books and I left them there for other FLTAs to use and for the students to use as well.

Ana-Maria: Can you think about a time when you felt very proud to represent your country and to be an ambassador for Jordan?

Hiba: ​​​​​​​Well I don't know if a lot of people know that, but Jordan is a very small country in a war torn area with all the political turmoil. It's just, Jordanians suffer a lot, and there were a couple of instances in which I got to talk about Syrian refugees as well as other refugees in Jordan. I felt very proud of my people for being able to provide host communities for war torn countries and people who were running away from struggles. Despite the difficulties that we, ourselves, go through, we manage to share whatever we have and we try to make life easier for other people. I was extremely proud of sharing that about my country, and reminding people that this is not an easy thing to do, but that my country, despite being small and despite not having enough resources, was doing its best and it was paying it forward to the word, kind of in a way.

Ana-Maria: Kind of along that same note, talking about kindness and being received and welcomed into a community, can you think of a particular time when you felt very welcomed and the beneficiary of someone's kindness?

Hiba: ​​​​​​​Well being here, because it's brought to mind ... asking this question brings to mind this answer because we're here today with 400 other FLTAs. Four years ago when we had the mid-year conference, the third day, the last day was my birthday. I was up in my room, and when I went downstairs to have breakfast, the minute I walked in all 400 FLTAs started signing Happy Birthday, and they all came up to me and they gave me hugs and kisses and so on. We kind of in a way celebrated my birthday throughout the day. We went out for lunch on that day, and then we had the farewell dinner and a dance and all of it was people were continuously celebrating my birthday with me that day.

Hiba: ​​​​​​​That was one thing I will never forget. Also, there was a ... one of the employees on campus, her office was next to mine, and she was extremely nice. I would always walk in and talk to her. Her name is Sue Campbell. One day we were just ... I mean this is really funny, but we were just talking about food and candy and chocolate and things like that, and I was complaining. I was like, "You know, I don't understand how I can find flavored tootsie rolls in Jordan, but I can't find them in the U.S." It just didn't make sense to me. A couple of days after that, she brought me a huge bag of flavored tootsie rolls, and then she got me peanut butter cups and she got me everything that she knew that I liked. She always told me that I was the same age as her son, and that whatever she gets her son when he comes home, she brings me some if it too.

Hiba: These are things that I will never forget.

Ana-Maria: Is it your birthday today by any chance?

Hiba: Well it was two days ago.

Chris: Well we can all sing.

Hiba: Thank you.

Chris: I love singing. I want you to now think about kind of post-exchange and life back in Jordan and talk about some of the ripple effects. What have you been able to do because you were on the exchange?

Hiba: Well I mean if I think about this, I think about a lot of things, but it mainly has to do with teaching and my students. I was able to ... I mean when I was at HWS, I was very grateful because it was one of the top ten liberal arts colleges in the U.S. What I saw on campus was completely different. The very untraditional teaching methodologies that I witnessed and that I took back home with me and tried to employ, I mean it's not easy when you go back to a very traditional setting and try to introduce something different, but I tried. I was in charge of the English Department back home, and I managed to get my students involved in a variety of activities that were inspired by the type of activities that I witnessed here from community service to learning outside the classroom.

Hiba:  I saw a lot of students double up and advance their English and become more interested and more focused in their studies because they felt that they can achieve more than just grades and exams and papers and things like that. This is something that I love doing for two years. I also worked with a lot of students because we don't really have an official counseling center on campus. We don't really give big emphasis to mental health support to students, and when I was in the U.S. I really appreciated this, and I thought that this is something that we needed back home. I remembered I thought of myself when I was a student, and I never found anyone to talk to.

Hiba: I became a certified mental health supporter when I was at HWS, and going back home, I made my best to provide that kind of support for my students, and I still have students who contact me on a daily basis despite having graduated and thanking me for the time that I gave them, that I listened to them, that I tried to help them out. These are like a couple of things. The last thing that I always am proud of is that because I did this experience, because I was in this exchange and because I got to experience the benefits or the positives of being in another culture and meeting other people and how it changed me positively, I want my students to experience that.

Hiba: Ever since I got back home, I kept in touch with the Fulbright Commission back home and with the U.S. Embassy, and every year I organize events on campus that would promote these different grants. I would sit with my students and I would explain to them the process and what they have to do, what to expect, how they can maybe increase their chances of getting accepted. I was just telling them this morning that one of my students actually just made it, she was nominated for an FLTA grant next year, and she's very excited, and I'm so happy for her.

Chris: With that, you just kind of answered my next question, but I think you make a really good point about you pick up things that are really impressionable, and then you go back home and you can't just automatically bring all of these new things into a new society.

Hiba: Yes.

Chris: But you can make incremental movements.

Hiba: Yes, it's like gradual change. If you just impact one student, that student is going to try and implement that in other ways and they will try to inspire another person. The change you make with one person is actually a change that continues. I think that everyone should bear that in mind, and even if you manage to create something or leave an impact, don't think of it as little because you don't really know how far it would go along.

Chris: I think that's very well said. Are you hopeful? With that in mind, are you hopeful when you look into the future at home?

Hiba: Yes. I believe that, I mean I try to encourage my students to apply for all sorts of exchange programs because I do believe that getting to meet other people and getting to know more about other cultures and other people would just give you more insight about the world and it would make you a better person. You would become more understanding. You would become more empathetic with other people, and that's when actually things change. It's when you have the ability to talk and you want to listen, it's when people kind of in a way get together and things change for the better hopefully. Thank you.

Chris: If I ask you to close your eyes and think about your time in the United States, what do you see?

Hiba: Oh I see Seneca Lake that's right across from campus and the boathouse, and the purple sunsets. Geneva had the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. I've never seen a sky as beautiful as in Geneva specifically.

Chris: If you turn on the radio back home, what's the song that's going to take you back to the United States?

Hiba: Well the song that would take me back is Cake By the Ocean. I don't know if you guys know it, but there's a funny story to it. Me and Yvonne were driving to Pennsylvania. We were meeting a number of FLTAs over there, and while driving there, it's about a five hours drive, and every time we tried to switch the channels, it's just Cake By the Ocean would come up. It came up 25 times. We just kept kidding about finding the time to eat cake by the ocean. I mean the song was actually telling you to do it. Eventually we settled with burritos by the lake on the last day we were there.

Chris: That was the B side.

Hiba: Yeah, I mean burritos and cake, both are good. Yeah.

Chris: Fantastic. Hiba, thank you so much.

Hiba: Thank you.

Chris: Very, very, very special thanks today to Madri, Anito and Hiba for sharing their stories. We want to thank all of our ECA colleagues and the Fulbright team and the Fulbright team at the Institute for International Education, IIE, for their support in making this event possible today.

Ana-Maria: Thanks for listening to 22.33. For more about the Fulbright Program and other ECA exchanges, check out ECA.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and leave us a nice review please. We'd love to hear from you. Feel free to write to us at the Collaboratory, ECACollaboratory@State.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at State.gov. Thank you.

Chris: Thank you all very much.


Season 02, Episode 02 - Freedom's Boombox

LISTEN HERE - Episode 02

Freedom's Boombox


After their a cappella quintet "The Exchange" finished as finalists on Season 5 of NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” becoming favorites of America’s a cappella community, core trio Alfredo Austin (Newark, DE), Christopher Diaz (Dayton, OH), and Richard Steighner (Denver, CO) came together to form dynamic vocal pop group Freedom’s Boombox.  The group quickly developed an international following as they took a cappella to all corners of the globe, singing on an American Music Abroad tour through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in 2016 and touring four continents in under six months with the Backstreet Boys.

You can learn more about ECA's American Music Abroad program here: https://amvoices.org/ama/ensembles-2018/freedoms-boombox/


Chris Wurst: As a vocal trio, working without instruments and often singing in a language foreign to your audience, you're worried about how deeply you could resonate. But years and many foreign tours later, you know that not only were your initial worries unwarranted, if anything, you underestimated the power of music to connect. You're listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Chris Diaz: When we were in Georgia, the country, Georgia, not the State. I always say that because a lot of times in the US people are like, "Oh what's the big deal?" So we were in the country, Georgia, and in our set, in that tour, we had the song Georgia on My Mind by Ray Charles, it's an American classic. And Jamal, our baritone in the group at the time was such a beautiful singer and it was a hit no matter where and how we did it. And we thought, "Oh, we're going to Georgia. I mean, this is going to be amazing." Alfredo:  They are going to love this.

Chris Diaz: They're going to freak out when they hear this. And we noticed that it got kind of a... Not a tepid response, but people were clapping politely at the end. Alfredo:  That's nice, that's nice.

Chris Diaz: And we thought, "That's so weird." We thought people would really resonate. And then our interpreter Eka, told us afterwards that Georgians don't call the country Georgia, Georgia. They call it Sakartvelo, which is not at all like the word Georgia.

Alfredo: Not similar.

Chris Diaz: So we kind of... We maybe took for granted that when you're in a new country there's a new language and people typically call their country its name in its native language and not in the language of the visitors. So anyways, so Georgia didn't work in that way, but it was a really fun experience to realize that we had taken that for granted and we got to learn something. We were able to joke about that in future shows on stage, "We're going to sing our next song for you. It's called Georgia." And then there are crickets. Then we'll say, "Oh sorry, it's called Sakartvelo." And people are like, "Oh my gosh, they're going to sing a Georgian folk song." And then we could disappoint them.

Chris Wurst: This week, genuine community engagement. Taking another extra second to truly understand someone. Georgia on One's Mind and two exclusive little nook performances. Join us on our journey from the United States all around the world, searching for and finding sweet harmony. It's 22.33.

Radio Clip: Oh welcome to 96.5 where all the cool kids and cats are at. Spinning the top 40 from the artists you know and love. If the sound is hot, you know we got it. So take your hand off that dial.

Radio Clip: (music)

Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: Then when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people much like ourselves and-
Intro Clip: (music)

Alfredo: My name is Alfredo Austin. I am from Delaware and I am a professional musician and producer.

Richard: My name is Richard Stagner. I'm from Denver, Colorado, and I am also a professional musician and I'm the beatboxer in Freedom's Boombox.

Chris Diaz: And I am Christopher Diaz. I'm from Newport News, Virginia. I am not a professional musician. I'm fully an amateur one, but I am a professional school teacher of children at the Mandy Valley school in Dayton, Ohio and I sing base in Freedom's Boombox. We are a vocal trio, meaning that we don't use instruments, we only use our voices to sing acapella music, sometimes original, sometimes covers. We all net about eight years ago on a television show called The Sing Off, which was a competition show on NBC and the none of our groups won and so we weren't under contract to do anything after the show. So we became friends during that experience and The Freedom's Boombox was born and we've carried on for the past several years doing tours through American Music Abroad. We've done three AMA tours which have taken us to Central Asia, to-

Richard: Part of the Middle East.

Chris Diaz: The Middle East.

Richard: Yep.

Alfredo: Africa.

Chris Diaz: And North Africa and to Africa to Madagascar and Uganda. So we've been doing a lot of those. So we also work with Arts Envoy to do one-offs and occasionally we will do performances just with a post who has heard about us or seen one of our many YouTube videos of varying qualities and decided that they wanted to hear more. And so most recently we were in Madagascar and Uganda and in Equatorial Guinea.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Chris Diaz: So we get asked a lot, "what do you do when you go to Africa?" And obviously we're doing a lot of different things. So of course we're performing lots of performances at schools and libraries and kind of wherever there is a need, but also a lot of connection. I think we hear terms like community engagement. And in the context of these tours, what it means is literally going out and around people and talking to them. We do a lot of collaborations, so we'll try to learn a local folk song or pop song and perform it with people from the region. We eat a lot of local food. We also learn about the language. We try to engage with local art and customs and culture. So it really is a full exchange in the sense that we do some performing, we do some working and workshopping, but then we really do try to immerse ourselves in the local culture. Get to know what it's like to live as an Azeri person for a day or a Malagasy person for a day.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Richard: One of my biggest pet peeves is when you speak to somebody in a different language or they're trying to speak your language maybe, and they maybe struggle through something and then you sort of laugh and say, "Ha ha, yeah, yeah, yeah," without really understanding what they said. And I think that that is at its course somewhat insulting if you're not listening to somebody. And it really just takes maybe another second to say like, "I didn't understand that." Or, "Can you say that in a different way?" And just taking an extra minute and saying like, "Okay, I didn't get it the first time. Let me try just a little bit more to understand it." I think that really helps.

Richard: Also we use music which makes it a lot easier so we can sing something from Lady Gaga in English and people understand that. Or one of the things that I use, usually a number or something from a different country to teach beatboxing. Like in Chinese you can say [foreign language 00:07:42] which sounds like a shaker or in Arabic you can count to five which is [foreign language 00:07:44] which is... It kind of get the sounds out. And it just starts to kind of break down a couple of barriers. It's like really little things. It really doesn't take that much.

Richard: (singing)

Alfredo: I think a big thing that a lot of people thought, if you see black people with a backwards cap, they're  gangster. They're surprised that maybe we're not rapping.

Alfredo: (singing)

Alfredo: Or, "Oh, are you a rapper?" It's like, "No," "Are you an athlete?" "No." Because that's the context in which they see African Americans and... Or I would say some of these things are true. We are loud. We are fun. And when we were, I think it was Asia, it's like, "Loud, fun and fat." I think with... So some of the assumptions were true but I think they were surprised by how diverse we were and how many...+ Like especially with our group within the exchange and even this group, we have different sexual orientations. We look different. We come from different backgrounds. I liked that. I liked being able to present ourselves as something different than what they saw.

Alfredo: (singing)

Alfredo: So one time when I remember being kind of surprised, I would say, how much I felt kind of like a unicorn when we were in Kazakhstan. And to the point where people were... We were in a mall on an escalator and people were sneaking pictures because they've never seen a black person before. It was crazy. But it actually presented an opportunity to communicate with some of the locals like, "Hey, did you just want a picture? You don't actually have to sneak the picture." And they were happy. They would ask, "Oh, where are you from? Are you from America?" And yeah, and they spoke the 30 words of English that they knew and we connected in that moment and they probably have a memory that they will remember forever.

Richard: And a photo too.

Alfredo: And a photo as well.

Alfredo: (singing)

Chris Diaz: we are fed kind of images and narratives about places and other places are also fed images and narratives about us. And those aren't inherently bad, but by virtue of their scope can only really scratch the surface. They can only really offer a kind of totems of stories rather than the full experience.

Chris Diaz: And so one of I think the big things that we like to take along with us is this idea that we don't actually think that we are better than anyone. We really want to be present in our tours and in our experiences with people. We really don't want to be on our phones very much. We really want to look people in the face a lot. And I think that that has surprised a lot of people in other countries because I think there may be fed a narrative that in America... And they're not totally wrong, that we're a rather self-absorbed bunch of people. That we're, very individualistic and we really value our autonomy and our sovereignty as people to do what we want, whereas a lot of other cultures are really community-based. They're focused really on how the sum can advance an agenda.

Chris Diaz: And so it's really, I think, surprising to people when we're in conversation and we really try to engage . I mean, I think Richard's one of the best at this maybe I've met ever. Even if you don't understand fully fundamentally what's being said, you stick with it. And I think that that degree of attention to people, it means a lot even when... They can tell like, "You're not really getting me," but we'll stick with it. I think that showing that side of American tenacity is also a really exciting way to kind of, to debunk a myth about a whole people.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Alfredo: I remember when we first were going to Saudi Arabia and I was very worried just because really what you see on the news, you don't see... Like if you live in a like Philadelphia, you see, "Oh they're having like a fun festival." You see a lot of different things, not just the bad. But when something makes global news, usually it's bad news. It's something catastrophic. So a lot of the reports that were coming through were pretty much suicide bombers. And so when we hopped on the flight, I was very worried. And when we landed I was worried. And then when we got there, we met some really incredible people who made us feel at home.

Alfredo: And what I learned personally from that was that most people are the same wherever you go, like most people want, they want safety, they want to have a good time, they want to have a job that is enough to support their family. And it's the 0.00001% that makes the global news that creates this identity for a place that most people will never go in their lives.

Alfredo: So when I went back home, everyone was like, "Oh my goodness, how was it?" I was like, "It's actually great." And I told them that it's not what you see on TV and also they have a perception of Americans as well when we walk in and I think we hopefully took some of those worries away.

Alfredo: (singing)

Richard: I think why we use music and particularly acapella, because the voice is something that really everybody generally has is the ability to speak and somewhat the ability to sing. And through that usually it takes maybe one or two songs of singing something that people understand and get and then we try to incorporate them into the show with some interactivity. And usually after every performance people come up and they get it. They understand and they can communicate with us. They feel like they've connected in some regard.

Richard: (Sining)

Chris Diaz: Our goal almost always end these exchanges is really fundamentally the connection aspect. It's actually not so much to the performing and getting our name out there and making new fans. I mean that's very wonderful and helpful and we're very excited that people want to follow along on our journey after we've left. But really the whole point of going is to show people a little bit of what our country looks like in practice.

Chris Diaz: Food and art and stories you know are the best ways to connect. And music really kind of brings the feeling of all of those things together. It also carries with it a sense of identity. A lot of the music that we perform and that we interact with, it says something about the performer. For instance, we do a lot of jazz and rock and roll and R&B and those are distinctly American art forms which are born of our very peculiar and unique mixture of people and experiences.

Chris Diaz: And so when we perform those things, we are getting to share something about which we are proud and conflicted and, that define us. But we also get to connect with those same sorts of experiences from the places we visit. You know, we make it a point to always try and learn a local song, a folk song or a pop song. Just something that people know and that they connect with so that we can share and their national pride.

Chris Diaz: And so what we have found is that attention to identity through music, it allows us to start talking about things which have nothing to do with music. Using for instance, rock and roll, it's a really great exam. It's a really great opportunity to talk to people about how that music, which maybe the narrative suggest is performed by white guys with guitars, is the fusion of blues and of jazz and of ragtime and of rockabilly and of cowboy songs and of country music and all those things coming together. It gives us a chance to say, "Not only are we singing this thing, which is the result, but look at us. We're a rainbow." You can't see us dear listener, but we're a spectrum of human colors and as Alfredo mentioned, we come from all different places. So music is really one of those ways that creates trust and it allows us to start talking about the things that we write the music about, which is pretty cool.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Alfredo: So when we went to Madagascar, we worked with a group of eight young boys called Zaza Kanto, also known as the Underground Boys of Tana. These kids were... I believe all of them were homeless or at least very impoverished.

Alfredo: (singing)

Alfredo: Seeing these kids sing with so much joy, we put together a show throughout the week. We worked with a lot of different musicians, a lot of different vocal groups, but they were the main focus, at least for us. On the big show it got televised all over the country actually.

Alfredo: And just seeing these eight boys on stage shine like, I mean you should have heard this audience. We had to go on after them. And I was like almost in tears. I had to fight back the tears just to see like them be appreciated because a lot of their videos were them on the streets and they kind of were going viral because they were so incredible. But to actually put them in a position where they could be seen by the whole entire country and have the lights on them and have the microphones and an audience who truly appreciate them.

Alfredo: (singing)

Alfredo: I mean that also has carried on for as far as them performing, given them a lot more performance opportunities. Like I really think that's a group that people around the world need to see. And I think it was awesome to feel like we were a part of the first step towards that. Alfredo:  (singing)

Richard: I think the main theme for all of these has been kids. Basically adults have... We've got our own thing, but kids seem to respond so clearly to music. And just a quick anecdote that I thought of is that my sister has two kids now and one of them was having a crying fit or something like that and she put on one of our videos. And she stopped crying. She just looked at the video and watched it and she emailed me. She's like, "Please make more videos."

Chris Diaz: More colors.

Richard: Yeah, I don't know what it is.

Chris Diaz: More major key songs.

Richard: Exactly. Moving in... yeah. It's... I don't know. It's remarkable. I think kids respond to music so well,  and maybe that's... Maybe that's something we get rid of as grownups and I don't know, I kind of enjoy reconnecting with my adolescent self, yeah.

Richard: (singing)

Alfredo: We were in Swaziland. We went to go see kind of like a tribe do like traditional dances. And this was the first time I had been to another country where everyone looked like me. This is the first time that we had been anywhere like that. And I don't know, it made me very proud. And I know that a lot of African Americans, they don't really have that connection with Africa period.

Alfredo: And I think just the joy in which they danced in their singing and it was so... You could feel like you were together with them even though I'd never seen anything like it in my life. And it felt like I was at one heart with them. And I just wished that my family could have been there to see that because it was very moving. And I told them, I was like, "You guys," when I got back, I was like, "You need to go to Africa. You need to" Because I didn't know it would move me like that. I had no idea, but I have a very strong feeling it would make them feel the same.

Alfredo: (singing)

Chris Diaz: The place that stands out in my mind when I remember thinking, "I wish my people could see this," was when we were in the West Bank. And I think Americans... I think a lot of the world has a lot of ideas about what's happening in the region. But those narratives tend to diminish or ignore really the presence of just everyday people who live through the experiences of geopolitical and social conflict. And when we were in the West Bank and in Jerusalem, I remember walking through the old city and seeing each of the major religious sites and thinking, My family who really have a very singular vision, I think of their religious identity and other cultural identity, I think they would be so stunned to see how maybe the visuals are a little different, but the themes are all the same.

Chris Diaz: And I just remember feeling very very lucky to get to see firsthand kind of the tension in that plurality, which is the thing that we live with in the United States all the time. And I wish that more people could experience the... I think I find that tension in a lot of ways, invigorating because it forces me to think about what I stand for and what I believe and what I want. And I wish that for everyone, not just my family. I wish that everyone could get the chance to confront themselves through the lens of travel.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Alfredo: One time I remember where we were in Georgia and we were going to perform at a school. I mean, usually when we go to a school it's like, "Okay, here's the auditorium, blah, blah, blah." You meet maybe the principal and then you go set up and the kids file in and do their show. But for this particular school, we walk in and it's like all the kids at the school like applauding and they sang for us and they gave us a presentation of their whole school. They made baklava for us, made a bunch of different cookies. And I mean, it just felt like, "Wow, they've never met us, they don't know us, and yet they were this open and warm." And they gave us a tour of the whole school and they were an awesome audience. I mean, it just, it made me feel incredible. It was, I don't know, very heartwarming. And they were very sweet.

Alfredo: (singing)

Chris Diaz: We always lead and end our workshops with... Especially in other countries, "What is something that people in America need to know about you?" We always ask that. And I will share that, when we did our North Africa and Middle Eastern tour, we asked this a lot. We went to Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, and Jerusalem and the West Bank. And we asked all of our work shoppers, "What is something that Americans need to know about you?" And we were working with people of ages eight to 16 mostly. And I think we would all agree that the overwhelming response that we got first in most of those places was, "We want Americans to know that we are not terrorists." And as a cultural diplomat, that is frankly heartbreaking to hear, but it is also my responsibility to convey that information to people.

Chris Diaz: And so I felt like it was important to say that in this venue because that's a thing that sticks with us. And to that end, when we returned, I can't speak for the guys, but when I come back to the United States, I absolutely feel like I have a heightened sense of both empathy and sympathy because I know the feeling of a feeling like what you really are is not being represented to people.

Chris Diaz: But I also just feel bad that that is something that any young person would think at all. You know, at 13 I wasn't thinking really about what Tunisians thought about me. And so I can say that it has really helped me to stop and think a little bit about what people are going through, which I know sounds so cliche, but you know I deal with students every day and I always remember that even though we have our day-to-day struggles, there is a broader narrative which is pushing down on us. You impressions are pushing down on us from all angles and I try to be mindful of the fact that everybody is obviously going through personal trials, but they're are also subject to our broad opinions and our subjective criticisms of what they are. And a lot of times they're wrong. That was a very wordy way to say that I think it makes me more warm to people because we're all going through something

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Richard: What we try to do this everywhere is just to say thank you and express gratitude. There's a lot of people that have brought us in without maybe knowing us or they've taken a chance on us as a group of singers. And so we are grateful for that because without probably a million people around us wouldn't have been able to travel around. So if you've helped us out in the past and you're listening to this, thank you. The moms and dads where we stay at somebody's house or a public affairs officer out there, we remember you and we're grateful for you. That's important to say.

Richard: (singing)

Chris Diaz: I hope that people who listen to this know that even though you might be feeling, especially based on what you see on social media or on the news, you might be feeling like there's really one thing happening in the world or in our government or in the state department. You should know that it is the United States government which sponsors these trips, which sends us out to places to share American culture and to absorb the culture of other places in the world with the express purpose of making our country more diverse and making it more open and more empathetic and more accepting.

Chris Diaz: So I would just encourage people to not lose hope. When things look negative, when stories and narratives are negative, to remember that there are hundreds and thousands of people whose life's work is to connect us all and to make the world a better place. And even though it doesn't feel like that sometimes, even though you're not hearing those stories out loud, hopefully ours are part of that in your mind.

Chris Diaz: And just know that there really are so many amazing, amazing things happening under the auspices of our very own government and State Department, but also out in the world which are really about making the world better for people. That sort of work is happening actively and we're very lucky and fortunate to have been able to see a lot of that. And I just think it's worth saying that sometimes because it can be very easy to get sucked down into kind of the volatility of what you see on the internet.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Richard: We got the chance to tour with the Backstreet boys through Europe with two of our former guys, Aaron and Jamal. And we went as an acapella group. We did all of the old Olympic stadiums that they have there. And that was just sort of answering an earlier question that I felt a little nervous about how well acapella is going to stand up in an arena. And I remember probably two songs in, you could see the people start to move a little bit and get with it. And that was one of the times where I thought, "Okay, what we're doing isn't just like a novelty kind of thing because it's all voices and beatboxing, but it's actually, it can reach people, not just on a person to person level, but in a big huge setting like this." And I remember thinking like, "Yeah, I wish my family could be here for that."

Chris Diaz: That was pretty cool.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Chris Diaz: We did an American music abroad tour through Central Asia. So we went to Kazakhstan,  Uzbekistan to Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. So long tour, very involved. But I remember we spent about a week in Kazakhstan and we went to an orphanage about two and a half hours North of Nursultan. It was Astana when we were there.

Chris Diaz: And we went to an orphanage, which housed primarily children with developmental disabilities or whose parents had abandoned them or had perished because of their relationship with drugs. And so a lot of these kids weren't able to walk around or even really to sing with us. But we really treated that workshop no differently as we would any of the others. And we went in with the goal of just being friendly and being approachable and sharing some music and some art.

Chris Diaz: And I can say it was really one of the most meaningful experiences of my entire life because a lot of those children, they really just wanted to be touched. They wanted to be seen, they wanted people to look at them in their eyes and to see their inherent humanity. To see that they're real people.

Chris Diaz: And I remember we sang for them and we clapped and we danced as much as we could and we played, we kicked the ball around and we just hung out with them. And I remember thinking, what an odd day that was for a musician, for a singer. I went and I didn't really do a show. I just kind of hung out with kids. But then it occurred to me that that might be the only time that a lot of those kids really get that sort of connection from anyone, much less from a highly privileged American man.

Chris Diaz: That really sticks with me as chance that we had to really connect with people and I may and likely will never see any of those children again, a fact, which to this day I consistently remember and it does give me feelings. But I do also carry around with me the memory of having made an impact in their lives and whether or not they know it, here I am a few years later telling all of you about this. So clearly it made a deep impact on me. It's informed my worldview, it's informed the way that I deal with my children as a school teacher. It's informed the way that I interact with the world broadly, which is quite literally like we can end this here. That's the point of what we're doing is to use our music to see people, to just see them.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the collaboratory, an initiative within the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the collaboratory. 22.33 is named for title 22 chapter 33 of the US Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of US government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Alfredo Austin III, Christopher Diaz and Richard Stagner, collectively known as Freedom's Boombox, talked about their overseas experiences with the American Music Abroad and Arts Envoy programs. For more about cultural and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts and hey, we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And you can check us out on Instagram @2233stories. Special thanks to our team at the collaboratory including our virtual interns, Laurel Stickney, Cynthia Ubah and Kelly Zhang. Special thanks also to Austin, Chris and Richard for their stories, their musical diplomacy and their voices. To learn more about them, check out the freedoms/boombox.com.

Chris Wurst: I did the interview and edited this segment, featured Freedom's Boombox music included One Dance at Last, I Am on My Way, Wild Thoughts and Don't Let Me Down. The band's exclusive little nook performances were, Work from Home and Me Too. Also heard was a song by Zaza Kanto to the incredible boy band from Madagascar. Music at the top of this episode was Sebastian by How the Night Came and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tiger Lee Use. Until next time-

Chris Diaz: That's kind of one of the great things about kindness is that it grows so exponentially and it grabs onto other acts of kindness so that you almost forget what the one act was that started the flood of Goodwill.


Season 02, Episode 01- New Year's Wishes from ECA

LISTEN HERE - Episode 1


Happy New Year from all the staff here at ECA!

As mandated by the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) works to build friendly, peaceful relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges, as well as public -private partnerships. 

In an effort to reflect the diversity of the United States and global society, ECA programs, funding, and other activities encourage the involvement of American and international participants from traditionally underrepresented groups, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities. Opportunities are open to people regardless of their race, color, national origin, sex, age, religion, geographic location, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. The Bureau is committed to fairness, equity and inclusion. Artists, educators, athletes, students, youth, and rising leaders in the United States and more than 160 countries around the globe participate in academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges.


A/S Marie Royce: Happy New Year. I would like to welcome you to our first 22.33 podcast in 2020. I'm Marie Royce, the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, known as ECA. At ECA, we move people to move ideas. I'm pleased that our programs are an integral part of foreign policy. Remember this, you can't spell America without ECA. Thank you for listening.

Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. There are people very much like ourselves.
Intro Clip 4: [Music 00:01:14]

BryAna: Hi, my name is BryAna Stearns and I am a Junior Program Officer in the ECA front office. My proudest moment of 2019 was transitioning from an ECA intern to an employee of the Bureau of Educational Cultural Affairs. I remember the day that I got the phone call of getting the job offer. And I was unbelievably happy to continue working for a Bureau whose mission is to truly make the world a better place.

Intro Clip 5: [Music 00:01:56]

Matthew: Hi, my name is Matthew Bartlett and I serve as the Director of Public Affairs and Strategic Communications here at the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. I think I'm probably the luckiest person in this Bureau, because my job is to help reflect all of the good work and amazing people that take part in ECA programs all over the world. It's a true privilege and I think that the work we do together with so many in different countries help make a better world for all, person by person.

Trina: Hi, my name is Trina Bolton. I'm a Program Officer in our Sports Diplomacy Division. This year, I was always excited and proud to receive updates from our alumni in the global sports mentoring program. Whether they're international or American, just learning about promotions that they may have gotten, sports camps that they've organized, or reunions that they've had with other global sports mentoring program alumni, and just feel fortunate to be a part of this sports diplomacy movement.

Trina: But I will also say I was really proud when I was on detail in another Bureau here at the State Department, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, and I was in a meeting briefing up some senior officials and public diplomacy came up and people were talking about the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and then mentioned a soccer exchange that I had worked on, and it just made me homesick. It made me so proud of ECA and the public diplomacy and the people to people work that we do and it was like those are my people. So I was really, really proud of ECA and the work we do.

Gurdit: Hi, my name is Gurdit Singh. I'm a policy officer in the policy office of ECA. I joined ECA last summer, but throughout my career as a foreign service officer, I've used ECA programs and tools to advance US foreign policy priorities. I felt very proud that I could finally be a part of the team that designs and implements all our educational program and professional cultural exchange programs.

Clip: [Music 00:04:18]

Carol: Hello. I'm Carol Bray, Director of the office of American Spaces and my proudest moment really this year was to lead American Spaces to the Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau. And you may not know what American Spaces are but there are 630 of them in the world and these are really wonderful places where you can go and participate in a program, an interesting cultural program or learn how to make something, learn more about new technology.

Carol: We have the latest and greatest technology there, computers, Wi-Fi, all sorts of virtual programming and other aspects that you might find really fun and they're places to meet other people and talk about ideas and we believe that American Spaces should be a place of open exchange of ideas to reflect really our democratic values.

Joe: Hi, I'm Joe Bookbinder, the Director of the Office of English Language Programs and my proudest ECA moment in 2019 occurred quite recently. I just had a three week trip to the Middle East to visit Egypt, Jordan and Israel to see our English language programs in action. And one of the things ECA does, we teach afterschool English classes to bright but disadvantaged children around the world. And in the South of Israel I saw a class of Bedouins students and they were learning about the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the poetry of Langston Hughes.

Joe: They became very knowledgeable about this and created their own poetry, expressing their hopes for the future and the challenges they face. And it was amazing to see how much knowledge they gained about American culture and the optimism that they were expressing about their own futures. I felt very proud that the United States is helping people in this way to improve their lives.

Megan: Hello everyone. My name is Megan Crane. I am a Program Officer in the SUSI Branch, SUSI being study of the U.S. Institutes. My favorite ECA memory from 2019 actually changes on a regular basis because one of my responsibilities is to gather and archive SUSI alumni stories and I get to see the lasting impact the institutes have on these student leaders and scholars. So I'm pretty lucky to be able to do that. We do have quite a few European student leaders who've actually gone on to hold positions in European parliament and even intern for the United Nations, serve as government officials in their home countries. So those are just a few examples that we have.

Clip: [Music 00:07:37]

Caroline: Caroline Casagrande I'm the Deputy Assistant Secretary in charge of academic programs here at ECA. We had such a huge year in the academic family in 2019 that I can't pick one moment. I'm so proud of the English language program celebrating their 50th anniversary of English language fellows teaching English across the world, making sure students can participate in our programs. We rebranded the Fulbright logo, making it fresh, bringing in a more youthful look so we can continue to grow what is a historic program and modernize it into the future. And then of course our ed USA team hit more students than ever. I can't pick just one. I have to say it was a great 2019.

Richie: My name is Richie Matthes II. My title is Program Specialist, I help out in the front office of Professional and Cultural Exchanges. What we do is all about people and memories. And thankfully this year I was able to go to Berlin for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and I saw people that I hadn't seen in over a decade because I'm an alumnus of the Ben Franklin Transatlantic Fellowship and I saw people first time in over a decade. So that was a great memory. I saw one guy, Amal, he's an Afghan refugee, lives in Denmark for the first time in 11 years. I saw him through the window and he came running through a coffee shop, picked me up and hugged me. Literally picked me up and I'm over 200 pounds. So that was something that I'll always remember.

Karen: Hi, I'm Karen Grissette. I'm a career diplomat and I am currently the Director of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. My proudest moment of 2019 was when Fulbright Scholars alumni, the Fulbright Board, Fulbright directors from around the world gathered at the United States Capitol building to celebrate the Fulbright program. Fulbright is one of the most impactful exchange programs on the planet. We unveiled a new Fulbright logo and shared our commitment to increasing diversity among Fulbright grantees. Five Fulbright alumni shared how their Fulbright exchange changed their lives.

Karen: Their message was that anyone who puts their mind to it can become a Fulbright scholar. Both Republican and democratic, U.S. Senators spoke in support of the program. The bipartisan Fulbright board members led the event along with the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. Fulbright is committed to exchanging the most qualified scholars between the United States and the rest of the world. And to creating connections in a complex and changing world. Daria:  My name is Daria Roche and I am a Senior Program Officer in the Office of Academic Exchange Programs working on the Fulbright Program. My proudest ECA moment of 2019 was launching the new refreshed Fulbright brand narrative and logo.

Clip: [Music 00:11:03]

Joshua: Hi, my name is Joshua Shen. I am a Strategic Designer for Interactive Media and Games in ECA. This year I worked also in the Sports Diplomacy Division and proudest moment was to launch our very first e-sports Envoy program to China. We were able to send out MVP of the NBA 2K league and he had a chance to really engage with students, gamers, local influencers and University's about our shared passion for NBA and computer games, video games. So breaking through this new genre of sports Envoy. I think it shows that here in the state department and at ECA, we're always looking to advance to reach people where they are.

Monica: Hi, I'm Monica Boulter with the U.S. Speaker Program and I'm a Foreign Affairs Officer.

Molly: I am Molly Chris with the Office of the U.S. Speaker program and I'm also a Foreign Affairs Officer.

Monica: The U.S. Speaker program sends experts out to our embassies to share on developing our foreign policy.

Molly: And we are happy and proud this year. We've had such a great year with our speakers. Everyone from the Guinness Book of World Records holder for discovering the most volcanoes on Jupiter's moon, IO, 71 volcanoes.

Monica: Right on down to sending out folks to help engage law enforcement on building out programming for underserved communities.

Manny: I'm Manuel Pereria-Colocci. I have worked in two offices in ECA, one the Collaboratory and two, the new unit for the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs. My proudest moment of 2019 was participating in ECAs first ever panel at Comic Con International in San Diego to show close to 500 people in San Diego coming from all corners of the world, how stories can be shared by superheroes.

Manny: Comics, and superhero culture and pop culture and art in the 21st century is the way to reach people. It makes them resonate with challenges, it makes them think creatively about solutions. And it was something that filled me and I think my colleagues with a lot of enthusiasm for what could be next in comics as a part of public diplomacy.

Clip: [Music 00:14:00]

Susan: Hi, my name is Susan Crystal. I'm the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Professional and Cultural Exchanges. My proudest ECA moment in 2019 was my participation in the 60th anniversary of Global Pittsburgh. Global Pittsburgh is the state department's designated partner for the International Visitor Leadership Program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, under the Global Ties Network and they support many other exchange programs as well.

Susan: I was so inspired to meet the many wonderful citizen diplomats who volunteered their time to connect international visitors with counterparts throughout that region in a wide range of professional disciplines. Many of the volunteers have been working with Global Pittsburgh for much of the 60 years. I also had the chance to meet individuals who regularly host our participants in the International Visitor Leadership and other programs like Professional Fellows and the Young Latin American Initiative Fellows. The icing on the cake during my visit was a meeting with a group of Youth Exchange alumni who had participated in programs in India to Tajikistan, China, Russia, and Germany.

Susan: These young people were truly transformed by their exchange programs and happy to tell anybody about it. I'm a proud Pittsburgher myself and I had the good fortune to intern at Global Pittsburgh during college, so it was personally meaningful to me to come full circle and be able to personally experience the continuing focus on international exchange in my home city.

Susan: So, happy New Year's to Global Pittsburgh and all of our wonderful partner organizations and hosts who do so much to ensure that International Exchange participants having meaningful experience in the United States and help maintain these important relationships as we work together to further U.S. Foreign policy goals and grow mutual understanding.

Amy: Hi, my name is Amy Schultz and I'm a program officer in the Office of Citizen Exchanges. I work on the Future Leaders Exchange or FLEX program. The biggest FLEX highlight of 2019 is adding four new countries to the program. We were delighted to welcome FLEX students from the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia. We look forward to 2020 and happy New Year, everyone.

Elizabeth: I'm Elizabeth Latham.

Tova: And I'm Tova Pertman.

Elizabeth: And we are the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange and German American Partnership Program  Program Officers here in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Youth Programs Division.

Tova: One of our biggest accomplishments this year was hosting the first ever Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange Transatlantic Alumni Conference here in Washington D.C.

Elizabeth: And we are also very proud of fostering and strengthening U.S. Germany relations through 350 American scholarship recipients in Germany this year and 360 German participants in the United States this year through the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange and over 10,000 participants in the German American Partnership Program.

Kelly: Happy holidays. This is Kelly Ward in Youth Programs. I'm a branch chief overseeing of tremendous team of dedicated program officers who have done amazing things in the past year, including expanding tech girls into central Asia. Sarah Shields, running a huge youth ambassadors programs, sending over 100 Americans to WHA countries, Stephanie [inaudible 00:17:52] and running a great youth program in most of the countries of Africa as well as expanding our On Demand Youth Leadership Programs. Pam Rasmussen, so I'm very grateful for a wonderful team. 

Clip: [Music 00:18:09]

Ana-Maria: My name is Ana-Maria Sinitean and I'm a Program Designer in the Collaboratory and the highlight of my year has been to work on this podcast, interview incredible people, Cowboys, astronauts, researchers of national parks. At one time I ran up to Paul Bryan and told them about it and the opportunity to always have something to say at a cocktail party or dinner party because there is always a chance to say, "So today I talked to this really great alumni," and that's just been the highlight of my year and for 2020 I can't wait to meet the rest of the alumni network.

J.P.: Well, hello, this is J.P. Jenks. I'm the American Music Abroad Program Manager in the Office of Citizen Exchanges here in Washington. And my proudest moment of 2019 was the result of seeing our team effort at the 2019 American Music Abroad Academy, which was held in Bangkok.

J.P.: Where 32 artists that were nominated from 13 different countries in Central and Southeast Asia came together. None of them knew each other before the Academy, and by the end of the week long event, they put on a huge gala show and it was clear that they had become a new creative community that will endure long after this particular Academy took place. It was a wonderful experience and I had the pleasure of being able to attend.

Stephanie: Hi, my name is Stephanie Reed. I'm a Senior Program Officer in the office that works on Fulbright Programs at ECA. My proudest moment was the opportunity to work with our team on bringing together all of the executive directors of Fulbright Commissions from around the world to Washington D.C. in order to collaborate and improve our programs going forward.

Jill: Hello everyone. My name is Jill Staggs. I'm a Program Officer in the Cultural Programs Division of the Office of Citizen Exchanges and instead of talking about my proudest moment from 2019 I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone at the posts who work on our programs. In particular, the International Writing Program with the University of Iowa and the Next Level Hip Hop and Conflict Resolution Program. Thank you very much and I'm sending you best wishes for 2020.

Clip: [Music 00:20:35]

Aleisha: My name is Aleisha Woodward and I am one of the Deputy Assistant Secretaries here in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. My proudest moment here in ECA in 2019, I was able to work with a team here in ECA to launch a new program called the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs and this is something that we've created to support the white house's initiative called Women's Global Development and Prosperity with the goal of empowering women around the world to participate more in the economy.

Aleisha: We want them to be successful in the workplace, we want them to be the successful entrepreneurs, and we want them to overcome the obstacles, cultural or legal barriers, that make it difficult for women to participate in the economy in their countries. Now this resonates with me personally. My mom had a kitchen goods store. She's sold Bread makers and she was really good at teaching the classes and that kind of thing, but she had no business background, she didn't have any business skills.

Aleisha: And over the course of about three or four years, she ran the business into the ground. And so I know from personal experience that knowing how to do something is not the same thing as knowing how to make a business of it. And so to be able to create this Academy or AWE, as we call it, to help women who have these great ideas who have these great skills to marry those up with the business skills that they need to be successful, has been really fulfilling for me both personally and professionally.

Kate: My name is Kate Furby, I'm the AAAS Science Technology Policy Fellow at the Collaboratory in ECA. I had a lunch with the Chilean Delegation for IVLP and I'm a marine biologist so I have a coral reef background and it was a delegation of Chilean marine biologists and we were having this conversation about coral reefs and all these things. And secretly I am obsessed with moss, like the green carpet thing that grows on the sidewalk. I think it's super cool and I'm obsessed with it and my friends make fun of me for it.

Kate: Now, I'm at this lunch and we're talking about coral reefs and it's all being done through translation. And the Chilean marine biologist starts to tell me a story and it sounds like he's saying lichen and moss, but he can't think of what the American word is for it.

Kate: And I'm like, I'm just imagining that he's saying this thing that I secretly want to talk about. And then it comes out through the translation that he's like lichen like outside. And I'm like, yes. That's it, I also love that. And so we have this like great moment where we talk about how lichen and moss are like coral, but on land. That was a really wonderful translation cross cultural moment for me.

Matt: My name is Matt Lussenhop, and I am the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary here in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. And then I guess the moment I'd be proud of in 2019 is July 29th when I started this position and have been having a great time ever since. Meeting all of the participants, American and overseas, who are benefiting and enjoying, and helping with our cultural and educational exchange programs. 

Clip: [Singing 00:24:20]

Amy: Everybody knows, we're very excited about Youth Exchange Programs. This is Amy Forest on the FLEX program. So happy to tell you, happy New Year from us.

Chris: We're rolling. So anytime you want to start.

Chris: Okay. All right. Here we go.

Clip: [Music 00:25:59] [Singing 00:25:27]

Matt: And I guess the wish for 2020 is that everyone who either has or will be participating in ECA exchanges has a successful and prosperous personal and professional life and that they contribute in small ways, in big ways to their communities. So thanks and happy 2020.

BryAna: My ECA New Year's wish is to ask everyone in 2020 to learn something new about another culture to get outside of your comfort zone.

Megan: I want to wish listeners a happy 2020 and may the goals you set in 2019 come to fruition in 2020.

Joe: I hope that all our listeners can continue to improve their English language skills and use those skills to better their own lives and improve the societies that they live in. And I also wish that the New York Mets can win the 2020 World Series.

Carol: So I hope you all will visit your local American space. That's my holiday wish for next year is for even greater engagement with all of you around the world in American spaces.

Joshua: My wishes for New Year is that we can roll out a whole bunch of cool, interesting programs for people around the world to engage with the State Department, playing video games with each other or learning about game design or getting mentorship and advice, how to develop a career in the gaming industry.

J.P.: Now I want to wish everybody out there in the American Music Abroad and Cultural Diplomacy World, a very healthy, happy, harmonious, melodious, rhythmic, lyrical, horn filled, and polyphonic, authentic New Year. Happy New Year everybody.

Trina: And looking forward 2020 I hope that we can all continue to keep the ball rolling to promote democratic values and really especially in 2020 celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Daria: My goal for 2020 is that everyone have a peaceful and prosperous year and gets at least like one third of the things they want at the beginning of the year done by 2021.

Stephanie: May this year. Give you the opportunity to follow your dreams.

Matthew: As we look forward to 2020 a new decade, I think it comes as a challenge to all of us to forget about the past and look towards the future and to dream up and take action to create a better world for everyone.

Gurdit: Happy holidays and a very happy New Year.

Manny: My wish for 2020 for 22.33 podcastees and listeners is to keep going with what you're doing. I'm sure that people that are tuning in also have their own inspiring stories and want to change the world in a positive way, in their own right. I wish you the most success. I wish you an immense amount of energy and enthusiasm and a great start to 2020.

Richie: Yeah. I hope everyone listens to the podcast more and makes their own international journeys and exchange experiences.

Molly: Happy Holidays.

Monica: Wunderbar together.

Molly: Wait, I wanted to see it with her. Can we save Wunderbar together, together? Wunderbar together.

Kelly: And my wish for the New Year would be that more youth around the world have the opportunity to experience Youth Leadership Programs. Happy New Year.

Karen: My wish for 2020 is that American students and scholars from all 50 States and from all backgrounds will apply to represent the United States overseas as Fulbright Scholars. At the same time, I hope that individuals from throughout the world will also apply to represent their home countries in the United States. One connection at a time by helping the nations of the world understand one another better. These international exchange participants will help create a more peaceful world.

Aleisha: My wish is that all of us, both here in ECA, all of the participants of ECA programs and everyone who's listening to this podcast will take a moment and think about the change that they want to see in their community and that they will go out and do something to effect that change. Each of us making a little effort combined can make a huge difference.

Elizabeth: My wish for all 22.33 listeners is that each one meets and makes a connection with someone from  another country and has at least a 10 minute conversation.

Tova: We wish all the listeners a happy holidays and to bring in the New Year with big goals and big aspirations. We wish everyone a great 2020.

Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the Director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22 Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code. The Statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of the U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

Clip: [Music 00:32:16]

Chris: Lots of gratitude to my colleagues for taking the time out to reflect on their year and for doing the amazing work that they do to create life changing exchange stories every single day. What am I thankful for, for you, dear listener, we are so lucky to be able to create 22.33 and so lucky to have so many life changing stories of exchange to share with you. We really appreciate your listening and we look forward to creating many, many more inspiring, kind, empathetic stories, throughout 2020 have a great New Year.

Manny: Hi. Hi.

Ana-Maria: I know my name. I know my program, but-

Kate: [Singing 00:33:09]

Chris: Start again. Three, two, one. Give me a three, two, one.

Kate: For the record that I do not have -

Kate: Do not have a New Years wish for our listeners. I don't... Oh, okay. That's awkward.

Ana-Maria: Maybe it could be meta and I work on this podcast and my highlight is being able to tell everybody all the cool stories

Kate: Hahahahaha! We're audio professionals.


Season 01, Episode 88 - The Food We Eat, Part 12

LISTEN HERE - Episode 88


Our 12th bonus episode of crazy food stories from around the world.  It's been an amazing first season of 22.33 and we thank all our fans and loyal subscribers for supporting us!  Happy New Year  and see you in 2020.


Dimitri Wurst: Hey Elena, would you ever try froglets?

Elena Wurst: No, that sounds gross. What about you, Dimitri? Would you ever try a sheep's head?

Dimitri Wurst: Never say never. What about eating pistachios in space?

Elena Wurst: "How did that I to space?" Is what I'm thinking but I like pistachios. Would you try a new fruit?

Dimitri Wurst: Probably.

Elena Wurst: What if it smelled like diapers and gasoline?

Dimitri Wurst: So are you talking about durian?

Elena Wurst: Does it taste good and smell bad or does it taste bad and smell bad?

Dimitri Wurst: To find out, you'll have to keep listening. This is 22.33, a podcast of exchange-

Elena Wurst: ... and food-

Dimitri Wurst: ... stories.

Chris Wurst: I would say Asia, though, had lots of adventurous foods. We ate lots of crickets, cow tongue, the durian.

Speaker 4: Froglets. Baby frogs.

Chris Wurst: Fertilized duck eggs. That was not maybe the best decision. That was a late-night decision. Speaker 4:  Yeah. That was a late-night decision.

Chris Wurst: Yeah.

Speaker 4: We were all fighting some.

Chris Wurst: [laughter and crosstalk 00:01:07]

Speaker 4: Stomach things and we're like-

Chris Wurst: Be selective about what you eat after midnight. It was good though. Yeah. Lots of great stuff.

Dimitri Wurst: This week: pistachios in space.

Elena Wurst: The dangers of Chinese menus. Another trip to Kazakhstan, another sheep's head.

Dimitri Wurst: And the awful funkiness of durian fruit. Join us on another journey around the world to tickle our taste buds.

Elena Wurst: It's 22.33.

Speaker 5: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Speaker 6: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Speaker 7: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, very much like ourselves and-

Speaker 4: (singing)

Speaker 8: All space food looks bad but tastes perfectly fine, and some of it, terrific. But I will say it all looks kind of ugly and that half of our food is freeze dried, half is stuff that you warm up in what looks like a briefcase that has heated sides and a heated middle and you strap your food in. And you'd rehydrate the food, put those envelopes on there. And so we call it picking our food. You'd pick your food or someone else would say, "Can I pick your food for you?" And after a while, I liked comfort foods. I liked scrambled eggs. I liked beef stew. I liked Thai food. I liked the challenge of mixing my Thai food with rice, one spoonful at a time. But mostly it almost didn't matter what you ate. Food was delightful up there.

Speaker 8: Just because life was different... If you're going to make a tortilla, that's the kind of bread that we can have and stays okay. And you can put peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla. You can put cheese and chicken. And then you can actually carefully send that tortilla to somebody else. You can make food for someone and send it to them. But the delightful aspect of food is also what is terrifying about it. And that is because if you are not careful, even in compacting your food trash, I'd be rolling up barbecue beef was treasured and barbecue beef and steak were treasured by, especially, some guys on our crew and our Russian friends.

Speaker 8: And so I would always just give mine away almost always. And yet when I did have barbecue beef and you're rolling it up carefully to really minimize your trash cause you make everything really small like that and you do that final little zip right across the top, and then a fire hydrant of barbecue sauce shoots across the space station and it will not land somewhere harmless. It will land on one of your crew mates and it will be on a new shirt, one of their only six shirts for six months. So the danger and the delight of food in space.

Speaker 8: The food people sent us pistachios in the shell. Okay. Just think about trying to eat that. There's all those, I mean crumbs in space are a no-no. Okay? And it is possible and we do have bags of chips. A few that kind of thing in the snack box and what you do is you eat them next to a vent that has the air is being pulled through it that has a screen on it. And so you eat your potato chips or your giant bag of pistachios next to the vent and all the little crumbs and shells and things like that land on the vent, and then you vacuum them up. Right, again. But we just thought, "What were they thinking?"

Speaker 9: I do remember us once going to a restaurant and we ordered, I want to say the menu said french fries or something like that, something pretty American, you know? We were looking for the basics and we're like, "Oh, they have french fries. And we were like, "Okay." We'd been to this restaurant before. We're like, "Oh, we didn't even know they had that." That's what it read, translated on the menu. We, being really lazy, did not read the characters. We got clams and not at all what we were expecting but we were like, "Oh." We didn't even try to communicate or we're like, "This is what we got. We'll just live with it." Which is funny. I think notoriously in China, menus are translated pretty horribly. And we always joked, we were like, "Oh, we could make a whole business of just translating menus properly because they're just not.

Speaker 10: We were presented a full traditional meal. It was in Semey.

Speaker 11: In Kazakhstan.

Speaker 10: In Kazakhstan. And it is tradition to present a full sheep's head to the guests of honor, which we found out is the eldest of the visiting group. And I think it roughly translated to was it "white beard?"

Speaker 11: White beard.

Speaker 10: White beard. So we called Nathan, White Beard Walman for a long time after that. Still  occasionally reference it but Nathan was basically served the sheep's head and we were all amazed and-

Speaker 11: to eat it.

Speaker 10: ... when it came out. Yeah. Well we thought we'd be rude to not eat it. We weren't really sure how this was going to go down. So we're all cracking up getting ready to watch Nathan go to town on this sheep's head, that looked like it was probably going to be good. Honestly. Yes. It's very different than what we're used to being served but I'm sure it was going to be delicious.

Speaker 10: So we're all sitting there waiting to see what's going to happen and then we find out that Nathan, although he's served it, he's actually the one that gets to cut whatever he wants from the sheep's head and serve it to whoever he wants. And I happened to be laughing the hardest at the time at Nathan. So I was chosen as the recipient of the ear of the sheep, which as I alluded to earlier, is actually quite delicious. Didn't see that happening but no, that was such a monumental meal for us. We were showered in kindness that whole evening. We were serenaded by one of our hosts playing dombra and singing these amazing songs that we were lucky enough to capture a little voice memo recording of. We might have to throw that in the podcast.

Chris Wurst: (singing)

Speaker 10: I felt really connected to the people when they were sharing that meal with us. It was like they were so excited to bring out every single course. It was almost a never ending marathon. We were really into the Kazakhstan, the cognac that they have, which is just called Kazakhstan, I think-

Speaker 11: Yeah.

Speaker 10: ... the cognac itself. The bottle just says that. And they would not let our glasses even go down an inch. It was like you take a sip and a guy comes behind and he's topping it off again, so we found that very comical. And the last thing I guess I remember from that meal too, of course was being served the-

Speaker 10: ... kumus. Yes. The kumus was incredible actually. It was interesting. It tasted to me like yogurt and champagne together in a kind of... Yeah. There were some things floating in it, which I found a little strange but it was good.

Speaker 12: Things that you absolutely have to try if you're in Germany. The Currywurst, of course, is a very famous Berlin tradition. Literally just a sausage with kind of a curry ketchup sauce that goes over the top, usually served with fries and mayo. There's two different styles to this. The Berlin sausage seems to be a little bit not so finely ground, I would say. It's very coarse. Usually served with potato wedges and in Hamburg they do like this very fine-ground, very thin sausage with french fries. Depending on who you talk to, there's fans of both. I lived in Hamburg but I'm a Berlin Currywurst fan, so everybody at home hated me. I actually had a discussion with my host dad that I thought Berlin Currywurst was better and he locked me out of the house for a little while, and we didn't eat Currywurst for a long time, so that we avoided that discussion. But we got along okay.

Speaker 12: I think the craziest food experience that I've had this year in Europe in general actually came through a mistranslation and I was in Greece, so of course I couldn't read anything that was on the menu I was ordering. The kind of strange situation that I came across when I was traveling in Crete on the Island is that there's a lot of German tourists there. So I was able to use my German better than I could use my English, and I asked for a German menu. And after looking through everything, I decided that I was going to order what would have translated to black noodles. I was kind of curious as to what was in this stuff and I saw that it was kind of under sea food. And I'm like, "Okay. I'll give that a try." My friend Jessica, who was traveling with me, she's like, "You know, you're going out on a limb. I don't know what that means. Be careful." I'm like, "No. This'll be fine. This is lunch. I can eat something later if it's too horrific.

Speaker 12: So we waited a while and the waiter brought out this plate of black noodles. Definitely some sort of very thin sauce that was laid over the top with cuttlefish, then cut up inside, which has got kind of like this really rubbery texture. Feels like you're eating a kitchen sponge but absolutely doesn't taste that way. It tastes absolutely amazing and if you're a seafood fan, I can absolutely recommend cuddle fish but I was halfway through my meal before I even considered the idea that this black sauce could possibly be cuttlefish ink. I realized that up until that thought, not only did I not have a problem with it, I liked it. And when Jessica had suggested that to me, like, "Do you think it's ink?" I looked up at her and I took a big spoonful of noodles and I just put them in my mouth and I smiled like a kindergartner. From that point, I think I can stomach pretty much anything that I order. It's certainly not always the most pleasant thing but I end up finding lots of weird tastes and things that I end up liking.

Speaker 13: One was when I was in Lithuania, they had this soup and I can't pronounce it correctly so I'm not even going to try but the soup was actually the color of Pepto-Bismol. When it arrived, then they warned us, but when it arrived you were like, "This really looks like Pepto-Bismol." So you already... Yeah. You know what it is? Okay. And so already your mouth is like.. Because you're just like, "I know what this is going to taste like but it didn't taste anything like that. You know? And it was actually a cold soup and you can eat it with a some bread and it could have potatoes in it and everything as well. But I loved it. It ended up being one of my favorite dishes in Lithuania but if you go off appearance alone, you're just like... It doesn't look that good.

Speaker 13: In Azerbaijan, I love soups when I go overseas for some reason, but they had this soup called Dushbara and it's a soup that comes but you have to add all these ingredients. They give you these different ingredients to add to it that makes it Dushbara the correct way. And it was a soup that I loved and my first night there, my embassy rep, his name was Ferghani. Took us to this restaurant inn. He showed us how to add all these different ingredients. We was like "Man, this tastes so good." You know what I mean? But it was something traditional to their country that he's like, "You got to add X and X ingredients for it to have the proper taste." And then I think another time when I was in Africa, we ate outside. And it wasn't even a restaurant, it was probably just this little setup this guy had. And I remember I was really hungry late at night and my translator Rashid, who I brought up earlier, he was like, "You want to go get some chicken?" I'm like, "Yeah. I'm starving."

Speaker 13: So again, this is Africa. You're not going to KFC, you're not going to a restaurant. He literally took us to this open area where this guy had this little setup and we ordered some chicken and he literally had to kill the chicken, scan it, and I'm telling you is the best chicken I had in my life. I mean my life. We all were at the table, faces all greasy. Hands all greasy. Even the embassy people was like, "Oh my gosh, this chicken is so good." We started calling it crack chicken at the table because it was just so good. I think it was just so good because it was just natural. It was like it got killed, cooked. "Here you go." Best seasoned chicken I ever had. I remember the tomatoes, the onions and peppers that they cooked with it was so flavorful because it was fresh and you're just like, "America, we got to do better. Come on. We got to do better with the fresh foods." And that's something I would just tell you in general.

Speaker 13: When you go overseas, I always lose about five to eight pounds just from eating their food because it doesn't have all these preservatives, all this fat all this sugar when you get a juice, it's normally fresh-squeezed juice you're getting. They eat way better than us. I'm just telling you right now. Lot of great food I've eaten.

Speaker 14: At first I was like, "Oh I don't like this food. It's missing some of the flavor." But I kept on trying new things and I think it was the last two months of my fellowship there. I found arroz con coco y guandu and it tastes amazing. I wanted to eat it all the time. Yes.

Speaker 15: What is it?

Speaker 14: It's rice. Right? Its rice flavor has coconut and it has this bean called guandu. But we also use it in Puerto Rico but we call it gandules. So in Puerto Rico we have arroz con gandules and then they have arroz con coco y guandu. So I guess I liked it a lot because it remind me of Puerto Rico.

Speaker 16: I'd freshly arrived and actually I lived in a small hamlet called Hatsapok, so not even anywhere near the city in a sense. I was really in a tiny village and she said, "Let's go get ice cream." I said, "Okay. That sounds great. We're going to eat ice cream." And we arrive at this place, and first of all it was Italian. I thought, "Oh, that's interesting. Why do they have an Italian ice cream place? Yeah. Okay. All right. All right. Your Italian ice cream. And she goes, "You need to try spaghetti ice." And I thought, "Okay, that's just going a bridge too far." Up until that point, I had been eating everything that I never liked as a child, which I have to say, I now came to love a lot of those things, but eating spaghetti ice, I thought, "No. No. It can't be."

Speaker 16: She shows me the menu and my German wasn't quite there, and she goes, "Well, I'm going to order it anyway." And I'm like, oh okay, okay." They bring this spaghetti ice? Well sure enough. Spaghetti ice was just ice cream and a strawberry sauce that looked like spaghetti sauce. And then the ice cream had been run through, so it was just one of those funny things that I thought, "I'm willing to try everything but tomato sauce and ice cream. You know what? If I have an opportunity and I don't have to do that to be super polite, I'm not going to do it. But, I think as an exchange student, that's one of the things is you just have to learn to say "yes."

Speaker 17: The food. Of course, we've all heard of couscous there were so many different tagines. Lamb tagines, chicken tagines. This was food I wasn't typically familiar with but I adjusted, adapted and grew to love it. So a tagine is a dish. You'll have a lamb tagine or a chicken tagine but also a tagine is the form of a cookware. I would describe it as almost like a serving plate or a pot. So the food goes in the tagine and also it's the name of the dish.

Speaker 7: The mint tea? The mint tea came with actual mint inside of it, not like the teabags that we get in America. So it's like legit mint tea.

Speaker 18: Another thing I really like, the meals that they had were really healthy. They really cared about their health. They would have some cheap meals once maybe a week but most of the time, they ate a lot of vegetables, a lot of whole-wheat things and it was just fun to adapt to what they ate, how they lived their lives. When I make my new family, I want to add all these things that I learnt to my new family and also a combination of what I'm used to and my actual family back home. So back home, something Arabs or Palestinians are known for is their hospitality. So I just really wanted to represent that. So sometimes I made them traditional food from back home and showed them how we would treat our guests and I did the same thing for my cooking classes in my high school because I had really fun classes.

Speaker 18: One of them was cooking so I cooked them my traditional food and showed them how we would serve our traditional food. I loved of course tacos, burgers, the normal stuff, but I think this is a mid western dish. It was called chili. Do you know it?

Speaker 19: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Speaker 18: Yeah. So my host family cooked that a lot and I loved it. They had a lot of stews and big pots of things which I didn't expect. I just thought they would eat fast food. They had a lot of soups and healthy stuff, like I said, but chili was definitely my favorite. It was just really cozy and all nice. We'd sit together and just eat.

Speaker 23: I ate everything.

Speaker 21: Yeah. He was like a garbage disposal.

Speaker 22: Alex is the skinniest of all of us and we don't know where it goes. The guy does not stop eating.

Speaker 23: I do a lot of running-

Speaker 21: Yeah.

Speaker 23: ... so that helps. Yeah

Speaker 21: That explains it.

Speaker 21: Exercise.

Speaker 22: First of all, we've had the opportunity to try lots of delicious food. Just coming off of Georgia, we just had something called khachapuri, which is basically a hollowed out long loaf of bread that's filled with melty, delicious cheese and then a cracked runny egg on top and you eat it. And what we didn't realize is they said this is a special treat. This was at the end of the week. They're like, "Oh yeah, we only eat that like once a year. It's like everybody's favorite food but they only have it like one time." We had it, I think, five times in a week.

Speaker 21: How about durian?

Speaker 22: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. That was something. We kept hearing, we kept seeing the signs in the elevator. "No smelly foods. No smelly food." And a picture of a durian fruit, with all the points sticking out of it. And we're like, "Okay, we have to try this." And we finally did in Malaysia and oh my, it's good and it's terrible. And it's like a custard on top of, I don't know, that smells like-

Speaker 21: It smells really bad. It smells like a diaper and gasoline.

Speaker 9: Gasoline. Gasoline and diaper that tastes kind of like vanilla. Yeah.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

Dimitri Wurst: In this episode, our taste buds were, at times, tickled and at times traumatized by Cady Coleman, Abena Amoakuh, Graeme Gross, Wordsmith, Jenny Gill, Jane Malosh, Antonio Battle, members of the Tony Memmel Band and members of Humming House. We thank them for their stories and willingness to try new things.

Elena Wurst: For more about ECA exchanges, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and we'd love to hear from you. Write us at: ecacollaboratory@state.gov that's ecacollaboratory@state.gov. Dang it, I said "gub." Do I have to re-spell it?

Chris Wurst: No.

Elena Wurst: @state.gov. Complete episode transcripts can be found at our web page at eca.state.gov/2233. And check us out on Instagram at 2233_stories.

Elena Wurst: Special thanks this week to everyone for sharing their unique food stories. The various interviews were done by Ana-Maria Sinitean, and our dad, Christopher Wurst, who also edited this episode.

Elena Wurst: I'm Elena Wurst.

Dimitri Wurst: And I'm Dimitri Wurst.

Elena Wurst: And this week, we are giving our dad a break from spelling out the word collaboratory.

Dimitri Wurst: Again, that's collaboratory. Featured music during this segment was Off Minor by Thelonious  Monk.

Elena Wurst: Music at the top of each food episode is Monkeys Spinning Monkeys by Kevin MacLeod and credit music is Two Pianos by Tigerlios.

Elena Wurst: Until next time, and food-

Chris Wurst: Say it again, a little bit further away. Tiny bit further away.

Elena Wurst: And food-

Chris Wurst: No. Little bit closer.

Elena Wurst: And food.

Chris Wurst: Yep. Now without laughing.

Elena Wurst: And food.  


Season 01, Episode 87 - Crying Out for Kindness with the Tony Memmel Band

LISTEN HERE - Episode 87

Tony Memmel

DESCRIPTION Tony Memmel has never let anyone impose limits on his dreams and he followed his passion to become a successful guitarist, despite the fact that he was born with only one hand. Now he travels the world with his band serving as a source of hope for countless others. This episode features two exclusive “Little Nook” acoustic performances. For more information on the American Music Abroad program, visit: https://amvoices.org/ama/ensembles-2015/tony-memmel-and-his-band


Chris Wurst:  You were born with only one hand, but if anyone tried to impose limits on you, you must not have been listening. Instead, you followed a dream to become a guitarist and that led to a successful career in music. Now, as you travel around the world, what started as a dream for you has become a source of hope for countless others. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Alex Nixon:  We visited a rehabilitation center. Not only did we get to perform for the children, students there, we got to really exchange music and art. It was a lot of fun. We were invited to participate and get up and dance and I'm not shy. I'll do that. At first, I don't think I was moving in the right way, but then I was shown the proper masculine dance movements.

Joey Wingard:  Don't put your hands like this. The men do this.

Alex Nixon:  Yes, yes, yes. Strong, assertive-

Joey Wingard:  Yes.

Alex Nixon:  ... for the women. Moments like that, you aren't quite sure what's going to happen, but you just go with the flow and just live in the present. Those are the moments I'm definitely going to hold dear and really remember.

Chris Wurst:  This week touching the heads of children, playing ring around Alex and the generosity of people's time. Join us on a journey from Nashville all around the world, inspiring multitudes along the way. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1:  We report what happens in the United States, wars and all.
Intro Clip 2:  These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3:  When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves.

Tony Memmel:  My name is Tony Memmel. I'm originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but six years ago, moved to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue music. I've been on several tours with the Department of State working with American Music Abroad and Arts Envoy. Actually, this tour that we're leaving for this week will actually be our 13th and 14th countries working with these programs. So it's been such a joy. This is my absolute favorite kind of work to do.

Joey Wingard:  I am Joey Wingard. I've been in Nashville 13 years now. Oh my gosh. I play electric guitar and acoustic guitar. I've been touring with Tony for about two and a half years now. This will be my ninth and 10th country going around with Tony and being part of his band.

Alex Nixon:  I'm Alex Nixon. I'm originally from Jonesborough, Arkansas and I've been living in Nashville, Tennessee now for, it's coming on 14 years in August. I'm, by trade, a freelance musician. I play drums and percussion and do some singing as well.

Tony Memmel:  I really enjoy these programs for a lot of reasons. I feel when I have the opportunity to be traveling to these countries and to be working with especially youth, there's just all these amazing opportunities for impact. I feel like my life is always impacted. I'm a totally different person than before I started doing these tours. I also know from feedback from people I meet that we're also making impact as we go.

Joey Wingard:  It's kind of cliche to say that it's a universal language, but there's something about the way music makes you move, feel, think that transcends any kind of culture, any kind of language barrier. You could play a chord and people know what that means. I think that's as specific as I can get because it really, it is, it's one of those ethereal things, realizing that while we have different cultures, we're very much the same.

Tony Memmel:  A big thing that I've try and practice and learn is that I feel like music is an opportunity to look beyond myself and look more and at it as a service or as an opportunity to share, and just to kind of get out of your own mind a little bit and be looking for opportunities just to connect with people. So once you start to move beyond worrying about how you sound or how you're coming across and just be in it, I think that that is liberating and actually ends up being the opportunity to make the biggest connections.

Tony Memmel:  I remember before our last tour when we were going to be traveling to Asia, we were told in our briefing over and over we're going to be working with kids a lot and they said, "Don't touch children on the head," which is like, I don't generally go around touching people on the head, but once you're told that you can't do that or something like, "Oh, you little rascal come here," it makes you feel like a little bit aware of that. But we went to a school, it was a specifically... We work a lot with children with differences. I was born without a left hand and taught myself to play the guitar and as we travel around we, this particular day we were working with children who were in school, but working through dyslexia and other learning differences.

Tony Memmel:  I remember going into the school, the children were very polite, all just waiting for us to come in and do our concert. We did the show and then afterwards, we'd had so much fun. A little girl came up to me and she took my hand and touched it to her head and then the whole class came up and did that one after the other. We were told that when we left, that that's a sign of great respect, and that was a really touching moment for me. Yeah, touches me to this day when I think about it, gives me goosebumps.

Joey Wingard:  We were in Battambang, Cambodia and we're playing this school, this arts school that trains kids and some adults in the arts and how to find jobs and work. One day, we get to play this big show in Battambang at this school and just the people that came out and their enthusiasm and these kids. We were kind of in the jungle and they brought in a bunch of spotlights and that also brought in every bug from the jungle, a biblical plague of bugs. That was something I've never experienced ever. You had to keep your mouth closed for most of the thing. It'd be Tony who had to sing the whole time, but it was so sweet. Everyone was so supportive and there was a group of students there that they started a fire and put leaves on it to make smoke and were wafting smoke onto the stage to keep the bugs away from us. It was just one of those moments that was like, "This is so beyond anything I've ever done."

Tony Memmel:  One time on this previous tour where I felt particularly proud of my American upbringing and heritage was, I mentioned earlier that we have the opportunity to do lots of different types of work on these tours. So our first day in Georgia was public concerts, but our second day we were asked to lead a forum, a conversation with local activists and people in the non government organizations working, especially with people who have physical differences and disabilities, and asked to actually lead this conversation with them. We were told that they're actually looking to the United States for ways to model their own law system and their own type of inclusion that the United States does a good job with in this regard in my estimation. One thing that really struck me in our meeting, one man said that just 15 years ago in Georgia, if you were somebody who had a significant physical difference, a significant physical disability, that you were carried as long as you could be carried until you were too heavy to be carried, and then you would be laid in the bed that you would spend the rest of your life in.

Tony Memmel:  So they're working tirelessly on just improving infrastructure and making it so that you can take an elevator in a building or you can get around the city and just up and down stairs and things. They said that it gave him great courage to meet us because of the physical difference that I have. Because one other thing they're also trying to encourage is local role models and people to just demonstrate that you have a purpose, that you're wonderfully made, that you can go out and do things with your life with your special unique gifts, talents, and abilities. Just to have been told that by that group of people, and just to felt that like-mindedness a world away was just a really beautiful moment for me on this previous tour in Georgia.

Tony Memmel:  I think a lot of it comes down to the individual. I think a lot of it comes down to culture. In some places we've been, people have come up to me and said they've been shamed by their parents. From the time they're very little, they're not mainstreamed in schools, they're kept private. I think if that's something you're told your whole life, maybe that's something you start to believe about yourself. But there's also a lot of resilience and I believe that it's part of my own personal mission to have the opportunity to share music and the upbringing that I had, and just the music that I do, and the cast that I make to play the guitar and I find in especially teaching people adaptive music, like helping somebody who's never played guitar before to make their first few chords, even if they have a significant physical difference, that if you can get past that initial challenge where there's a will, there's a way.

Tony Memmel:  There's a lot of heart in these people and a lot of courage and a lot of hope. So that's something that I love having the opportunity to just speak right into and live right into when we have these chances to tour.

Tony Memmel:  Almost every meal, if I'm carrying a plate or a tray, somebody will come up and ask if I need help. I almost always just dismiss it, but then if they're persistent, especially something that I try and just be aware of and just friendly about is I think that we live in a society and a world where people are like crying out for kindness. I think one way that people demonstrate kindness is by offering a hand and trying to lend it. So I don't try and let my own pride get in the way of what another person's offer to do something nice for me. First of all, I know I can do that thing. I know I can carry my plate from this table to that table, but if it's something they're trying to be nice about, I also try and just let that happen sometimes too.

Joey Wingard:  One very profound act of kindness happened really recently a couple of weeks ago when we were in Jordan. We played at a disability center, one of the most amazing shows I've been a part of and just the reaction and the strength in these people. They were all touched. It was just a great exchange and they made handmade gifts. One guy made a handmade mosaic, really heavy, beautiful piece that says, "Tony Memmel, we are here," and it was just profound. Then this really sweet guy was just trying to... We're in a rush to get to the next show at the mall and it's just one of those things that it's like we'd spend here all day if we could, but we just have to go. But he's trying to get our attention, and it's like, "Okay, okay, we'll see you at the mall. I'll come to the mall."

Joey Wingard:  Then he showed up and we played this really amazing show at the mall and it was streamed on Facebook and the reception was amazing. Then his name was Jamil and he showed up at the mall and came up and he goes, "Can I borrow you for a second?" But he wanted a private moment and he expressed to each of us how much that day meant to him. In the time between that show and the show at the mall, he had went out and bought us all gifts, tokens from Jordan tokens, from his home town that really meant something to him and he presented us each. It was so nice that he wanted a one on one moment. Jamil, that was really special.

Tony Memmel:  I would build on what Joey said in terms of just the generosity of people that we have met in every place that I've had the chance to travel to. On this previous tour, somebody came up to me, a woman who had a son who had been born with down syndrome and she was so excited to meet me that she had spent weeks making a handmade carpet for me to take home. Those types of things are just, you know, just saying it right now, it just really touches me. Then I would also say that people amazingly generous with their time and just their attention and interest.

Tony Memmel:  For a band traveling to a place like Cambodia for the first time to show up there and to be doing soundcheck two hours before our performance and have like a half full theater already, just people can't wait to meet us and hear us. They're going to be sitting there a long time. There's not much in between the soundtrack and when we start. Then playing a concert in a park in Taiwan when it's pouring rain, raining cats and dogs, cold and people are just sitting out there in their ponchos listening to every note and stayed the entire concert. Moments like that make you, in whatever way you can, just sing a little harder that night and just bring it and return in any way I can, the gifts that have already been given to me.

Joey Wingard:  Well, this song is called, "I Am Never, never, never Going to Give Up," and this is a song that's actually brand new. I wrote it not that long ago, but we just started sharing it on our previous tour and it's been so fun to share with audiences because the repetition and it's not particularly difficult language that audiences by the end of the song, are just screaming it out with us. This is one that we're really excited to share with you.

Band:  (playing music)

Tony Memmel:  One time that sticks out in my mind that was really powerful and special was we were in Medan, Indonesia visiting a children's hospital and we are specifically in a pediatric bone cancer unit, so a lot of children who had recently had amputations and differences. We started the concert with them, but then throughout the concert, people from all throughout the hospital came and this is another opportunity where the room started with everyone sitting quietly, but by the end they were on the stage and some of them had personal nurse attendance with them who were dancing with their IVs and adjusting it as they go. Man, just to be there in that moment singing, "Can't Stop the Feeling," by Justin Timberlake and have those kids dancing, That's something I want the whole world to know about.

Alex Nixon:  It was pretty intense. When we were in Azerbaijan, there was a guy. He's well known musician in the country and he also teaches at the national conservatory. He plays a native Azerbaijani instrument called the tar, which is a string guitar like instrument. I just felt super proud because we all learned a Azerbaijani folk song called [foreign language]. That was really, super cool and then it just ramped up to this very kind of euphoric state when this tarp layer got up and jammed on one of Tony's songs. That was just an amazing moment and the communication was palpable between us.

Tony Memmel:  I would say the emotional range of our songs tends much more toward like almost everything is really uptempo and positive. So actually, it tends to be more like you walk into a room and everyone is very politely seated, but by the end, they're all crowded to the stage dancing and singing and throwing their hands in the air and sweating. I think just that change of temperament and position and just elevation is what I really would take from it.

Joey Wingard:  There was a moment in Malaysia, in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and we were playing this gymnasium and the same thing. We showed up to do soundcheck two and a half hours early and the place was half full already and there were there just with excitement. Then there was this shy kid that kept to himself, but he brought his guitar. He brought it and was so eager to show it to me. He was following, I guess on what we were doing online because he knew what kind of songs we were playing and he was trying to pick up on some of the stuff I was doing.

Joey Wingard:  So just for 15 minutes, sat down in front of him, just listened to him pluck away and I was like, "This is cool." You'd like to think so much that your music, what you do touches people. Then to have them be so eager and so ready to show that and be himself, be proud of what he was doing, yeah that was like, "Okay, this is cool." Then at the end of the show, Tony brought him on stage and he came up stage and plugged in and we played, "Stand By Me," together and that was a really cool moment.

Joey Wingard:  This is Alex's first trip with us and we were in Georgia and this was kind of a tacked on event. They just wanted to stop by the center for children with down syndrome and cerebral palsy. They were just loving it and we didn't have any amplification. There were, I don't know, 50 kids just loving every moment of it and just having a ball. But there was no personal space. So there was no stage. We were just in this room. Everyone was running around and trying our instruments while we were playing. It was so fun, but I just look back and at one moment they were doing ring around Alex because Alex sits on a cajon and they were all running around him in a circle and Alex just has the biggest smile on his face playing. That's what I got the biggest kick out of, ring around-

Tony Memmel:  One thing that always happens is that no matter where we go in the world, people have a hard time with Joey's name. He has been called Joyce-

Joey Wingard:  Joyce, yes.

Tony Memmel:  ... Bob-

Joey Wingard:  Oh, yeah.

Tony Memmel:  His last name is Wingard, but people have called him Wilkie.

Joey Wingard:  Wilkie, yeah.

Tony Memmel:  So it's a lot of fun just to... He responds to all of these names now within our band personal dynamics. You can call him Joyce Wilkie and he'll know exactly who you're talking to.

Joey Wingard:  Bob.

Tony Memmel:  In that same vein, we showed up at an American corner in Khachmaz, Azerbaijan and the kids were all waiting for us. They'd all made signs with our names on it and one that we kept nice and close in the guitar case so we could see it every time we opened it and remember this very special moment, it was, "We love you, Tony and Alex."

Joey Wingard:  In beautiful English letters, "We love you, Tony and Alex."

Tony Memmel:  No, Joey

Joey Wingard:  No, Joey. It's hard not to take that personally.

Band:  (playing music)

Joey Wingard:  All right. Got a sing along for you. I'll start it off. Join in anytime.

Band:  (playing music).

Band:  (clapping and crosstalk)

Tony Memmel:  When we are in Surabaya, Indonesia, we were asked one day to lead a workshop for adaptive musicians, people who had any number of differences, and we're trying to make music a part of their life. I learned that day that one child who had come to the event had actually traveled seven hours to be there because he had heard that we were there and that we might have an opportunity to help him. I felt this is exactly where I'm supposed to be and it's not playing to 35,000 people, it's touching one heart, one soul, right now. I felt like this is my purpose, this is why I'm alive, is to do this.

Chris Wurst:  22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the of The Collaboratory.

Chris Wurst:  22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of the US government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst:  This week, we were lucky to hear stories and songs from the Tony Memmel Band, featuring Tony Memmel, Joey Wingard and Alex Nixon. The band are veteran performers with American Music Abroad. For more about the band, check out TonyMemmel.com. For more about ECA cultural programs and other exchanges check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and leave us a nice review while you're at it, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us as always at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's ECA C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at ECA.state.gov/2233. You can check us out and follow us on Instagram now @2233Stories.

Chris Wurst:  Very special thanks to Tony, Joey and Alex for their time and talent. Ana-Maria Sinitean and I did the interview, and I edited this segment. She and I also provided some backup handclaps and vocals for the Epic Little Nook exclusive performances. You've heard of, "I Am Never, Never, Never Going to Give Up, and, "Baby." All of the other music was courtesy of Tony, instrumental versions of, "Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," "Best Week Ever," "Try to Trade," and, "Old McDonald Had A Farm." Music at the top of each episode is, "Sebastian," by How The Night Came and the end credit music is, "Two Pianos," by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 86 - The Same Earth Everywhere with Munif Khan

LISTEN HERE - Episode 86

Amy Avellano in snow


When Munif Khan touched the soil in rural Iowa, it didn't seem much different than the soil in his hometown of Bangladesh. Yet, the fact that there were nearly 157 million fewer people on the same size piece of land meant making some big adjustments.


Chris Wurst: When you touch the soil in rural Iowa, you realized it wasn't much different from that in Bangladesh. But on top of that soil, life in Altoona was a whole lot quieter, which I guess is to be expected when you have 157 million less people on the same size piece of land. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Munif Khan: I can see streets with corn fields on both sides. The street is like disappearing. I mean, it's like flowing like a river and disappearing into the horizon. I smell mashed potatoes and corn and butter. I can taste hamburger. And I can hear a silence, a silence. A peaceful silence with dogs barking in the background, birds chirping, but still a peaceful silence.

Chris Wurst: This week, talking to yourself in a strange language. The earth itself knows no borders and proud to be made in Bangladesh. Join us on a journey from Bangladesh to Iowa to confirm that there is no higher calling than helping other people. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people much like ourselves and-
Intro Clip 4: (music)

Munif Khan: My name is Munif Khan. I'm from Bangladesh. Right now I'm working for a non government organization that deals with vocational education in Bangladesh. The program that I went on is called Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study program. I went to Iowa to study in a high school for one academic year.

Munif Khan: When I was in high school, right after finishing my O Level exams, I thought that I want to volunteer because I had some time left. So I actually went to an organization called Center for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed. I went there and I worked. And the work that I did there were very simple work but it was for a greater cause. On top of the building it was written that service to people is service to God, and that kind of like moved me. At that point I was looking for more opportunities to volunteer and give back to the community.

Munif Khan: I found out about the YES program. I applied for it and I got in. And within a year I found myself in Altoona, Iowa. So when I landed in Iowa, it was the airport in de Moines, all I could see was cornfields. Miles after miles cornfields that disappeared into the horizon. And my host dad was telling me Iowa was actually a little bigger than the size of Bangladesh. When I asked him about the population, I think Iowa had 3 million people in it, when in Bangladesh at that time, had more than 160 million people. That kind of like blew my mind and I kind of felt like I'm in another Bangladesh with just less people, and there is no place you can go where you cannot find people in Bangladesh.

Munif Khan: I come from a family where both my parents, they're very, I would say liberal. Liberal as in, you know in high school we had some rules in the house in the U.S. We had a curfew. Back in Bangladesh, I did not have that. I could come at like 12:00 AM at night. I could come back home and my mom wouldn't care that much about that. My dad wouldn't care much about that. If they knew where I was or if they knew that there was a valid reason I was out. In the U.S., I could not skip school unless I was very, very sick. In Bangladesh, you can skip school easily. I remember after one or two periods I used to go by the riverside and have cup of tea with my other friends who actually skipped school. So that was kind of like a regular thing when we were in high school level. In the U.S., what I found out, that that was not possible.

Munif Khan: I was never one of those brilliant students, but I always thought there is much to learn outside the classrooms. So my favorite song is Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall. So you can imagine what my philosophy about institutions are.

Munif Khan: I thought, before going to the U.S., I could, I mean people wouldn't care much about whether I'm going to school or not. I thought that families are going to be more liberal than my parents, because I thought that my parents are not that liberal at that point. But after going to the U.S., I found out my U.S. family, my host family, was pretty conservative and I don't say that in a negative sense. There was a curfew and I had to abide by that rule. I did not have my own phone. I had to use a family phone, which I shared with two other siblings, host siblings of mine. I could not skip school and I had to do the household chores, which I could skip in my own family, my natural family. Those are the assumptions that I had that was proven wrong, once I went to the U.S. and experienced the family, the school, and the culture.

Munif Khan: My host mom went to another city to do some shopping. She went there, did some shopping, bought some shirts for me, nice shirts for me. When she came back and I tried them out, they were excellent. I loved them. And when I saw the tag, the tag said made in Bangladesh. And at that point it actually made me very, very proud that my mom would give me something from America and it would say that it was made in Bangladesh.

Munif Khan: In Bangladesh I used, I lived in Mymensingh for a long time, and Mymensingh is a small town but still a million people in it almost. So I never ever had like a quiet environment. It was always crowded, and cars honking their horns, and people shouting, arguing. So when I went there, and there was like so much nature and the silence. That was something, that was an experience I will never forget.

Munif Khan: Language is a very integral and I would say a very core of any culture. And that's because when I was in Iowa, I did not find a single person who could speak Bangla. I was going insane. Insane in the sense that I would go to the bathroom, I would look in the mirror, and all of a sudden I would realize that I'm thinking in English. That would be at the same time kind of like amazing and horrifying. And I would try to speak in Bangla forcibly with me, with myself, with my reflection on the mirror. And I think, at that point I was thinking that, "Am I going crazy or like what is this?"

Munif Khan: As I thought about it more and more, I figured out that my mother tongue, Bangla, was the language which I used first to get to know about myself. So it's a part of my entity. This is the language in which I kind of define myself. So not being able to speak this language for so long taught me a lesson, that language is very, very important. And that's what I missed the most when I was away, when I was away from Bangladesh.

Munif Khan: If I was in my home country and I never knew about YES program, and I never participated in any exchange program, I think I would be a completely different person than who I am now. I would not understand why diversity is important. I would never understand why Americans think the way they think. Why an Arab student would think the way they think. I would never understand the core values of a different culture. And that would, I would say, cripple me in many ways in my thoughts, in my perception about the world. The windows off my heart will always stay, would have stayed closed. I would not have been able to question things like why do they do this this way?

Munif Khan: I think the exchange program taught me to ask that why question and for which I have learned so much in past few years. I now try to, if I see somebody doing something differently, before judging I ask why is that person doing it this way? I try to understand their perspective, sympathize with that person. And I think that's the quality that exchange program gives you. Kind of like opens your eyes, takes all the shades away from your eyes, and you can see. And you try to understand, try to see what what people actually are, and why people actually do things their way.

Munif Khan: Bangladesh is majorly a patriarchal country. Growing up in a patriarchal society molds your personality and your character. I never knew that. I never knew that I had those qualities. So I often times I would say like, "Yeah, I'm very liberal." But when I went to the U.S., quite often I would do something and then realize that whatever I just did was something that was inspired by the patriarchal society of Bangladesh where I grew up. I think at one point my host mother was a little upset with me, because she was thinking that the way I was interacting with my host dad and the way I was interacting with my host mom, there was a difference. And she was talking to me about it. And then I was in a total denial, and that kind of made her more upset, which is understandable. And I didn't realize that I was actually wrong. And I said sorry to her afterwards.

Munif Khan: So last time when I came to Kolkata, India, and at the airport I was stuck for some time, and I met this woman who is a sex worker. And I chatted with this woman for about like three, four hours that night, as I was stuck with her. And we really, really talked about a lot of things about women, about culture, about religion. And we had, although that person was not very well educated from institutions, when she talked with me, I figured that she had probably received other sort of education, the education that you get from life. She had experience and from that experience she could talk about all these things, these social stigma, and how society portrays certain things. And after that discussion I realized and I thought to myself that if I did not go for this exchange program, I would probably judge this woman before engaging into a conversation. That, I would say, is an example. The exchange program has actually brought a major, a drastic change in me.

Munif Khan: I never thought I could work that hard. My host parents had a porch and then a backyard. And in the backyard, my host dad once a chopped down a tree because it was dead. And we had to go and collect all the branches, and doing all those things that I have seen my grandfathers do in the field back in the villages of Bangladesh. When I could touch the soil, and I could feel that the soil that I touched in Bangladesh and the soil I touched in the U.S., they felt all the same. And I realized that it's just borders and the borders are just manmade. The Earth, it's just one thing without borders. So I kind of felt like I'm a global citizen at that point. I really, really wish that in this world, in this earth, there were no borders and we could go anywhere, share our culture with anybody, and had that freedom.

Munif Khan: During my high school graduation, when I was wearing the cap and the gown, I was walking there and with everybody, and then I threw my cap in the air. I really, really wished that my friends and family back home could see me. That was a proud moment for me.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of a U.S. government funded international exchange program.

Chris Wurst: This week, Munif Khan from Bangladesh, talked about his time here on a Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study, or YES, program. For more about YES and other ECA exchange programs check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts, and leave us a nice review while you're at it, hey. And we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. You can find photos of each week's interviewee and a complete episode transcript at our webpage that's at eca.state.gov/2233.

Chris Wurst: Very special thanks to Munif for his stories and for being such a positive force for good in the world. The interview was conducted in Kolkata, India by Amy Hill, who in her day job works for the wonderful organization StoryCenter. And I edited it. Featured music was Filing Away, Heliotrope, and In Paler Skies by Blue Dot Sessions and Fu-Up Jump by Spectacular Sound Productions. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How The Night Came. And the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 85 - Beautiful Sounds in the Sky with Edward Nassor

LISTEN HERE - Episode 85


What started as a curiosity about a unique sounding instrument ultimately led Edward Nassor to the top of the United State's capital city, Washington D.C. Specifically, to the top of the Washington National Cathedral (where this episode was actually recorded) as the man behind the music in the bell tower. Watch a video clip of Edward playing here: https://www.instagram.com/p/B6IO9mxpLEJ/


Chris Wurst: What started as a curiosity about a unique sounding instrument has led you to the top of our nation's capitol city, specifically to the top of the Washington National Cathedral. And a reminder that behind the ubiquitous is ringing bells, there's a man who has traveled far and wide and that his initial curiosity led to a lifetime of music. As Oscar Hammerstein once said, "A bell is not a bell until you ring it." You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Edward Nassor: Whenever I play at the Netherlands Carillon, or Washington National Cathedral, one has to be ready to play solemn music at a moment's notice. When Ted Kennedy was being buried at Arlington Cemetery, next to his brother, the funeral cortege happened to come over Memorial Bridge during the time of an evening, Carillon recital. So I noticed all these people were walking through the park and I said, "Well, they're not all coming to hear the Carillon recital. There's thousands of people here. They're heading down to Memorial Bridge to pay their respects and watch the funeral procession." So I switched over and played, when Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

Edward Nassor: At Washington Cathedral, we often play solemn music, but we can have an element of whimsy if the occasion demands it. I've played for some events where it, might be a corporate evening event for some lawyers, and I was told that, "This is a young crowd, they like music of the 70s." So Stairway to Heaven. Works for me. Sounded good on the bells too.

Chris Wurst: This week; listening to your music blanketing Amsterdam, hearing Stairway to Heaven from the top of the National Cathedral, and playing a very special funeral service for Senator J. William Fulbright. Join us, and journey from Virginia to Amsterdam, and hitting all the right notes. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, very much like ourselves, and...
Speaker 6: Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange. Ooh, yes.

Edward Nassor: My name is Edward Nassor. I'm from Fairfax, Virginia. I am the carillonneur of Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The carillon is a unique musical instrument of tower bells that are played from a keyboard resembling an organ keyboard. There's keys you can play with your hands and there's pedals that you play with your feet. The carillon at Washington Cathedral has 53 bells and that makes it a grand carillon.

Edward Nassor: I became interested in carillon when I was a music student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. I wanted to study all the keyboard instruments and I took the opportunity to take some carillon lessons. I didn't know the Carillon was a keyboard instrument when I first read about it, but I was trying to imagine in my mind what large bells and a tower would sound like, and how you would play them from the keyboard. Well, once I was introduced to the carillon, I was hooked.

Edward Nassor: It felt like playing a giant piano in the sky. You're 200 feet above the ground, playing an instrument that can be heard for miles around. The bells are big enough to stand in. Some weigh 10 tons, others weigh 17 pounds, as big as a hand bell you might hold. I studied the carillon for three years. And then, when I left and graduated, I sought further carillon lessons.

Edward Nassor: I started attending local carillon recitals. One of them, a weekly recital, was at the Netherlands Carillon, in Arlington, Virginia. I met the carillonneur there. I soon began studying with the carillonneur there. Eventually, I was appointed the carillonneur at the Netherlands Carillon after my teacher had passed away, and I learned that there was a Dutch Carillon school.

Edward Nassor: As I was finishing my masters, I applied for a Fulbright Grant to study in Holland. While I was in the application process, a vacancy opened at Washington National Cathedral, several months after I was appointed the Cathedral carillonneur. Then, the Fulbright grant came through.

Edward Nassor: Fantastic. I have a year study grant, but I just got the best job you'll ever get in the United States playing the carillon. Fortunately, I'm probably the only person who received a sabbatical their first year. I was not the first Fulbrighter to study carillon in Europe, but I was the first Fulbrighter to study carillon at the Dutch Carillon School. After that, many people followed in my path and I consulted and mentored a few of them to get started and now it's not too unusual to do that.

Edward Nassor: One assumption I had about the Dutch culture was totally wrong. I knew that it was a fairly liberal society and certain things were legal in how and that we're not in the United States, so I figured, "Oh, the Dutch students, especially music students, they're probably party animals." No, they're very serious. They practiced, practiced, practiced. Their drug of choice was caffeine and nicotine.

Edward Nassor: But that was an important year. The study I had at the Netherlands carillon School gave me the repertoire and the tools I needed to build the repertoire that I would need both at the Netherlands carillon and Washington National Cathedral, where you have to change your program every week. When I first arrived in the Netherlands, my ears were on fire. It felt like I had been transported through a window back in time to the 17th century, because there are many historical carillons made anywhere from the late 1500s to the early 1700s.

Edward Nassor: Here, you heard the actual instruments with the same tuning that they've had for 300 years sitting in the towers. And they play on the hour. It was just a such a treat. It really felt like I had stepped into another world.

Edward Nassor: I was fortunate that I went to a modern European country. I saw a lot of similarities with our culture, in America. Not a lot of differences. The Dutch are such a warm and open, friendly people, that it was easy to acclimate myself there. When I would develop programs for the carillon, I would do it often in the same format that I would in the United States.

Edward Nassor: I would play folk songs, although these would now be Dutch folk songs. I would play light classical music, that would be familiar, say Beethoven, Verdi, Dvorak, what have you, and then I would also play original music written for carillon. I got to learn much of the current and recent Dutch carillon style, which was really fascinating. I couldn't wait to bring it back to the United States to play in the Netherlands carillon.

Edward Nassor: One of the times I felt particularly proud was when I passed my recital exam. This was like your bachelor's degree music recital. It was given in the tower and broadcast on the radio, and the public was out there, and invited to hear it. Of course, it was graded and it was not only music and arrangements you made, it was also improvisations where the professors would give you a melody as you walked up the tower and you had that long to figure out how to play it.

Edward Nassor: A big surprise for me was the day I was visiting my teacher in Amsterdam. He was the carillonneur of the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam. As I was walking up to the house, the hour strike was playing and there's a melody that plays before the hour strike and I was thinking, "Boy, that's really familiar. I like that tune." And then I realized, "Oh, that's my arrangement of a guitar piece."

Edward Nassor: My teacher had taken the time to change the 17th century pin drum, with hundreds of pins, to put that melody on the automatic bells. That was a real treat, to hear my music played over Amsterdam.

Edward Nassor: When I close my eyes and think about my exchange to the Netherlands, I can almost hear the early tuning from the 16th century, the mean tone tuning. I can smell the marketplace smells of herring, and coffee, and Stroopwafels. A lot of this is, because, as a large part of my studies, I would play market recitals. So the carillon, typically, in Holland, played before, during and after the closing of the open air markets. And so there was no better time to find the culture of the place, but in between playings, to go down and just take in the sights and smells of the marketplace.

Edward Nassor: I feel really fortunate that I had the opportunity to study in the Netherlands and to see the European carillon culture. While I was there, I traveled to Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France. Played many different places and saw the culture and what the different communities did with their bells, how they use them, which events the bells were made to play for.

Edward Nassor: There's an American carillon culture and there's a European carillon culture. Had I stayed in America, I would not really feel as if I could be a carillonneur of the world, because I would know my folk songs. I would know the American repertoire that was built for the American instruments. The American instruments are quite different.

Edward Nassor: Many of them are grand carillons, with an extended range. This leads to larger bells, wider towers, and when it comes to the music itself, the arrangements also have wider intervals and more space between the notes. Because these large bells resonate so much more fully, that they take up the space. A lot of the European music was like filigree. It was just so beautiful to match the two styles and come up with a style that works for me.

Edward Nassor: There's a huge ripple effect, from my studies at the Netherlands. To get my degree in camp analogy from the Dutch carillon School, my thesis was: The Ideal Way to Restore the Netherlands Carillon. The Carillon was given to the United States in the 1950s, based on historic Dutch instruments. So my plan was to add three bells, switch the keyboard, so C sounded C, and then we'd have a completely modern instrument.

Edward Nassor: About three years ago, when the Dutch technicians were working on the Netherlands Carillon, the technician in charge said, "Oh, by the way, Ed, we found your plan from the 90s for the Carillon and we're going to propose it to the embassy." Well, we're in process now. We expect the bells will be removed during the fall of '19 and come back some time with three additional bells and we should have a brand new, completely modern instrument, in concert pitch, a grand carillon, worthy of the best of the Dutch carillons.

Edward Nassor: I'm not sure that the instrument would have been changed at all, or updated, had it not been for my study in the Netherlands. Because the idea was, what's the ideal of this instrument? What could it become? Most historic instruments, people try to preserve what is. And if that's very old fashioned or outdated, so be it, because that's a window on the culture of the 1950s.

Edward Nassor: But the Dutch carillon culture continues to improve. We have active exchanges where Dutch carillonneurs come over and play here, and Americans go over and play there. So it's kind of an a happy open market where we share a lot with each other, and also what would be the best dispositions of these instruments. So I am so pleased, and I think this can only happen when the carillonneur is completely for it and works tirelessly towards it, and you have a receptive country and embassy.

Edward Nassor: And the staff of the Royal Dutch Embassy has been a fantastic support for this. The National Park Service has been supporting this. It's really a dream come true. Most carillonneurs are lucky if they can have one restoration in their lifetime, and this would be the second in my career here. I hope this restoration will be one that will last for generations.

Edward Nassor: The Dutch gave the United States the Netherlands Carillon in appreciation for aid and assistance during and after World War II. The first bell was presented by Queen Juliana to President Truman as a token of the carillon to come. The Carillon first came in 1954.

Edward Nassor: The permanent tower is in Arlington, Virginia, in Arlington Ridge Park, in a direct access with the monumental corridor of the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial. And the Netherlands carillon is the final part of that corridor. It's quite an honor to be in such a location.

Edward Nassor: When you play the bells there, you have the entire vista of Washington, DC in front of you. It's an extraordinary view, and an extraordinary feeling to be up there, and such a gift to be able to play music on that instrument in this location with people from all around the world as your audience.

Edward Nassor: Here at the National Cathedral, many people think that we're extremely serious. But in fact, we're quite flexible. We can go anywhere from a state funeral, with all the due respect and pomp that is necessary, to a pancake race, with clergy flipping pancakes and the nave on Shrove Tuesday. For example, I'll play a program this afternoon where I'll start with a very serious Lenten hymn, because we are in the liturgical season of Lent. But it's also the peak time of the cherry blossom festival in Washington, DC, so I'll play some variations on the Japanese Cherry Blossom song, Sakura Sakura.

Edward Nassor: Interestingly enough, I got these arrangements of Japanese music from students I studied with. Japanese students who were also attending the Netherlands Carillon School at the same time I was. So we have this exchange, where they play American folk songs over there, I play their songs here. This became really special when the cathedral did a solemn anniversary service for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Edward Nassor: One of the students I studied with was a child of a man who was a Hiroshima survivor when he was six years old. I played her ring arrangement at this commemorative service. I think it touched a lot of hearts in a couple of continents when I was able to play that music. Thank you, Yuko, for your beautiful music.

Edward Nassor: Then again, years later, we did a commemorative service in support of the Japanese flood victims after Fukushima. I played a program of Japanese folk songs, and the famous Spring Sea piece, which is a well known light classical piece in Japan. The cathedral received letters, which were directed to my music director, who informed me that people in the audience were very moved and crying because they heard the music of their childhood when they came to the cathedral to remember their home country. So to me, that's the Fulbright difference.

Edward Nassor: Flexibility is a key to being a carillonneur in a city where things are constantly changing. Dave Brubeck was in town, giving a choral concert at Washington Cathedral of his religious works. And I said to the director of The Choral Society, "Oh, I could play his music on the bells." And he said, "Oh, you could not. He'd never recognize it."

Edward Nassor: I said, "What time are you going to lunch?" So when they left the Cathedral, I played Take Five on the Carillon. And the next week, I received a lovely signed concert poster. Hey Ed, thanks for Take Five on the Carillon. Dave Brubeck.

Edward Nassor: One of the highlights that I'll always remember was the two concerts I had played with Ravi Shankar. This was in the early 1990s, when he was doing benefit concerts for victims in the Yugoslavian Wars, also Bangladesh, and all the proceeds went to these children's charities. He came, his daughter, Anoushka, was disciple, at that point, studying with him, and his wife also played with them and a famous percussionist who sang.

Edward Nassor: One of the things he asked was, "You have bells here, I remember, when I played here a long time ago?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Are they in tune?" I said, "Of course." He said, "No, I mean, are they in A440 tuning?" And I said, "Yes." And he sends up his aide to go up there with a tuner and confirmed that they were.

Edward Nassor: Well, once he was satisfied that they were in tune, he said, "Good. I'd like you to play in my finale piece." And it was A Prayer of Peace, and it has a little bell motif that comes in the middle and at the end of the piece. And I was... Ravi Shankar is performing in the nave of the cathedral, but we had an audio hookup to the tower, so I could hear them. And then what I played was broadcast into the cathedral. So that's how I got to perform two nights with Ravi Shankar for a children's benefit.

Edward Nassor: In my role, as carillonneur at Washington National Cathedral, I've had the occasion to play for many a solemn service. I've played for state funerals of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. One of the most memorable, and personally satisfying ones for me, was to play for the funeral of J. William Fulbright, in 1995. Being a Fulbright Scholar, I felt like I owed the family and the program a lot.

Edward Nassor: I was so pleased that I was in a position to provide a dignified carillon prelude for him. In planning the service, many people call the cathedral and said, "Well, I'm a Fulbright Scholar in music. May I perform at the service?" And the cathedral had to say, "I'm sorry, but we already have a Fulbright musician on staff, but thank you for your interest."

Edward Nassor: I played a patriotic program with a lot of heroic music, and based between classical and American music. And Aaron Copland, Fanfare for the Common Man. And other standard pieces that would be very recognizable and some of the best music that our country had to offer.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week carillonneur, Edward Nassar, shared stories from his Fulbright Exchange to the Netherlands, and from his time as the longest serving carillonneur at the Washington National Cathedral. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do it wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you.

Chris Wurst: You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And you can check us out on Instagram at 2233stories.

Chris Wurst: Huge special thanks to Edward, not only for sharing his stories, but for taking me to the very top of the Washington National Cathedral to watch and record him playing. I did the interview and edited this segment. All of the music you heard featured Edward playing the National Cathedral's carillon. I recorded the longer excerpt, which was the traditional Japanese song Edward referred to in the story.

Chris Wurst: Music at the top of this episode was Quatrefoil by Podington Bear and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 84 - And Justice For All with Amy Avellano

LISTEN HERE - Episode 84

Amy Avellano in snow


Every step of Amy Avello's journey, from student activist to family court judge in the Philippines, she has had to confront and overcome stereotypes and obstacles. It wasn't easy but she did so gladly and with determination because those for whom she was fighting did not have a voice of their own.


Chris Wurst: Every step of your journey, from student activist to family court judge, you have had to confront and overcome stereotypes and obstacles. It wasn't easy, but you did so gladly and with determination, because those for whom you were fighting did not have a voice of their own. You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Amy Avellano: I went to the Supreme Court, I queued up at 6:30 in the morning hoping I could get into the session hall and watch an oral argument. Unfortunately I wasn't early enough, only the first 50 people made it inside the session hall. But I finally made it inside at 10:15 in the morning for a three minute observation. And there she was, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the icon. And I was breathing the same air that she's breathing. Asking me do I feel optimistic about the future. I should be. Because at the time when RBG became a lawyer, the environment wasn't as embracing and as inclusive of women as it is now. And that's also the same in the Philippines. So for all I know, the next ... The RBG in the Philippines might already be appearing in my court.

Chris Wurst: This week an activist goes to law school, blazing a path for women and running a tight courtroomship. Join us on her journey from the Philippines to Minnesota, searching for justice for the most vulnerable among us. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. There are people very much like ourselves and-
Intro Clip 4: (music)

Amy Avellano: I am Amy Avellano. I'm a family court judge in the Philippines. I was first here in 2008 as a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow and I was posted at the University of Minnesota Law School where I studied trafficking in persons, policy and prevention. I came from a family where the parents were both government officials. And my parents always told us to study very well, because the only thing that they could give us as inheritance is our education.

Amy Avellano: I never really thought that I would become a lawyer, because I've always been an activist. That was the background I was coming from. I grew up during the time when the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted and president Corazon Aquino came into power after the EDSA Revolution. We're enjoying this democracy and yet, do we really understand the things that people fought for so that we could enjoy it.

Amy Avellano: You know, as an activist you want to go out in the street, organize people. But my parents did not want that for me, because they're government officials, okay? And they thought, "Come on Amy, you are enjoying this education because the government is supporting us, supporting your education." And I said, Papi and Mami, that's daddy and mommy. "But Papi and Mami, you are earning, because you are serving the government. You're public servants, you're earning every cent that the government is paying you. It's not as if we owe the government."

Amy Avellano: I wanted to continue with my mobilizing work and the only way I could do that was to agree to go to law school. So I ended up in law school, not really thinking that I would become a lawyer. But eventually I made it to fourth year and made it to the bar exams and there was I, already a lawyer. And I had to do something and I had to choose what kind of field I wanted to be in.

Amy Avellano: I came from a generation of L.A. Law and Ally McBeal, and I thought I would die arguing my last case in court. That was the kind of lawyer I wanted to be and to remain. As a litigator, not thinking that I would become a judge one day or a family court judge.

Amy Avellano: I work in a law firm as a legal researcher and the senior partner was sending me to court to argue cases. So I was writing briefs, I was researching briefs for him that he was signing. Those briefs were related to cases of paying clients, and then one day there was this father and daughter who walked into the office and sought pro bono representation. The daughter was raped by a neighbor, but the law office did not want to accept the case, because they would be non-paying clients and I talk to the law partner, "Please accept this case. I will do everything. I'll research all the pleadings. I would write the pleadings for you, just accept the case." But I think not all law offices would want to run an office that way. So they went home very frustrated because their request for legal representation was not accepted, and it was then when I said, "When I become a lawyer I will help people like her."

Amy Avellano: When I became a lawyer, it was a medium size law firm in the business district. I was the only female lawyer hired by that law firm and the other female lawyer was the daughter of the managing partner. All the rest were male lawyers. But you see when you are in a medium size law firm, you couldn't do much. They would dictate on you. They would send you to court to ask for postponements and I did not want to be that kind of lawyer. So I transferred to a very small sized law firm and still the same, the law partners sent me to court, sent me to the office of the prosecutor, telling me, "Oh, when you go there you wear miniskirts."

Amy Avellano: So I realize whether you are either medium sized firm or a small size firm, you really cannot choose the types of cases that you would be handling. So I decided to volunteer in an NGO. It's called Children's Legal Bureau, until now it's still existing. They are representing children who are abused, sexually abused, neglected, trafficed children. And that was when I realized I found my niche. I want to be a children's and human rights lawyer.

Amy Avellano: When I was starting my legal career, there weren't many women inside the courtroom. In fact, one day I saw myself appearing in this court where the judge was presiding over his sala and he was not wearing the judicial robe. He was smoking. There were four other male lawyers inside the courtroom and all of them were smoking. I was the lone female lawyer in that courtroom and the judge jokingly said, "Hee ha," okay. "What are you doing here? Did your mom sent you to buy vinegar, and you found yourself inside the courtroom? Are you sure you really pass the bar examinations? Where is your admission to the bar certificate?"

Amy Avellano: That was the environment when I commenced my legal practice. But now as a family court judge I'm seeing an equal balance of men and women lawyers inside the courtroom. And of course I would not subject anyone to that kind of treatment. Whenever a very young lawyer would appear in front of me, I would ask that lawyer, "What kind of lawyer do you want to be? Do you know how important it is to become a lawyer in this country that you could actually use your license to protect the rule of law, to not just be a lawyer for self-interest to advance your career? It's good to earn money, but it's equally good or even more important and significant to help people so that they could protect their rights or assert their rights in court."

Amy Avellano: From Children's Legal Bureau, I transitioned to another NGO. This time it's called the Women's Legal Bureau. I started representing children in court and then I transitioned to representing victims of domestic violence in court. Then I returned to prosecution of child abuse cases with child justice league.

Amy Avellano: Being inside the courtroom was not enough for me. I knew that I had to go out and teach people how they could better protect their children, how they could teach children to assert their rights, not just as children, but even as human beings. So I joined the Child Protection Unit at the Philippine General Hospital and that was where I was able to work with a multidisciplinary team composed of doctors, child psychologist, child psychiatry, social workers, police officers who are investigating child abuse cases. And from them I learned how to render holistic case management and treatment to all this victims of child abuse cases.

Amy Avellano: Back then we did not have much the new to discuss and learn much about trafficking in persons. And we had the very new law back then. The National Law on Trafficking in Persons was passed in 2003, and I did my fellowship in 2008. So it was a five year old law. So we did not know how to effectively investigate trafficking cases. We did not know how to effectively present cases in court so that the traffickers could be pinned down and convicted. And I thought this would be an opportunity for me to know more about the subject so that when I could return, I could help improve the investigation, the prosecution side of this issue.

Amy Avellano: I did the professional obligation at Corner House. It's the best facility here in United States on doing forensic interview of victims, and I thought this is something I could replicate in the Philippines. You see, under our national law against trafficking in persons, the lack of consent of the victim is not an element of the crime. And yet courts and other justice actors are still grappling with the conflicting issue of consent, visiting vulnerability. And that's understandable because they're coming from a privileged position of very few people. Most of the time victims disappear in the middle of trial. So when you do not have the victim anymore, it would be extremely difficult to prove the case. And I thought, "If we could just preserve on video the testimony of the traffic victims, then these can be presented in court after properly authenticating and this could help pin down the accused and still secure conviction." So that's what I did.

Amy Avellano: I like the collaboration of multidisciplinary team. When they investigate the crime, the prosecutor, the police officer, and the mental health professionals are there. Often it's the prosecutor and the police investigator with the social worker conducting the interview. That to me is a best practice that should be replicated. Before I left for the United States, we were already doing that, but when I returned to the Philippines, I was able to develop a manual on how to conduct forensic videotape interview of traffic minors. The interview is either done by a medical doctor who doesn't have any background in the law, or a police officer, with the social worker recording.

Amy Avellano: We went through the Minnesota Supreme Court and there I met Justice Paul Anderson, and he taught us this very valuable lesson. He said, "Whenever you're invited always show up, because you'll never know what opportunity you might miss by not showing up." Eventually he became my teacher in law school. There were many justices and judges that I met during my Humphrey year, but there was another member of the bench that left a significant mark on my life. And I'm talking about judge Lloyd Zimmerman, a family court judge. I shadowed him. I went to score it and I saw how he humanize the court environment. It was the first time that I actually saw a judge addressed a litigant in court and said, "Good morning Mr. So and so. What can the court do for you today?" Watching judge Lloyd Zimmerman I thought, "I could be a family court judge just like him and help humanize the court process."

Amy Avellano: Fortunately for me, I have a court docket of less than 150 cases and in a family court environment, you cannot be hostile. You should be this face of compassion, voice of wisdom, but sometimes when you are in front of these feuding couple who could not see the bigger picture, which is the best interest of the child that they are fighting over, it's difficult to humanize the court process. You get so agitated and angry. "Why are you so selfish? Why can't you see the child?"

Amy Avellano: You just being a Humphrey Fellow is already a source of pride for somebody coming from a family where my father doesn't even have a passport coming here to the United States, which is a big deal. It was a source of pride. But seeing myself in the middle of all those Humphrey Fellows coming from all parts of the globe was a great source of joy and pride.

Amy Avellano: My father never really saw me. Whenever I would do a presentation a small part to me was hoping, I wish my father could see me giving this presentation in front of this huge crowd. My father has Parkinson's disease, so when I became a lawyer, he was still very active. Now that I am on the bench, he is wheelchair bound and he never saw me inside the courtroom. He never watched me give a presentation.

Amy Avellano: My mother visited me one time in court and that was the only time she saw me in action, but both of them never had a chance to watch me give a presentation in front of a huge crowd. And whenever I had to do a presentation during the Humphrey Fellowship Program, you know I was wishing, "I hope this could be recorded so I could show this to my parents so they could also be proud of what their daughter is doing here in the United States."

Amy Avellano: You see, I was doing my Humphrey Fellowship when they called me and asked me to join the Child Protection Network on a full-time basis and I said, "In what capacity?" They said, "Well you would still do legal advising, but you would be doing also resource mobilization work." And what exactly would you want me to do? Help raise funds so that we could establish more women and child protection units across the country. So that when a child is abused, there would be a health facility where he or she could access services ranging from medical treatment to assistance in filing a case in court, psychosocial intervention through the help of social workers and other mental health professional.

Amy Avellano: So when I joined the Child Protection Network, it had very small percentage of local funding. But when I joined them and I applied what I learned from the Humphrey Fellowship about networking, talking to people, raising funds and resources, we were able to increase funding from the local people. So now I think it's on a 50/50 percentage.

Amy Avellano: When I returned to the Philippines and joined the Child Protection Network, I was doing primarily fundraising, resource mobilization work. Litigation work took a back seat. For somebody who thrives being inside the courtroom, enjoying how it is to cross-examine a witness. I really miss the courtroom and I thought a part of me will always yearn for the courtroom. So that was when I decided I should already apply to the bench and I decided to become a family court judge, just like judge Lloyd Zimmerman.

Amy Avellano: It was 8:15 in the morning. I was a very new judge then. It was my first hearing day and I put on my robe and walk into the courtroom and there I was, tiny judge, a new face in the community. I think they were curious about me. They knew I wasn't from the area. I came from Manila.

Amy Avellano: Now I do not need to announce anymore that session starts at 8:30. Now I don't need to remind lawyers that you should not come to court unprepared, because when they come to court unprepared and ask for continuance with an excuse that, "I'm sorry your honor, I was not able to prepare the judicial affidavit of the witness." They know that they will be humiliated and I would tell them in open court, "Okay, I will entertain this continuance just once. But you have to pay the postponement fee and you cannot charge this against your client, because it is your fault why we are postponing the case. So why should your client suffer for you not being prepared for today's hearing?"

Amy Avellano: I just want them to be prepared. I do not want them to short change their clients. I want them to know the ins and outs of their cases. I do not want to have that feeling that, "Come on, I can do better than that. And I just read your case file yesterday." I do not want to say, "Let us switch places. Let me argue your case." Because that to me would be very, very embarrassing.

Amy Avellano: You see, one day I was conducting a training in a nearby city where Mayisela is located, and there is this female who approached me and said, "Good morning judge, my husband speaks highly of you." And I said, "Why? Was your husband a litigate in my court?" And she said, "He actually, he was there in your court in a marriage nullity case." And I asked her, "So which wife are you? The first wife or the second wife?" And she said, "No, no judge am actually the wife of the lawyer who appeared before your court. And he said he's always excited whenever he would appear before you and he looks up to you with respect. He said he wants to be like you someday." So I'm thinking, "Maybe I'm being effective as a family court judge because I'm inspiring people." I do not know. Perhaps.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is name for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of the U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, judge Amy Avellano discussed her road to becoming a judge and the inspiration she found as a Humphrey Fellow researching human trafficking at the University of Minnesota. Go Gophers. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs.Check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and leave us a nice review while you're at it. And we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov, that's E-C-A, C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. Now you can check us out on Instagram at 2233 stories. Special thanks to our team in the Collaboratory, including our virtual interns, Laurel Stickney, Cynthia Ubah and Kelly Zhang, and special thanks to Amy Avellano for her stories and her passion for equal justice.

Chris Wurst: I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Aruro, Asterisk, Tartaruga and Thirteens, all by the Blue Dot Sessions, Morning Too Soon by Ketsa, and Pretty Bill by Paddington Bear. Music at the top of this episode was Sebastian by How The Night Came. And the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 83 - Keeping the Lights On with Alyssa Meyers

LISTEN HERE - Episode 83

Alyssa Meyers in front of river


A harrowing experience while hospitalized abroad leads to an insight that changes the course of Alyssa Meyers' life and work—and all this while living overseas with a disability.


Chris Wurst: So you landed in Central Asia for professional and intellectual reasons, but then you get sick and the very thing you went to study went from being abstract to very real. And when that happened your work started to take on truly lifesaving implications. You defied expectations, but then you've done that your entire life. You're listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Alyssa Meyers: There are a lot of monuments where you have to go up a bunch of stairs to get to the statues. And going upstairs is fine for me but going down I need to hang on to someone. And there were a lot of times that men would want to lift me and carry me down. I would be like, "No, I'm not fragile I just need to hold onto someone. You don't have to carry me all the way down." Or the same thing that if I was walking down the street and carrying something heavy, men would always want to take it for me and carry it for me.

Alyssa Meyers: There's this perception, I guess, a lot of people saw me as breakable and there are people in the U.S. That see that too. But I felt that it was my duty to convince them that I'm not as fragile as you think and I'm a human being. Which is tough because my parents also treated me with kid gloves. I have a twin sister who doesn't have a disability and then there's me between the two of us, my parents definitely treated me with kid gloves. And I think they just didn't want to see me get hurt. I can understand that as a parent that you do anything to save your kid from pain. But when you watch everyone treat you like that, what opportunities do you have to grow if people or confining you in a box?

Chris Wurst: This week, smashing through expectations and limitations. Thoughts on what democracy means and how a hospital stay in Central Asia may end up benefiting the world. Join us on a journey from Michigan to the Kyrgyz Republic to look at energy for all, it's 22.33

Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. There are people very much like ourselves.
Intro Clip 4: (music)

Alyssa Meyers: My name is Alyssa Meyer. I'm originally from Houghton Lake, Michigan. I am currently an energy industry analyst. I was a 2012/2013 Fulbright scholar in energy. I was in the capital in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and I also went on the Critical Language Scholarship program to Azerbaijan and I was also a Boren Fellow in Kyrgyzstan.

Alyssa Meyers: It's pretty well understood why and how Kyrgyzstan is energy insecure, which means that there's no dependable, cost-effective, continuous source of energy. And I understood the political dynamic behind why the energy insecurity exists. And knowing that I proposed to look at ways that small scale renewable such as solar panels on roofs might eventually help bridge the gaps to shortages.

Alyssa Meyers: And I realized pretty quickly, once I got to the ground and started doing that work, that it was interesting to work with locals who were also interested in small scale solar, hydro or geothermal. But it was hard to do a true benefit cost analysis of how effective this would be in a solution because I didn't have good data about how it impacted people on a household level to live in energy insecurity. If you interviewed people or if you watch the news, people would tell you in this city approximately this number of houses lost power or lost heat or whatever it is. But there was really no coverage on what that meant on the individual level.

Alyssa Meyers: And I was aware of that on a subconscious level, but it hit me in the face in the middle of my Fulbright grant when I became sick and I had gallstones, but I didn't know it. At the time, I just knew that I had very severe abdominal pain and they went through a range of thinking that it was my ovaries or thinking it was my kidneys and I just kept getting worse. And so eventually I ended up in the hospital. And while I was in the hospital I was still reading and going through interviews and thinking about my work and I started to wonder what if you're on kidney dialysis? What if you're on a ventilator? What if you're on an operating table and the lights go out?

Alyssa Meyers: Shortly after I started thinking about all those things, they figured out that I had gallstones and pretty much told us that I had to have surgery immediately. And that day in itself was pretty terrifying. In that, when you learn Russian, they teach you general medical terms. So I learned I have strep throat, I have a headache, but no one teaches you the word for gallbladder. The doctors come over and tell us, you have stones in this word that I don't know, you need surgery immediately. And I watched Nasiva go sheet white and I was just like, okay, what's wrong with me? And so then we looked it up in Google translate and then I understood, okay it's my gallbladder, that's happened to people in my family. Yes it is an emergency.

Alyssa Meyers: The U.S. Embassy was very kind during that time and was able to help coordinate medical leave for me to go back to the U.S. and have surgery with my mom. And the surgery itself is pretty easy and I was back on a plane two weeks later and fine. But I spent a lot of time thinking about what if I'd had surgery there and what if I hadn't been so lucky? Those thoughts never really went away. And I started poking at those sorts of questions towards the end of my Fulbright. But by that point it was April and I was going home and starting grad school in August. And so I sketched out a plan for what I would need to do if I was going to answer this question. And then I went to grad school and the more time went on, the more I realize that I really want to go back and collect data on a household level. This question is not going to leave me alone. I want to write my master's thesis on it.

Alyssa Meyers: There was a lot of push back. A lot of people said you already have a year of data from your Fulbright, what are you doing? But long story short, with a dual masters I needed three years of coursework and I completed two of them and then one at Boren, went back to Kyrgyzstan to collect household level data and answer this exact question. It's really a realization that I wouldn't have come to if I was just sitting in a library in the U.S. trying to figure out the cost benefits of using small scale renewables in central Asia. It was a realization that I had to be on the ground to see. And now for work, especially amongst the younger crowd, the work that I've done in the perspective that I have on why energy regulation is important is really unique and not something that I wouldn't have if it weren't for programs like Fulbright.

Alyssa Meyers: So when I was applying for foreign and getting ready to submit my application, some of the opposition I had in terms of me going back to Kyrgyzstan was from my family. And even when I was on Fulbright and took medical leave and made the decision to go back in two weeks to finish my work, my mom really fought me on it. And I kept saying to her, "Mom, I could step off a sidewalk and get hit by a bus tomorrow in the U.S. I'm going to go. This work is important." And as I was applying for Boren in the winter of 2014 a story broke internationally about a cardiovascular center in the capital Bishkek. Where a woman was an open heart surgery on the table and the lights went out. Supposedly they had a backup generator but they couldn't afford the fuel to put in it. So they finished the surgery through the light of staff's cell phones.

Alyssa Meyers: And from what I've read, the woman is okay. and is alive and well. But I wouldn't say that my parents follow current events the way that I do. But this story went far enough that my mom saw it and was like, what are you doing? And for me, I was like, look mom, this is why my work is important. And she was like, are you sure that you have to be the one to do this? But yeah, for me, I felt like it had to be me.

Alyssa Meyers: I have cerebral palsy and a lot of people look at me and look at my limp and think that people with physical disabilities can't move abroad on their own. And even in university study abroad offices, the number of times I've heard someone say, are you sure you want to go abroad? I don't think you can do it.

Alyssa Meyers: You can still go abroad and represent your country. And that's not to say that there weren't challenges. In central Asia, there are a lot of steps in places that there wouldn't be steps in the U.S. To go to an ATM, there's usually two or three really narrow steps. And to get up I'm fine, but to come down them I worry about falling. And I had to come to terms with the fact that if no one's with me to hold onto, I might fall. And thankfully I never took a bad fall. But it's not to say that people like me can't spend time abroad.

Alyssa Meyers: Even now, when I was on the job market, some of the jobs that I looked at had a lot of international travel involved and a lot of people looked at me and said, "You can't do that physically. You don't have the stamina for it." And I looked at them and said, "Have you seen my resume? Have you seen how long I've been abroad alone?"`

Alyssa Meyers: 10 year old me, 15 year old me may have believed those people who told me I couldn't. But now 29 year old me wants to encourage everyone that can to do it.

Alyssa Meyers: I had several conversations related to groups going on hikes where people would say to me, "Well we didn't invite you because we didn't want you to get hurt and we thought we were protecting you." And I would say, "You don't get to decide what I'm capable of. I get to decide that and I need you to understand that if you don't invite me, that's exclusion based on your perception of what my body can do." And I get it. In that part of the world, I encountered a lot of people who basically said that people with disabilities like mine sometimes don't finish school, sometimes don't work full time. Not because they can't but because society isn't really set up in a way to help accommodate them.

Alyssa Meyers: And I did once see, walking down the street, someone who I'm sure had cerebral palsy because the gate is very distinctive if you know what it looks like. And when I saw him, I didn't say anything to him. I couldn't think of a way to broach the topic in a polite way. But I thought a lot about the surgeries that I've had and the opportunities I've had medically. A lot of them occurred probably precisely because I was in the U.S. and the major surgeries I had when they happened in 1997 were new procedures. I'm not sure that those kids there, like if I had been born in central Asia, that I would have had the same opportunity.

Alyssa Meyers: My parents were both teachers and when I was growing up, before I started having surgeries, my balance was really bad. And my mom advocated very heavily to put bars on one of the bathrooms stalls so that I could use it by myself and not worry about falling down. And it was possible, she was a known entity and they had to comply with ADA. But I don't think the same thing would have happened there. And I think a lot of the accessibility, not just for me but in terms of people me who happened to be born there.

Alyssa Meyers: The other thing is there are a lot of stereotypes in their culture about what women should or shouldn't be or how they should act and so I also got a lot of reaction to your body isn't pretty enough for men. Because you have a limp, because you have scars and those are demons that I've carried around much of my life. But it put me in a position where I had to respond and say, "Do you realize how dangerous it is to teach young girls that?" I had the opportunity to be that person to say that precisely because I'd come from a different space,` from America. Yeah, I agree. It's forward thinking here. It's not perfect, but it's definitely a lot further ahead than a lot of Eurasia.

Alyssa Meyers: One of the things that I'll never forget is when I was on Fulbright, the Newtown shooting happened. So the news happened and then we woke up in the morning in Kyrgyzstan and people knew that elementary school kids had been killed in their classroom. And for whatever reason I had to go to the U.S. Embassy that day and the U.S. Embassy is out in the middle of nowhere. So the easiest way to get there is to get in a taxi. So I called a taxi and I sat down and the driver asked me where it was going and I asked to go the American embassy and he went on a tirade about, is this what democracy means? That you kiss your kids and they go off to school and you never see them again?

Alyssa Meyers: I was so shocked because I knew where he was coming from, in their country, coming from Soviet times into independence, more freedom and independence has meant the two major revolutions, two presidents being overthrown and a lot of instability. So I'd seen firsthand why freedom compared to Soviet times might have made him nervous.

Alyssa Meyers: But as a political theorist you go through so many debates in early classes about the trade off between liberty and security. That you have to give up some liberty to keep yourself safe and all of these things. And in this conversation those thoughts came to mind. And then I realized that's not how to answer these types of comments. He's not looking for a philosophical debate and I stopped and just showed him my humanity and told him I agree it is horrible. I would never wish that upon anyone.

Alyssa Meyers: The thing I'll never forget is how shocked he was that I was also upset that kids had been killed. I think he expected me to defend the fact that the shooter had a right to carry a gun. I don't know, I wasn't in his head. But I don't think he expected me to be upset about it as well. But I explained to him that I was a daughter of two teachers and it made me nervous to think about that my parents could go to work and not come home.

Alyssa Meyers: And when I got out of the car he wished me well and I just stopped and realized there are a lot of stereotypes about Americans. But one of the privileges of being an exchange is this is that you're forced to confront what people think about your country and that's not something that everyone is ready for. Sometimes the conversations are really hard, but I learned that day that first and foremost your job is to show them that you're also human. That Americans are also human.

Alyssa Meyers: A lot of the discussions I had then in a lot of the discussions I had after Newtown and the reactions that I got in Kyrgyzstan to that were about the fact, yeah, democracy wasn't about having perfect governance and having laws or situations that your citizens were always 100% happy with. But that it was more about giving citizens an avenue or a process by which to change what they didn't like. Or a way to speak to those representing them. And I think that was something that resonated with a lot of people. I think there's a big misconception, we advocate for democratic values internationally because we think democracy is perfect. And for me it was about explaining to people that we have avenues to communicate with the government and tell them that we don't agree and I think that's the keystone of democracy and democratic values.

Alyssa Meyers: I lost my father to brain cancer when I was eight, so he's never really seen this chapter of my life and all my time abroad. But often when I am abroad, I think about him and there was one instance when I went on a field trip into the mountains with a group of students. We went to a national park, Ala Archa. And we cooked lunch out over a fire and then we were playing cards and I learned how to play Durak, which is a Russian game that's called fools. And then I taught people in Russian how to play poker. And at the time I was thinking about my dad because he taught me when I was growing up, I know how to play because of him. And I had a moment that I was explaining the rules in Russian and laughed to myself and thought, I wonder if my dad can see this. I wonder what he thinks.

Alyssa Meyers: At the time I didn't really think much of it and then had a couple other Americans with us and one of them pulled me aside and said, "I'm really impressed that you're able to explain all of that." And I thought to myself, okay, my dad is paying attention now.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22 Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of the U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: In this episode, Alyssa Meyer shared her stories from her time as a Fulbright researcher in the Kyrgyz Republic. For more about the Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, you can do that wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov that's E-C-A-C-O-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y-@ state.gov.

Chris Wurst: Special thanks this week to Alyssa for her stories and her work to make the world a better place. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was the The Night Is Blue by Red Norvo Sextet. L'Etoile danse and Glimpse of Eternity, both by Meydän. And Garden Number One by Union Mushimora. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How The Night Came and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 82 - One Leg, But Two Feet on the Ground with Kathy Pico

LISTEN HERE - Episode 82

Kathy Pico at New York Marathon


Many people dream of finishing a marathon, but few actually do it. Incredibly, Kathy Pico's decision to start racing began on the day that her leg was amputated. Kathy Pico also talks about her experience as a mentor for ECA's Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) part of the White House-led Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative. As the only amputee marathon runner in Ecuador, she has built an enterprise showcasing local women owned businesses while competing in New York and Boston. From sharing her stories on TedX and a documentary on REI’s the Range of Motion Project (ROMP), this episode of 22.33 is a must listen! Plus as a special bonus, we are also releasing the original Spanish language version of the interview.


Chris Wurst: Many people dream of finishing a marathon, but few actually do it. You did, in Chicago and New York. But unlike everyone else, even those who made it to the end, your decision to enter the race started on the day that your leg was amputated.

Chris Wurst: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Kathy Pico: [Spanish 00:00:36]

Translator: When did I decide to run marathons? As soon as my leg was amputated. I needed a plan, something worthy. No leg, no problem, I'll run a marathon. I was no longer in pain and the cancer was gone. There was nothing holding me back.

Chris Wurst: This week, losing a leg in order to have two feet on the ground. Inspired by awe and awe-inspiring and realizing a dream by crossing the finish line. Join us on a journey from Quito, Ecuador to New York City and becoming an inspiration to many along the way. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know the people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves and...
Intro Clip 4: (music)

Translator: Hello, my name is Kathy Pico. I am from Quito, Ecuador. I am an accountant, but I'm also a sports motivator. The program that I work with is AWE, the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs.

Translator: For 17 years of my life I was dedicated to being a success. I did all the right things. I studied, I worked hard. I thought that being successful in life meant having a good job, and I did everything I could to achieve these things. I studied for my MBA and then one day the pain in my toe, in my left toe, became unbearable. I had this pain for years, but I finally went to the doctor and I got the devastating news that it was cancer. And just like that, all my plans and all of my hard work came to the end, because now it's fighting for my life.

Translator: During this time, everything became an illusion. I wasn't happy, and I realized I only had one opportunity to make sense of my life after cancer. I lost my leg, but I gained a vision and I decided to take my new life to talk about cancer and what happens after, because I found out that people don't really talk about this. They talk about fighting for it, they talk about what you go through, but nobody talks about what happens after and what you do with your life after. So I decided to write and I wrote about my experience. And through these writings, my project was born.

Translator: Being an accountant and a numbers person, I knew that the odds were not in my favor, but I didn't care, and this is something that would make me happy. I had to console my family and in doing so, I found the strength inside of me that I didn't know I had. When you're told that you have cancer, you have two days to make all these decisions. You have two days to be depressed. You have two days to figure out your life plan. You have two days to make all these decisions. During that time, it was the hardest time, but now when I look back on it, I see it as a blessing.

Translator: It helped me reorganize the thoughts I had, my life, and the things that I needed stayed with me. The things that worked stayed with me and everything else just became noise and I learned to let it go. Since then, I've decided to take this experience and use it as motivation for women. I've since ran marathons. I am so incredibly amazed that I was able to get a prosthetic leg that works and has allowed me to run marathons. This is how I found the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs, this academy of women just helping each other and inspiring each other. I can tell you now that I am happy.

Translator: The Academy of Women Entrepreneurs, also known as AWE, in Ecuador we call it AWE, the goal is to introduce women to the world. Women with skills in marketing and finance, et cetera. It's basically the message to all women saying, what you do is good. Just being selected makes every woman a winner. Being a part of AWE, backed by the department of state, lends authority and respect to the program, to the program recipients and to all the women that are a part of it. All the women feel incredibly proud being a part of this program.

Translator: Through AWE, I have come in contact with a variety of projects and women in Ecuador. One of my close friends, Doris Marroquín, is the founder of Linkeados Ecuador, which is a business that pays immigrants to promote Ecuador. If you use her company, you'll get a percentage. Another great friend, Giovanna Arcos, is a nutritionist, which helped me a lot getting all the nutrients that I needed post cancer. There is another friend who founded Tatia Hats.

Kathy Pico: Taita.

Translator: Taita, Taita Hats. These hats are made out of straw and we can customize them however you want. I also know a woman who was a mechanic, a mechanic. She works on cars and she is one of the pioneers in her business. Ecuador can be a masochist country and I want to bring about that change. We are not defined by our gender. I am now a disabled person. In Ecuador, we don't have a voice. I want to change that mentality. I want people to know that you can be happy with a disability and, not only that, but you will find hidden talents.

Translator: My dream is to stop the victimization of living with a disability. I want the youth to see me and my dreams, not just my disability. I want to inspire all. I hope AWE will help me reach women all over the world. Prior to this, I was never an athlete, but now I run marathons. I climb mountains. I want people to know that living with disabilities can be joyful. Find what it is that you love to do and do it, and not let anything get in your way. How can I motivate you if I don't do inspirational things? This is why I climb mountains, this is why I run marathons. I do all this with a prosthetic leg to show you that life goes on.

Translator: The defining moment for me when all of my dreams started to come together was while I was fighting for my life. If somebody tells you that you will die tomorrow, you reflect on what is missing from your life and at that moment I realized I was missing everything. Everything. Though I'd done everything that society expected of me, I realized I was not happy. I decided then I needed to learn what it was that made me happy. My mother's death when I was a child possibly had an effect on how I lived my life, checking all the boxes and working as hard as I did and excelling.

Translator: Throughout my fights, I remember praying and saying, "Oh God, give me a chance. Just one chance, and I promise I will not waste it." The worst-case scenario was death. That was inevitable, but if I could live, I would live. My body started to get stronger and the cancer began to die. I could literally see it on my toe, get smaller. The oncologist was amazed. I remember thinking, "If I can continue being strong, I could live a whole new life." I'm lucky I got that chance.

Translator: When I decided to run a marathon, I chose New York. When my leg was amputated, I'd never been to the U.S., but when I thought of the U.S., I thought of New York. It is the classic city. I'd seen it in all the movies and I'd heard all the songs. It took me 10 years, but I earned that marathon. I earned it. When I heard the marathon was happening in New York, I emailed the organizers in Spanish, and they responded. I was chosen. I would learn this magical city through running. I would see the tall buildings.

Translator: Wow, what more motivation could I need then? Then the organizers learned of my story and wanted to highlight my achievements. I was selected to represent my country, Ecuador, in the parade of nations at the opening ceremony. What an honor. There I am holding the flag of my country, representing the hopes and wishes of my people. Then the fireworks exploded in the sky, and blaring from the speaker I hear ... [foreign language 00:13:40], (singing) Wow. This was spectacular. The perfect ending. I cannot believe that I was in New York representing my country, listening to Frank Sinatra with the fireworks in the background and all the buildings. I had read that the New York route is very difficult because of the bridges. They were not lying.

Translator: 22 kilometers is plenty of time to get lost in your thoughts, and it was a great time to think about everything that had gone on in my life. My good friend, Kristin Liebl, was my guide. She ran with me in my first marathon in Chicago and she took care of me in New York. I felt her love. She shielded me from other runners. She gave me encouragement when I needed it. She showed me true human kindness. While running, I often thought of my country. It's a beautiful country too.

Translator: When people would see me and my leg, they would clap and they would shout encouragement and I felt so proud to be an Ecuadorian. My good friend, Edith Tinta, has been there for me and she accompanied me to New York. She followed me along the route and shouted encouragement. "Ecuador [inaudible 00:15:30]," she would yell at me. That's when I began to get tired. I was only 60% through, but I thought, "I can't give up now. Who comes all the way to New York and gives up on their dreams?"

Translator: I smelled all the flavors. I remember, fried pork, onion, food, savory. I saw all the sites, all the buildings, all the families, friends, crying, hugging, and I thought, "Ecuador is here too." But I still didn't see the end, and I learned that Central Park is huge. I knew a lot of people were not going to make it, but I knew that I would. My friend Edith asked me, "Why do you run and suffer?" And I tell her, "I run because I suffer, but I am happy. I am grateful to be able to run." This has truly been a dream come true. I can't express my gratitude and my happiness.

Translator: When the finish line was in sight, I reflected on all the years, all the pain, everything that has happened in my life and it was worth it all. 200 meters away, I gained strength and I thought, "I did it. I did it. Dreams come true."

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. state department's bureau of educational and cultural affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Kathy Pico talked about her experiences as part of the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs that are known as AWE. For more about AWE other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, you can do so wherever you find your podcasts and, hey, leave us a nice review while you're at it. Oh, we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's ECA, C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.

Chris Wurst: Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. Now you can check us out on Instagram at 22.33 Stories. Very special thanks to Kathy for sharing her inspirational personal stories, so good that we couldn't pass up the opportunity to publish this episode in Spanish and in English. I did the interview and edited this segment. Huge special thanks to Maria Garcia for all her help on this episode, including the translation and voiceover for this episode.

Chris Wurst: The Spanish version features the voice of Manny Perreira Colocci, my colleague. Featured music was Elle avait pas les yeux noirs by Lohstana David, and three songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Juare, Hundred Mile and Tar and Spackle. Music at the top of this episode was Quatrefoil by Paddington Bear and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.

Speaker 3: That's it.

Chris Wurst: That's it.

Speaker 3: Great. Is it recording?  


Season 01, Episode 81 - Dos Pies En La Tierra con Kathy Pico

LISTEN HERE - Episode 81

Kathy Pico with racer


Muchas personas sueñan con terminar un maratón, pero pocas lo hacen. Increíblemente, Kathy Pico decidió competir en maratones el día en que le amputaron la pierna. (Este es un episodio especial de 22.33 en que les presentamos la versión original de la entrevista en español.)


Spanish language transcript coming soon..
Transcripción en español muy pronto..


Season 01, Episode 80 - Revenge of the Dung Beetles with Jen Guyton

LISTEN HERE - Episode 80


Ever wonder how an iconic image or video comes to be? In this bonus episode, Jen Guyton explains how she got her favorite footage, taken in Mozambique during her Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.


Chris Wurst: And now a special bonus 22.33 episode dedicated to poop. Last week we heard from Jen Guyton a Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow about her photography and ecology work, focusing on wildlife conservation. Her stories about life in a national park, and her firsthand account of witnessing the rebirth of an ecological system left us feeling hopeful and inspired. In this special bonus episode, Jen talks about how she got her favorite picture taken during this fellowship in Mozambique. You are listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Jen Guyton: My favorite picture from my time as a Fulbrighter was a composite image that I made of a pile of wart hog poop. Poop actually has a pretty interesting life on the savanna. It's funny because we don't really think about what happens to poop in the wilderness, but all of those animals that are out there are pooping every day, usually several times a day. And so, that poop all has to go somewhere. And in Africa where it normally goes is into the mouths of dung beetles

Jen Guyton: So, my goal was to capture all of the diversity of dung beetles that would come to a pile of poop, as well as all the other species that would come to the poop, like flies and the predators, like birds and lizards that might come to eat the insects. And it's a really actually a very lively scene once the dung beetles arrive and start rolling away the dung. It becomes really competitive, the beetles kind of go at each other and will try to flip each other over and steal balls of dung from one another and it gets really exciting.

Jen Guyton: And so, I wanted to be able to sort of show that diversity and show that action in a single image. Well, first of all, I had to get the poop. So I started off thinking that I wanted to use elephant poop because it's big. It's size of a volleyball. I thought it would make a really interesting image to kind of see how big volleyball size poop gets kind of broken down. So, I spent a lot of time looking for elephants out in the bush. But the problem with elephants is that you can't go near them because they're dangerous. And our elephants in Gorongosa are especially dangerous because they remember the war. We actually have elephants that still have bullet holes in their ears from 50 years ago. I would have to go find elephants and then just kind of watch them from a distance and wait for them to poop. But then it always took them forever to move away from the poop. And by the time I got there, the dung beetles were already there and it was just too late.

Jen Guyton: And so, eventually I gave up on the elephants and decided to just work with the wart hogs in the camp because they're pretty safe. They can still tear you up if they want to, but they're used to having us around. So, I spent a number of days just following the wart hogs around camp with a shovel on my shoulder, looking like a crazy person just waiting for them to poop. So I would just watch them for hours and hours. When they pooped I would either leave the dung there, or if they'd pooped on a road or something I would move it off the road, and then set up my camera on that poop.

Jen Guyton: I set the camera to take a photo every five seconds and then just left it alone. And when I came back a few hours later, the dung was gone and my camera was full of cool pictures of dung beetles. It took me about 15 tries to get it right, probably with 15 different piles of dung over the course of a week or two. The lighting would change or the dung beetles wouldn't come or something else would come and kick the dung away or whatever. Finally, when I got it right, I took all of the images from about three hours from when the poop was so fresh it was warm to when the dung beetles had taken it all the way and I stack them on top of one another. And so, it's compressing three hours of time into a single photograph. It's a time lapse movie compressed into one frame.

Jen Guyton: The reason that I love that photograph so much is first of all, because I think dung beetles are just really fascinating, but also because it turned out to be so remarkably beautiful. The photo shows a big pile of poop, but then there are all of these iridescent green dung beetles on it. They look like little jewels just covering this pile of dung. They're these beautiful blue flies on it. Some of them are covered in pollen, so they had these amazing blue and yellow and red colors. We even got a bird that came into the frame and a lizard that came to hunt the insects. And so, you have this really cool looking bird and these beautiful dung beetles and this beautiful lizard, and I think it just represents this really lovely but totally underappreciated part of the ecosystem.

Jen Guyton: One of the things I love about doing photography, especially of these smaller and underappreciated things, is that it gives me insight into the natural world that I wouldn't have otherwise. Or when I make pictures like this composite of the dung, I appreciate these small things in a way that I didn't before. So I've seen these jewel green dung beetles millions of times, but usually from standing height. They're down on the ground, my head is up here and I never really look at them. And then when I create this composite image, I'm sitting there with them zoomed to a hundred times size on my computer screen. And I appreciate just details about them. Just the exact emerald green color of their shells or the weird anatomy of their little flat snouts that they use to push the dung around.

Jen Guyton: And so, it helps me to see nature in a new way and to appreciate its beauty and its complexity in a way that I might not otherwise. And as a conservationist, I already love nature and I love... and I think it's beautiful and I think it's important, but it definitely gives me sort of a new perspective and a new angle. And I hope that, that comes through in my photos and that the people who see them also get to see nature from a new perspective and appreciate it from a new angle.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for title 22 chapter 33 of the U.S. code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of the U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: In this episode, Jen Guyton shared a story of a single image captured in Gorongosa National Park. Jen's amazing work can be seen at jenguyton.com, and to see the picture that Jen describes in this episode, check out our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33. For more about the Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov we also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and you can do that wherever you find your favorite podcasts. And hey, why don't you leave us a nice review while you're at it. And we'd love to hear from you, you can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Huge special thanks to Jen for her passion, her stories, and for that image. My colleague Anna Maria [Sinatine 00:09:22], did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Picadillo by Cal Tjader and Eddie Palmieri. Music at the top of this episode was Quatrefoil by Paddington Bear, and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirligua. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 79 - Living on the Set of the Lion King with Jen Guyton

LISTEN HERE - Episode 79


An ecologist and photographer, Jen Guyton is passionate about wildlife conservation and nature. She has worked as a biologist in three continents, including five years in Africa working on wildlife and conservation projects. 10 months a year, she spent living in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where she studied mammal ecology and conservation.


Chris Wurst: When you travel to Mozambique to document the rebirth of a national park, you never thought you would end up documenting humanitarian relief efforts in the aftermath of a deadly cyclone. Along the way, you discovered not only the resilience of an ecosystem, but the resilience of an entire country. You are listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Jen Guyton: Life in a national park is a completely surreal experience and it's easy to forget how weird things are. I'll frequently wake up in the morning and have a baboon a staring in my window just watching me sleep

Chris Wurst: This week, near misses with elephants, releasing the zebras, and the power of a single image to change policy. Join us on a journey from Princeton University to Gorongosa National Park. It's 22.33.

Show Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Show Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Show Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, they're much like ourselves and-
Show Intro Clip 4: (music & singing)

Jen Guyton: My name is Jen Guyton and I am a Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. I am from California. During my Fulbright fellowship, I went to Mozambique. I've been a photographer since I was about 12 years old and I always dreamed of working with National Geographic. The Fulbright National Geographic Fellowship gave me this opportunity to follow up on my PhD work and actually tell all of those stories that I had been seeing and observing as an ecologist. I work in a place called Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique and it's an incredibly interesting national park because it has such a unique history.

Jen Guyton: Mozambique went through a really terrible civil war after it gained independence from Portugal in 1975. That civil war lasted about 15 years and during that time, most of the wildlife in Gorongosa was wiped out. About 90% of the large mammals were killed for their meat or their ivory. Over the past 15 years, an American entrepreneur has been working to restore that national park in conjunction with the Mozambican Government, with a lot of support actually from the American government through USAID especially. That restoration effort has brought back most of the wildlife that was in the park before the war.

Jen Guyton: It's a really interesting place for ecologists because we don't really understand very well how ecosystems assemble themselves. Ecosystems have a lot of moving parts, they're very complicated and scientists actually just don't understand everything about how they work. And so, a system like this is a really great place for scientists to start to understand how ecosystems come together, because after a major disturbance like this, certain plants will come back first, certain animals will come back first, the interactions between the species will change over time and ecologists can observe the way that this ecosystem sort of heals itself, and it becomes almost a natural experiment.

Jen Guyton: I got to watch the park management release zebras back into the park. There's been sort of the odd zebra seen here or there in the far reaches of the park since the war, but there really hasn't been a zebra population that has come back since the war. There used to be about 3,500 now they're just a handful. And so, just being there and watching these zebras just tear out of the enclosure as soon as the doors were open and then become just part of the savanna landscape was a really beautiful thing. And it was... it felt like sort of witnessing the rebirth of an ecosystem.

Jen Guyton: Probably the most common scary encounter I have is with elephants. Tend to be really aggressive to cars because they remember the war and they really don't like people. So, it's gotten better over the past few years, even since I started there six years ago. The elephants have gotten way more calm around cars and now safari vehicles can actually stop and watch them, which is really nice. I think they're kind of starting to trust us again. Before that, sort of several years ago, I had a number of scary encounters with elephants on a pretty regular basis. You turn a corner in your car and you would suddenly find yourself in the middle of a herd of elephants, because they are really good at kind of just obscuring themselves on the landscape, they might be in some bushes or whatever. They're very quiet, shockingly quiet. Their footsteps are almost completely silent. It's an amazing thing.

Jen Guyton: The only thing really that indicates to you that there are elephants on the landscape is if you hear trees cracking as they're pulling down entire tree trunks, or you can sometimes you view this and really closely you can hear they're really low pitched rumbling sounds that they use to communicate with one another, but otherwise it's easy to miss them on the landscape. So, you'll be driving and you'll turn a corner and you'll suddenly realize that you're in the middle of a herd of elephants. And maybe one steps out on the road in front of you and then maybe one steps out on the road behind you and you're, "Oh shoot, I don't know where to go".

Jen Guyton: I had one instance where the matriarch of the herd didn't like having me there. I had turned a corner on the road and just as I did that, she just immediately charged me. Full on angry charge and I threw the car into reverse and I just reversed for about a kilometer at full speed. I was terrified, I was, "I'm going to either die from an elephant or from running into a tree". She was just cutting all the corners. I had to follow the curves of the road, right? But she was just cutting all the corners and she was getting closer and closer and closer and I was, "Oh no, this is definitely the end". But then after I got a suitable distance away, she's just, "Okay, we're safe now the threat is gone". And she just went back to her heard.

Jen Guyton: I think the thing that makes me laugh the most where I live in Mozambique is watching the monkeys. They're so much like us it's almost scary. You can watch them interact with each other and you can almost come up with this sort of soap opera dialogue of what's happening in their little society and who's mad at who and who's in love with who and whose baby is that? I remember one day sitting outside and a young baboon had jumped up onto my neighbor's deck and stolen her sports bra, which was out to dry on her chair. I have no idea what was going through his head, but he put it over his head and put his arms through the bra and was just struggling with it. And it was the weirdest thing. One of the other baboons came over and started to chase him and then the other one kind of grabbed it off him and they were playing tug of war for a minute. And then I was, "Oh, maybe I should intervene and save my friend's sports bra".

Jen Guyton: I was in country when cyclone Idai hit central Mozambique. And the cyclone made landfall pretty much right on top of Beira city. It's just a hundred miles southeast of Gorongosa on the coast and it's the fourth largest city in Mozambique with about half a million people. Cyclone Idai came in, made landfall on March 15th of this year 2019, and ended up being the most intense cyclone that had ever struck in this part of the world. It ended up killing 1,200 people in and around Beira.

Jen Guyton: The biggest problem was the flooding. There was just this huge inland lake that formed, it was about 900 square miles, the size of New York and Los Angeles combined and that was all just water where it used to be people's houses and farms. We knew about nine days ahead of time that a cyclone was coming, but none of us had any concept of how bad it would be. We all just thought, "Okay, it's going to be some wind and some rain", so a lot of us didn't... chose not to evacuate. And then about six or eight hours before the cyclone was due to make landfall, the park management came around and they were, "Everyone has to evacuate right now". We had 30 minutes to pack our bags and they sent us to a city further inland.

Jen Guyton: We suddenly had completely lost contact with Beira. There were absolutely... there was no communication in or out of Beira. All the cell towers were dead, all the radio was dead, the roads had been flooded or broken and so, there was no traffic and in or out of the city. It was just complete silence from Beira and we were absolutely terrified. We had colleagues there, we had friends there, we had family of friends there. And so, we kind of sat around really anxious for a couple of days. I was obsessively checking Twitter just for any little dribble of news coming out of Beira. And there were bits and pieces and the occasional photo that made it out, but we really didn't know what was going on. Over those couple of days I started feeling this urgent need to help And then after a few days, once we started to understand exactly what the situation was, I realized that we weren't getting very many images out to the world.

Jen Guyton: There were people I was talking to in the U.S. and Europe who had no idea of the cyclone and had even happened. They hadn't even heard of it. It wasn't on the news, it wasn't on social media, it wasn't anywhere. And so, people just had no idea what was going on. And I realized that something that I could do is take photos and get them out there. I started working with Gorongosa's relief team. They put together sort of a grassroots effort to get food out to the communities in the parks buffer zone. So I was able to go with them and take photos of both the relief effort, which was just this inspiring thing. A lot of the park rangers dropped everything they were doing, and they do important work protecting endangered species and keeping the park safe, and they dropped everything they were doing to instead get out into the communities and hand out food. I passed those images onto the park and the park was able to use them on their platforms to raise money for the relief effort and also to get them to various international media outlets.

Jen Guyton: I was happy to be able to contribute in some way in the wake of that disaster because I felt that as a Fulbrighter, I was a guest in that country and it was important for me to try to give back to the community. I was one of the fortunate ones that wasn't affected heavily by the cyclone and there were so many people around me who were suffering, and so many people who had welcomed me as a guest into their country with open arms. So, I felt like I had to give back.

Jen Guyton: My photos have been ambassadors for a certain little known species like pangolins, which are my favorite animals. That's pangolins not penguins. And pangolins are these really funny sort of ant eaters that are covered in scales, but they're actually mammals. So, their scales are made of hair just like ours. So, they're these really weird, almost reptile looking mammals that are actually really beautiful and really unique. There is nothing that is closely related to them in the world, and they are highly endangered because people in Asia use them for their meat and their scales. And a lot of people just don't know about them. And so, I've been really lucky in Gorongosa to see a number of pangolins because they get rescued from poachers fairly often there. So, I've been able to photograph pangolins and I love just when I take photos of them, I love just littering social media with these photos because inevitably I get messages from people that are, "Wow, that is such a cool animal. I have never heard of it before. I am so glad I saw your photo", because they're really just magical.

Jen Guyton: And it's actually thought that pangolins were probably the origin of the dragon myth. They just look like these little dragons. They're really a magical creature and I'm glad that my photos can be ambassadors for them and sort of educate people about their coolness. As a conservation photographer, I have two main goals and the most important one is to make people fall in love with nature. I want them to see my photos and think, "Wow, this is an amazing place or an amazing animal and it's worth having on this planet". I think that unless people love nature and love the wilderness, we're not going to have it around much longer. I hope that by inspiring a love for nature in people, I can also inspire them to take action in their own life to protect nature, whether that's voting to protect nature or whether that's spending their money in a certain way, whether that's biking to work instead of driving to work, or supporting conservation organizations. I hope that my images in some way inspire people to take action to protect nature.

Jen Guyton: One of the stories I love is that Yellowstone National Park was actually created because of images, because of paintings and photos that congress saw of Yellowstone. Most of them had... back then mid-1800's people didn't go from D.C. to Montana on a regular basis. And so, congresspeople hadn't seen Yellowstone. They didn't know was there. They didn't know what a rich treasure they had. And through imagery, people were actually able to lobby them to protect Yellowstone as the first national park. I think images still have that power today. I think they have the power to effect policy and they have the power to make sure that people know what's out there and what is worth saving. One thing that makes me really optimistic is seeing this national park come back from the brink. There's no... it's impossible to be in Gorongosa and not feel hopeful, because you're looking at this place that was almost empty of large wildlife just 15, 20 years ago. Gorongosa is proof that ecosystems can be resilient and that we can restore our wildernesses if we intervene early enough and with enough hope and with enough dedication.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for title 22 chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of the U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Jen Guyton discussed her time in Mozambique as part of the Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, you can do so wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33. Now you can check us out on Instagram at 22.33 stories. Huge special thanks to Jen Guyton for her stories. Her images can be seen at jenguyton.com. Ana-Maria Sinitean did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Kaleidoscope by Podington Bear and three songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Hidden Tiles, Anamaratae , and an Introduction to Beetles. Music at the top of this episode is Sebastian by How the Night Came and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 78 - [Bonus] The Food We Eat, Part 11 (Thanksgiving)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 78


In this thankful holiday episode, international exchange participants talk about celebrating Thanksgiving abroad and holiday traditions that have impacted their experiences while in America.


Speaker 1: We should just be thankful for being together. I think that's what they mean by Thanksgiving.

Speaker 2: Good manners make people happy and a good table manners make eating together a happy time.

Speaker 2: Flavorful golden brown turkey is the crowning glory of your holiday dinner table and real butter helps you serve a butter-baked masterpiece.

Speaker 2: We are thankful for our home and our happy meal. We are glad we have good table manner and know what to do with the napkin.

Speaker 3: A golden brown, plump and juicy bird in the best of American tradition, the family headliner as it comes to the table in all its glory. Truly, a dish that adds grace to every table. A dish to be thankful for.

Chris Wurst: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange and food. This week, Thanksgiving stories.

Speaker 5: During the program, there was a short period. Everything was new, but today everything is part of my culture. Every occasion and custom is part of my culture right now that I've lived here in the U.S. for quite a while. Thanksgiving is part of my culture now. I can't live with not having family gathered and having a turkey as well.

Chris Wurst: This week, join us on a journey around the world to give thanks on Thanksgiving. It's 22.33.

Show Intro 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Show Intro 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Show Intro 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves and it... (singing)

Speaker 8: My wife is Italian and Australian, does not live here in the U.S. and we spend most of our time in Melbourne and she has picked up the Thanksgiving tradition. She does the thing where everybody goes around the table and says they're thankful for this and that. Her family at first thought, "Okay, what is this?" I don't know if you've ever done this with your family, but you'd be like sitting there waiting. If there's like 10 people at the table, you're like, "Okay, he took mine, so I can't... I got to come up with something good."

Speaker 8: But they do it now. They just do their own Thanksgiving. It's like spreading, it's contagious and, obviously, it's a little different out there. They didn't have the same reason to celebrate Thanksgiving, but the purpose is continued. Also, it's hard to find turkey in Australia as well.

Speaker 7: When I made Thanksgiving, I roasted this turkey. There's a whole story about the turkey. My site-mate, who is from an urban area, had to go get the turkey because I had to go to the Syrian embassy to get my visa. She's, like, "All right, I'm in a taxi with a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy that had a turkey on his farm is what we were told, so, like, okay, let's go get the turkey." She's like, "So the turkey is alive. How do I pick a turkey?" "This is not going to end well," is what I'm thinking. Like, "Well, pick the biggest bird that looks healthy," and she goes, "Okay. Well, they're bringing me up turkeys and wanting me to squeeze it." I'm, like, "Make sure you don't feel a lot of bones, that there's flesh there." "Okay, I can do that." Hang up.

Speaker 7: Twenty minutes later, "Um, the turkey is now dead." Like, "Yeah, that was going to happen." "And they processed it." I'm, like, "Okay." She's, like, "Now, it's in a plastic bag. What do I do with it?" Processing it, apparently, was also very traumatic for her and, like, "Well, just put it in the fridge and I'll deal with it when I get home," because I'm still in Cairo at the Syrian embassy doing this visa thing, so she puts it in the fridge.

Speaker 7: I get home, it's midnight. We go out for dinner with our friends, it's now 2 AM. This is normal because everything in the Middle East happens after the sun goes down because it's tolerable outside. The turkey is in the fridge and I can tell that this is the first time that she has seen this happen, I'm not going to push too hard.

Speaker 7: So I take the turkey out, I'm getting the turkey ready to go in the oven because I'm going to have to wake up at [inaudible 00:05:54] 30 and put the stupid thing in the oven. Get my Clicker lighter out, light my oven because it's a gas oven, put my turkey and go back to bed. I lift the wing and the turkey is looking at me. They hadn't taken the head off because she hadn't asked them to and it gave me quite the fright. I probably jumped five feet because I'm, like, "Oh, my goodness. The turkey is looking at me, got to deal with this." I'm not used to that. Even coming from a ranch, I'm used to dealing with meat. Just take the head off, take the feet off because I don't do that, either. Make it look more like meat to me and like turkey and put it in the oven.

Speaker 7: So we had this roast turkey, the stuffing. Egyptians didn't like stuffing so well. It wasn't their thing, which is cool. Stuffing is not everybody's thing. Pie, they'd never had pumpkin pie before, green bean casserole and corn and I made fresh bread. They get their plates and we help them load it up because you do Thanksgiving in a special way. Let's be honest here. You got to have the right mix of meat and gravy and everything going on. They're sitting there looking at it and I'm, like, "Just dig in. Just do it." So they eat it and they're, like, "This is so God. Why don't we make this here?" I'm, like, "I don't know. I mean, it's mashed potatoes and gravy. Isn't that what everybody eats?"

Speaker 7: So, they eat it. I send home leftovers because I'm, like, "I don't need half a turkey. Please take some home." They took home everything, but the stuffing. I mean, stuffing is stuffing. They really appreciated that because that was us really showing quintessential American culture. Although it's also hard to explain Thanksgiving to people who don't understand, we celebrate our times of lean by eating this giant feast, which hearkens back to the pilgrims and the Indians and being thankful for everything you have, so we're going to be gluttons for a day to celebrate. We're thankful for everything that we have.

Speaker 9: Oh, on Thanksgiving I went to one of the professor's houses. She invited me. She's from Ukraine and she gave me a really big plate that had different types of food that I didn't even know their names, but they tasted really good. I only knew the mashed potato and it was really good. Well, I'm speaking of mashed potatoes. I really didn't like mashed potatoes before, but the way they make them here is really different, it's really delicious. I started to like them and it's become one of my favorite food.

Speaker 9: Yeah. They don't use butter where I'm from. They only just boil it and then put it on the... fry it or whatever they do to it and it didn't really taste that good to me before. But here, then, I was like, "Oh, how do you eat mashed potatoes?" I was like, "Oh, that's different. That's delicious mashed potatoes."

Speaker 10: I was in Germany for pretty much all the major holidays. But luckily there were some people who were American there and we decided, okay, we're going to kind of have a feast and we're going to invite all the other performers that we had or that we had met through our times there.

Speaker 10: They didn't have turkey, so we made a lot of chicken, made a lot of chicken. We made macaroni and cheese and we made... They did have sweet potatoes, so we were able to make sweet potatoes. I mean, it was awesome to have other people share a part of our culture. Because usually when you're in another country, you're just kind of taking, taking and not giving as much. But, yeah, it wasn't anything crazy, but it was just a nice moment to share, to share something that is American with other people who had never experienced it before. And the food was excellent.

Speaker 11: The Thanksgiving dinner, we had a traditional dinner with one of the local families. They had turkey, they had lots of traditional lamb dishes. So that was also one of the unique experiences that I really enjoyed a lot.

Speaker 12: I get to know thanks to Lebanese teacher at [inaudible 00:10:52] University. I get to know an old lady, very nice one, who's taken extra courses on the Middle East with the... It's in an [inaudible 00:11:02] Center. That's what they call it. She's just like she loved me and she insists on spending the Thanksgiving with her and her retired friends. They are so alone and I was really happy for that. This is my first Thanksgiving. My first experience I've... I just heard of it in my life. I've never explained Thanksgiving.

Speaker 12: Of course, her welcoming just like Moroccan one. I was just, like, we would come to the house and we answer, "Hello. How are you?" But she was shouting from the door and that's Moroccan, too. That's how my mom acts when someone comes and there was wow. Then, of course, a lot of food. You can't imagine how much food she prepared for us. A lot of gifts. She brings even Moroccan food specially for me. We were sitting, we are sitting together with our plates, is only Moroccan gathering. Then at the end, we finish and they helped her in the dishes because she's an old lady. Then I said to her there are lots of difference. She said we are not because that's the gathering, it's making me feel that we have no borders. Borders are only political.

Speaker 13: We have an excellent host family program at the University of Minnesota Law School. My host sisters were Liz Reiser and Patty Stollman and all throughout the year they took care of me. They brought me to the grocery. They took me to wherever I needed to be.

Speaker 13: But Thanksgiving, I realized, is such a big thing here in the United States and I found it very touching when Patty invited me to the Thanksgiving dinner because I felt like I was part of the family. And after the Thanksgiving lunch hosted by Patty, my other host sister, Liz Reiser also prepared something for Thanksgiving for me. So it was a question of with whom should I go? Then I would just have to divide my time and myself so I could be with them both because these are two women, okay, wanting me to become part of their family in this very important day of the Americans.

Speaker 13: I'm not too much into mashed potato, but Patty prepares the best mashed potato. The turkey, the scent of her kitchen, the colorful array of food on the table and the vibrancy of the people surrounding the Thanksgiving table, it's just too much. I felt like my heart was bursting with joy. It felt like Christmas dinner in the Philippines, except that we did it at lunchtime.

Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name is Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of the U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: In this episode our taste buds gave thanks to Ahmed Alfotihi, Richard Steighner, Alfredo Austin III, Kristen Erthum, Omar Atatfa, Dareen Tadros, Salma Oubkkou, and Amy Avellano. We thank them for their stories and their willingness to try new things, especially mashed potatoes, apparently.

Chris Wurst: We give things today for all of the ECA programs and you can find out more about them at eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. We'd be thankful for that, too, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov.

Chris Wurst: Complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. Now you can check us out on Instagram at 22.33 Stories.

Chris Wurst: Special thanks this week to everybody for sharing their Thanksgiving memories. The various interviews were done by Ana-Maria Sinitean and I, and I edited this episode. Featured music during this segment was Kentucky Oysters by George Russell. Music at the top of each food episode is Spinning Monkeys by Kevin MacLeod and the end credit music is Two pianos by Tagirljus.

Chris Wurst: No turkeys were harmed in the actual making of this podcast, or very few, anyway. Until next time, Happy Thanksgiving.  


Season 01, Episode 77 - Tea in Taxis with Tajiks with Chane Corp

LISTEN HERE - Episode 77


From learning to teach on the fly, to learning absolute obedience to Tajik grandmothers, to learning to adapt to ten-hour taxi rides, Chane Corp kept his wits, his sense of humor, and his love of Central Asia.


Christopher W.: You traveled to a little known country halfway across the world, let's say Tajikistan. And even though you've never taught a class in English before, let alone Tajik or Russian, you think to yourself, how hard can it be? Seriously, you think that. A year goes by and by the time it's time for you to leave, you understand how hard it can be, but you also had no idea how much fun it would be.

Christopher W.: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Chane Corp: The other thing is I'm a real big fan of Diet Coke. A fiend, a fiend for Diet Coke, if you will. And first of all, there was no Diet Coke in the country. It was called Cola Light, which is not the same thing. But, it was also absurdly expensive. And really, if you walking around with a Diet Coke, people knew you were an American there. There was no question about it.

Chane Corp: So I started drinking a lot more tea. And what I really learned in Tajikistan is that there's a culture around tea. You don't grab a tea to go. There's not a Starbucks where you get it in a cup and you're walking to work. You sit down and you enjoy the tea with other people, and that's not something I really have been able to replicate here in America. When you invite people over, you're not usually inviting them over for tea to talk. You're usually going someplace. But it was always really kind of an amazing experience to me when somebody invites you into their home, when they put the tea on the kettle, and you know what's going to be a good conversation when they put the tea on.

Christopher W.: This week, tea in conversation, 20-hour taxi rides and the dangers of wearing shorts in the winter. Join us on a journey from the US to Dushanbe, Tajikistan and learning that enthusiasm is 90% of the battle. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happened in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people who are very much like ourselves and [inaudible 00:02:28].
Speaker 6: [Music 00:02:30].

Chane Corp: So my name is Chane Corp and I am a program officer in ECA, where I'm contracted to work on the Fulbright Program. So my exchange took place in Tajikistan. I was a Fulbright English teaching assistant and I worked at an American Corner in Dushanbe from 2014-2015.

Chane Corp: When I was looking at what I want to do when I graduate, I had an interest in Central Asia, and I thought to myself, how do I get back to Central Asia? There's not a whole lot of avenues to travel to the region. So being an English teaching assistant was one of the few ways to really get back to Central Asia and broaden my experience in the region. I don't have any experience teaching. I didn't study education, but I thought to myself, I can do this. This will work.

Chane Corp: So arriving in Tajikistan, you're in the classroom and you really think to yourself, "I have 10 months. What kind of impact am I going to make?" And when you first arrive, you think you're going to have this profound impact on their language abilities. You really think that a year is enough time to go from no English to all of the English, to fluency, and it's not. It was a little hard coming at first and being exposed to these students who thought that I was the expert, when I wasn't the expert. I was learning along with them. But over the course of 10 months, I really realized that as important as training is in education, it's also important to just have enthusiasm and to help students understand that learning can be fun.

Chane Corp: And then doing this, you really do kind of captivate their interest and make them know that learning English is fun and that's 90% of the battle. And once you've kind of placed those seeds and started watering that plant, it's going to grow into lifelong interest in learning.

Chane Corp: At the American Corner, you don't have one class. It's a library. So you're really working with whoever comes in. So that can be elementary students, that can be secondary students, university students, young professionals. But one of my favorite classes was actually the kids for English class. So these were elementary-age students, probably five to eight, and they're really excited to learn English. So it was really interesting to kind of see these children and their enthusiasm, and even though I didn't speak any Tajik and very little Russian, it was actually pretty easy to communicate because you have a picture in front of you. You have a picture of a pumpkin and it's pretty easy to say, "This is a pumpkin and it's orange."

Chane Corp: And you kind of understand that communication transcends language at some point. That it's pretty easy to describe something in front of you and to learn from each other. Part of that was me teaching them English, but when I told them the English word, they would always say the Russian or the Tajik word. So you really understand that teaching goes both ways. As much as you're going to kind of inform your students and connect that knowledge, you're also going to gain from them and really expand your own understanding.

Chane Corp: When I was at the American Corner, it really surprised me being in country because you really are the only American that most people have ever met. And so thinking about your life in the United States, you're not an expert on most things when you're a recent graduate. No one's coming to you for specialized advice. But living in Tajikistan, people really do come to see you as an expert, and mistakenly so in my opinion. Because you're the only American that they have met, they really take your opinion and the add weight to it. So sometimes I had to be a little bit careful about making comments because you really are reflecting on more than just yourself. And I think that's a really vital part of educational exchange and cultural exchange is that when you go to a country like Tajikistan, where so few other Americans have been, you're not just speaking for yourself, you really are representing your country.

Chane Corp: And so politics especially, I had to be careful about how the conversation was veering. But more so just in terms of everyday life, people would ask me, what's better wrestling or football? And you think in your head, "Well, football obviously. Okay, What kind of question is this?" But then because they look at you as representing your culture, they start to think that all Americans think football is better than wrestling. So throughout my time there, it was really important for me to remind my students that this is my opinion. Just like you have opinions, how I feel is not how all Americans feel.

Chane Corp: I've definitely never been as popular as I was in Tajikistan. That kind of social peak hit me when I was an exchange student because you really are wanted everywhere. People want to invite you to weddings, people want to invite you to births. I remember this time that I went to one of my students, their mother had just had a baby, so her sister. And it wasn't a birthday party, it was two weeks after the birth. It was a celebration of the birth. And I went, thinking, "I don't know why this person wants a stranger at their party." But when I got there, I was the guest of honor. So I was seated right next to the grandmother. When the meals came around, I had the biggest hunk of fatty goat meat that they had, which was a sign of respect. And, everybody kind of just wanted me to participate. They were singing. So after the family had sung, I always expected to sing a song. There was dancing, so much dancing all over the time.

Chane Corp: And you realize wherever you go, you're the guest. And so being the guest, you kind of have this esteemed position. Everybody wants you to kind of participate to be there. And it's something that is odd to me coming back to the United States, you go back to your regular life and you're not quite as popular as you used to be. So actually I think about my time in Tajikistan as being this time when I was so popular and everybody wanted to hang out with me and to invite me to things. Then you come back to America and you're just a regular person again, so you really have to kind of adjust. People say culture shock. I don't know if I had culture shock going to Tajikistan, but coming back you really realize like, "Oh, it's back to regular life now. I'm just the average Joe."

Chane Corp: One of the really interesting things about being in Tajikistan is that you always feel a part of this larger community. And so when I lived in the country I lived at by the Green Bazaar, and I would often walk out of my house when it was a little bit cold outside. And being an American, I love to wear gym shorts. So I would be preparing to go to the grocery store and sometimes it's snowing outside, but I have a high cold tolerance and I would wear shorts to the grocery store.

Chane Corp: But one day this woman across the street saw me wearing shorts and she comes running up to me and hits me on the shoulder and says, "What are you doing? You're going to catch a cold. Go back inside." And at this point I had made it to the corner of my street, not very far. So I went back inside and I was like, "I have to change because if she sees me again, I'm never going to get to the grocery store."

Chane Corp: And so it's just one of those moments when you realize if this was America, I might be a little offended. I might be a little stranged out that this random stranger had come up to me and told me to go back inside and change my clothing. But in Tajikistan, you really realize that she saw me, a young man, and was thinking to herself, "Who let this person outside?" And she really had my best interest at heart. And so, you know, part of living in a country is recognizing that and ensuring that you're kind of following those societal norms. And in Tajikistan when the babushka, when the grandmothers tell you to do something, you do it.

Chane Corp: The most memorable times I have of Tajikistan were often spent in taxis. So they're good because they're obviously getting you from one place to another, but they really, in another sense expose you to these different situations. And the thing about a taxis you can't leave. So if you walk into a grocery store and you meet a strange person, you walk away. But when you're in a taxi, you can leave, but there's an opportunity cost involved. How long have you been in a taxi and how far are you to your destination? I met the most interesting people and I think the people in taxes really taught me sometimes the most about Tajikistan because you get in and it's a time to practice your language skills.

Chane Corp: I got in a taxi going to Khorugh, which is between... This sounds ridiculous, 14 to 20 hours away from the capital, so it's a long kind of range there because of the roads. Was there a snow storm, was there sheep traffic? Just all of this stuff that could really cause variables. But I get in this taxi and I know it's going to be a long ride. And I say to myself, "This is a time to practice my Russian. I'm going to make some real progress by the end of this 20 hours." And the first thing I do is I look at the man next to me and I ask him, "Do you like American cars?" Well, the word for car in Russian is awfully close to the word "man". So I had asked this old Tajik man, whether or not he liked American men. It was obviously not the best way to start a 20-hour drive.

Chane Corp: But 10 hours in, you've really bonded with your fellow passengers. And so I just remember we were about probably 10, 13 hours in, and the guy behind me pulls out his handle of vodka, his liter of vodka, and that's when the fun really started. I didn't partake, but being able to kind of see this group of strangers, you've started not knowing each other with very little conversation, and then all of a sudden, you're on the Pamir Highway and people are taking vodka shots. And that's what cultural exchanges is. You're a part of that situation, whether you like it or not, make the most of it.

Chane Corp: But taxis, they get you outside of your comfort zone because you're in this car with strangers. But throughout the trip, you become much more than strangers. You really do form these connections. You start talking about one another's family, where you live, where you're from. So of course they were interested in where I was from in America, but then I learned a lot from them because not all of them were from Dushanbe. Many of them had moved from other cities to live in the capitol, and they all had a story. And by the end of the taxi ride, you pretty much learn everyone's story, and I think that's a really powerful way to get outside of your comfort zone.

[Music 00:15:07]

Chane Corp: I think if I was to really define my experience in Tajikistan, I would say uncomfortable. And I think that's an important part of a cultural and educational exchange is that you're going to this country, and you have these kind of preconceived notions of what you're going to do and the impact that you're going to have. And you've just kind of envisioned this life that you'll be living for the next 10 months. And two things really come from that. And one is you realize that wasn't realistic. You realize, that's not going to happen. The story I thought I was going to have didn't necessarily work out how I wanted it to or how I expected it. Not how I want it to, how I expected it to. You just envision yourself in this classroom with these perfect children learning so much English, and then you leave and you're waving goodbye. And they're all saying, "Thank you. Thank you for teaching us English." Well, it doesn't always work out that way. You come to realize that flexibility and being adaptable are really much more nuanced skills.

Chane Corp: I remember as I was leaving, my last day, one of my students said to me, "I've learned so much from you. I can understand native speakers now." And I thought to myself, "Wow, that's so nice." And then he continued and said, "You speak so fast that now I don't have trouble with anyone because I understand you and you're just so fast in talking." So it was kind of a double-edged sword there if you will. But then you also realize that it's had an impact on you.

Chane Corp: And I think coming out of Tajikistan, I was much more flexible and I was able to really... For example, at my current job, kind of take things that were imperfect and realize that they might not be perfect. That life and work, and studying even is about moving, but not necessarily always in a straight or a linear line. Life isn't straightforward and it's not a straight line. And really being able to adapt to situations like when you're in taxis, and being able to remain flexible like when your classroom loses electricity, are really skills that are going to empower you for the rest of your career. And that's something I walked away with from Tajikistan, was really realizing that core concept.

[Music 00:18:18]

Christopher W.: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of the U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Christopher W.: In this episode, Chane Corp told us about his experience as a Fulbright English language teaching assistant or ETA. For more about ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov and we encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can find us wherever you find your podcasts, and we'd also love to hear from you. You can write to ecacacollaboratory@state.gov. That's ecacacollaboratory@state.gov.

Christopher W.: A special thanks this week to Chane for sharing his stories. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music during the segment was "I'm Coming Virginia" by Ruby Braff & His Men, "Cold Feet" by Steve Klink, "I Heard a Song in a Taxi" by Henry Hall's BBC Orchestra, and "I'll Be a Friend With Pleasure" by the Billy Butterfield Jazz Band. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came. The end credit music, as always, is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 76 - It's a Great Day to be Alive with Ahmad Shaju Jamal

LISTEN HERE - Episode 76

Ahmad Shaju Jamal


Fulbright recipient Ahmad Shaju Jamal talks about his family and life in Afghanistan, and cultural experiences he noticed as an exchange student in rural Kentucky.


Christopher Wurst: As an Afghan refugee living in Pakistan, you were able to land a scholarship and pursue an education in the United States, specifically rural Kentucky, where surprisingly you found common ground. You learned that with safety and security one can truly reach their potential. And so you dream about going back and improving the lives of Afghans at home. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: A friend of mine was driving me, I didn't have a car, an undergrad, and the first song that popped up on the radio was, It's a Great Day to Be Alive by Travis Tritt, and I thought, "This is fantastic. What an upbeat, good song." I think the line goes, "There's some tough times in the neighborhood, but it's a great day to be alive."  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: A person does acknowledge that there are difficulties, but he's got rice cooking in the microwave and he has a three-day beard that he doesn't plan to shave and it's a great day to be alive. That's how I was hooked on country because although people have certain opinions about country music, I think the poetry and the emotion that it seeks to evoke speaks to a lot more artless, guideless, and more fundamental aspects of human existence where it's the man, the truck, the bottle of beer and that's about that.  

Christopher Wurst: This week, learning to love country music, reading the signs in America, and VIP status at the Empire State Building. Join us on a journey from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Kentucky to Washington DC on a path of understanding. It's 22.33.  

Show Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Show Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Show Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves, and-
Show Intro Clip 4: (music)  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: My name is Ahmad Shaju Jamal. My friends called me Shaju. That's what I'd like to go by. I am a second year of public policy graduate student at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown. I'm also the editor in chief of The Georgetown Public Policy Review. I am from Afghanistan, I'm on a Fulbright.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I was about six when my family left Afghanistan because of the on coming Taliban taking over the country. A lot of people were displaced and we moved over to Pakistan, over the border, and I lived in the City of Quetta, and I lived there until about when I was 19. I graduated from high school and I started looking around for opportunities to study outside of that particular context because refugee life can limit your options in many, many different ways.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And one of the things that I found out was that you could actually Google for opportunities. I searched around and I looked at opportunities, and I found that there's a school in Kentucky, United States, that offers full scholarships to students from around the world, and they had an Afghan student, they had Zimbabwean students, and other students from other parts of the world.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: At first, I thought, "This is probably too good to be true, maybe it's a scam, maybe it's not." But I decided to apply anyway, and when I received an acceptance letter, it wasn't really an acceptance letter. It was an acceptance email and I thought this couldn't really be... How do you know this is real? They also require for you to send a deposit before they can send you the I-20, and I thought, "This is it. They've taken my money and that's that."  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: But I sent the deposit anyway because I read through their entire website, page by page. I was really excited, A, that I got into a scholarship program in the U.S., and B that this was going to be my ticket outside of this refugee life that had a lot of dead ends, that really limited your prospects as a person.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: One of the things that you learn about America is, at least in the developing world, among people who are in the refugee community like I was, who don't have natural cultural ties with the U.S. such as Europe and the U.S. for example, where cross border travel is easy. You can come in and go out for work and for Christmas break, for holidays, things like that. If you don't have those kinds of natural connections and you live half a world away, you have a sense that America is really this shining city upon a hill that everybody is just as well off as the rich people you see on the soap operas and on the movies.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: But I think one of the things that I realized when I came to the U.S. is that there's a range of people who live different kinds of lives in the U.S., and that there is a diversity not only of ethnicities and races, but also diversity of socioeconomic statuses.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I arrived here in 2007, which was near the tail end of the Bush administration and his tenure. And I thought, "This is the most powerful nation in the world. The people must actually love their president and that here is a people that should be proud of the country that they have." I realized that the opinion on my college campus about the president was, in my experience, overwhelmingly negative.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And this really took me aback because I thought, "The best country in the world, people should be proud of their president," but then it took me awhile to realize that there is a diversity of opinion and that people do criticize their public leaders and that that criticism is not just tolerated, it's actually mandated or it is a right under the law, under the freedom of expression second amendment, I suppose, and people really do take that seriously.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Whenever I tell somebody that I went to undergrad in Kentucky, they have this sense of, "Wow, Kentucky. Really?" And I always tell them, "Yes, really. Kentucky." And I tell them it was actually a great experience because the college I went to accepted a lot of international students, but also it was in a town that was in a dry county, dry town, dry campus. And so somebody like me who came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, who wasn't really exposed to the same level of college life with fraternities and sororities in Kentucky than somebody elsewhere would have.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And there was limitations to visiting dorms that were female versus then visiting male dorms. A lot of that was different. But the one thing that really did struck out for me was, unlike the bureaucratic dysfunction where I had grown up and used to, everything on this college campus worked. You would go to an office for some paperwork and you were pleasantly surprised that they actually approached it from making it work for you, as opposed to making you work for it. Wow. The bureaucracy actually can be responsive and can be helpful.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Growing up abroad, you come to the U.S. and you have this particular sense of what the U.S. is like, which has everybody's rich, everybody's well-off and everything. But then you realize that this particular college that I went to, Berea College, takes in primarily... primarily takes in students from the Appalachian region, low income students from the Appalachian region.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: When I came to the U.S. I thought, "Well, I grew up as a refugee from Afghanistan and grew up in Pakistan. I probably have had a difficult life," but then some of the students at this college really, that I met, that I got to know their life stories, it really opened up my eyes to the many different ways people exist in the U.S.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: One particular student actually lived out of his car in the last six months of his high school and he went to Berea, graduated and ended up working at a very prestigious business consulting firm. Effectively, this college took a homeless person, gave them an education and set them on a path towards the middle-class or higher life. And the same thing it did to me. It took me out of a refugee existence, forced me to get a passport and then a visa to the U.S. and now I have been able to contribute to my own country, but also hopefully to the broader international community as well.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: One of the people I met in Kentucky was a student, a female student, whose father was a trucker, but also had a problem of alcohol abuse every once in a while. The student had started college in the fall, but she had a couple of bunnies still at home from high school. And one day she came up to me and she was crying. She was distraught. She was clearly very, very upset. And I asked her, "Why are you so distressed?" And she said, "Well, my father took us shotgun and he shot my bunnies."  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And my first reaction, in retrospect, I feel terrible about that, was to laugh at this because, "You're crying because your father shot your bunnies? Your bunnies? Are you serious? Worst things happen to people. Why are you crying?" But then, you have to understand that in this particular context, she has very strong emotional attachments to her bunnies, and that in an otherwise turbulent family life, her bunnies and her pets were a source of warmth and solace, and that her father, her own father had violently taken away the bunnies.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: What that illustrated to me was that in my country, which had seen multiple decades of violence, what distresses people is very different from what in the U.S., in Kentucky, distresses somebody. Although the problems people face, "first world problems," people face in the U.S. are really not anywhere close to what people in some parts of the developing world face sometimes. But they are nonetheless real problems that really affect these people's lives in real ways. And I think that's one thing that I learned early on in my time in Kentucky.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: You can read a lot about American culture, you can read a lot about how it's different from your culture. But I had eaten out with a friend my first few weeks at Berea, and I offered to spot him and I paid about $15 or so for lunch for him. And then he promised to pay me back. Those were the days when Venmo didn't exist. A few days later, when he offered to pay back the $15 I said, "No," out of politeness, which is how we do in my culture. "No, you don't really have to pay me. Keep it."  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And he said, "Are you sure?" And I said, "Yes, yes. You can certainly keep the money." Because that's the polite way to do it in my culture. You're expected to receive it in turn as the other person says, "No," out of politeness, "take this money, please." That didn't happen in this context. And so what I did was I actually didn't get that $15, which was not a lot of money, but it was one of those experiences where you're like, "Okay, this culture really is different." And what you've read about on the blogs and advice columns, it really happens.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: One of the first days I arrived in Kentucky at the college, my dorm room didn't have a fan. Another Afghan student who had been there a few years ahead of me, he took me out to the Walmart for us to buy a fan. I enter what was a massive, massive row, upon row, upon row of things. And this was around 1:00 AM, but there were still shoppers who had massive stacks of Coca-Cola filled their shopping carts. It was unreal to me. Because back home, if you need a Coca-Cola, you go to the corner store, you get one Coca-Cola can or bottle and you come home.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Here, this person had 24, 36. I forget how many. And for some reason, my friend was able to take us in this really massive multiple football field store to the precise place where we would find a fan. I had to later ask him, "How did you know that the fan was in this particular place in a place as large as this?" And he said, "Well, you just look at the signs." Where I come from, the vast majority of people are illiterate and so people don't really, even if you're literate, you don't really think to look at the signs, but that was one thing for me, was to in the U.S. just look at the signs.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I come from Afghanistan. It's been in conflict for longer than my lifetime, and it continues to be in conflict, sadly. And so social services and just social life in general is very much affected by the conflict that's going on. If you're eating out with your friends or you're congregating outside of your house, you have to maintain a situational awareness of something might happen at any moment in this particular place that you're in.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: When you are in the U.S. there's sort of a carefree disregard for that kind of situation or awareness. You don't care about what might happen at any moment. Your mind is a lot more free to engage socially, to mindlessly scroll through your Facebook, to do any number of other things. Whereas in my country, you have to maintain situational awareness all the time. That hyper vigilance basically eats up a lot of your bandwidth that you could focus on other things, and I think that's one of the things that a lot of us would like to take back with us.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: But also, it's generally easier to come from a place of fewer freedoms to a place of many more freedoms. The ability to hang out, the ability to use or not things such as alcohol for example, which is forbidden in Afghanistan, and it's harder to go from a place of greater freedoms like this to a place of fewer freedoms because we have to now constrict a lot of things.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: The one thing that has been indispensable to me in the U.S. particularly into my grad program, has really been the friendships that I've made because as Afghanistan is going through really difficult times because of the escalating violence and the conflict, and you know that your friends and your family are going through difficult times and that you're helpless and distant from that. I think the friendships you form here really helped me cope with some of that sense of helpless isolation that you have.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: As long as I can get some Afghan food every once in a while I'm okay, but I think I listen to music from that part of the world a lot more often, and I think that's something a lot more indispensable than food to me. I read poetry from that part of the world and that's a lot more indispensable to me than certain other aspects of our culture. And I think those two things, the poetry in Afghanistan is how you reason with people, "As the poet says," is a legitimate form of argumentation. It's a legitimate form of social interaction. You talk about, you cite poetry, you cite all kinds of these things.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Whereas in the U.S. I think it's not really like that. In the U.S. it's a lot more, A therefore B, therefore C argumentation happens a lot more along those lines. And so people don't put poetry on their statuses in Facebook. In Afghanistan, they do it all the time and I think that's the one aspect that I keep carrying with myself, which is the poetry from that region and the music from that region.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Having grown up in Pakistan and not in my own country of Afghanistan, and having spent a number of formative years in the U.S., I think the term you learn in the U.S. is that you're a third culture kid, so you belong to a number of different places because of experiences and social connections to those different places. You have multiple homes. At the same time, you're not as deeply rooted as somebody who's only spent time in one place. Having said that, I think I do connect the idea of home with where my family is, which is my mother and my grandmother, and right now they are in Kabul, Afghanistan.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I think everybody realizes that if you're in your own country, if you're in Mexico, if you're in the U.S., you identify everybody else. You identify, "I'm from Kentucky," versus Tennessee versus New York versus Minnesota. The same thing was with me that when you grow up in the community where you are, where everybody's like you, you're not really... your first identity is not Afghan, but when you come to the U.S. one of the first things that happens at the port of entry is at a check of your passport and that immediately connects you with your fundamental aspect of our identity in a different country, which is Afghan.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I'm a lot more Afghan in the U.S. than I am in Afghanistan where I don't have to be Afghan. I don't have to assert that identity, and nobody's really asking me about that identity, unless I'm at the airport and somebody at the check-in counters is mistakenly identifying me as a foreigner, which doesn't happen all the time. But it does. I've also been really fortunate that in the U.S. I haven't really felt questioned. I think certain friends have had some experiences that they would classify as a phobic. I've never had any of those experiences.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: On the contrary, I was working in the U.S. a few years ago. This was 2012, I believe. I just walked out of my office suit and tie, everything, and I walked into a sushi restaurant and I was ordering and the person started speaking to me in Japanese because I am from the Hazara ethnic community in Afghanistan and we kind of look, "Asian," East Asian. That was the only time when somebody assumed anything about my identity in the U.S. Generally, they don't do that.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I think what I learned after coming to the U.S. was that I'm a lot more independent than I thought I was at living apart from your family in the tail end of your teenage years in the U.S. It becomes part of your formative experience and you begin to behave like they do in the U.S. and you begin to take certain modes of behavior for granted and as natural when you're in the U.S. And I never really experienced any kind of, "Oh, you're not an American," any sort of otherizing or any sort of being put in a category of non-American.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: In fact, when I went back to my country after about six years, in certain places in Afghanistan, people assumed I was a foreigner and not an Afghan because I had started carrying myself differently. And in official context I had started speaking English with an accent that's closer to American, so they assumed I was an American. And in certain places like airports where you do expect a lot of foreigners in Kabul to be present, people waiting at the check in line started assuming on more than one occasion that I'm not an Afghan.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: In some ways, my time in the U.S. spent a very, very formative number of years, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, really changed the way I carry myself, the way I behave and the way I speak to the extent that in certain places like the airport started identifying me as a non-Afghan.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Certain times it's actually very awkward. I was waiting this one time at the airport and it was a really long line at the check-in counter and it was not moving fast. Somebody, an Afghan standing behind me, tapped on my shoulder and I looked back and he said in English, not in Farsi or Pashto, as we speak in Afghanistan, saying, "I can't believe how slow this is." And I didn't know if I should respond in English, which is not the language we speak, or I should respond in Farsi or Pashto, which would then embarrass him. So all I did was I just smiled and I looked forward and I kept keeping myself busy with my own things.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: It's not a pleasant experience. The community I come from, it's a minority community and it's always had some really rough experiences in the hands of the regimes that have been in power. And so otherizing in that way is very unpleasant because it connects with that historic political experience of the community at large, that makes it very unpleasant.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Growing up, you learn about some of the landmarks in the U.S. especially if you're studying English as a second language. You learn about the golden gate bridge and you learn about the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. So I learned about all of these things, and when I landed in New York in August of 2007, I stayed there for about three or four days. I was living in a friend's apartment.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And every day I would walk out of that apartment, and because I didn't have enough money to take the train, I actually walked all the way from near Columbia, which is Uptown Manhattan, all the way to the rest of the town downtown. So I made my way and I went to a part of the town that had what really surprised me, which was the Empire State Building. And outside of it, I saw a really long line of people waiting to go in and I thought, "Well, this must be free. A free trip tour of the Empire State Building." And I wait for about 15 minutes until my turn arrives. There's somebody in the window that's saying, "That would be $20, sir."

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And it took me aback and I thought, "$20 for what?" But it was a ticket to see the building. And I thought to myself, "I've spent 15 minutes waiting for this thing. I've don't have enough money to even take the train to come downtown." But it would be probably very, A, impolite to say, "I don't have the money," and walk away. And B, this is your chance to see the Empire State Building. So I actually showed that $20, went upstairs, took some photos, saw the observation deck and came down.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And A, felt very, very stupid because I hadn't realized that something that iconic with those many people waiting in line isn't necessarily free, even though there's 50 people waiting in line. It's actually a paid thing. But many, many years after when I graduated and I went home and I was working for an NGO in Afghanistan, a human rights NGO, that NGO was headquartered in the Empire State Building and I had the privilege of working out of the Empire State Building approximately 10 years after that, so that became my office building.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: When you work there, you can actually have a VIP pass to the observation deck. You can go there without paying anything or waiting in line. You just go there and enjoy the view.

Christopher Wurst: Twenty dollars?

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Absolutely. More than that. Nobody in our family had graduated from college before and here I was graduating from a college in the U.S. This was for the family and for me a pretty big deal, but my parents were not able to join me for a number of reasons, including visa restrictions. But a friend, an American friend that I had met back in 2001 in Quetta when I was a refugee, and he was a reporter covering the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but we'd kept in touch, and his family came down from New York to Kentucky.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: With his then three-year-old son that gave me a lot of solace. I thought, "This is fantastic." I met him when I was 13, he was a reporter and now we're friends and I'm graduating and he's here visiting me on my big day. I thought that was a very pleasant experience. It was really good to have them around.

Christopher Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of the U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Christopher Wurst: This week, Ahmad Shaju Jamal told us about his journey that ultimately led to his current Fulbright scholarship at Georgetown University. For more about the Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and you can do that wherever you find your podcasts. And of course, we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A, C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov, or check us out at eca.state.gov/2233.

Christopher Wurst: Special thanks this week to Shaju for sharing his story. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was three songs by Paddington Bear, Bad Scene, Tralala and Twilight Grandeur, and Kentucky by Sammy Kaye And His Orchestra. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 75 - Berlin Ghosts with David Marks

LISTEN HERE - Episode 75


A retired foreign service officer, David Marks recalls his memories of being a foreign student in Berlin. Seeing and feeling the effects of the Cold War actually changed Marks' direction in life.


Chris: You begin your international career during the heart of the Cold War and by the time the USSR collapses, you're a US diplomat working in a newly democratic Eastern Europe. But your lasting impressions were created during a time when Berlin was divided and when, as an exchange student, you learn firsthand lessons about America's role in the world.

Chris: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

David: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks only one language? An American.

Chris: This week, the ghost subway stations of East Berlin, May Day, with angry communists, and lunching with Iranian friends during the Iranian hostage crisis. Join us on a journey from the past to the present and back, and life as an American student in a divided Berlin. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves and ...
Speaker 5: (singing)

David: My name is David Marks. I'm a retired foreign service officer. I retired from the State Department in 2013 after 30 years. I first became aware of the exchange programs long before I knew that there was a State Department connection. I went to a graduate school in Russian literature at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. And at that time, Indiana had an exchange program with the Free University of Berlin and each school, every year, sent one student to the other school. I was lucky enough to be awarded that fellowship for the 1979-1980 academic year. I was advised to apply for a Fulbright travel grant, which I did, and which I received. And so that was my introduction to the exchange programs that the State Department sponsors.

David: Berlin, in those days, was of course a divided city, divided by the Berlin Wall. While I was there during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and after the US reacted to that by, among other things, canceling participation in the Moscow Olympics in 1980. You could see very clearly the concrete manifestations of the hostility between the Soviet Union and the West.

David: It was a peculiarity that the West German subways, two lines of the West German subway, ran through, or under, a part of East Berlin that jutted out into West Berlin and there were stations, train stations, there that hadn't been used since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. So you would go through these stations and there'd be this deep layer of dust and then, very occasionally, in the dim light of the subway station you could see some East German guard lurking in case anybody had somehow managed to get down there and was trying to hop onto the West German subways.

David: Berlin really is a city where history is in front of you almost everywhere you turn. Whether it is the bullet holes you can still see in some of the buildings, or the fact that you would be walking through a section of old buildings and all of a sudden there would be a large area of quite new construction, because what had been there was of course bombed out during the war. And it was also a city, particularly when I was there in 1979 and 1980, where you could feel the Cold War. There were examples literally everywhere you looked. From the Berlin Wall to, as I said, the various military personnel you could see walking around town to trying to get through the Berlin Wall to the other side.

David: One of the most interesting experiences I had was going from West Berlin to East Berlin on the first of May 1980, to watch the May Day parade. And this occurred very shortly after President Carter decided that because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States was not going to take part in the Moscow Olympics. And so there were quite a few banners carried by the various East German student and worker delegations in the parade denouncing the US policy. So it was an opportunity for me to see the very concrete effects of certain US policies. And that was helpful for me after I joined the State Department.

David: I lived in a large apartment that was subdivided into rooms and my German landlord was a fairly tolerant fellow and we had a number of students from a variety of places. There were two Greek students when I was there, two Iranians. And these two Iranians, after the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and the diplomats were taken hostage, they invited me to lunch and apologized for what their country had done. I thought that was quite an interesting experience.

David: My wife, who was not my wife at the time, but she came to visit me in Berlin and we went over to East Berlin and I had gotten tickets for Bertolt Brecht production in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, which is the most famous theater in East Berlin. And it was in the winter and we were looking to kill some time before the play started. And we were in one of the East German, the East Berlin, museums and in Russia and in and East Germany, many of the museum staff are elderly women, who are very suspicious of anybody and they keep a close eye on you to make sure you don't try to touch anything. And one of these women came up to my wife and me and said, "Look, everybody else has left, you're the last visitors here. We want to go home. Why don't you get out of here?" And I thought that was a great lesson in socialist mores.

David: Seeing the enormous influence, I had seen it in West Germany when I was a soldier, but seeing the enormous influence in Berlin of the United States and how the United States had really assisted in the development of democracy in post-war Germany, or the reestablishment of democracy in post-war Germany, was for me, an inspiring experience in how much the Germans still looked to the United States. This was after all, the city where President Kennedy had said, "Ich bin ein Berliner." And in fact, the Berlin Rathaus where he said that was just about a half mile down the street from where I lived in Berlin and the bus went past it every day when I took the bus down to the big library in central West Berlin.

David: There really is a friendship connecting Germans and Americans that is based on a certain shared history. Some of it bad, but much of it good. And that I think this shared history has it been a great benefit to both of our countries.

David: And in fact, the experiences I gained while I was on this fellowship, completely changed the direction of my life. I had gone to Germany with the intention of returning to Bloomington, Indiana to complete my doctorate in Russian literature. But instead, I was also given eight weeks of intensive German at the Goethe-Institut, which is a German cultural exchange program. And while I was there, I was in the same class with a young woman from Japan and we got to know each other and fell in love and got married. And we're still married.

David: I would credit my 30 year career in the State Department to that experience because when I was in Berlin and got to see what the Cold War really meant in terms of concrete things, not just the concrete in the Berlin Wall, but how it affected the lives of people in Berlin, and the importance of an American role in the world. I think that was the real profound experience that I brought with me from that exchange.

David: In fact, when I was on my second tour at our embassy in Bonn, that was when President Reagan made his visit where he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." And of course that was a reminder of the significance of Berlin and of my time there.

Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the US code. The statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of the US government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris: In this episode, David Marks told us about his experiences as a Fulbright scholar in then West Berlin. For more about ECA exchanges including Fulbright programs, check out eca.state.gov. You can also subscribe to 22.33 wherever you find your podcasts and we strongly encourage you to do so. And you can write to us. We love to hear from you. Find us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov.

Chris: Special thanks this week to David for sharing the memories of his beloved Berlin. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music during the segment was Summertime by Shelly Mann. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 74 - Julia Roberts and German Culture with Julia Follick

LISTEN HERE - Episode 74


From Oakland, California to Rostock, Germany, Julia Follick remembers her pleasant and also intense conversations with her German students. She also recalls fun cultural activities that opened her perspective on cultural differences.


Christopher: Socrates is often quoted as saying something to the effect of, "I know I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing." If you agree with this famous observation, which in other variation goes, "Why is this, does he who knows how much he does not know?" Then you have to admit that living in foreign places definitely must make people more intelligent.

Christopher: What happens when you leave your comfort zone, travel to another country, interact with different cultures, new languages, and unique ways of life? Well, for one thing, you begin to learn that assumptions and reality can greatly differ. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Julia: I responded to an ad in the newspaper when I was living in Germany. They were looking for English speakers to do the voiceover for a German cartoon. So I said, "I'm an English speaker. I have those skills." I went and auditioned. They wanted me to read the part of a cross eyed cat. I read it once and they said, "Okay, good. Now read it more cross-eyed." I just had no idea what it meant. I was not asked back. I was not given the job. I realized that my foreignness only got me so far. Did not make up for real talent.

Christopher: This week, cross eyed cat, surfing to class, getting lost in post-communist architecture, and who is Julia Roberts anyway? On this episode, a journey from Oakland, California to Rostock, Germany, and lesson about the limits of one's preconceptions. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We operate under a Presidential mandate, which says that we report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: (singing).
Speaker 6: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves and then it was possible to...
Speaker 5: (singing.)

Julia: Hi, I'm Julia Follick. I'm originally from Oakland, California and I now work in the State Department in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. My exchange program was the English Teacher Exchange Program in Germany, I was there from 2005 to 2006. I was placed in Rostock, which is in the Northeast of Germany, state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Julia: I think before I went to Germany and lived with Germans, I was much more ready to, I guess, make generalizations about cultures, about the Germans, about Americans, and once I probably regularly made generalizations about what Germans were like until I actually went and met so many of them and knew so many, heard so many different stories, I realized how foolish it is to paint whole cultures with broad strokes like that.

Julia: I had a lot of nights out meeting people where I'd start off with, "I'm American." A lot of people had never met an American and had lots of questions and were really interested in hearing more about my experiences and where I came from.

Julia: I think that's the easiest conversation starter that I've ever had. I was really disappointed when I came back to the United States and I had to come up with interesting conversation topics again.

Julia: One misconception that really stuck with me. Someone, a younger student, heard that I grew up in California and asked, "Did you surf to school every day?"

Julia: I had studied Germany, German language, and German culture in college, but when I arrived there, I realized I had a lot to learn. I just moved into a house with a number of 20 somethings and they were asking me how much I knew about Germany, asking me about famous German saying, "Do you know this person? Do you know Michael Schumacher? Do you know Franz Beckenbauer?" Listing off all of the people that were their cultural heroes that every person on the street was familiar with those names. I hadn't heard of any of them. They were all unfamiliar to me despite all my classes in German culture.

Julia: As they kept going one by one, I realized just how much I had to learn that you could never learn in a classroom. They kept going on this list of names, and finally they got to one that sounded familiar. They said, "Do you know Julia Roberts?"

Julia: I said no initially, and I realized they were saying Julia Roberts. Did I know Julia Roberts, because they thought I was just so ignorant that I hadn't heard of anyone. I realized that I had some understanding gaps to overcome as well.

Julia: I was surprised that the Germans were very interested in what America thought about them. I was asked a lot of questions about, "Do you think we're all Nazis? You must think XYZ." Of which I tried my best to dispel notions about what all Americans think about Germans and I realized just how multifaceted it is, how impossible it is to paint with broad strokes about what all Germans are like. Just like it's impossible to say what all Americans are like.

Julia: The town that I was in, Rostock, was the site of the annual gathering of the Neo-Nazis, and they'd plan this parade through the town. The police presence there was unbelievable. I have never seen so many police officers on duty at one time. All of the streets were blocked off all along. You had to show your identification to get into the houses along the parade route.

Julia: I was amazed that so many Neo-Nazis were in existence and also willing to go out and march proudly. But I was even more amazed by the counter protests just that dwarfed the actual parade. There were thousands of people from all across Germany protesting and both really coexisting with all of the police, all of these three antagonistic groups, and there was no violence at all. But it was really a spectacle to behold.

Julia: I was wary of bringing up the issues of the Nazi past. So I let them, I guess, lead the way, but they were very anxious to talk about it and say what they felt. What was, I guess, more eyeopening for me, I of course, had learned all about the Nazi history and things like that. I was mentally prepared to go in and talk to people about that. But the communist history that is still so prevalent in Eastern Germany really blew me away.

Julia: The people that I was meeting who are my age had been born in a communist country and their parents had lived their whole lives pretty much in a communist country. I remember I went home for Christmas with one of my friends to this complex of concrete apartment buildings that had been built shortly after the communists came to power really to house the workers and they told me that I was not allowed to go outside of the apartment by myself because I would get hopelessly lost and I would never be able to find the right apartment again, because they all looked exactly the same. It was just one after another after another.

Julia: Someone was telling me this story about how their grandfather had been a prisoner of war during World War II and their grandmother had taken the kids and walked all across what is now Poland to get to what is now Germany, where they thought they'd be safer. It had taken weeks, it was this long walk on foot. They almost starved. The grandfather almost didn't make it out of the POW camp. And I just said, whoa, that's what you see in movies. I had never talked to anyone who had a story like that.

Julia: And then every single other German at the table had a similar story. Every person, their grandparents lives had been affected like that. Just the impact of living in a place that had had a war like that has... Of course the impact on Americans was huge as well, but it was so much more on the Germans. That was really impactful.

Julia: One thing that was really amazing to me was when I celebrated New Years in Germany. New Year's seems like such a straightforward holiday that it's really similar throughout the world, and in a lot of ways it was similar, but they set off rockets out of bottles. You drink the beer, put the bottle in the snow, put a rocket in it and then shoot it off.

Julia: The effect was just this cacophonous blast going off everywhere. The sky was lit up so brightly with every single person in the town lighting off their own rockets. I had never seen anything like it. The smell of smoke was everywhere. I was used to having little New Year's parties with just my friends or watching carefully orchestrated professional fireworks displays. I had never seen that combination of so many people doing similar things in such a crazy way.

Julia: I also had a lot of fun trying all of the different beers in Germany, particularly every little town that I went to, they all have their one brewery that has the one local beer and there's so much local pride around that brewery and that beer. You really feel like you hadn't visited a town until you had tried their specific beer, even though they all started to taste the same.

Julia: We got a team of I think four people together and we carried... You have to carry a case of beer bottles, huge German beer bottles, and you had to go, I think it was three miles or something like that. You could either carry the heavy case and drink them at the end, or you could drink them all at the beginning so your case was lighter, but then you were drunker. So, it was hundreds of people drinking and racing, carrying huge cases of beer. That really felt so typically German, but also so fun.

Julia: We drank most of the beer towards the beginning, which put us at pretty close to the front in the beginning, but then definitely slowed us down on the back end. We did not win either.

Julia: I knew I would meet lots of Germans and experience a lot of German culture, but it also really highlighted the parts that I liked best about American culture, both because it was things that I was missing and really because of the things that I wanted to share with the people I was meeting.

Julia: When I first got there I hosted a big Thanksgiving celebration because I could imagine that there are people who had never had pumpkin pie. How could you live your life like that? That's something that needed to be shared.

Julia: Things like the holidays, I really enjoyed sharing with other people because I really like how American's celebrate a lot of the holidays. I also formed really close friendships with the other Americans who were there in Germany on the same program. Being foreign and there being so few Americans there really brought us together and I still keep in touch with a lot of the people, particularly the people who were in the same rural state where I was.

Christopher: I'm Christopher Wurst, Director of the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. code, the statute that created ECA.

Christopher: Our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs. In this episode, Julia Follick shared her experiences as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, or ETA. Fulbright ETAs are placed in classrooms overseas to provide assistance to the local English teachers. These assignments can range from kindergarten all the way up to university level.

Christopher: For more about ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 wherever you get your podcasts.

Christopher: We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov. That mouthful is E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.

Christopher: Special thanks this week to Julia for sharing her insights, stories, and tips on how not to run a beer bottle race. I did the interview with Julia and edited this episode. Featured music during this segment was Before You Leave and Mourning Too Soon, both by Catsa, and the Liechtensteiner Polka by Dick Contino and His Orchestra. Until next time...


Season 01, Episode 73 - Paying it Forward with Aleksandra Gren

LISTEN HERE - Episode 73


Aleksandra Gren teaches us the value of human interaction. Through interacting with others we can find inspiration, mentorship, and friendship that can be relayed to any person you meet from any country. For Gren, her experience in the United States had given her greater exposure to American values that she was able to share back in Poland, specifically for women.


Christopher: As a business leader, you were chosen to take part in the Fortune Most Powerful Women Program to learn about mentoring from an American business leader, but the learning went two ways. In fact, this is what Fortune Magazine had to say about it. "Mentors are supposed to motivate and embolden mentees, but sometimes in a mentoring relationship, the teacher becomes the student." You, then, or the teacher. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Aleksandra: I was very lucky to have parents and especially my mom who told me a lot of incredible stories about my family. She definitely inspired me to do great and big scale things. I have to say honestly, that I always thought that I would be doing incredible things. I don't know what that belief was based on, but that's what my mother filled me with, those dreams and those stories of greatness.

Christopher: This week, stories of inspiration from a young age, delivering STEM education to those in need and becoming a mentor to your mentors. Join us on a journey from Poland to the United States to discover the power of paying things forward. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. There are people very much like ourselves.

Aleksandra: My name is Aleksandra Grin. I'm from Poland. I work in the financial services technology field for a US-based computer company that works with banks around the world. I'm based in Warsaw. In 2015, I was nominated to come to the United States to the Fortune US State Department Global Mentoring Women's Program, a program which connects emerging women leaders around the world with CEOs, women CEOs in the United States, members of the fortune most powerful women's list. It focuses on sharing of experiences, skillset building, knowledge sharing and just inspiring in terms of creating new leadership skills so that the women from around the world can go back to their and their communities and be agents of change. It was an amazing experience where I got paired up with an incredible woman, the CEO of Fidelity Personal Investing, Kathleen Murphy. And I just love working with people from different cultures, countries, from different backgrounds because I know where diversity exists, magic happens.

Aleksandra: I was born in Poland in 1972 in a world that doesn't exist anymore during the Cold War, which divided Europe and some of the parts of the world and in two halfs between the two superpowers, and when I was five six, seven, going into the 1980s, nobody ever would have predicted that the Berlin Wall would collapse, that Europe would be reunited, that Germany would be reunited and that the Soviet Union, the way we knew it until 1989, would cease to exist.

Aleksandra: In my childhood, the stories that my mom gave me despite grim surroundings in central and eastern Europe at that time, filled me with hope and big dreams. Now, what helped those dreams was my father, who was an engineer and he was active in the energy field and he worked around the world. Along with those professionals, there came the families. They would come back to Poland after a few years, changed in terms of cultural outlook, openness, and I was part of that world.

Aleksandra: When the Berlin Wall was about to collapse, and again, we didn't know that this would happen until it actually occurred in 1989, there was a lot of commotion in the air. There was a lot of unease. There were just moves of people from central and eastern Europe because I think there was so much anxiety as to what would the Soviet Union do actually when confronted by the United States. And my mom had to make the difficult choice of, are we staying with the hope that things will turn out okay or actually leaving the world, the world, the city we live in and moving to a different country? So this happened when I was 15. Through those challenges, I grew and I developed a different sense of understanding of the world, understanding of what people go through, different cultures, and this definitely made me the person I am today.

Aleksandra: It's a simple realization that people are the same around the world. It's a simple truth that a lot of decision makers are trying to hide from their people, to the detriment of these people, because it's much easier to divide and rule. I mean, all of the organized movements' ideas are based on giving people a certain identity and telling them that anything outside of that framework of identity is foreign and that we should be afraid of the foreign. And that mechanism of dividing and ruling has been used forever. That's why large segments of societies around the world are being programmed from the very early beginning to say, "This is us. We are special. We are unique, and the the rest is enemies or something we need to fight." And it's done purposely, very often by very smart people who don't believe this themselves. For the purposes of holding onto power, they will feed anything to their people.

Aleksandra: Fear is a basic instinct and a number one sentiment that people feel which can paralyze, stop and disable people's critical thinking and emotions. Luckily, the region I come from, central and eastern Europe, has gone through an amazingly transformative period of time over the last 30 years where democracy flourished. This shouldn't allow us to forget other regions of the world where change hasn't happened, where democracy is non-existent, where repression and violence are the everyday practice, and that's why coming from that region, I feel very inspired and motivated not to just be happy with what we've accomplished in Poland and in Europe, but also to look at other regions of the world to empower others, to tell them that transformation can happen, that it should be guided and governed in a good and sustainable way. People should keep up hope and work towards better outcomes.

Aleksandra: The idea of mentorship is a very powerful one. Going back to what I said about being told many stories when I was growing up, when I think about it today, I think that this was sort of like an introduction to mentoring where my mother was telling me stories about role models from my family and they were inspiring me, and this is how she was transferring some teachings or some lessons to me through those stories. Fast forward many, many years later, I came to experience programs where it wasn't stories and characters that I never met before. It was real people, real role models, successful individuals who wanted to pay it forward, share it back with others and as mentors participated in those mentoring programs.

Aleksandra: I believe that whether someone has access to a mentor or not, there are ways for the environment, for the parents, for the people around to still inspire. Humans learn from watching others. We copy, we imitate, we learn, we build upon it. That's how progress has always happened. To me, it's so important to respect the past, to respect people who have been there before us, because even if today's generation may be thinking critically of some of those individuals or maybe accomplishments, every situation had its own constraints. I'm a strong believer of believing that people did the best they could, but learning from other people through having access to role models and mentoring experiences, coaching is a crucial development tool, which often is free of charge, often is based on our proactiveness, not being afraid to ask, not being afraid to share. And once that happens, mentoring has been proven to work and transform lives.

Aleksandra: So a mentee of mine probably would or should have most of the day a smile on her face, say hello to everybody, be proactive, always believe in good intentions, but it's a mixture. So it's a mixture of having big dreams, having positive mindset, having a smile on one's face, but also being a realist and being prepared to put in the hard work, to strategize, to create new partnerships, to be prepared to do the homework. Once those two areas are addressed, I think people should be bound to succeed.

Aleksandra: My first thought when I learned about the program and the institution I was going to, it was a traditional financial services company, I didn't know how much this group would have known about Poland. We think as every country thinks of themselves, we're unique and big and everybody should know our history. It's not the case. So I thought, "Okay, how can I contribute to this experience by actually offering something from me? I'm a mentee. I'm being taken to incredible places. I'm being given an amazing mentor and other experiences, but what could I give back in return?"

Aleksandra: And maybe inspired by what I learned as a child, I told a lot of stories to my mentor and my mentoring organization about my country. I told them about a few themes around my country, which I thought were important, where we really had some amazing accomplishments such as technology, where again, the background on my father, knowing so many engineers when I was a child and what incredible work they were doing in the Middle East and Africa, the accomplishments in the area of mathematics with some amazing mathematicians coming out of the [inaudible 00:13:14] Mathematical School, who are now featured in this Smithsonian Museum today because they had an amazing contribution to technology work in the states here, and not to mention the enigma back in World War II. Then, there's this area of design and filmmaking.

Aleksandra: So I gave back to my mentoring company all those stories and the impact was, and that's what surprised me so much, that within three months, my mentor and her whole senior team of 15 people were on a plane to Poland trying to validate all the stories I told them. At the beginning, they said, "We'll come and visit you maybe next year," and then they said, "Well, maybe in a few months," and then I get a call in July and I hear, "Well, we'd like to visit you at the end of September and there's many of us."

Aleksandra: This was the most amazing and empowering experience for me because I realized that people can change so much through telling stories. Very often, it feels like when people come to the states, and it's the right thing that they should feel that they are going to receive a lot, because for these programs to be enabled, to be sponsored, we need to appreciate them. Not so many countries do that and dedicate resources to educate the world and that's admirable. But also, everybody who comes here should think, "How can I contribute?" You don't have to have much. I mean even if you have stories, even if you want to talk about your tradition, even if you want to talk about something you're proud of, it's incredibly enriching for the folks here in the states to learn anything that you can share. The more we give, the better we feel, the more empowered we feel, the more self-confident we feel. Anything is possible, and people should believe that because it's true.

Aleksandra: What I admire about the United States is its openness to new cultures. People have been exposed to migrations of various nations into this country. Very often, they themselves are descendants of migrants. I always felt that America was such an accepting country, giving opportunities to all based on merit. And even if you look at the Silicon Valley today and the number of CEOs who are first generation born, people outside of the United States, and the fact that the United States and the corporate world has accepted them, elevated them, tapped into their knowledge and energy, I mean, that type of acceptance and shrewd sort of management of the resources in the country, whether they're inborn or from outside, doesn't happen in any other country. I think from that perspective, America is unique in terms of how it elevates people of foreign descend or birth who can contribute. And that contribution piece and what people bring to the table is the key deciding factors in a lot of that decision making.

Aleksandra: The four week program, I think every day was such a day. Every mentee felt very touched, and it's incredible how such programs make people emotional because it's probably one of the few moments in one's life that people stop, leave their work for a few weeks and go through this incredible initiative of self-discovery, talking to other people, learning more about their potential and their lessons learned, areas of improvements, sharing of information. So the kindness that was here given to us through the mentors, the educators, the incredible people we met at the US State Department, the corporate world, the Fortune Most Powerful Women, this was all very humbling for every mentee.

Aleksandra: It is this precision, this combined with big dreams, but also this attention to detail. I think in every country people try to do their best, so it's not about criticizing them, but it's about just sometimes being exposed to an amazing experience and saying to oneself, "Well, I want to create these experiences somewhere else," and I think it's part of the program to inspire people to do amazing things in their own communities and countries. And I think that goal is being accomplished.

Aleksandra: Since I came back from the Fortune Most Powerful Women Program, I wanted to set up a similar program in Poland. And one of the programs that was directly inspired by the Fortune US State Department program is something that we coined as Leaders In, and it's a mentoring program that brings together senior managers at the board level from various companies, and it matches those mentors with mentees who are from companies as well. And it's all about bringing more women onto boards and into leadership positions.

Aleksandra: So we started the first year with 14 companies that were the first edition of the leaders in program. We're into a third year and have over 20 companies participating and they are exposing their best talent on the senior management level, but also from a best talent that is coming up through the ranks, and it's a nine month program where we provide one-on-one mentoring, but also a lot of networking events and a lot of other facilitations so that people network, exchange best ideas, create new initiatives, but all around building up that female talent in the management structures of companies.

Aleksandra: This program would have not happened had we not had the experiences from the Fortune Program, the wonderful guidance from Vital Voices, from the US State Department, so I'm very, very happy that Vital Voices Poland chapter was able to be the driving force for this program and that we managed to work with other partners who believed in us, actually, a lot of the US companies that are operating in Poland in central and eastern Europe who realized that mentoring is such a powerful tool. These days, everywhere we turn, there's some mentoring going on and it's being talked about and it's become such a powerful tool for companies internally but also engaging externally. So I think this is a direct contribution and outcome of the program I participated in.

Aleksandra: We need to combat any elements that want to incite hatred and misconceptions amongst people because we need peace. We need progress. One of the things I was inspired to do as am outcome of the Fortune Program and the award I got last year, the Goldman Sachs Fortune Global Woman Leaders Award that was awarded to me in October, 2018, this was to enable me to create a STEM educational program for refugee kids in Greece and to recognize also the advocacy that I have undertaken since the Fortune Program in the area of women in tech and STEM education. But specifically, now what I would like to do is focus on delivering STEM education to those who are in need and specifically children around the world, and I'm going to start with Greece and STEM-focused education for youths and kids in refugee camps and the unaccompanied kids so they can be better integrated and have better skillsets to integrate into the European society.

Aleksandra: I'm very optimistic about the future, maybe because I've seen my life transform, the life of so many of my compatriots transform, of my peers, when I look at the professional scene in Warsaw today and of my my peers and when we were growing up and being 9, 10, 12, again, in the Cold War era, and we never thought that our country would look so amazingly as it does today. I really believe anything is possible and it's all down to us and our dreams and our beliefs in goodness and progress, our own battles with our own fears. I mean, we have to fight our fears. We have to take control of fears. They are there because given the advancements technology and how the civilization has evolved in general, there's more loneliness out there today. People are connected, they seem connected, but they're not connected to other humans the way they used to be connected and that's impacting people as well.

Aleksandra: There are many challenges and fears that we need to combat, but I think there's so much light and opportunity in front of us, but it does come down to people who have gone through transformation to be able to go out to those other regions of the world now and share hope and share positive learnings and inspire people, because we as humans have a responsibility not to only think about our own plot, about our own city or a country. We are all interconnected. We are facing big challenges on a global scale such as climate change, such as refugee crises, the role of technology in our lives. These are challenges that cannot be tackled by any one single country, and that's why I feel very positive about the future. I think people in general are good.

Aleksandra: I think that everybody who's experienced and benefited one of the US State Department programs or Fortune programs or other global programs should feel responsible for contributing back to the world. It is to the world at a global stage. Of course, we need to remember and empower our communities and we ought to be starting at grass root levels, but some of the challenges that are facing the world today need global and concerted efforts, and it is down to people that have been exposed to diversity, to the power of different thinking, to the talent that can be found in the United States and Europe and the middle East in Asia and Latin America.

Aleksandra: We need to think of the world as a great source of talent for ideas to transition into this new world that's going to be so filled with technology, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the new empowerment of technology, vis-a-vis humans, I think creates new fields of studies, new challenges that we need to tackle together. That's why we ought to focus on education and just combat any fear-mongering around the world, because the more we limit ourselves as nations and as societies, the more handicapped we'll be to actually contribute to the new world and to the new design of how technology should fit with the human component in the future. That's why we ought to think positively about the future and really harness all the resources around us to positively impact the future.

Christopher: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the collaboratory. 22.33 is named for title 22 chapter 33 of the US Code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of the US government-funded international exchange programs.

Christopher: This week, Aleksandra Grin spoke about coming to the United States as part of the Fortune Women's Program and how that led to a lifetime dedicated to mentorship. For more about that and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts, and while you're doing so, leave us a review. And we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage, eca.state.gov/2233. You can check us out and follow us on Instagram now @2233stories.

Christopher: Very special thanks to Alex for her stories and inspiring work. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Last Bar Guest by Lobo Loco, Song for a Pea by Poddington bear, and three songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Lamp List, La [inaudible 00:29:03] and Lesser Gods of Metal. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How the Night Came, and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 72 - [Bonus] Scenes From the Umbrella Revolution

LISTEN HERE - Episode 72


As a Critical Languages Scholar in Hong Kong, your lessons included not only how to speak Chinese, but how the society worked from the ground up and some of the skills you learned and applied back home were learned under a sea of umbrellas.


Christopher W: Freshman year, you have a roommate from China. You'd never met anybody from China before. He gives you a Chinese name, you learn a couple of Chinese words. Now flash forward a few years. Suddenly, you're in Hong Kong. You're speaking Chinese, holding an umbrella, and speaking Chinese. You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Kamaal T: The first day I was in Hong Kong, on my quest for food, I came across this older gentleman, bald head, pretty old. You could definitely tell he's living in an impoverished area, probably unemployed. Then he approached me and was asking me, where are you from? Where are you from?, in Cantonese, and I didn't understand that at all. And so I was quite flustered, and so I tell him like I'm from America, I didn't know how to say that in Cantonese. And so, we just go through this exchange where he wants to talk to me, but I don't have any words to say. And so I'm kind of using my hands like in a game of charades to try to explain things, without a doubt I was unsuccessful. It's like, how do you explain America with your hands? He definitely insisted that I was from Africa, which I wasn't, but I think just the interaction was very bizarre and very strange.

Christopher W:  This week, learning to love lukewarm water, nailing the cyber vocabulary in Chinese, and living through the Umbrella Revolution. Join us on our journey from California to Hong Kong, in learning to be a leader through organized protests. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 3: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people very much like ourselves and-

Kamaal T: My name is Kamaal Thomas. I am a cyber policy researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is a international affairs think tank out here in D.C. During 2014, I did study abroad at the University of Hong Kong, during my junior year at the University of California, Davis. It was through the University of California Education Abroad Program, where I received funding through the Gilman Scholarship to participate in the one year exchange program.

Kamaal T:  Starting my freshman year at UC Davis, one of the 10 roommates I had was an international student from Southern China. It was my first time actually meeting someone that was actually abroad, and first time meeting a Chinese person. Throughout our interactions, I was starting to become more interested in Chinese culture, and some of the foods he would introduce me to, some of the words he would give me. He actually gave me my first Chinese name, which was [Wangi 00:03:41]. He encouraged me to start taking Chinese classes, and so I wanted to go abroad for a year, I'd never done it in my life. I decided to go to Hong Kong, since it was a little easier transition from what I've understood.

Kamaal T: My roommates were all Chinese. I think I was one of two or three non-local students that was in that building, and so, it was definitely a huge transition, especially being not only the only American, but also the only black person there. So I think I went a couple of weeks before I saw another black person, so it was kind of strange at first.

Kamaal T: The first morning was brutal. One, the building I was in was extremely old, about 200 years old or so, and it was extremely humid. There was a lot of bugs, and a lot of cobwebs, and a lot of spiders, and even lizards inside the apartment. It was extremely dusty, and I think it was around noon on the first day, and I was extremely hungry. I had no idea where to go, so I just decided to go on a stroll, found an ATM, withdrew some Hong Kong dollars, and then eventually walked past some sign that I thought meant food in Mandarin, so I figured it was where food was, and eventually found a McDonald's, so. But, first meal in Hong Kong was a Big Mac.

Kamaal T: You initially feel ostracized, you're so different. The only images of black people they've probably ever seen were on movies, and so there's a lot of presumptions and stereotypes that I had to fight on a daily basis, where people would ask me ridiculous questions like, "Oh, can you rap for us," or "Do you play basketball?" Which I do. "Do you love fried chicken and watermelon?" and so many other things. It was just tough, and kind of a struggle trying to deal with that on a regular basis, and during that same time, we had several international news coverages of major shootings in the U.S. of predominantly young black men. And so, I was essentially the spokesperson on all things black issues in America. It was a struggle and a little frustrating at times, I easily became homesick, just because I felt like there was no one I can talk to about what was going on and how I felt about it, and having to explain constantly what was going on from my perspective.

Kamaal T: In Hong Kong, people don't have guns. So it was very different, a lot of the cops didn't even have guns, so I knew growing in Southern California was, always be mindful of your interactions with the police, and there's people that may be caring, and so, you have to be cautious. There's always a concern about your safety at night, just roaming the streets, it could be dangerous living there. I didn't experience that at all. Several times, I would go out with my friends and we would just decide to spend the night in the park, and that was kind of a very regular thing for international students who were studying in Hong Kong to do. So I don't think I've ever felt as safe in my life as I did living in Hong Kong.

Kamaal T: Throughout time, I definitely felt more comfortable. I mean, it was like two steps forward, and one step back. One of the things I found very helpful was actually trying to learn Cantonese. Just small things, ordering food, knowing how to say your address to the taxi driver, interacting with some of the students that I lived with in the dorm, playing basketball with them, going on jogs to the hilltop every single day, that definitely allowed me to build a stronger tie and connections with a lot of the other students.

Kamaal T: I remember one of my teammates on the basketball team invited me to his home, and he lived in the outskirts, in the more impoverished areas of Hong Kong. And so, he took me in one of these huge skyscraper buildings, probably about 15 stories high, very small living quarters. And so he took me there, and I remember I was up there and I turned the corner, and this lady just shrieks [inaudible 00:08:40] like, "Who is this 6'2" black guy doing in my living room?" And I don't think he told his mom who he was bringing home, but eventually we talked a bit with the limited Chinese that I knew, and some of the English she knew, we were able to get along a lot better. She taught me how to make dumplings, make rice noodles. So definitely at that moment, I felt like I was starting to get the hang of things, and being able to build stronger ties with some of my teammates and people living in my dorms and classmates was definitely very helpful moving on.

Kamaal T: While I was living in Hong Kong, I decided to get into cybersecurity, which is my profession now, and decided to do a whole presentation in Mandarin, which was extremely difficult. I practiced for weeks. I actually used to get a lot of anxiety speaking in Chinese, generally, and it was an extreme struggle for me for years and years, and even to this day. I think I didn't get over it until maybe about a year ago. And so, it was in front of the class giving a presentation on a cybersecurity topic, and it went very well. I was able to respond to questions, I knew all my terms, and so I think that was one of the most proud moments, and probably one of the biggest accomplishments was being able to overcome my fear of speaking a foreign language, and feeling like I was stupid, just because I didn't know what to say and how to articulate myself. So I wish everyone could've saw, I mean, next time I'll record it.

Kamaal T: A lot of the street wear I wear now outside of professional clothes is mostly Chinese-influenced. A lot of the t-shirts, a lot of the pants, some of the other things, so I kind of mix-match myself based off of being exposed to traditional Chinese clothing. Definitely started drinking lukewarm or warm water, I don't drink cold water at all. That's one thing they don't do, is drink cold water, I think they believe it's bad for you, part of Chinese medicine, and so that's one thing that I've picked up. Love eating with chopsticks, always saying that American Chinese food is not Chinese food, because this it's not, it's a huge difference, even though both do taste good. Putting a lot of spices on my food, eating a lot more noodles, I cook noodles at home very, very often now. I think definitely my eating styles and what I eat more frequently is definitely influenced from living in Hong Kong.

Kamaal T: The Umbrella Revolution. The beginning of the school year, about mid-September, students were planning a protest against the National People's Congress, in regards to the selection of a chief executive who is the head of the Hong Kong government. Starting in about 1997, when the UK agreed to give Hong Kong back to China, there was an agreement outlining that the Hong Kong government would be relatively independent, except for international affairs and military, and they would be able to have some sort of a democratic process. Throughout that process, the Chinese government essentially agreed to gradually allow more democratic processes and institutions to take hold, and so during the 2015 elections, which was coming up soon, there was a goal to stop China from selecting three or four candidates that the people could vote on, so they wouldn't be able to have full suffrage.

Kamaal T: So students decided to protest. I was simply just curious. All the professors agreed to not penalize students for not showing up to class. This was something that a lot of the faculty supported and even participated in, and were the organizers of. I remember distinctly, it was probably in the middle of the week where there was an oath taking ceremony, where eight students read a oath, pretty much agreeing to protest using civil disobedience, and discourse and nonviolence.

Kamaal T: The following day, there was a huge protest at a different campus, where there was probably about two to 3000 students that were there, and then the next day, it was in front of the central government building, and there was about maybe 7,000 students, and then there was probably about 15,000 students and other people that were there during the weekend. While the protest was going on, there was people speaking and explaining what was going on, and teaching the students about why they were protesting and everything of that nature, and it seemed very much like a cultural event. However, it was probably right after sunset, you started hearing everyone scream. I was confused, I couldn't speak the language, so I really didn't know what was going on. People were running, and then eventually, I noticed that there was canisters of tear gas being thrown from the cops into the crowds. I didn't know where to go, I didn't know what to do. I knew I was on a student visa, I didn't want to get arrested. And so, I immediately ran down to the bottom level, close to the street and ran inside a KFC, and just stayed there until everything just blew down.

Kamaal T: The following day, the protest grew to over 50,000 students, and other protestors living in different parts of the city, and so, there was about three protest locations, and the protest went on for about 80 days. It was called the Umbrella Revolution, because on the first night where we had over 50,000 protesters and the pepper spray and the tear gas were thrown, people used umbrellas to shield themselves. And so after that, all the protesters decided to bring out a yellow umbrella symbolizing their opposition to what was going on.

Kamaal T:  I distinctly remember one of the nights where I was sleeping out on the street, because all the streets were blocked off, and there was counter-protesters that showed up. And so, I remember it was probably around 4 AM, people were on the megaphone, I couldn't really understand what was being said, but another person that was there started explaining and was like, "We think there's counter-protesters here. We don't know who they're with, but they're pretending to represent one of us, and they're bashing windows, they're breaking things and they're trying to make us look bad." And so, we're trying to call the police to have them removed, and so that was one of the interesting aspects of it. Even though there was a lot of contention between the police officers and the protesters, there was still an agreement on, have a common decency and understanding that we should work with the police to have these people removed, because they're not taking part in what we're supporting.

Kamaal T: It was so much like a cultural event. I remember, it was actually the anniversary of China, I think was the 65th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. And so, there was tons of people coming out in protest, we're talking about over 100,000 people in one location, just a sea of people. They were extremely organized, you had people handing out water bottles, people handing out food, people handing out masks, there were people teaching English classes and math classes. I actually went out and taught a few math classes and English classes as well. There were PowerPoint presentations on basic law and the reason for the protest. There were people singing and people coloring in chalk on the street side, and different art shows and gymnastics presentations that were all going on in the middle of the city. And so, it was a very bizarre scene since people were protesting, but it was actually a very positive vibe that was going on. And unknown to a lot of us, a lot of these pictures were being taken showing the event, and to people in the mainland China, it was being explained as a celebration of the anniversary of China, rather than an actual protest in defiance of it.

Kamaal T: I felt compelled from a lot of the lessons I've learned while I was in Hong Kong, to get involved in student government. I actually led a few protests on the campus after a series of hate crimes started happening against black students. There was protests that actually led to the removal of our chancellor, and a few other things that happened during my senior year. So it was quite a exciting, high energy, I guess, time that was going on back in the U.S., across all of the universities, so.

Kamaal T: So I was in student government, and this was right after President's Day. There was two hate crimes that happened within a two day period, and there were debates going on regarding students who were running for office, for the student Senate. And so, there was a moment where I spoke with all the other black students, I was like, "Why is this issue not being addressed?" So I decided to go inside where the debate was going on for the candidates for the Senate, and stole the mic, had all the black students to block all the nominees for the Senate, and I just asked them, I was like, "We've seen several hate crimes happen in the span of a couple of days against black students, and none of you said anything, except one of you all." I think one of our goals as student leaders, is ensuring that students feel very, at a basic level, comfortable and safe on their campus.

Kamaal T: And so, rather than talking about getting new IDs, or how we're going to introduce Tex-Mex to the cafeteria, I think it's more important that we ensure we have very simple measures to ensure that students are very safe, that they have protection, especially at night, ensuring that they have a ride home if they live off campus, or just ensuring that the campus is lit and has emergency stations, just in case anything happens. And so, that happened and then few days later, we launched a huge protest, had tons of media out there. Myself, as well as a few other black student leaders spoke on the student's behalf, and outlined a list of demands for the chancellor and administration to improve the security and safety of black students on campus. And so, most of the stipulations that we outlined were agreed to, and we began working with the facilities managers to start implementing them, and making sure that the school campus was lit up, and that there were support services and mental health opportunities as well. So I think everything that I went through in Hong Kong definitely informed my actions Returning to UC Davis.

Kamaal T: While I was in Hong Kong, I had the pleasure of meeting another student that was also interested in cybersecurity, who's from Estonia, and I actually met him two years later in Beijing, and he just completed some work at NATO, and we're working together to establish our cybersecurity team, and through that cybersecurity team, I became even more interested in it and was able to land an internship in Beijing, where I was working for the Carnegie Endowment's Beijing office. And so, that led to the job I have now working in Carnegie's D.C. office doing cyber policy. I think definitely meeting that one student and deciding to go to Hong Kong, created this huge ripple effect where I'm currently working in cyber and U.S. China relations, All from some of those initial interactions that I had.

Kamaal T: Sitting on a rooftop, and on top of one of the restaurants, they have tons of skyscrapers there and rooftop bars, to sitting there with a couple of friends late at night, looking into the ocean and seeing some of the other islands across, and seeing the fireworks going through the air during New Year, and seeing everyone celebrate and just enjoying the company that I was around, so. Christopher W:                   22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Christopher W: This week, Kamaal Thomas told us about his time in Hong Kong as a Gilman scholar. For more about Gilman and other ECA programs, check out eca.state.gov.

Christopher W: We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and leave us a nice review while you're at it, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.

Christopher W: Photos from each week's interviewee, and complete episode transcripts can be found at our web page, at eca.state.gov/2233.

Christopher W: Special thanks to Kamaal for sharing his insights and his love of Chinese culture. I did the interview and edited the segment. Featured music was Taxi War Dance by Count Basie and his orchestra, Elmore Heights by Blue Dot Sessions, Golden Horn by Dave Brubeck Quartet, and Parenti Blues by Art Hodes & His All Star Stompers.

Christopher W: Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 71 - The Needs of the Living with Katie Thornton

LISTEN HERE - Episode 71


A special All Saints Day episode featuring Fulbright NatGeo Digital Storytelling Fellow, Katie Thornton, whose quest to look at cemeteries and death rituals has given her a greater appreciation of the kindness and needs of the living. Katie traveled to the United Kingdom and Singapore to produce “Death in the Digital Age,” a podcast exploring the relevance of cemeteries in an era when land is strained, communities are physically distant, and digital documentation is pervasive. She used writing, visuals and social media to share the stories of those working at the intersection of land use, public memory and technology. You read more about her Fulbright program here: https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/07/18/2018-19-fulbright-national-geographic-digital-storytelling-fellows-announced..


Christopher: You traveled the globe closely studying how people honor the dead, especially in today's crowded and increasingly digital world. What you found was neither depressing or macabre, but rather an uplifting series of deep connections and vivid lessons about the living. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Katie: When people depict cemeteries and memorial practices in a place like New Orleans is they talk about the second line parade, which is an incredibly beautiful public claiming of space. There's music, there's dancing, there's excitement, there's joy being shared about the person who has passed away. It's a public parade and it's a pretty profound space, grieving space, but it's the second line because it comes after the first line, which is the procession into the cemetery, which is mournful and sorrowful and there are tears and it is not joyous. And so I think that being able to give joy where it does exist and not deny it, but also recognizing that there is of course a sense of solemnity in every grieving process. It's a mixed bag of emotions. And to be able to acknowledge that that happens worldwide and across cultures is important for understanding our kind of shared humanity.

Christopher: This week, learning the complexity of history through the lens of cemeteries, making space to create deep conversations and the overwhelming kindness of strangers. Join us on an All Saints Day Journey from Minneapolis, Minnesota to London and Singapore in honoring the living by honoring those no longer with us. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves.

Katie: My name is Katie Thornton and I'm from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I've just returned from a Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. I was in England and Singapore. What I do is I study cemeteries and death spaces and death rituals and specifically I look at how they're changing, so especially in a world that's increasingly urbanized and transient, our cities are multicultural and we're so digitally connected, we have so many ways to digitally document and preserve the memories of the dead. So I asked how and where do we remember the dead in that context.

Katie: I have a personal interest in cemeteries and I have sort of an academic interest in cemeteries. My mom and I both at the same time came into pretty serious illness and I was kind of going through my days grappling with this reality of mortality, and it was kind of like a lens through which I viewed everything in my daily life. But I found it really isolating because I would go and take walks around Minneapolis, my home city where I've grown up my whole life and I didn't see this thing that was shaping my everyday experience reflected back in the built environment in any way.

Katie: It's like, humans need to eat. We see grocery stores or we see gardens. We see our needs and our realities reflected back in our physical space, but then there was this reality of death that felt impending to me in many ways and I didn't see it reflected back at me, and so I felt really alone, even though I knew it wasn't a solitary experience. I didn't feel like I knew how to find community or where to go. The only spot that I saw this reality of mortality reflected back at me was in a cemetery and I found it really comforting. So I started to take an interest in those spaces for personal reasons.

Katie: I studied history in college, but I really didn't like history when I was in middle school and high school. I thought that it was over-simplified. I thought that it was whitewashed, didn't look like the city and the population that I knew when we learned about something like our local history, so I never connected to history. It never felt very relevant or engaging to me. But as I learned more and more about local history in my home city, I started to see that it was much more engaging, much more interesting, and much more diverse and representative than we ever learned. And so I wanted to kind of tease out, what is this disconnect that history can be so fascinating and so meaningful, but the way we learn about it as often so dry and so irrelevant?

Katie: And I thought that cemetery spaces were interesting sites to kind of tease out a more complex history and a more interesting history. They're certainly not without exclusions. Absolutely people have been prohibited from cemetery landscapes implicitly or explicitly due to race, religion, inability to pay, any number of things. So they're certainly not without exclusions, but within that space you can begin to critically look at, okay, who is represented here and how? Who is not represented here? Why not? And it's just a sort of artistically and ecologically beautiful place to look at the complexity of history.

Katie: So with my Fulbright, the thing that I really appreciate about the Fulbright is that it gave me the opportunity to do this research. I hesitate to call it research because it was really based in conversation. It gave me the time to have those conversations in a meaningful way, in a way that felt honest, and to talk with people for long enough that I was certain that I could relay their stories in a way that felt honest to them as well.

Katie: I set out to learn what a cemetery looks like and where we go and how we remember the dead in this changing world, in this urbanized, digitally documented multicultural world. And I did that through doing some archival research and learning about the history of cemeteries in the places that I was going, but also primarily just through conversation. People let me in on some of the most intimate personal spaces, brought me into new memorial landscapes, let me in on new rituals.

Katie: And the reason that I chose England and Singapore is because to me, they offer sort of glimpse into the future of where I think a lot of our world is going. So they're both small islands, so they're inherently land-limited and very urbanized. They're both very multicultural and also really digitally documented. And so they're kind of ahead of the curve of where the US might be pretty soon. And those realities have already had pretty profound impacts on the memorial spaces. They're changing very rapidly.

Katie: When I got on the plane to start the project, that was definitely not the beginning of the project. So much work has to be done ahead of time. And something that I really value is the opportunity to research the hell out of where you're going, the topics that you're interested in learning about, thinking that you have a thorough understanding of it and then getting to your destination, having conversations and just being prepared to have that completely go to hell in a hand basket because you recognize that you are not the expert in these spaces and that people are an expert of their own experiences and you're there to learn from them. So I love having a well-laid plan, being very well-informed in terms of my research and then being completely surprised.

Katie: Some of the things that surprised me the most are one, how willing people were to speak with me and to bring me into really personal spaces, and something that I took away from this year was that death is a universal experience, but we don't really have space where we're encouraged to talk about it and be honest about it and I found that if you give people space to have those conversations, a lot of them will be pretty eager to do so.

Katie: In Singapore, two weeks into my time there, I had been in touch over email and on WhatsApp with somebody who a couple of people had recommended I talk to. He'd never met me before, but he immediately invited me to join him and his wife to visit a columbarium, where they hold ashes of the deceased, on his wife's mother's death anniversary. We've never met and they were just willing to bring me along because these spaces are changing so rapidly that in places like Singapore, they are often at risk of going away. The practices are at risk of being lost, and so they were willing to bring me in because I expressed an interest, a genuine interest to learn from them and to document some of what was going on.

Katie: One of the things that was a big takeaway from my time in England was a perspective that I gained on the US. In the US, we have a really persistent and ubiquitous idea of ownership of property. In the UK, in England, the majority of grave spaces are leased. No burial plots in London are owned at this point because there just isn't enough land to guarantee that people have this space forever. And then also, it makes burial space really prohibitively expensive if you're guaranteeing it supposedly forever. I know from working in cemeteries and funeral industry that nothing is forever anywhere. You cannot guarantee that. But in the US, I think we've become so attached to this idea of private property and private ownership forever and it's just not practical. It's not ecologically sustainable. It doesn't work when you have growing and changing populations.

Katie: I was really surprised that in the UK and in England where I was doing my research, people were very understanding of that. And in Singapore, even more so because there's such limited land. Burial in Singapore is only permitted for 15 years. And then if your religion allows, you have to be cremated after that time. And if your religion requires full body burial, then you have to actually consolidate and share a grave with seven other people after your 15 years in the ground. And it's not an easy thing to address. People aren't enthusiastic about this necessarily, but there's a lot of understanding because there's a kind of recognition.

Katie: Something that I heard repeatedly reiterated in England was, "We want to be sure that we're allocating space for the dead. We want to be sure that we're allocating space for cultural practice for the dead, but we also have a housing shortage for the living." And when we think about how we're going to allocate space, we need to take into account the needs of the living and ultimately the space to do death rituals and to honor the dead is also a need for a living, but how much space is going to be allocated to the physical remains of the dead rather than for the living?

Katie: I mean, I think cemeteries have almost never been places for the dead. How we honor the dead is for the living. For those who believe in a certain type of afterlife, there is a sense of making sure that needs are met, especially within Singapore. I saw that offerings are made so that needs are met in the afterlife, but so much of grief and memorialization and going to a physical space to memorialize is for the living, is to meet the needs of the living. And you look at this, you see this in cemetery imagery all the time. There's a photo that I took of a grave in a suburban London cemetery where there is a statue of a woman just draped over the tombstone, just clearly despondent. And that's really addressing, what is this person leaving behind? The focus is on the mourners, on the bereaved.

Katie: Being able to go to a physical space, it's not for the person who is no longer with us and is in the ground. It's to be able to find a way to tangibly connect with that loss and start to make sense of that loss. Sometimes that happens in a cemetery, sometimes that happens by taking a detour and going by somebody who's home on your way back from work or increasingly it happens by visiting their Facebook page. There are many different ways that this takes place, but memorial practice does incorporate the needs of the dead in some cultures and some traditions, but so often it's a space that meets the needs of the living at a time of enormous stress.

Katie: I think it's really easy for people to say, "Oh, the Victorian era cemeteries are beautiful. They have these beautiful monuments and they're public parks," but to just make that statement is to completely ignore the context in which they came up and who is represented there. It was absolutely a show of wealth. It was a space that was accessible by the wealthy, often by carriage, which it would cost more and take longer to take a carriage ride within London, for example, within Victorian era London, than to take a train to the cemetery 25 miles outside of this city that was where a lot of people were buried and their coffins were brought by train and to be able to recognize that those spaces are beautiful as well and they're incredibly, incredibly valuable to our store of record.

Katie: Yeah, so for a cemetery that is all flat markers, you can take a lawn mower over it, I don't necessarily think it is the most beautiful space. However, I do think having some sort of physical space to remember the dead is important and if that feels relevant and meaningful, I think we need that space. I also think, once again, cemeteries are always contextual, and even if I don't necessarily think that that flat marker, manicured grass cemetery is particularly beautiful, I also think it tells us a lot about the living. It tells us a lot about our history.

Katie: That style of cemetery emerged very much in the west coast of the US in the 1950s or so when values of efficiency were really important within US culture, and basically it's like we want to be able to mow this. We want to be able to clear this. And so that to me is like, maybe it's not the most aesthetically pleasing at first, but there's always more than meets the eye and you can always use them as a way to not just understand that people who are buried there and their lives, but to understand the context in which these cemeteries emerged to me makes them all the more fascinating. So I don't think there's a bad cemetery.

Katie: I think to be a foreigner doing such sensitive work takes a lot of humility and it takes a lot of willingness to be surprised. In Singapore, it's an English-speaking country, and I also have a background in Mandarin Chinese. The ethnic majority in Singapore is Chinese, and so this kind of enabled me to have conversations in a language that also felt comfortable in addition to English. I had a lot of really interesting interactions based on the fact that I could speak Chinese.

Katie: At least once a week, I'd be engaging in conversation in Chinese with somebody in a food court and somebody would be walking past, somebody who was Chinese, Singaporean, they would just stop dead in their tracks and then backtrack and throw a glance my way and then they would nod their head at me and be like, in Chinese, "You speak Chinese?" And I was just like, "Uh, yeah," and then I would continue the conversation and they would just watch and listen and then oftentimes it would be like, "Your pronunciation's not bad," and they'd walk away. And to me, it was a cool thing to be able to know that we had an inherently different relationship because I had made an effort and I think that's especially important no matter what kind of conversations you're hoping to have. But if you are asking people and giving people an opportunity to be vulnerable, I think it's important to show some deference.

Katie: Being on the Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship allows you to become friends with the people that you're working with and give that time that it takes to have those relationships be more than just an academic or interviewer, interviewee relationship. And so in that way, I felt that I was surrounded by friends at many times. My goal is to be a conduit for stories that people were willing to share with me throughout the year.

Katie: I met a gravedigger who had worked in an office, gone to work in a suit for 10 years and then was like, "You know what? I got to get out of this," and now he works in the cemetery and he loves his job. It's the first job he's ever loved. He talked to me for a long time about how the cemetery's the most beautiful place that you can go to work.

Katie: I think to deny the fact that there is humor and awkwardness at the time of death just robs everybody of our humanity. It robs the humanity of the person who's passed away. I mean, how often have you attended a funeral or visited a grave and just thought, "This is nothing like what this person was like"? Some of my favorite things that I ever see are really funny epitaphs or just memorials that feel accurate to people's experience.

Katie: I think I expected to find that older people would feel a specific way, would want to be remembered in a certain way and that younger people would want to be remembered in a different way. And that was totally not the case. There was not correlation across generation. I had a conversation with a woman, a 71 year old gardening volunteer in a cemetery in Bristol, England. She was very eagerly telling me about the new green burial plot that she had just purchased where she would go after she would die and she had become a part of the woodlands.

Katie: She said, "It doesn't matter if I drop here because I've got my plot there and they can just plunk me straight in," and she was just laughing about it and she loves going to the cemetery and she knew she was just going to be there forever sometime. And then she told me, "I'm not bothered if you don't come and stand by where I've been put in a hole. People that love you, it won't take a headstone for them to remember you." And it's so poignant across so many generations. There is just such a variety of opinion.

Katie: I had a similar experience producing a radio piece for National Public Radio about a family who worked with a local football club in London to have the ashes of their father placed beneath the field and how meaningful it was for them, and it was a really fun story to produce, which is something that a lot of people find surprising about the work is that it doesn't have to be somber all the time, and they were so happy with that piece a