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

2233

This week, imagine you've left your comfort zone and moved to a foreign country that's 12 time zones away. There, most people speak a different language and the lifestyle and culture are radically different, but you slowly find your way.

One day you meet a group of strangers that you identify immediately as your kind of people, but just as you feel you have made it, an unspeakable tragedy occurs. How you react will change your life forever. 

On this episode of 22.33, join us on a journey from Mount Rainier in Washington State to the Western Ghats in India, with a Fulbright Narrow Research Fellow studying community-based rehabilitation in rural communities.

Transcript
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Season 02, Episode 51 - Trekking in India - Kiley Adams

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

Imagine, you've left your comfort zone, moved to a foreign country that's 12 time zones away, most people speak a different language, the lifestyle and culture is radically different, but you slowly make your way. And one day you meet a group of strangers that you identify immediately as your kind of people. But, just as you feel you have made it, an unspeakable tragedy occurs. How you react will change your life forever. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Kylie Adams:

In the first one I showed up to, there's women wearing saris. And I'm like, we're going hiking. I'm there in my hiking boots and my hiking pants, all this fancy gear I had brought. Some people were wearing slippers is what they call sandals. They were wearing their slippers still. And it was the first time I felt like I absolutely had found my people in India. I had this community. We were trekking. We were sleeping under tarps during monsoon season.

Chris Wurst:

This week, finding one's people, hiking in slippers, and turning tragedy into a lifetime of service. On this episode, a journey from Mount Rainier, Washington to the Western Ghats in India and finding one's calling along the way. It's 22.33.

Intro Segment:

(Music)

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

These exchanges shaped who I am.

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 it is possible to create...

(Music)

Kylie Adams:

My name is Kylie Adams. I am from Edgewood, Washington, which is right at the base of Mount Rainier in the Cascade Region of Washington State. I went to the University of Notre Dame. I studied biological sciences. I was on the Fulbright Student Research Program, specifically the Fulbright Narrow Research Fellowship. And I was studying community-based rehabilitation for treating people with disabilities in rural communities.

Kylie Adams:

I lived in Southern India. I was based out of Chennai, India. But, because my research was in rural communities, I got to travel all throughout both Southern India and then all the way up in the Northeast bordering Tibet and Myanmar. I lived in a place called [inaudible 00:03:21] as well.

Kylie Adams:

I knew, going to India, that one of the hardest parts of me going was that I wouldn't have my mountain in my backyard. I'm very influenced by growing up near and around mountains. And I knew I wanted to get involved in the hiking and trekking culture of India. And, in Chennai, when I first got there and it's this concrete jungle, I was afraid that I wouldn't have that opportunity.

Kylie Adams:

But I immediately found out about this group called the Chennai Trekking Club and reached out to them. And they had organized all these hikes in a mountain region called the Western Ghats and some other hill stations to our North. And I got on their email list and I found out they had a women's trekking group that was for all women, mostly for women that hadn't done a lot of trekking before. And I reached out and said, oh, I have a lot of experience trekking. Is this still something I can go on? And they said, absolutely. We would love to have people help lead these treks, encourage other women, show them that it's okay to go out in the outdoors, go for overnight treks.

Kylie Adams:

And the first one I showed up to, there's women wearing saris. And I'm like, we're going hiking. I'm there in my hiking boots and my hiking pants, all this fancy gear I had brought. Some people were wearing slippers is what they call sandals. They were wearing their slippers still. And it was the first time I felt like I absolutely had found my people in India. I had this community. We were trekking. We were sleeping under tarps during monsoon season. And they really were my first home in India.

Kylie Adams:

Flash forward a few months, I've gone on several hikes with these people. I call several of them my family. We eat, and swim, and have a great time together. And this will seem like it's not connecting at first, but I was given the opportunity to give a TED Talk in India. And I gave the TED Talk and afterwards my phone had just blown up and I thought people were congratulating me for giving a TED Talk. And it actually was a bunch of people in the trekking community reaching out to me asking if I was okay. And I was really concerned why these people were messaging me.

Kylie Adams:

And I actually found out that there was a very tragic fire that killed about 14 of my best friends in the trekking group that had been hiking that same day on a trek that I was actually supposed to lead, a women's only track celebrating Women's Day. And I had thought, when I finished this TED Talk, it would be this great moment of celebration, but I was really sitting with this idea that probably the most influential part of my experience in India to date had been my time spent in the hills talking and walking with, especially these other women. And I had a really hard time coping with that. And I didn't even want to stay in Chennai. Who do I ask to go to dinner anymore? I've lost all these close friends.

Kylie Adams:

I started thinking of other ways I could get involved with communities that in India don't always have access to the outdoors, be it women of Chennai that might not be encouraged to go explore. And I realized that, I mean, my research being in disability work and working with people with disabilities, that that's a community that also doesn't often get equal access to the outdoors, be it because trails are not accessible to people who are blind, or visually impaired, or you're just discouraged from a cultural framework of you can't do that and sort of having your bodies be defined by your disability instead of your abilities.

Kylie Adams:

And so, I reached out to an organization that I had seen called Adventures Beyond Barriers. It was a group in Pune, which is more in Western India. And they do adventure sports. They do paragliding, and scuba diving, and trekking, and mountaineering for people with disabilities. And I reached out to them and sort of explained that I was a researcher in India for a year. And I would love just to visit their programs, see what I could or couldn't help with, how I could get involved. And they responded within an hour, which is crazy, with so much excitement. And that immediately brought up my spirits, not only from this fire incident that happened, but also I just knew that this was something I wanted to focus on all of a sudden was how people that don't always have equal access to the outdoors can gain that.

Kylie Adams:

And so, I moved up to Pune for a few weeks and worked with the most amazing organization. While I was there, we actually did a trekking and rappelling, which is like reverse rock climbing, going down the mountain. We did a tracking and rappelling event for a group of people that use prosthetic limbs, a group of about 15 prosthetic users, which was the most fun. Probably my single best experience in India was that event. And I realized that I wouldn't have had that experience had it not been for I'm losing my friends in the fire and having that starting experience with Chennai Trekking Club.

Kylie Adams:

And now, this is something I'm planning on doing for actually the rest of my life hopefully. Next year, I'll be up in Alaska working as an outdoor recreation therapist for kids with disabilities, taking kids near and around the Juneau area on skiing and hiking adventures. And, when I continue into a medical career in the future, that's something I want to focus on is, because I think that disability is not the actual physical impairment. I think it's the social and cultural environment that we have set up that makes people with physical impairments unable to participate on an equal basis with their peers, I think that's what disability is.

Kylie Adams:

I think that equalizing access to the outdoors and communities that value that is one of the best things we can do at keeping social integration and, therefore, health for people with disabilities. And that was something that, going into India, I didn't know I valued as much as I now realize. That growing up in Washington, right in the base of his beautiful volcano, Mount Rainier, and then going to India and having these experiences with the Chennai Trekking Club, and getting connected to Adventures Beyond Barriers, now is very much what I'm hoping to dedicate the rest of my career to.

Kylie Adams:

Almost everything I do, my India experience, in general, is something that's going to be taken forward with me, but especially all the relationships. For me, it's definitely about the people as much as the place. And so, several of the women that I had trekked with that were on this trek or that I had trekked with that weren't on this trek and all of us are now living with... we have the living memory of these people as we go forward. And just some of them were the most vibrant people that could laugh and make a joke out of the fact that we were sleeping under these tents during monsoon season or people lost shoes over cliffs. And just trying to bring even a fraction of that energy that some of these people I met had into my work with people with disabilities is something that I'm very aware of. And I think, even when I'm not consciously aware of it, I really think it's impossible to say that they didn't have that influence on me because they absolutely... it's somewhere deep down, at this point.

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, or ECA. 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 program.

Chris Wurst:

In this episode, Kylie Adams shared a tragic, but ultimately uplifting, story from her time as a Fulbright researcher in India. The Fulbright Program operates in more than 160 countries, allowing its participants the opportunity to study, teach, conduct research, and exchange ideas in foreign countries. For more about ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 wherever you find 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@state.gov.

Chris Wurst:

Special thanks this week to Kylie for her stories, and frankly, for her example. I did the interview with Kylie, along with Manny Pereira and Mary Kay Hazel, and edited this segment. The music you heard was "Coca" by Kiran Ahluwalia and "Peaceful Midnight Beauty" by Soft Mix. 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.

Previous Episodes
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Season 02, Episode 50 - American Sister, American Sister - Abena Amoakuh

LISTEN HERE - Episode 50

DESCRIPTION

This week a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program participant from Atlanta, GA describes her experience while living in China and studying Mandarin.

Learning to better communicate boundaries, having your Americanness challenged, and cherry-picking with the neighborhood, join us on a journey around the globe through international exchange stories.

For more information about the CLS program visit https://www.clscholarship.org.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

You knew when you prepared to go to China, that the culture would be very different, but even then you were surprised at how much you stood out. Not only did people stare, they often wanted to touch you, and quickly you learned that the only way you could set your boundaries was to learn the local language just as fast as you could.

Chris Wurst:

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

Abena Amoakuh:

I think a lot of people in China thought we were really, really rich. Like, "Oh, you're here in China and you're studying here. You must have a lot of money." I think it's funny. We would always defend and say, "Oh, no, no. We're college students. We're still calling students, we don't have any money."

Chris Wurst:

This week, learning to better communicate boundaries, having your Americanness challenged, and cherry-picking with the neighborhood. Join us on our journey from Atlanta, Georgia, to China and learning to move beyond the stairs. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip:

(Music) We report what happens in the United States warts and all.

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 (Music)

Abena Amoakuh:

My name is Abena Amoakuh. Everyone calls me Abena. I am from Atlanta, Georgia, and I participated in the Critical Language Scholarship Program in the summer of 2016 in China, studying Mandarin.

Abena Amoakuh:

I kind of have a global background. Both my parents are immigrants from Ghana. So growing up, I did spend a lot of time getting to go back to Ghana because a lot of my extended family is still there. Between Ghana and the U.S., I'm very familiar. And so I got to college, I was looking for another language to study after studying Spanish for the entire time I was in elementary, middle, and high school. Not wanting to pursue Spanish again, I was like, "What makes sense?" And at the time I was studying business international management, so it made a lot of sense to study Mandarin with hopefully the opportunity to get to study abroad there one day.

Abena Amoakuh:

Through introduction to the language is really what introduced me to the culture and the history of China. I was actually very fascinated because I realized I didn't really know anything. You learn very minimal, or at least I learned very minimal things in school about China, but it's such a huge nation with such vast history and a lot to learn about it. I think it was especially intriguing because for so long, it was closed off from the world, but there were still so much going on there that I was interested in learning more about.

Abena Amoakuh:

I remember first getting there and everyone's staring at me and being fascinated with me and wanting to touch me. And I was like, "This is kind of weird. They watch TV here, they've seen black people for." I know for a fact that they like Michael Jackson and Beyonce, and they love basketball in China. But within those first couple of weeks, every day just got a little bit more and more uncomfortable. And at the time my language skills were not very good. So it was very uncomfortable and just overwhelming and not what I anticipated at all. It kind of stole the excitement a little bit away from it. And I think the biggest aspect of it was not being able to communicate how I felt about it or how I felt about people touching me or wanting to take a picture with me. I couldn't communicate in their language, so it was very, very hard.

Abena Amoakuh:

In the U.S. I grew up in Atlanta. Atlanta is a very black city, which was great for me. It was a great experience. Then going and Ghana, everybody looks like me. So to be in a place where I very, very much stuck out like a sore thumb was just very unexpected. I felt like I had to have a lot of patients, especially with the other people that I was with. They didn't understand the experience that I was going through. A lot of them were either white or they were Chinese American, so they weren't as uncomfortable as I was. And so trying to be patient and also be respectful of the culture, but also trying to get the same respect back was very hard. But I think eventually as I got better at speaking Chinese, I was able to communicate better and communicate my boundaries better.

Abena Amoakuh:

On the one instance, whenever Chinese people would approach me, they'd be like, "Oh, [foreign language 00:05:31]?" Is she African? And it's like, "Oh, yes. Yes, I am. But I'm American because I was raised in America. That threw them off. A lot of people don't know there are a lot of African students studying abroad in China. Nowadays it's not really a concept of black people being in China is foreign, I think it's still fascinating to a lot of people, especially older generations. So that was the one hand. I always identify very proudly as African American, quite literally both of those. But then also when I get to another country where they're challenging my Americanness, and I didn't know what to do with that.

Abena Amoakuh:

Challenging my Americanness because of my blackness. And it's kind of hard again to explain in a different language what that means. Because, for them, it was quite literally black and white. It was American or African, you can't really be both. What does that mean? Well, you look like this, so you have to be African and there's really not an in-between. I just had to understand that my identity was a little bit different in China and not not care, but also not let it get to me that it didn't change my personal identity or how I have already reconciled my own identity.

Abena Amoakuh:

At the time that I was there, it was the summer of 2016. So there's already a lot of speculation about the things that were going on in America. And so to not be in America when that was happening, I already felt very disconnected. But then as soon as people found out that you're American, they had all these questions about it and want to know so much more about it. I know what's going on, and yes I know the context of what's happening, but I can't really answer these questions that you're asking me because you're really challenging me in ways that I never thought about it. When you're no longer in a Western world and non-Westerners are asking you what's going on in your Western world, it's very hard to compose a straight answer or explain it in a way that makes sense.

 

Abena Amoakuh:

I think my Americanness was challenged a lot. In some ways I felt like I wanted to distance myself from my Americanness because it was just too stressful to handle at times. So sometimes I'd be like, "Yeah, I'm African. Yeah, I'm from Ghana." It was unique. I could kind of pick whatever identity I wanted to, if I really wanted to. I didn't do it often, but in uncomfortable situations I think I used it as a mechanism. Now I'm thinking about it, it's like, "Whoa, I actually was able to do that when I wanted to."

Abena Amoakuh:

There are a lot of Western things there. KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald's. Those are three really popular restaurants there. Walmart is huge there. It's kind of amazing to see the way that these things are elevated in China versus the way they're downplayed in the United States. Going to Pizza Hut is a restaurant experience. You sit down and you get served and everything. KFC and McDonald's, same thing. Even movies and the way superhero movies are super popular. Those ideas of things and just like, "Oh, you're from American." The first question is like, "You know about this and this and this person. Obama and Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan." And all these artists and big people here who we're like, "Yeah, those are people we like too." And they're like, "We love them here." And they're like, "Have you ever heard of Jackie Chan?" And it's like, "Of course we've heard of Jackie Chan."

Abena Amoakuh:

But it's fun to talk about it with people because it brings some kind of common ground. So I think on one hand it could be annoying to people. It's like, "Okay, yes, you're naming all these American things." But for me it was exciting because it's like, "Great. You know about some things about American and maybe this can help us on a common ground or build a common foundation in some way."

Abena Amoakuh:

Well, once I got in a taxi and I was with my language partner, the taxi drivers started talking about me to my language partner. And this always happens. People are always talking about me in Chinese to the person who looks Chinese and thinking I don't understand them. And so I just interrupted in the conversation. I was like, "Oh, I understand what you're saying." And he's like, "Oh wow." And then he goes, "Obama. Do you know who Obama is?" I was like, "Of course I do." And he just got really excited and he was like, "I knew you were American." And I was like, "Oh really? Because everybody thinks that I'm African." He's like, "No, no, no, no. I could tell the difference. I've gotten to interact with so many different people, I can tell the difference now."

Abena Amoakuh:

I think I was eager to share especially from the aspect of them being very surprised that I was American. Being like, "Yes, America has all types of people." And if I was with a Chinese American person, it's like, "They're people like us. There are white people, there are native Americans. There there's all of that."

Abena Amoakuh:

There's things that are very obviously sacred in a sense. I lived with a host family and that was very interesting because I was very, very, very nervous about that. Considering I was going to be in somebody else's home, we didn't really know each other. One thing that was pretty cool to observe is how central the woman is in the family. In the sense that women handle the money and make a lot of the big decisions. So for my host mom, she worked full time, had two daughters, one was seven, one was five, and cooked every single meal for everyone. Which is very, very, very impressive to me.

Abena Amoakuh:

One thing I really liked about the culture also, it was the community aspect. So on one of the family outings, we went on people in the neighborhood, so they lived in a condo building and it was mixed with condos and some single-family homes as well. The housing association had planned a cherry-picking outing. So we went cherry-picking and literally there was five buses of families. It wasn't just mom, dad, kids, mom, dad, kids, grandfather, grandmother. The family unit is very, very strong and extended family living in one household is very strong. It's very beautiful to see. They're all friends and they all went on this outing together for the day. Some of my other friends in the program were also in some of the other host families, and they were all very keen to show us off and brag about us to one another like we were their own kids, which was really fun.

Abena Amoakuh:

The Chinese people have a lot of national pride, and there are some people who are very, very unsatisfied with the conditions and the type of government and leadership that they have to live under. There are a lot of things that are happening that was just very hard to see or hear about. That perspective is also very interesting, especially China is always in the news. And whenever I'm reading about it and reading about like, "Oh, wow, that makes sense." Or I saw underlyings or inklings of this happening, but now it's actually happening and things.

Abena Amoakuh:

I have a lot of friends who were still in China and experiencing that. Everybody's very unsure of what's going to happen and what it's going to look like. A lot of people keep on telling me, it's like, "Ooh, you know, Mandarin, that's going to be really, really good in the future." I'm like, "Well, I hope so. In a way that's beneficial, I hope. Not in a way that's detrimental to anyone."

Abena Amoakuh:

In China, you don't have access to a lot of things that you have access to, especially on the internet. So you don't have access to Google. No Facebook, Instagram. A lot of things are blocked. Things that we take for granted in a sense are very much blocked. Everybody has Gmail. All Americans have Gmail. And so you have what's called a virtual private network, a VPN. A lot of people don't know this, a VPN basically says, "Oh, I'm in Atlanta." Or, "Oh, I'm in Washington DC," but you're really in China, but it says you're using the internet from this other location. So we all use VPNs. They're very easy to come by. Most universities have them. So as university students, we all had one. And if not, they're pretty easy to purchase. They're like $10 for like a month.

Abena Amoakuh:

But a lot of the times it was very obvious that the VPNs were being disrupted, that the government or whoever was purposely trying to make sure that the VPNs weren't working so you wouldn't have access to those. And even now I still get the weirdest spam Chinese emails and I don't know where they came from. Stuff like that. There were times where we would heavy speculate, and we were like, "Did this happen to you last night?" "Okay, it happened to me too."

Abena Amoakuh:

I always used to joke of all the random pictures that gets taken of me without being asked and the videos that get taken to me, I was like, "I bet you I'm on all these websites. It doesn't even matter. The Chinese government knows who I am. They know my social security number at this point." I think we joked to make light of it, but it is actually a very serious thing that's happening. Making light of it was easier than thinking of what was actually happening. And also I definitely think it's a huge concern and actually is something very real that is happening.

Abena Amoakuh:

There were a lot of times where we would just like, "Okay, let's go on a weekend trip." Tho one weekend trip that we went to, I don't even know if I'm supposed to say this, but we went to Dandong which is the border at China City between North Korea and China. It's just a regular Chinese city, just much smaller. We were like, "Oh, yeah. This is going to be super easy. It's a super small town." Super small in China does not mean the same as super small in the United States of America. Because, let me tell you, super small is very, very big. So we were like, "Oh, the distance looks really short between the train station and where our hostel was supposed to be." Nope, 30-minute drive. Okay, so we had to take a taxi and there's eight of us. How are we going to make sure our two taxis stay together and they don't try to scam us. And our hustle just ended up being way out of the way.

Abena Amoakuh:

And we thought it was going to be a spa and things because we saw it on the internet. It was not that when we got there. There's really no food in the area. We got there so late that the kitchen had closed and so we're just walking on the street and all these people were staring at us and screaming at us and yelling and chasing after us. And we're just like, "LOL, this is so ridiculous. Really, can you imagine if our parents saw us? They'd be like, 'What the heck are you doing?'" A lot of the times I do this, I'll just be like, "I'm just going to tell my mom about it after it happens," because I don't want her to freak out if she knows it's happening right now. And so all of the stories I'd end up telling my mom after. She's like, "What? You did what? You hiked what mountain? You went where for what weekend?" I don't know, it was in Shanghai or Beijing.

Abena Amoakuh:

I don't know if my friends or family could really understand how different China is and really enjoy it as much as I did it. I knew I was just down for the adventure and the experience and it was a limited time, so why not try everything and do all these things that are outside of my comfort zone and that I wouldn't get to do when I got back here.

Abena Amoakuh:

I don't think I would have noticed it. The guide was just like, "That's North Korea." And I was like, "What?" At the time it wasn't as hostile environment, but the way Western news talks about it versus when you go there, it's so chill. Obviously it's changed in the last, what? It's been almost three years since I've been there, things have escalated. But at the time it was just so casual and all of us were just like looking at each other like, "Is this weird that we think this is weird that people are so casual about this?" Because we come from a society where everything is amplified. In the way it's talked about, it's very amplified. It really instills fear in you. And granted those two borders also do look very different, but still, I think we were just very much in awe. You can see into North Korea, which is crazy. I can say I've seen into North Korea and not many people can say that.

Abena Amoakuh:

One day I was going from home to class and my family lived on top of a hill that went down straight to the university, which was very convenient for me. I didn't have to take the bus or anything, I could just walk. It was the dead summer though, so it became very, very hot sometimes. Sometimes in the middle of the day when I was walking down to class, I would pass the preschool that my youngest host sister would go to. And so sometimes they'd be playing outside and she'd see me and scream across the street, "[foreign language 00:19:58]." Which is, "American sister, American sister."

Abena Amoakuh:

I remember, usually I passed on the other side of the street to avoid having to interact and her teacher being like, "Who the heck is this person?" But one day I just happened to be on the same side of the street at the school, and one of her little friends was like, "Oh, that's a black girl. That's your black sister." And she was like, "No, that's my American sister." She was so adamant about it, she's five years old, she's one of the sassiest people I've ever met. And I was just like, "Yeah, you tell them. You tell them." I loved that she didn't try to put me in a bubble or just be like, "Oh, the black girl is your sister," She's like, "No, she's my sister from America. And that's how we refer to her." And that made me feel really proud.

Abena Amoakuh:

It's not something that I taught her or anything like that, it's just her naivete and her just being a young person. And her not seeing me in a certain way was really exciting and I was proud of her for that because at that point I didn't really know if she liked me or not.

Abena Amoakuh:

In the evenings, a lot of the grandmas and the grandpas, they get into the square or something commune spot and they do Tai Chi, which is just very fun to watch because they're very dedicated to doing that. Morning markets and kind of fresh food in the market, every time all of us would walk down to school, if we didn't get breakfast at home, we would get it off the street. It's super easy and convenient and very, very normal to do that. Starbucks is not a morning breakfast thing. That's an afternoon delicacy delight thing. Oh my goodness, I can think of the afternoon and leaving class and there being so many people in the street and so many buses. Buses there are stick-shift and they're very terrifying because they're barreling towards you and all cars have the right of the way.

Abena Amoakuh:

So I can just hear the honking and the pitter-patter of shoes running quickly across the street. And all the motorcycles are super loud and smell the exhaust, see the pollution. Restaurants are always super loud. People really gather and like to gather around food, and so restaurants are always super loud and super crowded. Service is not a thing in China, you yell for your waiter. So [foreign language 00:22:23]. You yell for them, you yell for your check, you yell for anything that you want. So they're a loud and lively place, but people are obviously very happy there and enjoying themselves.

Abena Amoakuh:

But there's always a way to find fun in good situations. Yes, they're going to be bad experiences or things that are like, "I never want to do that again." Or, "Maybe I don't want to come to this place again." But for me, I am anticipating and I'm super excited for an opportunity to go back just because I've seen parts of China, but I have not seen so many parts of China. And I think I have a unique advantage in understanding the language and being able to speak some of the language. Even while I'm still here and reading about things that are happening in China or learning new things, I'm just like, "Wow, that's so cool. Why didn't I do that?" Or sometimes my friends send me things about travel stuff in China and they're like, "Have you been to this place? Or have you heard of this place?" I'm like, "No, I haven't even heard or seen of this."

Chris Wurst:

22.33 is produced 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, Abena Amoakuh discussed her time in China as a participant in the Critical Languages Scholarship, or CLS Program. For more about CLS 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 anytime 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/22.33.

Chris Wurst:

Special thanks to Abena for her willingness to share her stories. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Mr. Mollinson. One Needle, Picnic March, The Poplar Grove, and Plum King, all by Blue Dot Sessions. And Preludio 1976 by Himalayha. 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.

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Season 02, Episode 49 - Don't Worry Mom, It's Just the Arab Spring - Kristen Erthum

LISTEN HERE: Episode 49

DESCRIPTION

It's Arab Spring, political upheavals are occurring throughout the Middle East spill out into the streets and not only are you suddenly living in the midst of it all, it just so happens that your grandmother from Nebraska is visiting. And while everything might feel light years from life in the American Midwest, what strikes you most in the end is how similar we all are. You're listening to 2233, a podcast of exchange stories.

TRANSCRIPT

Kristen Erthum:

Three plus seven is ten, as is eight plus two, as is five plus five, and how you get to the answer sometimes doesn't matter. I think that the way that things change you, that travel changes you, is you're less afraid of the unknown. You are more hyper skeptical of things. You question it. You question what you see. People say, "Well, the sky is green." And if where you live, the sky is green, that's all you've ever seen, then you believe the sky to be green. But if when you travel and you see that the sky is blue, or the sky is white, or the sky is gray, you're like, "Wait a minute."

Chris Wurst:

This week: Getting one's shop on in the Egyptian markets, a first glimmer of a freer future, and learning to love the gray areas. On this episode, a journey from the cornfields of Nebraska to Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, and embracing our differences.

Intro Segment:

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

These exchanges shaped who I am.

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 it was possible to create a-

(Singing) That's what we call cultural exchange.

Kristen Erthum:

My name is Kristen Arthum. I am originally from Ainsworth, Nebraska. I now live in the DC area. I am a Fulbright 2010 ETA from Egypt. I'm one of the only 10 to my knowledge that you will ever meet, so we are a rare breed.

Kristen Erthum:

The world changed on 9/11. I was 13. And what I remember the most, besides what you see on TV and the horrific stories that we tell, is that there were no airplanes flying over. We're a fly over state. We had no airplanes flying over for three days and the world literally changed. 9/11 is now a historical event for most people in school, but for us, that was a big thing. And so you saw this wave of ugliness that followed afterwards. About people who were different than we were, that looked different, that might pray different, that had different backgrounds. And it really got me interested in, let's see what the world is like. Let's see what this is.

Kristen Erthum:

I have a traditional American background. My family comes from all over. We came in times of great strife and part of my family happens to be Syrian and so knowing that we were Arab, I wanted to know what that was.

Kristen Erthum:

Lo and behold, I got my Fulbright and it was one of the most amazing things that I think ever happened to me. Starting out, you take a kid from the Midwest who has really only ever been to one country, and that was Jordan. You throw them into Cairo, which is a city. They say it's 20 million, it's more like 33 million people. It's loud, it's busy. There's people everywhere. Sanitation isn't what you think it's going to be, so there's pile of rotting food scraps in the street. There's dogs, there's cats, there's women, there's children, there's cars. Egyptians talk with their horns, so you have, "Hey, good to see ya neighbor." Beep beep. You have, "Get out of my way." Beep beep. You have, "I'm going to run you over." Honk, honk, honk. It's just different from the Midwest.

Kristen Erthum:

Big change and just that culture shock of, "I'm not going to be able to make it here." And there's times that you're sitting there eating whatever quintessential Egyptian food it is. If it's mushy, which is cabbage or zucchini stuffed with rice. Or it's koshery or it's [Arabic], which is beans. "I'm not going to be able to do this." Then you get thrown into your site and for us, my site was in Ismailia. It's the city that controls the Suez. And so you feel the ships that have the sound that's so low that it just literally vibrates your insides going through the canal.

Kristen Erthum:

And we were teaching at a [Arabic] Canal Suez and they threw us into a classroom with 300 students and said, "Teach them something. Teach them whatever you want. There is no curriculum. There is no real thing that we want them to learn. We want them to learn English." And so what I did was I had my students write, "What is your greatest fear? What do you want to be when you grow up? Are you a cat or a dog person?" Just to see what they needed.

Kristen Erthum:

I think the one thing being 22, 23 on a Fulbright that I learned, is who you are when nobody's watching and how you respond to things that are different. I know people that completely shut down and curl up in themselves and these are the people you're going to meet on Fulbright. But the people that blossom and say, "This is who I am. And this is how I represent myself." Is key because you don't travel and come back the same. You come back different. And the ways that you're different, you won't know until they start to manifest. And that's the cool part of it.

Kristen Erthum:

In January of 2011, in Tunisia, which is basically a neighbor of Egypt minus a few countries, there was a guy that set himself on fire to protest the price of bread and for very complex reasons that academics know, that started what is known as Arab Spring. And we were there for Arab Spring and we saw, I remember having this conversation with Megan, my site mate, about when Ben Ali fell in Tunisia, the ability of Egypt to go through that revolution. We said, "That's never going to happen here." The moment you say something's never going to happen, guess what's going to happen? The truth is stranger than fiction sometimes. And it did happen.

Kristen Erthum:

January 26th. My grandmother was visiting from the U.S. My grandmother, love her, is more adventurous than I am and had this whole list of countries that ended with her coming back to Egypt. So, I met her in Cairo.

Kristen Erthum:

We were in Khan el-Khalili which is the big market down by [Arabic 00:07:48] mosque. It's got that what you would think to be the quintessential old world market feel. There's kit shops with stuff that's obviously meant for tourists on these narrow winding streets. There's also an Egyptian side. So I told grandma, I said, "I'll bust you out of your tour because our guy's tours can be really boring and I'll take you to Khan el-Khalili and we'll do the shopping and we'll negotiate like Egyptians do."

Kristen Erthum:

So, we show up at Khan el-Khalili and it's 8:30 in the morning. The market should be full. It is not. And I'm like, "Hey, more shopping for us. Let's do this." So, we get our shop on. We buy a whole bunch of stuff for not a whole lot of money. And then I'm like, "Let's go do some other things."

Kristen Erthum:

And so we tour around the lesser known parts of Cairo and enjoy the lesser known parts of Cairo and I make this joke that's like, "Let's go to Tahrir Square," What is ground central of the Egyptian revolution, "And get some ice cream?" And she goes, "No, no, I don't want ice cream."

Kristen Erthum:

So, we go back to her hotel and we turn on the TV and there's these pictures of Tahrir Square. Attacker your square. I don't think anybody understood the magnitude of what we were going to be dealing with. And so my grandmother left the next day. I was flying to Sydney via Abu Dhabi and I thought that my taxi cab driver was taking me on a route that was really circuitous. We went up all the way around the city, instead of going through the center of the city. I get to Abu Dhabi, turn the news on again, it's getting worse. And I remember thinking to myself, "Egypt, you better settle down because I'm coming back in 10 days and I expect you to be here when I get back."

Kristen Erthum:

And I think it's three days, four days into my stint in Sydney and I get this call at 3:00 AM and it's the director of the Institute. He goes, "Well, things have gotten bad enough here in Egypt that for the safety of the program, we're evacuating everybody. Whatever you do, don't come back until we say so."

Kristen Erthum:

Once Egypt settled down, they said, "Well, come on back." So, I came back in April and they said, "We're putting you back where you were and continue what you were doing." But what was different about coming back for me was you had a country that for the first time, the best way to describe it was tasting democracy and tasting freedom.

Kristen Erthum:

And so I taught the classes that I was supposed to teach, which was an English writing class. Like how to write a five paragraph essay, vocabulary, speaking. But I also was in charge of language lab. So was able to have these conversations about what is democracy, what is citizen responsibility, and what are fundamental freedoms, fundamental rights, and really tried to get the students to focus on this is a pivotal moment in your history. How do you want to shape your country and more importantly, how are you going to be the first generation to add to that? What is your legacy?

Kristen Erthum:

And really focused on their hopes and dreams and fears of what was coming and it was really exciting for me to see these things and to understand, this is what it must be the first time you taste it.

Kristen Erthum:

It was difficult. There's difficult parts of it. I was in Egypt when Osama bin Laden was killed and the first that was that very American, "Hey, we got the guy that hurt us." The second thought I had was, "And I'm living in the middle East. What do I do? Do I go to work today?" You're hyper aware of things around you because you are different and that difference is sometimes celebrated and sometimes not appreciated and so learning to navigate that and find commonalities with people is something that the exchange programs teach.

Kristen Erthum:

I went to an orphanage because one of my friends randomly knocked on my door at 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday. So, I show up to this orphanage where my English ... My English is fine, but my Arabic is not great. And we're dropping off the stuff, we're giving toys to the kids. I learned how to say [Arabic 00:13:14] which basically means, "Maybe I can open it for you." But these kids were running around with these oranges that we had bought them because they don't have access to fresh fruit and didn't know what to do with them. And so you've got these four year olds running around, they think I'm taking their orange from them at this point and I'm going to keep it. And I'm like, "No, no." So, I walked to my friend. I'm like, "How do I say, can I peal that for you?"

Kristen Erthum:

And they said, [Arabic 00:00:13:36]. I'm like, "Okay, [Arabic 00:13:39]" and point to the orange. And so the kids give it to me and then they realize I'm going to peal their orange. I probably peeled 40 oranges that day. They were just all running up to me and be like, "Peel my orange for me!"

Kristen Erthum:

We brought joy to those children's lives, even if for only that afternoon. And I smelled like oranges for three days because it just was ... I watched so much, it just wasn't coming off. Not a bad smell. I've had worse.

Kristen Erthum:

We all want the same thing and that's to be happy, to feel at peace, to feel like we're not constantly searching for the next meal or dollar or whatever it is. And just to have meaning in this life. And you realize that when you're abroad is that we do things differently, but we all want the same thing at the end of the day. And that's to feel like that we've contributed, that we belong and that we have a place in this world.

Kristen Erthum:

And what that means changes from culture, but it's true. That's what we all want. And it's fun. There's fun. Parts of it. There's definitely growth parts. Being from the Midwest where I went to church every day and then meeting people that happen to go to mosques and comparing the cultures and the religions and the way that culture layers onto religion is really interesting.

Kristen Erthum:

I had a chance to ask questions about Islam that I really hadn't felt comfortable asking anybody else. They also did the same thing about Christianity to me. It makes you know your own faith a little bit better because, "They'll ask you, why do you do it this way?" And honestly, the answer is sometimes, "Because."

Kristen Erthum:

"Well, what do you mean because?"

Kristen Erthum:

"Because that's the way I learned it. There's a different way to do things."

Kristen Erthum:

And that was cool because you confront your assumptions. That's another way it changes you, is you confront your assumptions about the world and realize that everything is not black and white, it's really shades of gray. And that's awesome.

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, or ECA. 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 U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

 

Chris Wurst:

In this episode, Kristen Arthum shared her unique experiences as part of ECA's Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program, which sends Americans abroad to assist classroom English teaching and as in Kristen's case, is usually just as educational for the teachers as for the students. For more about ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov.

Chris Wurst:

We encourage you to subscribe to 2233 wherever you find 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 @state.gov.

Chris Wurst:

Special thanks this week to Kristen Arthum for sharing her insights. I did the interview with her and I edited this episode. Featured music during the segment, "Them Dirty Blues" by Cannonball Adderley. "Everything's Moving Too Fast" by Peggy Lee with Dave Barber and His Orchestra, and "Night Owl" by Broke For Free. At the top of the show, you heard "Sebastian" by How the Night Came and to play us out, "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.

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Season 02, Episode 48- The Tricked Out Rickshaw - Patty Esch

EPISODE 48 - Listen here

DESCRIPTION

This week, hear about the sweetest rickshaw ride in Mumbai, the funniest man in India, and what it's liked to be dragged onto a Bollywood dance floor. Join us on a journey from Colorado to India, to learn that sometimes it just easier to be your real self. This is 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

You're living far, far away, let's say in India. And you're constantly aware of everything that you do or say because you are terrified of offending the local people. It takes a lot of energy. Until the moment when you realize that not only is it easier just to be yourself, it also makes you much more authentic as a cultural ambassador. Your biggest lesson, just be.

Chris Wurst:

You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories. This week, the sweetest rickshaw ride in Mumbai, the funniest man in India, and being dragged onto the dance floor. Join us on a journey from Colorado to India, to learn that it just takes less energy to be real. It's 22.33.

Intro Segment:

(Music)

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

These exchanges shaped who I am.

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...

(Singing)

Patty Esch:

In Mumbai, I had this rickshaw driver who picked me up one day after I had gone to this... Random, but this meditation session. And it was just like a really awesome experience. But then I got in his workshop and it's decked out. It is decked out in all these posters, pictures, everything. And he's got like hand sanitizer and he's got chive for 5 cents in his rickshaw, like he has everything. He's wifi onboard everything.

Patty Esch:

And so, this man is like, "Hey, how's it going? Where are you going to?" We tell him, and then we start looking around and I realized that it says, "50% of proceeds go to cancer patients." And I was like, what? This man probably makes very little throughout the month being a rickshaw driver, but he donates 50% to cancer. I don't believe it. I was very skeptical at first.

Patty Esch:

We start talking to him more and in the rickshaw, I'm looking up videos of him, of his interviews with CNN and all these places. And just talking to him, you can just get like such a general feel of a person. And he was the most giving, caring and hilarious, man I met in India.

Patty Esch:

My name is Patty, Patty Esch. I'm from Colorado. I went to school in Arizona. I did my Fulbright in 2017 to 2018. I'm a student researcher. I studied liver cancer and how genetic predisposition to liver cancer is distributed or affects populations in India differently. And I was in Mumbai for my research. I spent three months in Poona doing language studies. I studied Marathi and then I spent six months in Mumbai.

Patty Esch:

And I decided that that wasn't enough of an interaction for me. I asked him if I could invite him over for lunch or whatever could happen. And he said, "No, no, no, of course not. You can come to my house. You should come to my house and meet my wife, and my daughter and my son won't be there because he's in school. But I would love for you to come and meet my family." And I really forced the issue. I was like, "No, no, no, I'm going to meet these people. I'm going to like hang out with you more." He invited us over to his house. It was my friend and I, and he invited us over to his house.

Patty Esch:

And I lived in a pretty ex-pat heavy part of Mumbai, Bandra is the location. And he lived just on the outskirts of Bandra, a place that I had never been, never even knew existed. And we met him there and his family hosted us for this amazing dinner. And we talked about everything. We sat there for hours, so many hours that my friend and I had had plans to meet up that night. And she texted me and I didn't see my phone, and she was freaking out because she knew that I was going to this random rickshaw driver's house for dinner, and she thought that I had gotten kidnapped or something.

Patty Esch:

I just remember sitting on the floor and they're tiny, tiny apartment. That's painted this beautiful, brilliant green color. And they decide to paint it a different color every year. And the wife had gotten home from work. She works with helping women get access to grants and understanding government schemes. Like she does this amazing work. She came home early to cook dinner and made this amazing dinner for us, that was something I've never had before. And I had lived in Maharashtra for like nine months at this time, eight months.

Patty Esch:

And we sat on the floor, sharing dinner, sharing stories. My friend spoke Marathi and Hindi. And so, we were able to translate pretty well between all of us. And it was just like the most amazing experience. We learned a lot from them. We tried to give him some like business advice because he deserves so much for what he does. But I think just, I realized that like food is such a connection for people. To sit together, share a meal over a couple of hours of time and learn about each other.

Patty Esch:

My partner came from the U.S. to visit and we got invited to his coworkers wedding. His coworker was getting married in Chennai. We got to go to this wedding and we're at the first day... Or no, the third day, I guess, of the wedding and it's the groom's procession, so he rides up on this horse, super magical. And he's going up to greet the bride and the bride's family. And all of his family and his friends are dancing around him. It's Chennai, so it's hot, sweaty. My leg hurts and I'm like, "Oh, no way am I dancing." People pull my partner into the crowd and they're like, "Oh, you have to dance. You have to dance." It's mostly men at this point, so I'm kind of just standing in the background.

Patty Esch:

But one of my favorite memories is this elderly couple who were probably in there like eighties, they spot me, because I'm like a neon sign at this wedding, the only foreigner there. And they spot me and they drag me onto the dance floor into the procession. And they're just dancing with such vigor and such youth more than I've ever seen anyone dance with. And it was just like they're making sure that everyone is dancing, that everyone is included in this moment. And it was just a really awesome opportunity to just let loose and to not be such a foreigner, like no one cared what you were doing, the way you're moving. It's just sharing the space and sharing the energy and feeling the music, and it was such a happy experience. I forgot about everything else. I had all these reservations about like, "Oh, I don't want to dance. I don't want to dance wrong. I don't want to dance because my leg hurts." It was all these things. I think in the end, this taught me a greater lesson.

Patty Esch:

Throughout my Fulbright experience was that it takes less energy to just be real. Like it takes less energy to just be who you are and whatever excuses you want to come up with, to not do something, they're not as good as the experience you'll have when you do decide to do something, It's easy to get caught up in the "Oh, but I shouldn't, or I should" To just be, just be who you are. And that was one of the best things that I learned.

Patty Esch:

As a cultural ambassador, you go into a place not doing as much research as you can, right. Reading as many books, talking to as many people. But I think the best way to be a cultural ambassador is to be yourself. I stopped saying like key phrases, key West Coast phrases that I have, because I was like, "Oh, people might not understand what I'm saying. Like they might not understand my specific dialect." And I tried to say things a certain way. And I think you, to a certain level, you have to do that, and you kind of adapt to that, but you're there to share your culture while you take some. When I realized that when I wasn't being comfortable in who I was, and I was trying to be this perfect American representation, I wasn't being enough of an American representation, because I was just trying to be this like reflective mirror to them.

Patty Esch:

And so, after I realized that I was kind of holding back and being who I was, I needed to let go. And at that moment I became more of a cultural ambassador than I think I would've ever been, because I started saying things like "For sure," or showing people my favorite TV shows and dragging people to movies with me, or sharing really good books that might not have the most context in India, but just sharing these small moments of who I am, was really important.

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:

In this episode, Patty Esch told us about her Fulbright experiences in India. For more about ECA exchanges, including the Fulbright program, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do that wherever you find your podcasts. And of course, we would love to hear from you, and you can write to us anytime. Write early, write often to 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:

Special thanks this week to Patty for taking us aboard the coolest rickshaw on the planet. I did the interview with her and also edited this episode. Featured music during the segment was Haratanaya Sree, Veena Kinhal. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian, by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is Two Pianos, by Tagirlius. Until next time.

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Season 02, Episode 47 - Everyone Can be Good at Math - Allie Surina

EPISODE 47: Listen here

DESCRIPTION

In this week's episode, a Fulbrighter from Western Kentucky University travels all the way to Shiyan, China to study math teacher education and discovers that both math and American sitcoms are truly universal languages.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

You traveled to China to study how they prepare people to teach math. You knew you'd stand out as a foreigner, but you didn't expect that language limitations would reveal just how you felt about yourself and what it means to be an American. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Allie Serena:

There's many ways to feel foreign in China. I mean, I have bright blonde hair, my skin tone is different, I'm much taller than the average woman. Although I'm just a very typical pear shaped American woman. For a Chinese woman I represent this gross destruction of thighs. I mean just constantly, wherever I walked people would stop me and tell me, "Wow, your legs are so big." And they would say it to each other, "Her legs are so big," thinking I couldn't understand them. So everywhere I went, if I was walking down the street, a worker might be out smoking out of the window on his break and he'd see me and he'd get up and flail his hands out the window and say, "Oh, foreigner, foreigner, foreigner," and everyone would come out and look out the window.

I lived in a place where there weren't any foreigners so I was a daily spectacle and there were so many moments when I just thought, "There's nowhere I can go that I'm not the most obvious person and that everyone doesn't wonder, what is she doing here? Why is she here? What is she?"

Chris Wurst:

This week, learning that everyone can be good at math. Bonding over the Gettysburg address in Chinese, and a reminder that anybody can be somebody in America. Join us on a journey from Kentucky to China to discover that math and American sitcoms are truly universal languages. 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: 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...

Allie Serena:

My name is Allie Serena. I am from the West coast originally, but I was living in Kentucky going to Western Kentucky University when I applied for a Fulbright and I went to Shiyan, China to study math education and math teacher preparation.

Growing up, I was always very excited about math. It was a strength of mine and I was in a California school that had a peer tutoring program where you were able to tutor people in grades below you. And I tutored math to younger students, and I did that all the way through school. And then when I was out of high school, I did it at a community college and I was meeting people that were from all walks of life, whose life stories were incredibly difficult and who were coming back to school and coming back to, often remedial math to make a big change in their life. They wanted a second chance and math was the key for them. So I learned through math education about the ups and downs of American life and how it can be a door through which people can have access to really great opportunities. Or for others, it can be a ceiling beyond which they just don't feel that they can ever get past and so always loved math.

When I was in Western Kentucky University, I was studying economics and math and I was watching China grow on our radar as this huge economic development story. I was amazed by it, but also I was in wonder that they were able to lift so many people out of poverty and into educational attainment, especially with high degrees in engineering and math heavy subjects. For Americans it's very difficult to ever get better at math. We have this small percentage of people that are just naturally good at math, and then everybody else dreads math class and dreads math tests, and would never want to take a math major if they could avoid it. So how was China able to go from poverty into this factory pumping out math degrees and engineering degrees? So I was very interested in the role of math in promoting education in society and developing job readiness and economic development, and specifically in Chinese economic prosperity.

So when I went there, I was in a cognitive science laboratory where people are learning about how people learn and how people retain information. So I had that perspective of, we're looking at math in the, in terms of how people process information and how teachers can aid in that. And then I was also meeting with teacher groups and learning from the teachers themselves how they prepare. And so one very important difference is when a teacher is going to be a math teacher in China, they study at a university, four year university that is a teacher's college and they study to become a teacher. So everything they're learning, they're learning as a future teacher. When they're going to be a math teacher, that's the only subject they're going to teach. So they have half their day where they'll teach math and the other half is just preparation time for them to get better at teaching math, for them to look in on other colleagues work, to see how they teach to learn from the best of the best.

And so there is a lot of time and energy preparation that goes into each teacher to make sure that they are really, really good at teaching math. And we don't have that here. We have teachers who are in elementary school, teaching every subject. They may have 40 minutes for preparation, and that's being consistently carved down to smaller amounts of time. To be able to look back critically at your performance in teaching math. I mean, when did they get to have that? So I definitely saw from the very beginning that teacher preparation is so different from American teacher preparation and the results really speak for themselves. The teachers are confident in the subject. They're thinking about different ways to teach different concepts so that every student in the room can understand it and process it. And then the students themselves are taught about what math is in a very different way than we are.

We here think, well, math is something that you're just good at innately. Some are and then some just struggle to get through, to be at some medium level, you just want to do pain management. In China, math, like a lot of things is just something that you have to practice to get good at and anybody can be at a high level of math and can be expected to get a hundred percent on all of the tests leading up to some PhD level at which the real unique creative thinkers start to emerge and go off in their direction. But math as a concept and as a subject is something that everybody can be great at. And that's just the expectation. It's essential to life. You're naturally going to be very good at it if you practice. There's nobody, except for a developmental disabilities, would struggle with it. There's no reason to cry about it. Maybe it's not as fun as drawing, but it's certainly not something that you should think that you're going to be bad at.

I was really surprised that they consider math to be this typical thing that you just practice and everyone can be a hundred percent all the time because we don't think that. And because we don't think that, and we sell that to our students, then they just wonder, "Oh, am I one of the people that's good or not?" And the first sign that there's a struggle, which everybody has a struggle when they're learning something new. At the first sign of a struggle, they might convince themselves, I'm not one of the people that's good at it, and that's it for the rest of their life. All of the opportunities that go with math are cutoff for 80% of Americans. So it's a huge misunderstanding, I think of what math really is and what it takes to be good at math

So everywhere I went, I was aware that there's such a difference in the use of products. We all use products in a very similar way here and I saw people using the same products, a phone or a cup, holding it with a different part of their hand in a different way, comfortably as if that's how you do it, but I've never seen anyone in my life do it like that and now I'm seeing thousands of people do it that way. It was unsettling how much of our culture is actually a strong culture and it's not just the way humans do things. It's the way we do things and it was shocking to me regularly that I was embedded in a place that could live happily and freely doing things completely different than I had been raised to do them.

I think the other aspect of my time in China is that my vocabulary was good, but it wasn't to the level that I have in English. We have such an easy grasp of almost cliches that we read from books. The way that we talk to one another, we can impress and influence or discourage by just the word choices we have. But without that in China, I was left explaining myself in very plain unadorned language. And I found that I was saying things about myself that I didn't even know I believed and I was shocked to see that I have some feelings about who I am and where I've been, that I was hiding from myself or adorning in language that would make it sound different. And when I faced it and confronted it, I was proud of who I am and proud of the road that I've been on.

But I had just not realized that I felt that way about some of the things that I'd experienced. And there I was explaining to another person so matter of fact, but I was actually hearing it for myself for the first time in very plain language and it was shocking to me. Often I realized a lot about myself when I was there, that I had just not known or not seen, but when you have to say it in very strict language, you find out exactly what you think about things, because you can't just use sarcasm or cover up something with a lot of flowery language. Trying to explain American life or American values when you have very simple constructs, you boil it down to just exactly what you think and then you find out just exactly what you think. And that's a powerful, powerful experience for anybody.

There's one time when one of my roommates, she and I were walking around the dorm and we had been talking about philosophical things and all of a sudden she mentioned Abraham Lincoln, and I couldn't quite understand his name in Chinese. So she had to say it a few times before I realized she was talking about Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg address, which had moved her as a young child when she read it. And it was such a strange moment to realize that across the world, someone was as moved by the Gettysburg address as I was as a child. And so even though I didn't speak English to her ever, I quoted it word for word and spoke it to her and we both were crying as we're walking down the street, because we both had this passion and love for this speech that was so moving and rousing, and we were sharing it in this very strange way that made us both feel so connected and so similar, even though our cultures were so different.

I definitely had moments when I felt proud to be American, but not in ways that I would have expected going to China. When I went, I think I thought of Americana and American patriotism as very distinct things that are these consumer products of Americana that we sell here. But the essence of what it means to be an American is not as clear until you're overseas and somebody else defines it for you and you think, "Oh, wow, that's it. That's true. You're right. That is very American." And a big part of my experience over there was people asking me questions about my background, which is totally okay in China. Like how much do you weigh? How much do your parents make? Why aren't you married? What are you doing with your life? And a lot of Chinese people, especially the teachers and students and parents and colleagues I worked with were surprised and shocked that I hadn't gone to Harvard or Yale.

They say this thing like, "Well, it's easy to be a parent in America because your child plays all day in the backyard and then goes to Harvard or Yale for free. There was these ideas about what it means to be American that it's well, of course you can be successful in America because everything is just so easy there. And as they listened to my story where I'd gone to community college first, and then I had worked for 10 years and then gone back to university at my own expense and then had applied for these programs and decided to do this research and then came to China. I think it was this unraveling of a mystery for them. How is it possible that you could be given this really prestigious opportunity and not be from the world's most prestigious places? This is crazy.

And I realized something that started to get deeper inside of me and has stayed with me since that there's this idea of America wealth and privilege that here we might think of it as very wealthy and privileged people, but for other people wealth and privilege in America, it means the privilege to have multiple second chances. To really be resilient and to recover and to try new roads and paths to reinvent yourself. Privilege is the ability to find your own dreams and desires and pursue them without being unhindered or expected to have a very strict path forward or have all the answers. And wealth here is also these incredible opportunities that are given to the most unlikely of people in the most unlikely of places like me. And so I saw through their eyes that it was shocking that there could be a country on earth where people who make mistakes or don't have all of the money or answers can go on to make a big impact, to serve their communities, to have a voice that people in high places would listen to.

I mean, it really shocked people that I would be studying education reform and want to come back to America to talk about education reform and who am I? I'm a nobody, but to America, I am somebody. I'm somebody who has the desire and the will to make a difference and that's enough here, but it isn't enough everywhere else, or it doesn't feel like it is. So, as I heard the feedback back from people I was meeting about my story, it really helped me to see that part of what is so great about being American is all of these opportunities we have to define for ourselves how we're going to serve, how we're going to make a difference, and then to use everything in our power to align all the resources and do that very thing. And no one's going to try and stop us or poopoo on it or say, "Oh, that's a terrible way to spend your life." It's like, "If you really want, to go for it. We'll try and help." And that is truly American. And that's something I'm very proud of now.

I would talk with people that I worked with at the cognitive science laboratory, and there were women who were a little bit younger than me, graduate students and laboratory assistants. And we talked about how much the world had changed since their mothers were their age and how alone they felt because they couldn't talk to their mothers about their lives without guilt, because their lives were so much different and easier. And so they felt so much guilt that they had a cell phone and enjoyed little lattes and we're planning these futures that were full of television shows and friendship and makeup and beauty routines and their parents' lives and their grandparents' lives had been so hard. And so they felt that they had to keep these separate lives because mothers had worked so hard to get them to this place that they felt it was uncomfortable and unfair to have such a happy life.

And so you have a whole culture of young people whose lives are demonstrably happier and easier than the parents that got them there and that feeling of isolation because they didn't want to show their parents how easy life was because their parents were still sacrificing and still struggling to get by with no set future. There was so much socially going on and they all related to it. And they all had a lot of strong feelings about what's really possible for me in this world as a woman in China. And how are things going to change for me if I don't have children, because career is so important to me and was so important to my family? And so many real female discussions about worth and meaning and opportunity that is just the same that we might have here on a random lunch day. And so there was a lot of connections there that made me feel like I was right at home and that I was the most at home I had ever been in the world.

When I was in China, my roommate, and I loved to watch Big Bang Theory together. She introduced me to American sitcoms because I wasn't much of a TV person and she knew everything about American television. She was more American than me in many ways and I think shared a lot of the values that we promote through our television, which are a lot of our values, more or less. But I would say the Chinese young people and American young people are similar in their brightness and their curiosity and their belief and their ability to have an impact on the world. And however that came about, it is so powerful and so much different than the world I experienced at their age.

I was so much more cut off and isolated and I didn't know about what people were doing to make the world a better place. I thought I might be the only one. You just don't know when you're in a small town and you don't meet anybody else who's doing it. Or if there is someone doing it, Oprah features them in her magazine and you read about it, but that's so far away from your life. To see so many young people all around you that are excited and intelligent and funny and individual authentic, that's just so powerful and I think that has a big effect on, but people think the future will be like.

I think something that gives me hope when I meet young people today is how different they are in terms of being defiant and open-minded. They are so willing to engage with problems in a way that I was asking someone to give me permission to engage with problems. And they're just taking things into their own hands and they believe in themselves and in the power of their communities to make change happen. They don't necessarily have all the tools yet, but they have this confidence that's so inspiring. And when I finish talking to them, I often just go home and cry because I'm so overwhelmed that such amazing bright people exist in the world and that they are so indomitable. That they have such passion and such a sense of what justice looks like.

And even though from my perspective, I'm telling them, "Listen, you want to go out there and you want to build a better world. You want to bring meaning into the world. You don't want to just consume happiness. You want to tap into happiness. You want to bring about what you think is meaningful into the world." They almost already know that. It took me all this time to learn it and it's like, they already know that. And so if it's just a matter of tools and support, I think this generation is so far ahead to solving the big problems of the world and to being incredibly passionate and inspired and loving one another in a way that our generation is just not even able to believe is possible still. Still.

When I left for China the first time, my father had just passed away and part of the reason why I was looking for a study abroad is because I was looking for a way to live more and to defeat death in my own little small way. And so I went overseas with the feeling that life is so short and so precious and I wasn't thinking that I wanted people to see me as much as I wanted to be somewhere where no one I knew had ever been and no one I knew had ever reached for. And so I think almost every day, I probably would have felt like, if they could see me now, they would be shaking their heads. What is going on?

Sometimes we were floating down the Yangtze river in these blown up inner tubes made of pig bladders, I think. And other times I was sitting in a group full of Chinese professors who were prestigious professors at a prestigious laboratory, having dinner and talking about human nature and the difference in our cultures as if it was just a normal Saturday night. And most of the time I felt like I was living a very unreal life, that I was privileged enough to become friends with people that were deeply philosophically meaningful to 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 U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

This week, Ellie Serena talked about her research on math education in China, as part of the Fulbright Student Research Program. For more about the Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 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@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.

Special, thanks to Allie for taking the time to share her stories. Ana-Maria did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was Negentropy, Shipping Lanes, Algorithms, and The Ramble all by Chad Crouch. 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.

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Season 02, Episode 45/46 - A Study in Courage - Claire Ouedraogo

LISTEN HERE - Episode 46 (Translated English Version)
LISTEN HERE - Episode 45 (Original French Recording)

DESCRIPTION

Claire Ouedraogo is the winner of the U.S. Department of State's International Women of Courage Award and alumni of ECA's International Visitor Leadership Program. She is also the President of the Songmanegre Association for Women’s Development (Association féminine songmanegre pour le développement), an organization she founded that focuses on eliminating female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and promoting female empowerment through family planning education, vocational training, and micro-credit for women in the rural and underserved Center-North region of Burkina Faso. She also serves as a senior advisor on the National Council to Combat Female Genital Mutilation. She is an active member of the Burkinabe Movement for Human and People’s Rights. In 2016, the prime minister of Burkina Faso nominated her as an Ambassador of Peace for her work in empowering rural women. Despite the increased threat of terrorist attacks and violent acts against civilians in Bam Province, Mrs. Ouedraogo continues her courageous work on behalf of vulnerable women threatened both by FGM/C and terrorism.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

You'd lost a close friend in tragic circumstances, yet circumstances that affect far too many women and girls in your country. The scourge of female genital mutilation is as deep rooted as it is destructive, but you have dedicated your life to fighting this scourge and to literally saving girls' lives. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Claire Ouedraogo:

What would I tell the little girl who was 10 years old, such a long time ago? Well, I think I would tell her, "Believe your gut. Persevere and move forward."

Chris Wurst:

This week, trying to right deep ancient wrongs, educating women to protect themselves and a lifelong practice of giving back. Join us on a journey from Burkina Faso to Washington, D.C. and the making of an international woman of courage. It's 22.33.

Show Intro Clip:

(Music)

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

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 ...

Claire Ouedraogo:

My name is Claire Ouedraogo, and my married name is [inaudible 00:02:03]. I come from Burkina Faso from the central northern region of the country. I have human resource training, but since very early, I became engaged in the fight against female genital mutilations.

Claire Ouedraogo:

In Burkina Faso, female genital mutilations are traditional and customary practice, and it is present in the entire country. In my community, all girls are excised, and families and the entire communities practice these female genital mutilation. In Burkina Faso, 75% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 are excised, as show the 2019 studies though, the rate has thankfully gone down to 67%, and so we have actually conducted studies to try and show whether or not there is a positive side to these genital mutilations. Obviously, we came out with an absolute no, and therefore we have done advocacy. We have done a lot of activities in order to fight these practices.

Claire Ouedraogo:

The story goes a long way back to when I was seven years old, because girls in my country are grouped, and when there are ages seven to 10, it's their turn to be excised. And so my friends were meant to go for the excision ceremony, and I was only lucky because my father was not there, and therefore my mother was afraid for my life, and therefore it wasn't my turn. And even though I was not excised then, I witnessed some of my friends and many girls bleed to death. Girls dying of this, girls suffering, girls in terrible pain. Two years later, my mother could not take the social pressure and the weight of the local community because I was not excised, and therefore it was different, and the community did not accept it. And so she sent me to my grandmother's.

Claire Ouedraogo:

My grandmother loved me very much, and so I could not understand why she would send me to be excised because to me it was a contradiction. How could she possibly love me so much and let this happen to me? And so I wanted to understand, and then I finally came to realize that even though it was so hard for me to understand how I could possibly be loved so much and be imposed such pain and suffering, because it was ambiguous, but I understood that my family, my mother and then my grandmother could not bear the pain that they thought I was going to go through because I was going to be different. And so I understood that it's ignorance that makes mothers send their daughters to be excised. They have no idea of the consequences. They have no ideas of the danger. The social pressure is unsustainable for them, and that's the only reason why they bring their daughters to bear such a situation. More than anything else, they have no clue about long and short term circumstances and consequences.

Claire Ouedraogo:

So I did a lot of research because I wanted to understand, and so I spoke to a lot of people, and I spoke to a lot of my family members. I spoke to my aunts, I spoke to my grandmothers and so many other frontline witnesses of these excision ceremonies. I wanted to ask them, "Why did they see this and witness this," and by saying, "but why is it that you don't see that this girl bled to death? How can you not realize that this girl died because she bled to death?" Their response was always something like she died not because of excision, but because it was her destiny, or I would go and say, "But this girl, for example, she became sick because of excision. She had very important health problems," and they would answer "No, actually the witches of the village took her." I came gradually to understand that the people and these women did not make a link, a cause to effect relationship between the act of excision and the disease or the death.

Claire Ouedraogo:

And so the main motivation is that I had a friend who belonged to a family of women who perform these excisions, and in my country, these women transmit their knowhow, and traditionally it's a mother to daughter tradition. And so this friend of mine was a firsthand victim of excision, because when she went back to her village with her daughter, they forcefully excised her daughter against, her will her mother and aunts. This girl, after the excision, suffered a massive hemorrhage and almost died of the excision, but unfortunately she had to bear very difficult consequences because the skin formed a very large keloid between her legs.

Claire Ouedraogo:

And then this friend of mine showed me her daughter, who could not even walk because that keloid was so large that it prevent her from having any type of mobility, let alone all the pain that she felt, and the mother was desperate. She didn't know how to help her daughter, and unfortunately her daughter got sicker and died. I was very shocked, and I started asking myself, "How would she have lived if she hadn't died? How would she have continued to live in her condition?" And so this was the trigger that made me want to be more engaged, and I started to do research and I started to talk about it with the women who excised themselves, with the people who are confronted with this problem, with the people who are living around people who have been mutilated.

Claire Ouedraogo:

It came to me somewhat naturally, simply because I was born in such communities. It was my world, and that's what I knew. I saw so many girls die of this, and I saw so many times the consequences, the physical consequences of that that were dramatic. And all of these situations gave me strength, because I realized it was really necessary to make people understand how useless such practices were. I even saw it in my mother's eyes, because I saw in my mother's size that it was not what she wanted to do, but it was the pressure of society that made her feel cornered, feel constrained that she had to do this for her daughters, but she didn't want to make them feel pain, and she didn't want to do this.

Claire Ouedraogo:

Some wives are rejected by their husbands because of the mutilations, making them be closed, as we call them, because of the scarring tissue, and so they cannot be mothers and they cannot have any types of sexual relations. So some other women have drastic fistulas and are treated as pariahs. They are rejected by their families. They're rejected by their husbands and their husbands' families and are even abandoned by everyone.

Claire Ouedraogo:

Yes, one day I attended a religious ceremony where all of the women of the village gathered, and so I took this opportunity to talk with them. I talked a lot about excision, about what it is, about its consequences, about everything, and the women opened a lot to me. And after that, one woman called me to go into her home, and this woman has a 22-year-old daughter who had been married for a week, and she was sent home by her husband because he said she "closed," and so the village laughs. Everybody in the village loves at her and makes fun of her, and the mother also started to think that it had to be tied to these mutilations, these consequences. And also, the mother said that she had realized that after her daughter had been excised, she had difficulty urinating, and she also started to link this and tie this to this excision issue.

Claire Ouedraogo:

So I told the following to the mother. I said, "We should take your daughter to the hospital and have her examined, because that way we can understand whether or not these mutilations are the reason why your daughter has all of these problems." And so I took the daughter to the hospital, to the maternity, and there of [inaudible 00:15:55], my city. There, she saw a gynecologist, and the gynecologist examined her and saw of course that she had been excised, and said that indeed she was closed, but that she could undergo surgery, and that would solve the problem and she would be cured, but that this rural hospital did not have the facilities nor the means to perform the surgery and that she had to be taken to, Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

Claire Ouedraogo:

So we had to figure out a way together means and money to transport her to, because this was not something simple, so that we could program the surgery there in the hospital. I got for this the help of the National Committee for the Fight Against Excision, which is a national committee created by the government to fight against the excision. Thanks to this, after we were able together the money necessary to send her to Ouagadougou. We were able to have her undergo the surgery.

Claire Ouedraogo:

Young woman was cured. The surgery was successful, and so she was able to go home. After that, she was able to get married again, and she had one boy and one girl and started a new life. So this is the first example of a community who, through education and proof of the terrible conditions in which women submitted to these practices are left, that the whole community basically embraced these efforts to condemn genital mutilations in women and girls. This very same girl who was repaired, as we say, spoke publicly and spoke in my organization and in the local community to say no, because she wanted to protect her little sisters and prevent this from happening to them also.

Claire Ouedraogo:

So this is the first successful action that I was able to take, and then from then on, I started running to resolve new situations as much as I could, but it was extremely hard because I didn't have any money. I didn't have any help, and to perform such surgeries, you need to purchase a surgery kit that you bring to the hospital so that the surgery can take place. For that, you need money to buy these kits. It was what I was trying to figure out how to deal with all of these logistics, as well as figure out how we can pay for transportation for these girls from my home city, which is in a rural area in [inaudible 00:19:27], to take them to the capital city where the hospitals are, those at least who can perform these surgeries, that I met an Austrian couple that changed everything. I would like to say hello to them, because I remember, and they are called Petra and Gunther [inaudible 00:19:49].

Claire Ouedraogo:

And so I told them about my story. I told them about the situation. I told them about what I was trying to do, and they said, "Don't give up." They said, "Don't abandon any of these girls. We will help you. Just bring them to us. Tell us, and we will figure it out." And so this couple from then on has been paying all of the costs of the girls that we help get the reparation surgeries, and the word reparation is important so that they can be taken care of from the beginning where they have to be transported to the capital city, through the whole hospitalization phase, the surgery, the post-surgeries and the rehabilitation. And so all of the work done through my association can happen thanks to this couple.

Claire Ouedraogo:

I did feel threatened, and I actually was threatened, but it is all in the past. Now things have evolved, but 10 or 15 years ago, things were different. Actually, one day my father came to talk to me and he said, "I am sorry to tell you that, but you must stop. Many, many people came to see me because of what you do and because they are angry because of what you do, because they disagree with what you do, and what you do is very dangerous for your life, because you are upsetting traditional leaders who are powerful people." And yes, this was very hurtful for me, because it was my dad who was saying this to me. I said, "But dad, I am not doing anything wrong. I just want to help people, and I want to teach people, and I want to make people understand that what I'm trying to do is to help people and stop this useless suffering."

Claire Ouedraogo:

And so basically I targeted three villages that were very difficult access because their leaders and their village chiefs were extremely opposed to anything related to putting an unto excision. So to try and get to them, I chose to look and research the most difficult cases, the most tragic cases of excision in these villages, choosing the case of girls who had died in those villages because of excision, of girls who had been severely impacted by excision. I found some, and I used them to show these village chiefs the dire consequences of excision to make them understand why it had to stop, and they actually understood that the reason why I was doing what I was doing was because I wanted to do good and I wanted to help people. So after that, I used those who were convinced to become a vehicle to convince others.

Claire Ouedraogo:

As of today, the situation has become difficult and more complicated because of the security situation that exists currently in Burkina Faso, and particularly in the center north region, where actually our work has been somewhat halted, and we are actually somehow losing ground in villages and communities because of the threat of terrorism. And so six months ago, actually the local administration officials in the region have actually made the decision to ban the use of large motorcycles because of the terrorism threat. And so we were actually making headway before that because we were advancing in the process, and we were actually hoping to win this battle, but now with the new threat, things have become different.

Chris Wurst:

But she won't stop fighting.

Claire Ouedraogo:

Absolutely not. We will not stop. It's a question of life and death.

Claire Ouedraogo:

I think, first of all, I feel pride. I feel that somewhat I have accomplished, in part at least, my mission, but I have a great sense of responsibility, and I believe it is my duty to actually give back to my community, because I was able to go to school when I was a child, I feel that it is my responsibility to give back to my community. This is the feeling that gives me the energy and the will and the strength to continue this fight.

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, Claire Ouedraogo shared her emotional story, fighting the scourge of female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso. Prior to our interview, Claire received a Prestigious International Women of Courage Award presented by the First Lady and Secretary of State. Before embarking on a special International Visitor Leadership Program or IVLP in Detroit. For more about IVLP and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 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.

Chris Wurst:

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. Special thanks to Claire for her stories and inspirational work in Burkina Faso. Special thanks too to Isabel Parfait, who provided the translation and whose voice you hear on this episode. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was "Gather Stasis, "A Calendar Spread," "Olivia Wraith," and [inaudible 00:28:15], all by Blue Dot Sessions, and "Little Shadows" by Lobo Loco music. 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.

Claire Ouedraogo:

I thank you for all of the joy that I've been feeling and all of the grace I have been surrounded with, and I thank you for the courage you give me to be more courageous.

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Season 02, Episode 44 - By the Grace of School Children - Lauren Garza

LISTEN HERE - Episode 44

DESCRIPTION

Moving from the United States to South Korea means leaving what you know and surrounding yourself with things that are unknown and mysterious. In this week's episode, we hear from Lauren Garza about how her international exchange experience through the Fulbright program. Join us on a journey from Omaha, Nebraska to Chicago, Illinois to Gumi, South Korea on this episode of 22.33, the podcast of exchange stories.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

Chicago, Illinois and Gumi, South Korea are both more or less in the centers of their countries. And while I'm sure that there are more comparisons between the two, there aren't any that I can think of right now. So moving from the American Midwest to Asia means leaving that which you know and understand and finding yourself surrounded by things that are unknown and mysterious. One of the first casualties is your ability to rely on your gut. You want to act in a culturally appropriate way, but you must learn how from scratch. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Lauren Garza:

I don't eat fish, which is problematic when you live in Korea because they eat a lot of fish, surrounded by the ocean. In retrospect, maybe I wish I would have just said I was allergic. It would have been an easier pass, but I didn't, and so I just had to explain over and over again, no, I don't eat fish. I did end up eating some fish because every day at school, there was the cafeteria. So I was at the mercy of whatever they were serving in the cafeteria. It was fish, but it was intense fish. It was the whole fish with the eyes and everything, and so there were days where I just ate rice and kimchi for lunch too.

Chris Wurst:

This week, guessing people's ages, finding the tea fields by the grace of schoolchildren and founding a nonprofit to help orphans. Join us on a journey from Omaha, Nebraska to Chicago to Gumi, South Korea and learning to trust one's gut again. It's 22.33.

Intro Audio Clips:

(Music) 

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

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 much like ourselves and it is ...

(Music)

Lauren Garza:

So my name is Lauren Garza. I am from Omaha, Nebraska. That's where I was born, but I was raised in Chicago-land. I'm a foreign service officer, currently managing outreach in ECA's office of alumni affairs. I participated in the Fulbright program. I was an English teaching assistant Gumi South Korea in 2005. I was there for about a year.

Lauren Garza:

I just dove in. I knew there would be big differences between Korean culture and American culture, but I didn't exactly know what those would be or how I would handle them. So I think in the end, the experience was a really interesting one because I found that I couldn't trust my gut all of the time, so things would happen and I didn't know the culturally appropriate way to respond. I would know that I needed to do something, but I wasn't quite sure what that would be.

Lauren Garza:

So for example, I remember we were all sitting around a table with all of the teachers that I taught with and my principal asked me to go around the table and guess how old everybody was in the room. And that was a really terrifying experience. Do I peg them as young? Is that insulting? I didn't want to peg them as older. So, how do you handle something like that? And I think I did in the end peg them as younger, which was probably the best answer, but I had so many of those moments where you just squirm a little bit because you're like, "What do I do? What do I say?"

Lauren Garza:

When I first got there, I remember seeing these huge tall buildings and my first thought was is that public housing? What are these huge buildings where there are so many people that live there? And then it dawned on me of no, that's just, the population density is super high here. And so I think it was things like that over time that you just build your knowledge as you go. We had six weeks of orientation. It was language training, cultural training. You learned how deeply you should bow, all that stuff before you're let loose into your community.

Lauren Garza:

I was confronted with a class. The classes are big by American standards. So I would have maybe 40 13-year-old boys in a class. I was like, "Oh my gosh, what am I going to do with these boys?" And it was a lot of classroom management. I remember calling my sister on my first day, who's a teacher. I said, "How am I going to do this?" And she gave me some strategies. Then by the end I just had this really great relationship with my students. They're really, really great kids. And they threw me a party and ...

Lauren Garza:

Some of the crazier things were just all the places that I went. I still look back and I'm like, "How did I get there with so little Korean?" We went to these tea fields that we took a train and then we took a bus and then we took, I don't even know, but it was really by the grace of schoolchildren that, using very, very basic English that we were able to get to where we were able to go. But yeah, I really saw all parts of Korea and I was able to read Korean. I regret not learning to speak better Korean while I was there, but the ability to read got me on buses and trains and things like that. But what an empowering experience to be able to get all over a country and really get to know people. You just have to have the adventurous spirit to do it I guess.

Lauren Garza:

My host mom, not quite a mom, not quite a sister, somewhere in between, kind of a cousin slash aunt, but she really took me under her wing and made sure that I was doing well and looked out for me and wanted to give me a good experience. And we became really close. She told me all about her life, and I think through that experience, I really realized that people are different, but people really are the same deep down. She would tell me about the challenges in her marriage. She would tell me about the challenges with her 16-year-old daughter. I think Korean moms and Korean kids fight just as much as American moms and American kids do. She'd tell me about how her mother-in-law annoyed her, all these things that happen in the United States too.

Lauren Garza:

One thing that was really important to me when I was on my exchange didn't take place in the classroom that I taught in. It was actually I volunteered at an orphanage that was in the city. We would go once a week usually and teach the kids. The kids were grouped into different houses within the orphanage. So there was a mom and then there were, I think it kind of depended, but 5 to 10 kids and they all lived in this apartment flat together. The mom was responsible for taking care of those kids. A four month old baby arrived. The other volunteers and I were just astounded and saddened of how could somebody drop off their baby? But then, we were there with the other caretakers and they just took this baby in and she was immediately taken into a home and part of the family and they were so attentive in watching out for her. Just seeing them come together to take care of this child that really became their own basically.

Lauren Garza:

I mean, I think these kids often stayed until they were 18 and they aged out of the system and went on and did something else. But how the women that were there really dedicated their lives to taking care of these kids that needed a home. It was just really, really heartwarming and we did what we could to try and provide some English to them. Also, we just started collecting money from people that we knew so we could buy the kids socks at Christmas or bring Santa or take them to the amusement park, just different little opportunities that they may not be able to have otherwise. And we collected so much that it became a tax liability, so we founded a nonprofit that still exists today. I'm not on the board anymore, but it's called [Coom 00:12:19] and it's been really exciting to see how that, those small efforts that we had developed and grew over time.

Lauren Garza:

I mean, one important thing for me was learning what it's like to be the minority in a country. I'd never lived in a place where I wasn't in the majority and there was just no way for me to blend. And I think as a Caucasian short red-haired American woman, I would get on the bus and the Koreans would, the kids would be pointing, and I mean that's normal. My kids do that all the time too. But I do remember that was really frustrating to me sometimes of like I'm just a person. I'm just a human. I'm not an alien. But it was a good experience for me to have that, to have that feeling and understand what that felt like, especially in terms of empathizing with other people and how I, as a foreign service officer now, how I work with other people that are visiting the United States or when I'm posted abroad to just being in that situation yourself is a totally different experience.

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:

In this episode, Lauren Garza told us about her experience as a Fulbright ETA, which stands for English Teaching Assistant. ETAs are sent around the world, helping foreign English language teachers in their classrooms. For more about the Fulbright ETA and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. You can also 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. And please, please think about subscribing to 22.33. You can find us wherever you get your podcasts. Special thanks this week to Lauren for sharing her experiences. I did the interview with her and edited this episode. Featured music during the segment was Pling Plong by Jarby McCoy and Cast Your Fate to the Wind by Vince Guaraldi. 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.

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Season 02, Episode 43 - Big Foot Meets Mary Poppins - Graeme Gross

LISTEN HERE - Episode 43

DESCRIPTION

This week, Bigfoot meets Mary Poppins, disco meets polka, and what happens when you turn the handle the wrong way? Join us on our journey from Waterford, Wisconsin, to Hamburg, Germany, and diving fearlessly into a new culture in this interview with an alumna of the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange program.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

A funny thing happened on the way to your first year of college in Wisconsin where you wanted to study the tech side of theater. Namely, you ended up backstage in a foreign land, learning how to train your spotlight on none other than Mary Poppins and possibly asking yourself, "How do I say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in German?"

Chris Wurst:Graeme Gross

You're listening to 2233, a podcast of exchange stories.

Graeme Gross:

As I began organizing my suitcases, getting ready to leave, felt this overwhelming surge of both excitement and confusion. Having no idea where I was going to be living, knowing that I would be with a host family, probably a host family that spoke primarily German, and knowing that I didn't speak any at this point. Be okay with things that you don't know beforehand and just being willing to throw yourself into unknown situations.

Chris Wurst:

This week, Bigfoot meets Mary Poppins. Stayin' Alive meets polka and what happens when you turn the handle the wrong way? Join us on our journey from Waterford, Wisconsin, to Hamburg, Germany, and diving fearlessly into a new culture. It's 2233.

Intro Musical Clip:

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

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 ...

That's what we call cultural exchange.

Graeme Gross:

My name is Graeme Gross. I live in Waterford, Wisconsin. I took part this last year in the Congress Bundestag vocational Youth Exchange and I was stationed in Hamburg, Germany.

Graeme Gross:

When I heard about the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange, I thought back to a time when I had visited Europe with my grandparents, when I was 11 years old. I had a travel bug and while I was very interested in going to college for the next year, I had been hearing these wonderful stories of people who have taken gap years. And I thought, "This is me. This is me written all over it." So, I applied for the program.

Graeme Gross:

I had planned originally to begin my year of university, my four years of university, in a college technical theater at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. I wanted to increase safety in the theater. I had been really involved in lighting in the theater and audio and I began to notice that some of the practices that we were using weren't safe. And so I put together a resume, both in English and in German, and I got a bid back from Walt Disney, from the Mary Poppins Theater in Hamburg. And so that was the beginning of my first steps toward Germany.

 

Graeme Gross:

The first day that I got to Germany, it was about 2:00 PM. I had just gotten to my house, the family that I was staying with way outside the city. I was greeted by the mother of the family and she showed me around the house and showed me my bed and I promptly fell asleep and I continued to sleep for about 14 hours.

Graeme Gross:

I was woken up the next day by my host father who came downstairs and said, "Hello, Mr. President. We would like to greet you with your favorite meal of burgers, please come upstairs." And it was at that moment that I immediately felt at home in this very strange place that I really hadn't seen much of looking out the bus at 8:00 AM when we had gotten there.

Graeme Gross:

You're absolutely certain to be confronted if something is out of the ordinary. I can remember one very strong example where I had a winter jacket and this particular winter jacket was a gift from my first host family. It was a winter jacket that they had received from their uncle and it was a too big for anyone in the family and they kind of gave it to me as a present because I didn't bring one with me to Germany. My luggage would have been too heavy.

Graeme Gross:

So, I was wearing it around, this three XL jacket, I looked like a giant marshmallow. But my host family in Hamburg of course had a very different perception of this jacket. It wasn't okay. They said, "You have to go out and buy a different jacket. You can't wear that." I said, "Well, it works. You know, I can stuff as many sweaters and things up here."

Graeme Gross:

And they said, "Well, you look silly. You look like a marshmallow man." And I'm like, "That's kind of my thing." And they didn't really take too kindly to that, I'll be honest. And they let me know that. Things like that, Germans are very direct and upfront about. And I started not only becoming more okay with that, but noticing it myself. I remember having a phone call with my parents around Christmas time and my brother was wearing a sweater that had a hole in it and I told him he should take it off and go put on a different one and they all started laughing at me.

Graeme Gross:

And it was at that point, I'm like, "I don't need to tell other people what they should do or what they should be like." I'm like, "I notice those things, but I've got to stop being the police man. And I've got to just focus on being between these two different worlds." Who am I in between these two cultures that I can participate in these conversations? And I can say like, "Yeah, if we're going to a nice family dinner, I'll change my shirt." I understand that that's something that's bothering you. But I don't need to be that superhero that's saving the world for everybody wearing a shirt with a hole in it.

Graeme Gross:

One moment that I can be especially proud of was actually not too long into my exchange. It had been about a month. I was feeling a little down, I'll be honest. The initial curve of the excitement of being in Germany, the rush of getting to learn German and seeing all of these different cities had settled down because I was into this daily routine of school and sports and eating and sleeping and just managing the aspects of life and I didn't know enough German at that point to go up to my German friends at school and say, "Hey, invite me to your parties. Take me to the really cool parts of town and show me around."

Graeme Gross:

And it was about a month in when I got a text from one of my friends on the program, Justin. And he told me that his host family was taking a short weekend vacation to come to Hamburg to visit and so he said he wanted to meet up with me. Of course, I was ecstatic. I said, "Yeah, absolutely. We're going to meet up, but I'm going to talk to you in German."

 

Graeme Gross:

Then he didn't write me back for a while and I got worried. I'm like, "Oh no, has he changed his plans?" But Justin was a really good sport about it. And he's like, "Okay, [German 00:08:02]."

Graeme Gross:

So, we met on the [inaudible 00:08:05] in Hamburg, probably one of the most memorable places. If you've seen pictures. I hadn't had a point before that where I wasn't tripping over my grammar. We were both amazed by how well that we could talk to each other. And so we did it the whole night walking around the city and just goofing around on playgrounds and hanging out by the Harbor and when we met with Justin's host family, we all went out to dinner.

Graeme Gross:

I talked to them and began to explain my experiences. And they said, "Oh, we can understand you really well. You've come a long way." And at that point, I was really proud and I went, "You know? I can do this." And I held onto that moment. I had a picture of the two of us when we met each other then in the harbor. And I kind of put that up above my computer on my desk as a day in Germany that I was like, "This was the turning point when I began to realize that I could do it again."

Graeme Gross:

I think one of the things that I learned about myself as an American living outside of America, one of the most important things to Germans is talking about politics. That's always brought up at the dinner table, something that you really can't avoid. You shrink into the corner of the tablecloth and everyone's talking about U.S. politics. They've got relevant things up on the TV, the German media is all over it and it was at that point that I began being more comfortable talking about politics, especially in social media at home.

Graeme Gross:

I was very intimidated by a lot of the people that very actively express their political opinion and it was an adjustment for me to come to Germany and to see so many people, not only very vividly expressing their political opinions, but then also listening to other people and saying, "I understand why you feel this way." Or, "I will listen to you because I know that it's important to honor your opinion."

Graeme Gross:

And I think sometimes in America, we forget that. I really treasure that as one of the most important things that I learned this year, because I've learned how to discuss politics in a more humane manner and to not have it be so taboo as it once was in the United States. While it's still probably not the best thing to bring up at Thanksgiving dinner, it's certainly something now that I think if I had a debate in the university or a talk with my grandmother, something like this, I could handle a little bit.

Graeme Gross:

I think one of the biggest things for me, one of the biggest changes in my life, absolutely was the idea of being a more mobile person. In Germany, I really learned how to seek out things for myself. When I was living in Lubeck, I'd been playing the trumpet for about nine years. I knew that I wanted to continue playing trumpet in Germany. So, I sought out if I could be part of a local community band, something like this. There weren't a whole lot of options, but the group that I ended up settling on was a firefighters band for the local group in Lubeck.

Graeme Gross:

A lot of older men and women, and all very, very difficult accents to understand, but I really developed some hard friendships with those people and we bonded over music. We just understood we were there, to play Stayin' Alive together and to rock out on amazing trumpet solos and to get those looks back at you when you really did hit those notes. I think we understood each other better in that moment than anything that I could have said with words.

Graeme Gross:

That's something that I want to continue doing in my life, seeking out those opportunities and not being afraid to go walk into a dance class and go, "Hi, my name is Graeme, and I've never danced in my life before, but I want to right now."

Graeme Gross:

Pretty much any poker or waltz. Those aren't necessarily things that are so German or so from that area. But they're things that we played as jokes when the band director was getting a little frustrated with us because things weren't going so well like she wanted them to. Somebody would start a polka and it would just kind of go around the room and one of the saxophones would start and then a tuba. And so we'd just get this beat going and she'd just put her head down for five minutes and go, "Oh my God, you guys. Really? We're going to do this right now?" And just kind of give up.

Graeme Gross:

As I got to know the people around me a little bit better and to know their stories, I became really close friends with, I guess, the leader of the trumpet section, Claudius. As we talked a little bit more about my story and he told me just to make sure that music is always part of my life. And he said, "Having experiences like this, where you seek out other people who don't necessarily share the same culture, the same history, the same ideas, but we all come together because we're under one roof and that roof is that we all play music." And so it's finding those places where people meet, where you can learn about other cultures, about other histories, other stories. But you're doing it because you're already doing something that you love.

Graeme Gross:

So, I began working for Disney's production of Mary Poppins in Hamburg. It was a trilingual environment. I found myself often being able to learn the really complex compound words that German is famous for. The official name of my job actually would be a [German language 00:15:25] or a [German language 00:15:29], which basically just means light technician or show technician. So just having this experience, something greater than myself, and being able to live out that dream was amazing.

Graeme Gross:

I was introduced on my first day to the stage manager who took me around the entire building, started at the very, very top of the loft where all the curtains are hung. I got a complete rundown on everything in the theater. At that point, he said, "Okay, we'd like to take you down onto the stage now. We need to get you some security shoes. Some steel toe shoes. What size is your foot?"

Graeme Gross:

And in American sizes, my feet are about 14. In German that translates to about 46, 47. When my boss heard that he kind of freaked out. He's like, "My goodness, you have big feet." And it was at that point that I, Graeme Gross, became known as [German language 00:16:50] So, Big Feet Graeme, which became my nickname and everybody used. They all thought was of course, really funny. Me too, honestly.

Graeme Gross:

We had to go over to the other theater immediately next door because I needed a pair of security shoes and so we walked over there and he introduced me to the director of The Lion King. The first trip that I had ever been to Europe in the first place, I had visited Italy with my grandparents for two weeks and we took a side trip after that to London and the show I saw in London was The Lion King.

Graeme Gross:

I absolutely 100% accredit that experience to wanting to study in Germany and to wanting to be on Broadway theater, to pursue music, to pursue theater, to keep art in my life, and to be able to see the behind the scenes of this show, the director was actually so kind as to give me tickets to come over and see the show, being able to understand almost 90% of the show in German just gave me this incredible feeling of empowerment that I could do anything I wanted to now.

Graeme Gross:

After I had that experience, it really became just a playground for me. I was doing everything from building special three phase power cables. That was in essence, the first part of my job. As soon as I became more familiar with the show, I had seen it a couple of times, sat in the audience, knew every move from the opening of the curtains to when Mary Poppins flies out on a gantry at the end. At that point, I then worked up the courage to ask if I could become a spotlight operator. And my boss kind of looked at me and he smiled and he said, "I know you've been looking up there and I could tell when we were up there, you sat up there and played around for a bit. I think we could do that. We could do that for you."

Graeme Gross:

And so I began training. I was learning in English and in German because there were just some things that were very crucial for me to understand at the last possible minute. But during the show, all of my directions were being given to me in German. So, I was receiving cues. I had a cue list in front of me that was written, I guess, I'd call it Denglish, Deutsche and English, German, English. And as I got the routine down, I became comfortable with being the spotlight number two.

 

Graeme Gross:

I became then a more indispensable employee because I could move from one to the other. If somebody was sick, I could take that on. For the last month, they let me operate the lighting board. So I was pushing the cues that created the lighting looks on stage that allowed the show to move forward. I was taking in information literally in fractions of seconds, being able to react and hit the button and knowing that if I wasn't giving 110% of my concentration, the singers were literally going to stand on stage and not move until I pushed that button no matter what music was played, no matter what cues were given, and I really put my head down and I gave it my all. My German just skyrocketed through the roof because at that point I knew I was taking in so much information, I could handle anything.

Graeme Gross:

One of the most interesting things about working on Broadway is absolutely special effects. I am a person who just absolutely loses it over special effects. And one of my favorite things about Mary Poppins is a particular scene when she enters the kitchen and she gives the children there a spoonful of sugar. She's talking about the medicine. The children of course make a mess of the kitchen and when they're banging around with pots and pans, they force Roberts and I into this corner, he backs into the kitchen sink, breaks a valve, and CO2 gas comes flying out everywhere across the stage.

Graeme Gross:

And I learned then how all of this was prepared, how all of the pyrotechnics were arranged. I was allowed to help with the filling of the CO2 canisters. So we prepared everything on Monday night, everything was arranged and they showed me how to safely attach the canisters, how to fill everything up. We had to wear gloves, of course, because it was below freezing. Well below freezing.

Graeme Gross:

We then brought the cans down into the basement. Of course, secured everything. One particular note about the tension I didn't understand completely. And I had asked a couple of times, I wanted to make sure, "How many turns do I turn the nozzle?" I was told three and a half. I of course thought it was in the left direction. But it was supposed to be in the right direction. So I of course opened it up way too much. And by the time we got to the performance, of course I was working, I was sitting up on a spotlight. So I was looking at all of this from upstairs and it's my favorite scene. So I always watch it really closely.

Graeme Gross:

And Roberts and I backed up into the sink and he put his elbow out to knock down the sink valve like he always does. And there just came out this huge fart of cold air, just like, "Blop." I had to stop myself from laughing myself, literally falling off the balcony because I knew immediately what had happened. And everybody in the audience of course thought it was hilarious, but they always laugh because it's a funny scene. So, it really wasn't that big of an issue.

Graeme Gross:

But my boss did come up to me after the show. And he said, "What on earth happened with that?" I'm like, "I honestly think I turned it in the wrong direction." And he's like, "Yeah, that would do that."

Graeme Gross:

I have had a lot of positive experiences during my year in Germany. I was surprised on the very last day of my show with a cake. And they all came down into the workshop. They actually called me over the speaker to pick up a phone. And so I picked up the phone, the technical director of the theater took on a rough tone and he's like, "You need to come down to the warehouse immediately." And I'm like, "Oh crap. What did I do?" My legs were shaking and I was like, "I don't know what's going on here." But they turned on the lights and surprised me and we talked and we ate.

Graeme Gross:

If I was to lock myself in a room and turn the lights off and try to sit down and imagine what being in Hamburg is like, it's strange because I came from a very small town in Wisconsin. I'm used to having cows roaming around me all the time and taking 10, 20 minute drives to visit friends and to go to places. And in Hamburg, everything felt so much more close. It felt around me. It felt like a being wrapped in this envelope of exciting whizzing adventure.

Graeme Gross:

The Hamburgerdom is a big festival that goes on three times a year. They bring in entertainment from all over Europe. They have different roller coaster rides, things like this, food vendors. I think going there with my colleagues who was probably one of the most highlighting experiences for me. Just being able to experience that city festival life.

Graeme Gross:

Many of my mornings, I would get to work very early because I had a long commute and I would just sit on the harbor every morning, I would watch the huge freight liners go by. I would eat my pretzel and sip my tea and just sit out on the Harbor. Sometime I'd have a seagull come land by me and come like poke around in my coffee, like, "Oh, that's interesting. What are you doing there?"

Graeme Gross:

Just always having that little peak of interesting that pops into your life when you're not expecting it. Those are the things I think I'll miss most about Hamburg and the mobility and just being able to see my friends whenever I wanted. Being able to roam around. Just being able to explore in my free time. Walk around new place, see what the people are like, where they live. It's something that I definitely didn't take granted for, and I never will.

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 U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst:

This week, Graeme Gross talked about his time in Germany as a participant in the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange, or CBYX, program. For more about CBYX and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 2233, leave us a nice review while you're at it. It would be so kind. 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:

Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our web page at eca.state.gov/2233. Special thanks to Graeme for his stories and music. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was "Sneak" by AA Alto, "Anniversary Song" by Blanket Music, "Home Based Groove" by Kevin McCloud, and "The Envelope" and "Waterborne," both by Blue Dot Sessions. You also get to hear some actual music being laid down by Graeme's adopted firefighter band, officially called, stick with me here people, I don't speak German, [German language 00:28:19]. Got a ring to it. 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 ti

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Season 02, Episode 42 - Showing Your Metal - John Register

LISTEN HERE - Episode 42

DESCRIPTION

Lives Without Limits! John Register, a Sports Diplomacy program partner, and two-time Paralympic athlete from the United States tells us what living without limits means to him. #WithoutLimits

And in recognition of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, ECA has launched the Lives Without Limits campaign to promote the importance of inclusion within international exchanges. Join ECA, our alumni, and our partners in the exchange community in celebrating the spirit of human potential.

View John's video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv7pgclyiTE

TRANSCRIPT

John Register:

A lot of times, the United States, we say, "That person is confined to their wheelchair." Well, are they confined? Are they really strapped down, tied down, and held in place into the wheelchair? No, because the wheelchair is a liberator. With the wheels, the person can roll. They can have access to more opportunities.

Chris Wurst:

You were a world-class athlete, competing in the Olympic trials when a tragic fall left you with an amputated leg, and life as you knew it changed forever. But you persevered, becoming a silver medalist in the Paralympic Games, creating the Warrior Games, and helping others all over the world find their redefining moments, in order to move society forward. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

John Register:

My name is John Register. I live in Colorado Springs, Colorado. So, one of the programs that I've been with is the Sports Envoy Program, the Speakers Program, and the Global Sport Mentoring Program. Countries visited: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the United Arab Emirate.

Chris Wurst:

This week in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act: the inclusive power of sports. Shifting attitudes and structural barriers, changing the narrative beyond accessibility to full participation, and a reminder that plov is all you need. Join us on a journey from Colorado Springs to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the United Arab Emirates. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Intro Clip: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am.

Intro Clip: (Music) 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-

Intro Clip: (Music) That's what we call cultural exchange.

John Register:

I'm a professional speaker, and getting to that point in my life was a long transition. I was a world-class athlete and ran track and field for the University of Arkansas, go Hogs, and from there I joined the United States Army. And during that time, I started traveling a little bit more internationally. I was stationed in Germany, I went to the Gulf War, and saw a lot more of the world, and I'd traveled abroad before, but I was seeing it with adult eyes. And when I came back to train for my third Olympic trials, I mis-stepped a hurdle, went across a hurdle, dislocated my knee, severed the artery behind the kneecap, and seven days, later became an amputee.

John Register:

So I went through the entire Gulf War without a scratch and I come back, and now I'm an amputee from this freak hurdling accident. Who am I now? Is she going to stick around? Is my son still going to see me as his father? Do I still have a job in the army? All these things were really hitting me pretty hard. My wife sees me struggling, she says, "You know what, John? We're going to get through this together. This is just our new normal."

John Register:

From there, I baseline, I began to retool the life, and really start looking at how I could get my life back, if there was such a thing, and then move on to embracing this new normal concept that she was talking about. So that's when I went in for physical therapy, and wound up 22 months later actually making the Paralympic swim team. I didn't know there was a Paralympic Games out there. Four years later, after having a leg made for running, and after seeing a person at the 1996 Paralympic Games running on an artificial leg, I had a leg made for running, and four years later won the silver medal in the long jump in Sydney, Australia, and captured that silver medal, but also fifth in the 100 meters and 200 meter dashes.

John Register:

Disability, it covers the spread that you can be a part of this group at any given time. The Paralympic Games, what I discovered is a lot more tangible than the Olympic Games. So I wanted to be an Olympic class athlete all my life. When I look at the Olympic athlete, phenomenal athletes, reaching the highest level of the world competition, but the stories when compared to Paralympic stories, don't connect as much when we're talking impact for a community. Because when I was at the Paralympic games, say in Sydney, Australia, people saw my artificial leg and they said, "You know, hey, my mom has an artificial leg. How do you walk? Or how do you do this?" And so the questions are deeper than just, "Well, how did you win that gold medal?" Or, "How did win the silver medal?" Right?

John Register:

It goes beyond the athleticism and it's an easier ask. How do you manipulate the wheelchair? How come you're using those types of wheels to these other wheels? How are you getting around? What can we do for our system to help blind individuals like yourself to navigate our city? So those questions are... They help society move forward than just, "Oh, this athlete won 23 gold medals." It's a deeper, richer conversation and moves society forward. And that's why I like bridging the gap between Olympism and Paralympism, as well as bridging the gap between sports, music, and food. It's amazing to me to see those connection points for us to move our society forward.

John Register:

I was hired by the United States Olympic committee to build out a program for wounded ill and injured service members. And that program really just took off like gangbusters. And because of that, it morphed into Warrior Games that the department of defense now runs, but the United States Olympic committee ran it for five years. And then I went to Lufburrow University in England and told them how to build a military sport program. Prince Harry took it up, came out to see our Warrior Games, and from there start his own Invictus games. So that's where that came from all from this one little nugget of these programs that I started way back in 1994 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. When you throw a ball out, anywhere in the world, people come running, it doesn't matter what social economic background you have. Doesn't matter how much money you have. It doesn't matter what color, race, creed. You throw a ball out there and people just start playing with the ball. And I think that connects us, play connects us.

John Register:

I knew nothing about Uzbekistan before going. When anybody asks me, "What's your favorite country?" I say the next one. And it was closed to Westerners at that time, so we were very fortunate to get into the country, but once in it opens up to this amazing experience, right? So everything shuts down at 11 o'clock, but there's a wedding going on in our hotel and what's playing up top floor, Jay Z and Beyonce." So it's like, "Oh my gosh." It's kind of crazy that you see these countries that are so influenced by Western thought or Western culture, and then you're trying at the same time to just embrace this amazing culture and customs. So yeah, for me, it was, it was a great experience to see that.

John Register:

There are 12 regions. Every region has the best plov. Plov is a dish. It's a very earthy, meaty dish, rice and oils and meat, like horse meat. In any region that you go to, everybody will ask you who has the best plov. I'm like, "Oh my gosh, that's a loaded question" cause they all want to have the best plov and bread. I was listening to a song, it had come on the radio with one of our drivers, and it's the Beatles. And the Beatles are singing, "All I need is love."

John Register:

I'm going to the radio station to do an interview and the woman asks me a question and I answer and I say, "But I know you have a new theme song and a new national anthem for Uzbekistan." And she's looking at me like, "Oh my gosh, we're on live radio. What is this dude about to say?" And so I took the song and I said, you know, every region has the best plov. I'm getting all this plov. And so the song that's been coming into my mind that you all are saying now is, "All I eat is plov. All I eat is plov. All I eat is plov, yeah. Plov is all I eat." And I get back to the car and our driver who's beki, he is just cracking up. So I was so glad that worked. Could be out of the country real quick with them.

John Register:

I wanted my wife there with me to experience all this that I was doing, so I brought her with me to the United Arab Emirates. It was another eyeopening experience for me, not just for her. We had a tea chat and we were talking about disabilities. And I was one of the panelists and as we were going through the program, I was telling my story and I was celebrating Alice because she's the one that really came to me and baselined me.

John Register:

So when I'm telling this, mostly in the afternoon were women that were there and a lot of women are being in arranged marriages. So to see this American woman who authentically just was supporting her husband, the entire room shifted to her. And they wanted to hear from her about how she stayed with me during this really traumatic time, because their experience was, and the words they were sharing, was that when they had a child with a disability, the husband left. When they had something that happened in the marriage, the husband left.

John Register:

And so they were left to build their own community of these other women that would help take care of these children or themselves in this moment. And so they were a lock and step in tune, but she saw it from a different lens as well, in that her voice is important in this story journey. I've known it, but that's only from my lens, her story from being a woman in that standpoint of what she was taught by her mother and her value system really came out and grafted into those ladies. I think she really understood the gift that she has and how she can actually talk from a very authentic place about her experience of supporting somebody that the world may have just thrown away.

John Register:

What we're there for in the first place, to try to open up doors and open up thoughts around people with disabilities. And so Mary Kate being a wheelchair user, they showed us this amazing bus. They had an accessible bus. We're the only two people on the bus. And it's really great. It's the only one they have in Kazakhstan ordered by the president. And she's going to teach her master's class. And we get to the class, the swimming venue where she's going to teach, and there are no ramps to get her into the building. And you don't have to say a word. He just watched everybody try to figure this out. Here's your instructor, your masterclass instructor, who can't get into the building to instruct the class. And so that really understands and shows, it's just more than transportation, it's more than just the attitude.

John Register:

It's really putting these things in practice because there's some value that we're missing if we can't get people just into the door and you don't have to say a word about it, it's just there right in front of you, and we struggle with it. And we do that with so many things. And I think that is why these programs that we have that State has, are so critical for not only our country, but for us to learn around the world. And so now with that one experience that Mary Kay Callahan has they're looking at, "Okay, what else are we missing here?" And so now the infrastructure is being put in place because they're looking at it from the lens of trying to bring more people into that swimming area.

John Register:

I'll go back to the global sport mentoring program, which has about 25 to 30 individuals that come from other countries into the United States. One individual that I was a mentor for when I was working for the Olympic committee, came in from Kazakhstan. His name is Yulan Suminov. Yulan comes down, he's an above the knee amputee like myself, and we worked on his action plan of what he wanted to get done. I took Yulan to the amputee coalition meeting and Yulan with his pants and his trousers and his artificial leg, he never showed it. Wherever we were, wherever we went, sometimes hot days in Colorado, he never showed his leg. So we get there, there are 1100 amputees, all of whom, most of whom are showing their metal. We call it "showing your metal". And so no one's going with covers.

John Register:

It's all walk with what you have, write with what you have, prosthetics are all over the place. So it usually freaks a lot of people out of hotels because we have like 1100 people walking around and all the limbs are just like... They feel the odd ones out, so we flip it. When Yulan saw that, we went back to our hotel and he changes up for dinner that night and he comes down and he stripped off his cover off of his leg and he's wearing shorts. Big change moment for him, but it doesn't stop there. So he goes back to Kazakhstan with his action plan, and he begins walking around the Kazakhstan mall with his son wearing shorts in Kazakhstan, which is like unheard of, showing his metal and being confident in who he is, because he's got this confidence now from the United States and it doesn't stop there.

John Register:

So he goes on and he looks at what he's learned at America and he begins, he says, "I want to build a training facility that houses athletes and does a full smorgasbord of stuff. And they all are in one location." So he gets that done within two years and it doesn't stop there. So we get over there and he has the president of Kazakhstan cutting the ribbon to open this place up. It's crazy to see what people are doing. And they take one thought, one idea, and just keeps on going and opening up doors and opportunities. And now he's mentoring, he's helping others. He's helping... His country is elevated with inside of his own country because he's just a hard worker and he sees his vision and wants to get it done. But his ability to shift his mindset around who he shows up as was done here in the U.S. And I think that opened up his whole mind of what was possible for others in their country.

John Register:

I think the United States is a leader in inclusion with disabilities. I also think that there's still a lot that we can learn from other countries as well, because sometimes it takes a long time for us to implement a policy in the United States, even though it's the right thing to do, the attitudinal barriers stop us from actually getting it executed. And if you take where the disability movement starts with the civil rights movement, it takes a long time for those policies to actually interact and change a nation. For example, in the civil rights were African-Americans were trying to sit anywhere on the bus, people with disabilities were just trying to get on the bus. So we have these things that have come, and the attitudinal barriers that have stopped us and where that plays out mostly for us in the United States is in jobs. And so we have this population where the CDC says now that people disabilities are 25% in the United States, about 61 million people.

John Register:

And we look at this time period of jobs, just tick that one tick, right? And we haven't moved very much on how many people with disabilities are actually employed. And so we're at ADA 30 now, it's crazy. And there's still so much to do and to fight for, but a lot of progress has been made. We see curb cutouts and we see things where people with disabilities can get out and they can interact in society. But we also see that attitudinal barriers block and keep people either at home or programs won't allow them to get out and fully participate in society. And we lose so much of the intellect that they bring to the table. Our teams aren't diverse enough because of it.

John Register:

So that's become my major mission in life, not just with the disabilities, but also for all of us to release from what I call my fears, to our freedom, to leaving legacy for others. And it runs... This finite line runs through our redefining moments. So I now help people to release into those redefining moments and so that they are in a position to choose what it is in their life that they will amputate to embrace this new normal.

John Register:

I realized that disability is universal, and the two main focuses that we have in this country are universal across the board. It just matters where people are in that journey. And those two are structural or physical barriers to impedes people, or that the attitudinal barriers that keeps people locked away or allows folks to be in an inclusive society. And that people are on various parts of the spectrum with that. And so the universal message, the bridge I can cross, always seems to be being this world class athlete and being in two Olympic trials, and then winning a Paralympic silver medal. Because this is all around the world... It's the only population, the disability population, is the only population that's non-discriminatory. It can happen to anybody at any given time. And we don't think about it, we don't want to think about it, but a stroke happens all the time, or somebody is incapacitated from some type of a way.

John Register:

And the language that we use around it often can push people, hold people back, or can elevate people. So we have to use... Change our language in our narrative. And I really find in communities where language is a barrier with inside of itself, it's really good to understand, and I've learned about myself is to open up my language aperture. I make sure that as we're structuring the program, that we do have these opportunities to cover the spread as I call it, because we do need to talk to the high level officials that can actually make policy, make changes and get them to think differently, but at the same time, we want to give insight and inspiration to those youth who are coming up. So we visit a lot of communities that have children with disabilities or the parents of those individuals. But then we go to schools and we have... We play.

John Register:

I take the... Let them see the leg and I take the leg off, unscrew it and pass it around and they're trying to hold it up. And I said, "Be careful, it'll bite you back." And they're playing with it and shaking it and trying to figure it out. So they get this experience that it's okay to have these conversations. And we're talking about the young tykes from six years of age, five, six years old, all the way through middle school.

John Register:

We have different conversations with high school kids to talk about their dreams, their goals, their aspirations, and nothing should hold you back. What are the fears that you might have that are holding you back? So we talk about it from that context, as well as embracing other people's differences from that aspect. And then talking to the teachers to have these conversations and open up dialogue there as well, it's covering the entire gambit of it. I love doing it. We just try to make sure that we are showing up present in the moment with our authentic self, not with somebody else's story, but with our own story of being very real with who we are and sharing our truth with that.

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.

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Season 02, Episode 41 - Twenty Four Hours in an Irish Bog - Emily Toner

LISTEN HERE: Episode 41

DESCRIPTION

Oh, for peat's sake! Join us this week on a journey deep into the heart of Ireland's magical bogs, places of lore, and -as we learn from Fulbright National Geographic Storytelling Fellow Emily Toner- a very precious resources. For more information on Emily's work you can view her article in the New York Times here.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

Your fascination with soil, and in particular, peat, the best soil of all, led you to Ireland for a year studying peat bogs. Your efforts reinforced your love of the bogs and the importance of sustaining them. But it also reinforced for you the beauty of the Irish people. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Emily Toner:

Walking in a bog is a really interesting experience. Your foot sinks into the ground. You can't stand in one spot in a bog for too long because you sink, you'll step on and you think like, "Okay. My foot squished a little bit but I'm fine here." And you look down a minute later and you're up to your ankle. You just keep thinking.

Chris Wurst:

This week, the world's most exciting soil, the cutting and burning of turf, and pulling an all nighter in the middle of a bog. Join us on a journey from Iowa to Ireland and full immersion into the Irish bogs. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip: (music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and fall.

Intro Clip: (music) These exchanges shaped who I am.

Intro Clip: (music) 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: (music)

Emily Toner:

My name is Emily Toner. I'm originally from Iowa, that's where I grew up. I'm a soil geographer and a multimedia producer, along with writing. I am a Fulbright National Geographic digital storytelling fellow. And I spent the last year in Ireland looking at peat bogs. So when I was going to college in Iowa State University, I was on track to become a journalist. And I was in a natural resources class. A professor came in and gave this fascinating lecture about soil. And I had never really thought about soil before. We walk around on it all day, but you don't really think about it as something interesting. And he just piqued my curiosity.

Emily Toner:

I just started learning more and more about soil. And I switched my major to agronomy, which is a word I had never even heard of. And from there I went onto graduate school to geography and became very much engaged with how culture and soil are connected. Wherever you're living the soil has impacted your life, no questions asked. The type of food you can access, the look of the landscape, the color of things is all based in and around the soil in some way. But we also, as people, and our different cultures around the world are really impacting the soil as well. The state, I grew up in Iowa, a lot of our soil has been eroded over the last 50, 100 years.

Emily Toner:

In Ireland, there's a really interesting soil story that I wanted to look at and tell. Peat soil is the type of soil that drew me there. And from a soil science perspective, peat soil is crazy awesome. I don't think people look at many soils and they're like, "That is so cool. Look at that soil." But from a soil scientist perspective, there's a lot of ways that peat is an extreme soil. And it's just such an outlier.

Emily Toner:

Peat bogs in Ireland started forming 10,000 years ago when the last glacier retreated from the Island. The lake basins that would have been carved out by the glacier over time grew and filled in with plants. And peat soil is dead plants that have then decomposed. And in Ireland bogs and peat lands cover 20% of the country, so there's a really big soil cultural story there. That's a large proportion of land to be covered by peat soil and bogs, 20%, that's a fifth. A fifth of anything means that it's going to be really impactful on what life is like there. But of that 20%, almost all of it has been drained and degraded. So there's a big story there about the environmental impact that this culture is having on their soil.

Emily Toner:

From my perspective as a soil geographer bogs and their peat soil are very special. And a lot of people in Ireland also think bogs are very special places, very valuable places. But often we might disagree about why they're special and valuable. I saw really unique soil and I was concerned about the health of that soil and the fact that it was being degraded because it's a really valuable resource as well. I wanted to talk to people who were using bogs as a resource and understand their perspective and their connection to this landscape.

Emily Toner:

I think often in environmental issues, especially when you feel passionately about something, maybe that's climate change for you, or water quality, or just anything that when you look at it and you feel panicked about the state of the environment or a resource. Very rarely do we have the opportunity to then say, "I have the time, and the resources, and the emotional fortitude and patience to go and spend time with the people that I think are damaging this resource." The Fulbright National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship enabled me to go spend 10 months interacting with and understanding the perspective of people who were treating a resource pretty much the exact opposite as I would want to do.

Emily Toner:

One of the first things I wanted to do was meet people who actually, they're called turf cutters, and they go out and drain bogs extensively. And so it's a wetland, so as soon as you drain it, you've completely altered it as an ecosystem. They drain it so that they can cut out the soil and burn it. And that's a huge part of traditional Irish culture, and it's one that has been industrialized over time. The earliest documentation of that was something like seventh century AD. So it's a big part of the culture there. In Ireland it's actually one of the only indigenous fuel sources. They don't have coal, they have very few trees at this point. So if you're looking for a fuel, if you're living in a rural landscape and you need something to burn to heat your house or cook your food, peat soil and turf was one of the only things out there.

Emily Toner:

But as we know with fossil fuels and this energy transition we're going through, we're trying to get away from extracting and burning things onto renewable. And in the case of the bogs, extracting and burning the peat soil is really doing irreparable damage. That peat soil took thousands of to form and it's carbon that was stored there, and now it's being released. And once you damage a bog to a certain extent, it just won't be a bog anymore. Bogs are a formative part of Irish culture in geography. There's just so many ways they're embedded.

Emily Toner:

If you think of some of the rustic images of Ireland, some of them are like donkeys with baskets on their back walking down a dirt road. And those donkeys are usually carrying turf. Bogs have made it difficult to travel across Ireland and so a lot of the transportation has involved either circumventing bogs or finding a way to cut through a bog. Some of the oldest artifacts that you find deep in a bog are wooden roads that people tried to build to get across. And it's really cool because the wood is preserved because the bog preserves organic material. One man I met, his name is Kevin Barry, and I had sought him out actually not because he's a turf cutter but because he had discovered a 2000 year old body in the bog.

Emily Toner:

And that's a whole other story. Bogs are incredible time capsules with these artifacts from our past that get preserved because of the low oxygen conditions. So if you don't know about bog bodies, you got to look it up, they're fascinating. So I heard about this man because he had accidentally scooped one of these bodies out of the bog. And the reason he was in that position is because his whole livelihood is tied up in driving machinery on the bogs. He's worked for different companies, he harvests his own peat every year to heat his home. So I went out to the bog with him. He taught me a lot about the process of turf extraction. But as we were chatting, he ended up talking to me for a long time about how worried he was about his community.

Emily Toner:

He told me that there used to be a lot more pubs, there were only two left. There used to be two shops, now there was only one. In every house, his estimate was that two or three of the jobs in that household had been related to bogs, extracting the turf, footing the turf, driving the machines, making products from the peat that's harvested. In this past year that I was in Ireland, there were a lot of headlines about jobs in the bog going away because Ireland has now stopped subsidizing peat extraction. And that's because they want to subsidize instead renewable energy sources.

Emily Toner:

So Kevin Barry was really worried that the next generation in his town would have no jobs because they were losing one of their main forms of industry in his town. From my perspective, the end of peat extraction is a great thing. From his perspective, his town was crumbling. I think people in Ireland do not see bogs or peat soil as a scarce resource. So even if you know every scoop of soil I take and burn is a scoop that will never come back, in your head, there are a million scoops left. So he saw it as a resource there to be used and one that could fuel the local economy.

Emily Toner:

Traditional Irish attitudes towards bogs are that they are backwards, useless places. If you're from an area around a bog, that is something to be embarrassed about. They've been seen as something that is not desirable. Just like the word swamp is used in a very negative connotation, how many times have you heard in the political context, "Drain the swamp?" Same thing, drain the bog. But if you want the peat soil to stay there, the wetland ecosystem, draining the bog is the worst thing.

Emily Toner:

Let's say you have a beautiful, pristine, healthy peat bog. And you begin to cut it, drain it, and otherwise degrade it. What is going to happen in that landscape? One thing that will happen is that the carbon that is held, there are huge amounts of carbon becoming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In Ireland, drained bogs are releasing as much carbon dioxide as the transportation sector. The water quality will be impacted. When bogs are degraded the water runs through them faster and it's not filtered. And a lot of things are coming out with it because it's just eroding.

 

Emily Toner:

Burning peat is also a polluting thing to do to your community. And air quality suffers. There is research that came out of the National University in Galway showing that burning peat raises particulate levels in the air above world health organization standards, which can result in all sorts of human health issues. So yeah, there's a lot of following effects, that's not even to speak of the wildlife. That's all human focused. Birds are one of the groups of organisms that kind of suffer the most when these bogs go away because there are certain birds that need to breed in the bog. And so as you shrink the bog habitat, they have less and less breeding ground. And there's, yeah, no faster way to get rid of a bird population than take away their breeding ground.

Emily Toner:

When the industrialized peat harvest happens, it wipes out of bog in a matter of decades. Whereas turf cutting at the individual level has been happening for centuries and feasibly could continue on for a while longer, much longer than industrial cutting. But ultimately that turf cutting, even at the individual scale will wipe out a bog. A bog will add only a millimeter of new growth and new peat soil every year. So it takes a thousand years for a meter to form. In one season you cut several meters deep into the bug, so you're taking the resource far faster than it will regenerate. And the other thing is the ecologist I spoke to who are doing some restoration work, they're very aware that the climate we're in now is very different than the climate that those bogs formed under. And you can re-wet these places, but there's really no guarantee that they will continue to be bogs or could regenerate as a bog after they're damaged.

Emily Toner:

Somebody I met and spent some time with because he really surprised me, he's a bog ranger, he works for the National Park Service in Ireland. Here are a couple of things I knew about him. I knew that his first job with national parks was to hand dig dams to re-block drains on bogs. So he spent four to five years digging by hand into the peat soil and blocking miles and miles of drains that had been dug on one bog in particular, it's the largest bog of its kind in Western Europe. So I was like, "Wow, here's a guy who is dedicated to restoring the bogs." And after that, that was from 1995 to 1999, he was doing that. From 99 up until today he was promoted to ranger in that area. So he actually covers multiple places, but he is ranger of this bog now. That bog needed to be restored because it had been cut over the years.

Emily Toner:

And his job as ranger became enforcing the new laws that told people to stop cutting. And he lives in the town nearby. So he has to say to his neighbors, "You know that longstanding tradition that you see as your right? Sorry, you can't do that anymore." So not only has he done hard labor for years to restore this bog, he's put himself on the front lines of conservation basically, and jeopardized his personal life in a way because people in this town did not take kindly to that information. And I was chatting with him and I just, I almost thought I could've used him as a character in a story to show the level of dedication and to tell someone's story who really had to face the complexity of what it means to preserve these bogs. And in the course of our conversation I learned that he also burns turf to heat his home.

Emily Toner:

And it just floored me. I couldn't believe you would spend that much effort, and all of that time, and put yourself even at risk, and yet you still cut the bogs. And so what I learned from him, and I asked him why, what I learned when he answered, "Why would you do these two things that to me seems so dissonant?" And he said, "Oh, I love a turf fire." And also he said that he did not see the bog where he cut turf, so he's not cutting the bog he preserved. The bog where he cut turf he sees as a waste land. It's been cut for years, there's very little of the true bog ecosystem there. And he knows what that ecosystem is because he monitors it, he counts the birds on this preserved bog. As opposed to the waste land type of peat land where he cuts, he sees this bog he helped preserve as this gem, this pristine place where birds can thrive. And the special ecosystem of a bog is alive.

Emily Toner:

Those two things can live in his head at the same time. I really, I guess got the lesson from him that when you're entering a new culture, your view as an outsider is just going to be so different. People have a lot of stories that warn children away from the bogs. When they were wetter places, so many are dried now because of drainage, but when they were wet, they're quite dangerous. And you don't want a kid wandering into a bog. They could slip into a bog pool or a spot that they think is solid and they step on it and it's actually you can slip into a hole of water. So, yeah, there are stories trying to keep kids off of bogs.

Emily Toner:

This one community had a bog slide and it happened over 100 years ago. And this happens every now and then, it's called a bog burst. And I don't know exactly why it happens, but a bog can slip as a whole mass and move across the landscape. And in this one place, I think it was in County Kerry, a bog slid and covered an entire house and everybody in the house died. And they're still talking about this story. And I even heard a politician reference the story. So it's really ingrained in their local memory in history. And the political context I heard it brought up in was about restoring the peat lands because we're talking about re-wetting them. And this politician was afraid for himself and also he thought the perception of people in his community would be that, "We're bringing back these dangerous wet places. Have you thought about if that's going to create more bog slides or bog bursts?" That kind of thing because back in the day this family died.

Emily Toner:

In one instance I was recording an oral history and this woman tickled me because she was telling me a nursery rhyme that ends in tickling. And it was biodiversity week in Ireland and I had partnered with this community who is doing a lot of work to restore their bog and make it into a place people want to visit to go outside and have a walk, and walk your dog, get fresh air. And they wanted to lift up the older memories that people had of the bog and bringing in a National Geographic story teller was a way to get people to come out and tell their stories. So that was fun for me, it was great way to do the work. And the first woman who sat down to talk to me, she wanted to tell me this nursery rhyme that her mother had said to her often as a girl.

Emily Toner:

And the thing that stuck with her, I think she had a large family, a lot of siblings. But when her mom saying this bog rhyme to her, she was 100% focused on her. And the cadence of the rhyme is very slow because she's trying to scare you. And this bog nursery rhyme was a time when she had her mother's undivided attention and that was very special to her. And okay, I don't know the whole rhyme by heart. But it was about the snipe, which is a bog bird and how this poor snipe, is like, poor old snipey out on the bog all nighty. Something like that. And that this bog is lost and it ends with the person who's drawing you into this poor story of the bird by jumping at you and tickling you. So I was not expecting that. I'm not going to jump at you and tickle you right now.

Chris Wurst:

Did you scream?

Emily Toner:

I tried to very silent as you are. It's hard to be on the opposite end when you're not going to include your own voice. So I was just like, "Oh, what's going on?" But it was a nice recording because she was singing this nursery rhyme to me. I have a couple of supplies that I gathered that would always come with me when I went out to the bog. Wellies being one of the primary ones, so knee-high rubber boots. And I have a camera that is water resistant and can take macro images, because a lot of things on the bog are really small. So I had these different supplies that I wanted to take with me out to the bog. And I chose a small-ish town in the midlands of Ireland. I wanted to be out where there are a lot of bogs. Bog regions tend to be a little more rural and that's actually related to the bogs. It's hard to develop land that's totally saturated.

Emily Toner:

I had a lot of moments where I was in a beautiful landscape. Because bogs are wetlands but they're also everywhere in Ireland. So I could do a mountain hike or I could do a coastal cliff trail and I would run into peat soil. I was in some incredible landscapes, thin rocky peninsulas miles long that you could do loop walks on. It was so great. Each time I would stop and have this breathtaking view, I would just think like, I wish my family and friends were here to experience this with me. I had a moment that almost brought me to tears because I felt like the work in my life was flowing so well and was so synced up with the community.

Emily Toner:

So I had this crazy idea to go spend 24 hours in the bog. I wanted to get a full day and I thought that could be a nice storytelling hook to get people interested in little bog plans and that sort of thing. So I spent 24 hours and I recorded different community members who came to the bog and their connection, and then I wove it into this fun entertaining presentation that I did the following week. Why would anybody show up to that? I don't know. It was a total risk, but the reason that we actually had a full house for it, so the visitor center audio room holds about 50 people and all the seats were filled, was because of all the different people I had built relationships with. And as I was sharing these stories from my 24 hours on the bog and looking at the different people in the audience, I felt really proud because people showed up for me and they were interested in the stories I wanted to tell.

Emily Toner:

It was a reflection that we were able to build a real connection. And I was just telling stories about the bogs but by the end of the presentation I was so full of this like good energy and pride about my experience that I almost started crying, which is not really appropriate when you're just talking about the bogs, but I felt that really sense of success about the whole thing. It's a lot of time, when do you have 24 hours to do anything? Let alone go out and spend it in this ecosystem asking people how they think about it, how they're connected to it. I got to experiment with all these different types of storytelling that day. I had my audio equipment, we had different types of cameras. I did my first time lapse of the sunrise. That project, spending 24 hours in the bog was an embodiment of the opportunity that I had received through the Fulbright National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship.

Emily Toner:

It was actually kind of a tough day because we got up at 2:30 in the morning. I had a friend who was doing it with me. And when we got out to the bog at 3:00 AM it was really cold and dark. And my chords were all tangled and I was just like, "I don't know, maybe should go back to sleep." And by the end of the day I was like on a high. It was every experience, every beautiful thing we captured. There was a tour of kids that we got to follow. The community member whose grandfather had been one of the first to organize turf cutting in the bog that is now preserved. It was just so meaningful. And yeah, by the end of that day, I just felt like I was on an high.

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. This week, Emily Toner shared stories from her Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, studying the bogs of Ireland. For more about 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 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 at 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 check us out on Instagram at 22.33 Stories. Special thanks to Emily for her stories and her uncanny passion for soil. I did the interview and edited this segment. All the featured music, Tar and Spackle, Bridge Walker, Uncertain Ground, Town Market, and [inaudible 00:31:57] were by Blue Dot Sessions. Music at the top of the episode was "Sebastian" by How The Night Came. And the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.

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Season 02, Episode 40 - Life Between Worlds - Michael Littig

LISTEN HERE - Episode 40

DESCRIPTION

 

Stories that have to be heard to be believed.  Living and studying with shaman in Mongolia.  This week, entrepreneur, investor, theater artist, and co-founder of Zuckerberg Institute Michael Littig recounts the transcendent and life-changing lessons he learned as a Fulbright Scholar on the other side of the world.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

You grew up visiting your dad all over the world and in the course of all that travel, found yourself more and more comfortable in between places. In fact, your comfort level with the unknown became so strong that you sought it out. In Mongolia, you found it deeply and intensely. And in between worlds, you thrived. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Michael Littig:

I remember once when I was up in the [foreign language 00:00:37] late at night, there was something outside the tent and it was almost as if it was wrestling and weird. The next morning, the shaman came over and he's like, "That's water spirit. He came to visit you last night, didn't he?" I was like, "Yes." He's like, "Don't worry. He was just checking you guys out."

Chris Wurst:

This week, a visit from the water spirit, life among shaman, and earning the love of a little boy. Join us on a journey from the United States to Mongolia and learning to live with the unknown. 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. They are people, very much like ourselves. (singing)

Michael Littig:

So my name is Michael Littig. I'm an entrepreneur, theater artist, and a teacher. I'm from New York City. That's where I live now. I'm originally from Florida. I was 2008 Fulbright Scholar in Mongolia.

Michael Littig:

I think it always starts in your childhood. For me, my dad lived overseas and so I grew up on airplanes. At such a young age, it was like this place where I could understand that there are different ways of being, different ways of living, different ways of being and seeing in the world. So when I went to college, I studied theater. For me, I always looked to these great teachers. There are these amazing theater artists that when they were my age in their early 20s, they went across cultures. That ultimately who they were as human beings. So their work in a way became unignoreable. So I really was seeking out a place that was going to turn my world upside down, was going to be a totally different belief system that would shatter what I believed about the world. And in that collision, I could then begin to think, and dream about, and redefine what I wanted my life to be.

Michael Littig:

I had read this book called Between Worlds, and it was a woman named [Uma Singh 00:03:44] who traveled with shamans in India. As I read that book, I thought to myself, "Oh my gosh, this is me." When that shaman is feeling lonely and feels like they have a responsibility to their community, and yet, they would then turn blue and writhe on the floor like a snake and scream and become a god. I wanted to understand the root of storytelling and the root of performativity. So I was always really moved by this quote by the end of the book, which says, "To live between worlds is to know truth and beauty even as if they all told me it leaves you helplessly lonely." There was something just about that that really resonated with me. So I thought, "I wonder if you could go study with shamans."

Michael Littig:

So what did I did is I just started emailing people all around the world that studied shamans, and Mongolia popped up. Mongolia, in the early '90s, came out of the Soviet Union. Now, there was a resurgence of shamanism because it was such a repressed practice throughout the whole time of the Soviet Union. You could be killed to study or believe in shamanism. It was also this Tibetan Buddhist culture that was just deeply fascinating that had artistic practices that had been around for 4,000 years, tied to the landscape. Everything in me said, "This is the place. Oh my gosh, this is the place."

Michael Littig:

So I sent a lot of emails and somehow got a handwritten letter sent to me from Mongolia. This is before you could send it through email. For me, it's like what's the difference in the correlation between ritual and performance and ritual and performativity? The way that a shaman prepares for a séance, how could that be correlated to an actor's preparation? How, by observing all of this, could I therefore begin to unlock what are the elements of ritual that really allow for what we see in performance, which is this moment of I would say ecstasy or this moment of, you could say if you used it in other spiritual, the divine? That's why I chose Mongolia, and that's how I found myself on that wild adventure living and working with shamans, and theater artists, and Mongolian traditional artists for a year.

Michael Littig:

The first thing I think about when I'm there, it's deeply cold in Mongolia. I can still breathe in through my nostrils and they'll freeze, and I can inhale this white smoke. Because Mongolia, during the winter's like this, it's the most polluted city in the world. So what's going through my head is usually, "Oh my gosh, I'm so cold. But, oh my gosh, I'm in this unknown landscape that's desolate and difficult."

Michael Littig:

There were some pretty remarkable shamans or things that I came across that were unexplainable. There's this particular man who spoke about his between worlds and the poeticism of what it means to take that responsibility on. It's hard to befriend a shaman. They're a bit elusive. They kind of disappear into the mysterious wilderness in some ways.

Michael Littig:

So I just started going to shaman seances because I knew a friend who knew a friend, and then they would say, "Can you come at three o'clock this afternoon?" I'd be like, "I will be there." Then, suddenly, I would be there and we'd be in this room. The shaman would go into trance. He or she would enact a lesson to the room. It could be a family member was sick. I remember once this most powerful moment. We were all in this huddled in the middle of the ger district, and it was probably 20 of us in this room. This woman, her son had been kidnapped and she wanted to know where he was. The shaman, it's almost as if... I'm a very practical person. I look at things, I'm like, "Is this real?" But it's as if something had never been in that person's body is now in this person's body and it's almost... It's not performative. It's so deeply real.

Michael Littig:

The shaman said, "Your son is kidnapped. He's in this area. If you sing to him now, he will hear you." In between stifled cries, she began to sing. We all sang with her. So it was a bunch of collective experiences like that, and it was just a descent into the unknown. That's what I would say. In the most beautiful way. This is something I've come to learn from that experience, which is when my heart starts to beat like that, when my heart starts to pound like that, then I go, "I don't know how I'm going to do this." That, I know, will be the deepest teacher for me. That, I know, will be the thing that is going to change my life.

Michael Littig:

When you see someone go into trance, it's like watching an animal. They become something greater. They scream, and then they start to say things. They start to speak in languages that are old that they wouldn't even know. All my skepticism goes out the door for a moment and I'm like, "All right, you can't fake that." I think it was particularly that story of sitting with that shaman and them singing that song. Then I remember he, not the shaman, the spirit turned and then pointed right at me and it said, "Come forward." I was like, "Oh no. Oh no." I knelt down, and then he was just like, "You are blessed." Then he hit my back.

Michael Littig:

Now, I've been with shamans where I'm like, "Yeah, you're faking, you're faking." But there are things that you see and you're like, "Yeah, can't explain that." I've seen people do impossible things under trance. I've seen people touch hot coals. I've seen them become almost animalistic. I've seen them become what seems like a god. I've seen them almost turn 50 years older and ancient. It's so strange.

Michael Littig:

The more I studied the belief system, the deeper fear I got because it's very much about spirits can possess you. If you don't anoint that snake with milk, it will come back to haunt you. It's those type of things, it will attach itself to you. So as I got deeper into it, it actually got more frightening, honestly, to be involved in those worlds because you're like, "I don't know what I'm adopting as a belief system." As I zoom out 10 years later, what I really take away from studying with shamans is every action has a belief and that creates a system of belief. How it manifest differs in every culture. But for you, what your belief system is, is true, deeply true to you.

Michael Littig:

This one particular experience, we all went... I was studying the [foreign language 00:12:02] people. [foreign language 00:12:03] people live on the edge of Siberia for 4,000 years and they live with reindeer. They're called [foreign language 00:12:08], [foreign language 00:12:08], which means reindeer people. To get there, it takes 36 hours off-road because there are no roads in Mongolia beyond the cities. It's just open-step. So you drive for 36 hours off-road. You get to a very Northern aspect of Mongolia, and then you get on horseback for two days. We did this in the middle of winter. So it's negative 30 below outside and you're living in a teepee, which feels like you're out of a movie. I'm sitting with shamans and reindeer. It can't even get even more mythological. But suddenly, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was at home. I didn't want to be anywhere else in the world but that place.

Michael Littig:

There's so many lessons I still constantly think about in Mongolia, and this is probably one the most profound, and it's a very intense moment but it was a shaping moment. After we had sat with the reindeer and been in the teepee, we had started to head home and we were in this car. It's the middle of the night. Suddenly, we're off-road, going down the road. Suddenly, there's a loud bang and the car slows to a stop. My friend, [Oyin Billick 00:13:36], gets out. I'll never forget this. In the headlights of the car, I could see his face. He goes white and he gets tears in his eyes. The gear shaft has been torn into, and we're in the middle of nowhere.

Michael Littig:

In Mongolia, you can certainly freeze to death without fire to warm you at night. Luckily, just in the distance, about a mile away, there's a ger. A ger a home. It's what you would call a yurt. There's a faint light and we can see it. There's this custom in Mongolia that if a stranger turns up at your home, you'll slaughter the last goat you have to feast your guest because one never may know when you're that person turning up in the middle of the night, hungry, thirsty, need of shelter. So we knocked on their door, and they let us in and they gave us their bed. They slept on the floor, and they poured us this hot milk tea and that moment allowed me to hope for humanity for life. They saved our lives that night.

Michael Littig:

If my whole Mongolia experience was, I get goosebumps talking about it, leading up to that and that event and then the residual remnants of trying to process community, survival, love. I went back and I wrote a play about it. I tried to deeply understand it. I tried to carry that type of spirit with me. It haunted me in this beautiful way, and it still haunts me to this day, that type of community, that type of belief in humanity. That was the moment.

Michael Littig:

But I think the most powerful person in my life was this little boy. His name was [Tomo 00:15:56], and he lived in my building and he was my best friend. He lived under the stairs in my building with his mother in a probably a four-foot by six-foot room. He was always there when I came home. When we first started being friends, I didn't know the language as much so he would show me his toys and I would give him a thumbs up. I would give him candy, and he would just be like, "Oh thank you so much," and walk away.

Michael Littig:

But I knew our friendship was really going somewhere, partly because he always worn a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and I was from Orlando so it was as if he was like a reminder of home. I'll never forget one time we were walking with his mother, and there was this awkward silence because your language will go so far and then you're like, "What do we say?" She just pulled out her phone quietly and played Celine Dion. It was awesome. (singing)

Michael Littig:

Sometimes being in these places, in these unknown landscapes, it's overwhelming. But when you have a little boy that screams your name every time you come home or knocks on your door every morning and I say, "[foreign language 00:17:10]," which means, "Who is it?" He goes, "[foreign language 00:17:13]." And he goes, "It's me." Or, we watch cartoons and then if he got like a little rowdy, I'd just kick him out and throw water on him. He was the person I still think about. Because I remember when I had to say goodbye to him and I came down the stairs and I woke him up, and he came out and then knelt down and I said, "[foreign language 00:17:37]," which means, "I'll see you later. I'll see you soon, my friend." His mother looked at me and she goes, "Really?" I looked at her and I was like, "I don't know."

Michael Littig:

He did something that he had never done before, which is he sniffed to my left cheek and he whispered, "[foreign language 00:17:57], I love you." I stood up, walked out the door and all I could see was this immense Mongolian blue sky. I'll never forget that moment. I'll never forget him. I'll never forget that experience.

Michael Littig:

One of the beauties of a Fulbright is that it's structured but not structured. What it gives is space for opportunity and space for things to happen. And, yeah, there was a set schedule that I had and things that I did. It's interesting is that now I'm an entrepreneur. I've started four businesses. But I learned to embrace the unknown in that experience. I always call it, it's actually the 51-50-49 rule, which is doubt and belief, and that you look at someone like Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa had just as much doubt as we all do. If you look at her diaries, it's really incredible. But she had just enough more belief.

Michael Littig:

Now, what I face, my work is really about building things that are unknown. It's crafting new programs and doing things that seem impossible. But it's like a training ground, and it's something you can't measure. It's something I want to take people and say, "Okay. Here. The government invested this amount of money for me to do a Fulbright, but thousands of people that touched and changed." That's hard to measure because numbers are impact. Like, "Well, he touched 4,000 people and it was at the age 18-25." But it's so beyond that. I wish every student, adult, human being would have the opportunity to embrace that type of unknown. It is a training ground. It is a training ground to really understand and almost befriend the unknown. What I learned through ultimately the Fulbright is to create order out of chaos.

Michael Littig:

I come back from my Fulbright, and I was working as an actor and I was teaching at NYU at that time. Fr about a year, I just worked nonstop. Then, it all slowed down for a little bit and I was like, "What am I doing? I had this amazing experience. I need to do something more with it." By that time, I had been starting work as a teaching artist. I'd worked a little bit with the Navajo community out in Utah. So I was like, "I'll start a nonprofit." I was like, "I should work in a refugee camp. That's where I'll go. Where am I needed in the world?"

Michael Littig:

Then, this is so cool, I happened to go to a Fulbright alumni event and a woman from the Bureau of East Africa happened to be there. By that time, I had done my research and I figured out Dadaab Refugee Camp was on the verge of becoming a humanitarian crisis at that time. I thought, "You know? I think this could be quite powerful to do, use theater as a means of communication, reconciliation, healing." I literally sat next to her and I was like, "I have this idea, what do you think?" She's like, "This is a great idea. I'm going to send it to the public affairs officer." I was like, "Awesome." A month later, I get an email from the public affairs officer, "Can you come to Kenya next month?" "Yes, I will." Here comes that heartbeat again, that fear.

Michael Littig:

I remember landing in Africa looking out the left side of the window, just pounding, going into the unknown. I sat down with refugees and I said, "What do you need?" And they said, "People think we're warts on society. People think that we're terrorists. We want people to understand that we both have mothers, we have fathers, we have loss, we have heartbreak." This becomes almost the bedrock of any genesis I do with any community is I don't ever assume. This is what the Fulbright taught me. I don't ever assume that I know... They have more to teach me than I have to teach them.

Michael Littig:

One of the things I challenge people, because now I work in cultural exchange, is how can they have more than I have by the time I leave? So that became the genesis and then I created a year program in the middle of a humanitarian crisis because it became one of the worst famines in the Horn of Africa at that time. It went from 250,000 to 500,000 in the span of time I was there. It's as if Mongolia prepared me for that experience. What Mongolia taught me is identity, it's that if you can unlock your identity about who you are, that gives you what is quite intangible, which is hope.

Michael Littig:

Using Art, we'll say Art, as a vehicle is if you can bring people back to where they're from or who they are, it becomes this determination and it's a connection to something greater. Look, we were just talking about storytelling can change the world. So I brought a documentary film crew with me because I knew that the stories that come out of this are going to be what's important because people don't understand numbers. They don't understand when I'm like, "There were 500,000 refugees." Or, "I worked with a thousand refugees while I was there, personally." They can't understand that. But they know the story of my friend [Adir Shaheed 00:23:40] Mohammed, how his parents were burned in front of him, and how everything went wrong in his life, and that he, above all odds, is now the best translator in that camp, started a radio station, and got a college degree.

Michael Littig:

Or, [Ajulu Opio Achan 00:23:57], who fled genocide in 2003 from Ethiopia and beyond all odds, became a poet, was published. Those things, they're powerful. Often, when you're sitting in a place of the unknown, going back to the unknown, what you need is guides. You need people that can make you say, "You know what? I'm just like you." Or, "I can be better."

Michael Littig:

Now, between worlds has become almost this moniker of my life. I can see that its foundations when I was a child and now, I really feel like I live between worlds. Like shaman, I'm attempting to translate the lessons I learned from... I was just with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The lessons I learned from His Holiness and how I take that into my life, or I run a refugee program in Kenya and the lessons I learned from that. And I'm trying to almost take between worlds and come back. In the context of a shaman, you're going to another dimension. You're there to come back and, as an artist, would reflect and share the story, share the lesson. What I've always been so moved by is it's almost something I find myself to be so deeply proud of is that I get to go between worlds and I get to connect people. Largely, it makes total sense now that my work is being someone who literally brings communities together around the world and brings people together.

Michael Littig:

Anyone can always stay at my place for free, no questions asked. If I'm in a car and we're driving down the road and someone needs a ride or one of my friends, it's going to go out of their way, no problem. We'll go out of our way. I live in New York City so I'm a little minimalistic and everything. But what I love about those yurts that you're talking about, everything has purpose and everything has meaning. So if you were to come to my apartment, everything has purpose, everything has meaning, everything tells a story on the wall, why, how? Literally, on the wall, I had a framed Mongolian script and it's the word [foreign language 00:26:33], which means faith. It's like the one lesson I walked out of Mongolia.

Michael Littig:

When I wanted to go right, the Mongolians went left and I had to trust that was the right way to go. That's something I take with every part of my life. I always take that. I'll never forget being in Western Mongolia with the Kazakh Mongols, and they paid for my food and they were so much more in poverty than I could ever imagine. But they took such pride in saying, "No. You are my guest." So whenever someone comes to stay with me, you are my guest.

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, Michael Littig shared stories from his time studying under shamans in Mongolia while he was a Fulbright scholar. For more about Fulbright 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 hey, leave us a nice review while you're at it. We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us 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. Now, you can follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories.

Chris Wurst:

Special thanks to Michael for his stories and good work in the world. I did the interview along with Kate Furby and edited this episode. Featured music was [Elu Strat 00:28:44], Walking Shoes, Lemon and Melons, Basket Liner, and Celestial Navigations, all by Blue Dot Sessions, Will I Ever See Another Sunrise by Kai Engel, and Wren by Podington Bear. 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.

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Season 02, Episode 39 - Random Identity - Christiana Botic

LISTEN HERE - Episode 39

DESCRIPTION

On a fellowship in the Balkans to research the concept of identity, Christiana Botic discovers her family background is much more complicated than she thought, leading to a journey over many borders and an inescapable realization about how people see themselves.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

You travel to Belgrade, your ancestral homeland in the heart of the Balkans. Though you seek to learn more about the region, you're fairly convinced that you know the basics of your background, but once you arrive, you find out that the more you learn, the less you know. It turns out that your family identity, just like the region, is more complicated than it appears.

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

Christiana Botic:

Now, a lot of the times when I'm working on assignments, I don't have as much time as I did during that fellowship, obviously, but I still try to meet people as human first, always. A lot of photographers don't behave that way because they feel the pressure of the industry and this pressure to get the work done, and that's totally understandable. But I actually think that the work is so much better when you meet people in just a human way first, really people to people. Not that I was a monster before who didn't view people's humanity, but I do think that since doing that fellowship, in terms of my work, I really was able to solidify that idea of just being a human with people and not being someone with a camera first or having this sort of apparatus between us separating us or distancing us. It was just a tool that let me get closer in the end. So, it changed my photography in that way, I think.

Chris Wurst:

This week, a family history full of surprises, respecting everyone's story, and learning that anywhere in the world, teenage girls are teenage girls. Join us on a journey from the United States to the Balkans to discover just how fragile one's identity can be. It's 22.33.

Intro Clips: We report what happens in the United States, what's and all.
Intro Clips: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clips: 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.
Intro Clips: (singing).

Christiana Botic:

I'm Christiana Botic. I am a documentary photographer and filmmaker. I am a Fulbright-National Geographic storytelling fellow. I did my fellowship in the 2016/2017 year, and I was in Serbia and Croatia for the fellowship.

Christiana Botic:

I initially proposed to go to Serbia and Croatia to look at the relationship between migration, geography, and identity. At the time, there was the refugee crisis, it was moving through Serbia, and a lot of migrants and refugees were getting trapped in Serbia because they couldn't cross over into the EU. And so I wanted to look at that crisis but through the lens of thinking about this landscape, that was once one country, but had been broken apart by civil war. So, looking at this place that was once Yugoslavia, once one giant country, had been broken apart by civil war, was now full of all of these different borders, separated, mostly based on national and ethnic identity, and then looking at the movement of refugees through that.

Christiana Botic:

So, that's sort of what I initially went to Serbia with. That was my project that I proposed. But in doing that, and looking at the relationship between identity and geography, and looking at the refugee crisis, I ended up looking a lot at my own family history. And my father was born and raised in Yugoslavia, at the time, he left in 1979, and all of his family was still there. And all the family that I knew was there was in Serbia, in Belgrade and Valjevo, which is a town about an hour and a half from Belgrade. My grandmother was there and my dad's cousins and aunts and uncles were all in that region, and as far as I knew, we were Serbian. That's all I'd ever been told. I grew up going to Serbian Orthodox church, had visited Serbia a lot. That was basically what I knew.

Christiana Botic:

But in spending time with my grandmother and in learning the Serbian language, which I hadn't known until a few years ago, I was able to discover a lot about our family history. And one of the things I found out was that my grandmother's family was actually from a town about an hour from Dubrovnik, which is now in modern day Croatia, and my grandfather's family was from Split, Croatia in the Dalmatia region. And so I ended up doing the project in Serbia and Croatia so that I could look at refugee movement, look at all these concepts of identity, but also look at my own family history.

Christiana Botic:

And I was always thinking about all these big concepts and trying to pull them all together, and I think ultimately what ended up happening was that I really dug into my family history and tried to figure out where everyone was from and how far back I could go and figure out sort of what it meant to be Serbian or identify as Serbian if my family was from areas that were outside of Serbia's modern day borders. So, what does that really mean then? Is it religious? Is it just about where they live now? Is it entirely different?

Christiana Botic:

Unfortunately, while I was in Serbia, my grandmother passed away, and before she passed away, her dementia had gotten very bad, so I also couldn't ask her the questions that I had planned on asking her about our family history. So, I sort of had to set out on my own and figure out what I could about our family just from the little information I had from before she passed away and from extended family. And all of that research and all those conversations led me through Croatia to Split, where my grandfather was born and where his family was from, and took me down to Montenegro, where my grandmother's father's family was from, and then inland into Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the [inaudible 00:06:43] family, which is another part of my grandmother's family was from.

Christiana Botic:

And through all of this crazy traveling and moving around and research, I ended up in a very small village, about two hours from Trebinje, Herzegovina, where my grandmother's cousin lived. And I ended up in this small little stone house in a village surrounding. I can't even describe it as a village. They were actually just sort of out on a mountain far from the nearest village, in an area surrounded by rocks. There was nothing there but rocks, and people told me before I went that there was nothing there but rocks, and I thought they were exaggerating, but it's absolutely true.

Christiana Botic:

I ended up sitting down and having a coffee with my grandmother's cousin. And this is a woman who I didn't know existed before, and I was sitting with her having a coffee in her home, and it was the home where my grandmother's father was born. So, it was a home that was hundreds of years old. And I think I just could have never imagined that my journey would have taken me that far, hence it was pretty incredible. And I think it was special for me in terms of just thinking about my own family and my own sense of memory and stories about my family, but it was also really important to the way that I was looking at identity, because I was finally able to really reflect on my own identity and realize that nothing is as simple as we say it is.

Christiana Botic:

So, a lot of times we'll say just, "I'm American," or "I'm half Serbian, half Italian," or my dad was born in Belgrade. He's Serbian, we're Serbian Orthodox. And I never spent that much time considering where all of those people and threads and stories really came from, and the reality is my family could have been Catholic Croat from Split and marriage could have changed the way that we identify, or a move could have changed the way that they identify. And I think just that whole journey and going around all the former Yugoslavia, and crossing all of those borders, and meeting with members of my family I didn't know existed before just made me realize how complex identity is and how complex families are. And I think that reflecting on that is the first step in being able to break down that barrier between us and them.

Christiana Botic:

That's a problem, I mean, we're facing a lot in America now, and I think it's definitely been a problem in former Yugoslav countries leading up to, during, and after the civil war, certainly. And I think that when people are really honest with themselves about how complicated identity truly is and how little we even know about our own identities, then we're really able to start to break down those barriers hence think about ourselves and others differently.

Christiana Botic:

One of the things I discovered while I was there was that there are just a lot of different ethnic groups living there. I think when people talk about Serbia, for the most part, they just talk about Serbian people. And actually what I found was that, for example, in the Northern region of Vojvodina, there are 26 different ethnic groups living there. It's a really diverse place, actually.

Christiana Botic:

During my time there, I had the chance to visit the south of Serbia, a town called Bujanovac, and this was a really special place for me, and my time there really has impacted me as a person and my work as a documentarian.

Christiana Botic:

So, it was early spring of 2017 when I went to Bujanovac, and I went there for the first time with a friend who had spent some time there before. So, she just told me like, "Oh, it's just an interesting place. It's the most ethnically split city in the south of Serbia between Serbs and Albanians." And so I think a lot of people internationally know about the Kosovo war that happened in the late 90s and ended in '99, but actually, there was also an armed conflict in this region in the South of Serbia in 2001. And the sort of three areas along the border with Kosovo didn't end up splitting off from Serbia. So, they're still a part of Serbia and that's something that is being contended with still, and people are still navigating because it was less than 20 years ago.

Christiana Botic:

I sort of went to this town of Bujanovac thinking about these ethnic divisions and how I was going to talk to people and figure out how they were either healing or how the ethnic tensions were affecting them in their daily lives nowadays, and I sort of went with that intention, just thinking all about the ethnic divisions. And I ended up speaking with five young women who came from different ethnic groups. They were two Serbs, two Albanians, and one Roma, and they were all teenage girls. And I was really surprised to find that the things that they were dealing with and the issues they were facing, they all just had these similar conflicts that they were going through. And it didn't really have anything to do with their ethnicity. It had to do with being a teenager, and a teenage girl in particular.

Christiana Botic:

And I think that was an amazing experience for me because I was sort of brought face to face with my own concepts of entering a place that I hadn't been before and thinking that I knew something about it because I had some Albanian friends, and I'd lived in Serbia before, and I knew the region, and just really being confronted with my own shortcomings and my own prejudices.

Christiana Botic:

For me, that was a really amazing experience to sit down with these young women, talk to them about their daily lives. See that although the ethnic divisions and tensions in that area were real and alive in some ways, that these were also just young people who were coming of age and thinking about who they are, who they want to be, how they want to see their community, how they want to move forward in the world, like their own dreams, their own hopes. And I think that they were just so much more connected than I realized. I thought that they were going to be sort of maybe uncomfortable around each other, or that they would have a lot of problems that they wanted to discuss in terms of their ethnicity, and really, that wasn't on their minds, not at the forefront of their minds in the way it was on the forefront of mine.

Christiana Botic:

So, I basically spent the day with these five young women and we went around to all of their houses. All of their families treated each of them and me in the same way, super welcoming, super lovely. I feel like it really reshaped the way that I was thinking about ethnicity and diversity in the country and also the way that I approach projects, because I think it's so easy to do a ton of research or spend time somewhere nearby and think that you understand a place or it's people, and that's just really not true. You just have to sit down with people and actually hear their stories firsthand to see what's really going on.

Christiana Botic:

I wish I would have had more time there. What I was able to capture in the few short days that I was there was just sort of a glimpse into the lives of these young women. And I got to understand a little bit about what they're going through on a daily basis and how, in some ways, it's very similar to what I went through as a young woman, and in other ways, it's very different and very specific to them. For example, the young Roma woman who I interviewed, she sort of stood out to me because a lot of people from the Roma community are really looked down upon in Serbia, and a lot of them don't have academic opportunities afforded to them. And she was a special case because her family actually has a nonprofit in the South of Serbia that is meant to empower Roma people and encourages their education.

Christiana Botic:

So, for her family, it was really important that she was in school, and she actually plans to be a doctor. So, at that point, she was in her last year of high school, so she was preparing to go on and applying to medical schools. And even though she had her mother tongue that she spoke at home, she also spoke fluent Serbian and took all of her classes at the Serbian Language High School.

Christiana Botic:

So, speaking to her about her experiences there was really interesting to me as well, because again, I went in expecting to talk about this, the tension between Albanian and Serbian youth, and that turned out differently. But also there was this girl, Isabella, who was Roma, who was showing me a completely different perspective from the same small town, coming up in the same area. And her story is kind of covered up because people just talked about the ethnic divisions between Albanians and Serbs. People aren't really talking about the Roma community there and what they've been through. And people also aren't really sharing and elevating story stories of Roma individuals or families who are stretching themselves and achieving academic excellence or professional excellence, and who are striving for things like medical school. And I think that, again, I was just so impressed with her willingness to talk and openness in talking about her experiences, negative and positive, and she's overcome a lot.

Christiana Botic:

I mean, in school, she talked about having teachers call her dirty and saying derogatory things to her because she was Roma, and she was the only Roma student in her entire school. So, for her to sort of face that adversity and come up in that community and to be going on to pursue medical school or whatever she wants to pursue in life, I mean, that was kind of incredible because, again, I wasn't really anticipating finding that nuance.

Christiana Botic:

I think when something turns out differently than you expect as a photojournalist, you have to be able to adapt. I feel like that's a huge part of the profession. I think it's always a good thing when I'm surprised and confronted with a new situation that I wasn't expecting. I think that in that particular situation, I just was really thankful that those young women were so open with me and so honest with me and that they really drove the conversation. And at first, I thought because I was interviewing them, I was photographing them, you sort of feel like, "Oh, I'm going to be in control of this situation. I'm going to guide it," and that's really not true. And it's really not good if that is the case, because then you're the one telling the stories and it's not them telling their stories through you.

Christiana Botic:

So, I think that being met with that was a really good moment for me to sort of step back and be like, "How am I telling stories? How can I do a better job of elevating other people's voices rather than having these sort of preconceived notions and guiding my stories to look a particular way?" And I think that's why there's so much misinformation out there because people don't just let individuals or communities really speak for themselves and people don't give them a platform, it's more our commentary on that particular group or those people.

Christiana Botic:

I think I was most proud in letting these women speak for themselves. I get into this place sometimes where I am trying to control the work and trying to anticipate things before they happen, because I think to some extent, you have to do that when you're traveling and when you're working abroad and when you're put into situations where... like I was alone going to this new place and telling a story in a community that I hadn't spent much time in before. Again, I was just really amazed by their openness with me. I think when I was young, I would not have talked to someone from another country who was coming in and just said, "I'm interested in hearing from some people in this community, what their daily life is like." And not only did they talk to me about those experiences, they brought me to their homes, introduced me to their families, introduced me to their friends. They took me to their schools, to their churches, to all of these places that were special for them and told me about their lives.

Christiana Botic:

And I just think the best thing that I can do as a photographer and as a storyteller is just to elevate the stories of people who otherwise their stories wouldn't be told. So, to get the opportunity to work with these young people who really aren't represented very much in mainstream media and to work with, for example, the young Roma woman whose story wouldn't have been told in a story about ethnic tension in this town, I think for me, that was what I was most proud of.

Christiana Botic:

I'm really interested in in-depth documentary storytelling more than I am interested in news photography. Though I do both, I think it just feels so much better to really spend time with a subject and feel like you're doing justice to their truth and their nuances and their complexity in a way that's really hard to do when you just have a day.

Christiana Botic:

I think when people think about traveling, they consider the discomfort of being in a new culture where there's a language they can't speak or people they don't know, but I think really that fear is about confronting our own shortcomings, a lot of the time, in like, "How am I going to be able to navigate this?" And I think it's a really amazing thing to be constantly coming up against these obstacles, physical, emotional, mental, when traveling that you have to navigate and work through. That's transformative for me, no matter where I'm traveling to. But the fellowship that I did, this Fulbright Nat Geo fellowship in particular was transformative in so many ways, not just in how I view myself and my own family history, but also in how I work and the way that I approach subjects and subject matters for all the reasons I've discussed, I think I just softened a lot during that time and tried to let go of that control I felt I needed to have over my projects.

Christiana Botic:

And really, once I was able to do that, everything got so much better, because then it was just like a human meeting a human. I wasn't coming in with my camera and feeling like, "Okay, I have to capture this in this amount of time." I really was just meeting people where they were, listening to them, being there to honor their stories. And that felt really true and authentic, not just like something you say, but it felt like that was my experience there, was just meeting people where they were, listening to them, really hearing them, and being able to honor and elevate their stories through photography and writing and sharing that stuff on the Nat Geo blog.

Christiana Botic:

I think what's special about the Nat Geo Fulbright is that when we come back from these fellowships, we get to share our stories, and I got to present some of my work at this Nat Geo live event. For me, I felt like I was able to give at least a piece of my experience to people back home and to my family.

Christiana Botic:

So, the first time I went to Bujanovac, I was with a friend and just sort of introduced to the area. I didn't bring a camera, I didn't do anything, I just wanted to get a feel for the place. And the next time I went on my own, it's like a seven hour bus ride, and then you're sort of dropped off in this small town. I believe it's like 10,000 people. Once you get over those first initial things, you realize just how similar it is to a lot of other places that I've been.

Christiana Botic:

It's difficult to reflect on my own family history and the history of Yugoslavia. I was always somewhat distanced from news of the war. I was born in 1990, right when the war broke out, and I think my parents kept me fairly sheltered from news of the war. And I always heard stories about my father's youth growing up in Belgrade, and they were always pretty joyous, vibrant stories. And I never heard anything growing up in my household about any ethnic difference between Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Albanians. My family just never really spoke about those things.

Christiana Botic:

So, I grew up in America as a kid when the war was going on, not really having a concept of it, and then growing up in a household where things like ethnicity, and religion, and the breakup of Yugoslavia weren't really discussed openly, for better or worse. And so I think that it wasn't really until I was an adult and in my early 20s that I went to Serbia on my own volition and decided to live there, that I really started to consider those things and started to consider the history of the place as being part of my history and my family's history.

Christiana Botic:

I never had really notions of this side was right or the side was wrong during the war, and so it wasn't like that was blown up for me at all. From my experiences in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and all around former Yugoslav countries, I've come in contact with a lot of people who feel very strongly about a single narrative of the war. I had a hard time reconciling all of that. So, hearing from different people and different perspectives and trying to figure out what is the truth here, I think that was something that was always really difficult for me.

Christiana Botic:

In going through this journey of figuring out sort of my own family's history and looking at how diverse we actually are, I think through that process I just started to let go a little bit of this concept that I could somehow string together all of the stories that I'd heard and come up with one coherent narrative of, here is the truth. Here is exactly what it is. Here is the right side and the wrong side and all of that. And I just had an appreciation for each individual that I met and their story and recognizing and honoring their experience and their truth, and not necessarily feel like I had to compute everything into a single narrative that made sense.

Christiana Botic:

I think someone once told me that the more time you spend in the Balkans, if you think you're figuring things out, you're actually getting farther away from the truth. It's like the more confusing things are, the closer you're actually getting to some kind of truth, because it's just a place that has been under so many empires, and influenced by so many different peoples and forces, and there just isn't going to be one coherent narrative of that. And so I think that looking at my own family history just made me come into a phase of acceptance, if that makes sense, and I think a place of having more peace with the unknown and the mystery.

Christiana Botic:

When I was living in Serbia and Croatia and traveling to different places, I mean, most people that I met didn't feel any sort of ethnic hatred, and actually were in a place where they know it's better to be able to coexist peacefully and to respect and love their neighbors, and they just want to get to a place where they can have a good life and provide for their family and have a strong community. And I think most normal people on the ground do feel that way, but I think it's always going to be to someone's advantage to bring up those ethnic tensions time and time again. So, I don't think that we're going to see some big turnaround in politicians from the Balkans, that they're going to suddenly have a different message. I think it's always going to be pretty beneficial to people from all over former Yugoslav countries to bring up ethnic tensions and old fights for their advantage. And that's not to say that those things don't exist and don't impact people at a community level, but I think that people are different than their politics and their governments.

Christiana Botic:

I'm an insider in some ways because my father is from the region, but I'm also an outsider because I was raised in America. I think going in to any place where you're not really a part of the fabric of the community and trying to tell those stories, it's hard because all the research you do in advance is going to just show you a lot about the politics of the area and that version of reality. And then when you get there and you meet people who live in these communities and you sort of see their daily life and their interactions, and you hear their stories, it's going to look a lot different on the ground than it does from a political perspective.

Christiana Botic:

I have so many experiences of meeting kind strangers and really generous people in my travels, and I think that's one of the most amazing things about traveling, is that you're constantly surprised by interactions with people that you would've never met otherwise.

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 a U.S. Government Funded International Exchange Programs.

Chris Wurst:

This week, Christiana Botic shared stories from her time as a Fulbright-National Geographic fellow, traveling through Serbia, Croatia, and other Balkan countries. You can see her amazing images at christianabotic.com.

Chris Wurst:

For more about Fulbright fellowships 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 hey, we would appreciate it if you would leave us a nice review while you're at it. And 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 our web page at eca.state.gov/2233. And now you can follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories.

Chris Wurst: Special thanks this week to Christiana for sharing her personal stories.

Chris Wurst:

Ana-Maria Sinitean and I did the interview and I edited it. Featured music was Alustrat, Inessential, Lumber Down, and The Coil Winds, all by Blue Dot Sessions, and the album, Clean, by Paddington Bear. 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.

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Season 02, Episode 38 - Rice + Bunny = Me Too - Sophia Huang

LISTEN HERE: Episode 38

DESCRIPTION

Meet the remarkable Sophia Huang, the fearless driver of the #MeToo movement in China.  However, due to the censorship of that specific phrase, the cause Sophia champions instead features two emojis: Rice ("mi") and Bunny ("tu"). A fearless journalist, who uses her platform to highlight the injustices of sexual harassment and gender-based violence, Sophia has become a role model for many young women in China.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

This is another hero story. In the face of resistance, stigmatization and censorship, you tirelessly press forward. Fighting for equal rights and against the scourge of sexual harassment. Before there even was a "me too" movement in the United States, you were already leading a similar campaign in China. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Sophia Huang:

I used to feel that I am alone in China. I don't see so much encouragement, so much support. But now I know so many people are working in this field, to fight for the equal rights. The gender equality in United States, I met so many amazing speakers. And it's changed our content, our numbers, our emails. And I also met a lot of amazing women from different countries from the whole Asia, even from Europe. So they're also working on the different fields. Some of them are police officers. Some of them are law makers. Some of them are lawyers. Some of them are journalists. And I can see, if we need help, everyone can be together.

Chris Wurst:

This week, rice plus bunny equals me too. Overcoming censorship and stigma and creating an international network to help women. Join us on a journey from China to the United States, shouting "Me too." Any way possible. 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, their not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, very much like ourselves and it's ...

Intro Clip: (Music)

Sophia Huang:

My name is Sophia Huang Xueqin, I'm from mainland China. So I'm working as independent journalist. At the same time, I'm also working as a project manager in an NGO, which promotes LGBTQ and women's rights. The name of the program I'm attending now is the IVLP program. The theme is promoting peace and security.

Music Clip: (Music)

Sophia Huang:

I'm a journalist in China. So I used to work for the national news service. I focus on investigative reporting. I focus on gender issues, and women's issues. In 2016, I started to focus on sexual harassment. So, and later I do a report about work place sexual harassment of Chinese female journalists. So I had this rapport before, me too movement actually happened.

Sophia Huang:

So I was doing the report. This report got 1762 responses. And most of them are female journalists. And a lot of them more than 50% told me that they suffered from different kind, different forms of sexual harassment before. And 50% of them never really come forward to tell anyone before. So they just keep silence. And I was thinking that this problem is huge in China, but people just turn blind eyes to it. They don't want to talk about. It's not something we will talk about. Even in our home, our parents are not eager to talk about this topic. We don't get enough sex education from school. We don't get support from our family, our friends, even from the society or from the university.

Sophia Huang:

So it's time to spit it out. So when I had this report, I send it to the main stream, newspaper magazines in China. And most of them just keep silence. Some of them, my former boss called me and said, "Oh, Sophia, I saw you report. It's really good report. And what you write in the report is true. It's what is happening here. But I can support your privately and I admire your work, but I can not support you in public."

Sophia Huang:

And they said, "You know, it's not easy to talk about this topic in China. You also know that it's going to ruin the reputation of journalists in China." So no one actually publicly support me. And then, me too movement happened. I saw, "Oh, wow. See, in other country, even in United States. People respect United state, admire United States as the dream come true, a perfect country, democracy and press freedom. And like, okay, see, even in United state, they had case, but they face it so bravely. And people come forward. So why we cannot come forward?" So I was taking the pictures, with me too slogan, me too. So I'm trying to use this movement and try to promote me too into China.

Sophia Huang:

So, I took the pictures I went on the street, I talked to people. Explained to them what sexual harassment it is. Because a lot of people in China still don't know what sexual harassment is, at that time.

Sophia Huang:

And people are still like, "Okay, mm-hmm (affirmative) I'm sorry you have been through these, but mm-hmm (affirmative) okay." So that's all. And a lots of female friends, journalist friend told me that they also suffer from different sexual harassment. But they can not come forward because they already become a mom, a wife, they had to concern about their children. How they will feel about her. And they had a concern about the older generation, their mother in law father in laws. They don't encourage them to come out.

Sophia Huang:

Actually, there's one friend a very good friend of mine, she said, "Sophia, I would like to go with you and go to the street to talk to people." And the night before she came, I got a call for her mother in law. She said, "Sophia, I respect your work. But please don't drop my daughter into this. Don't ruin my reputation of my family. Please let me go."

Sophia Huang:

I was upset at that time, very disappointed. But there is one very brave woman, who graduated from Bay Hung University. So she come to me, she wrote to me, she saw the report. She emailed me like, "Sophia, I want to tell my story. I saw you. You are not just telling your story, but you're having more women to tell their story. At the same time, you are not anti men. You want to promote an entire sexual harassment mechanism into campus and into a work place. So you're doing something more than just telling your story. And I want to join you in this movement." She was sexually harassed by a professor, very well known professor, 12 years ago. And that she is not the only victim. And we got six more victims, all female students in the same university. So they come forward and we collect evidence. The evidence like the text message, the pictures, the professor forced them to drink wine with them.

Sophia Huang:

And also we, by the [inaudible 00:08:06] recording. So we record the dialogue. The professor said, "Oh, be my girlfriend. I want to see your naked picture." Or, "Let's have sex." They are so shy. I released, I wrote about their story. I helped them to do the investigation. So we collect the evidence, we write the article and we publish the article in the new year of 2018. The first day of 2018 means a fresh start. We wish our country will have a new start. Because in China you always say like, "Happy new year and everything start fresh, start something new."

Audio Clip: (Music)

Sophia Huang:

In two days, we get five million hits, the readers. There's so many people reading the news, it spreads like wild fire. Everyone's watching the news and see, and talking about this. "What is sexual harassment?" They cannot believe that sexual harassment happen in campus, in such a famous professor. And happen in the female student who are so very well educated. They get doctorate or degree. People started to talk about it. More and more case come out after this case. I think until now we have more than 100.

Sophia Huang:

They wrote their letters and they named the person. I wrote a open letter or we also call petition. So we got 8000 signature, for 94 university in one day. So we send this open letter to the authority, to the ministry of education and to different university. The students who join us and send these letters to the universities.

Sophia Huang:

So after two weeks, the ministry of education in China finally agree that, "Oh, we are going to study about sexual harassment. We are going to introduce this anti sexual harassment mechanism into campus." So we send a lot of articles. We collect it from United States, from Harvard University, from Ohio University from different university, from different country. We have all the materials. So we send it to them like, "Okay, you said, you want to study it. You said, you want to introduce this law, this anti sexual mechanism. So please study it. This is what we need." And then things going really well. But you can know that it's still happening in campus. I think the government or the authority get concerned about that. So they censor our article, so my personal account and my personal social media was blocked at that time, but it's fine now.

Audio Clip: (Music)

Sophia Huang:

It become quiet for a while because of the censorship. No one can see news about sexual harassment anymore. So they turned down all the articles. After a few months, we wait and we have more case in work place like NGO field, a media field or in other field. So a very famous anchor, if you saw the news in China, you can see his name's Jujuin, he is a very famous anchor and journalist from CCTV. But there's a girl that she was sexually harassed by him four years ago. So it become a huge news again.

Sophia Huang:

So the censorship doesn't work well, there are people, we are using different kind of saying slogans and Chinese character. So if you try, you will find, me too in China, might be very little news about that. But if you write rice bunny, means rice and the similar sound like me and too means bunny. So the sounds are similar, like me too. We use me too, and then there will be a lot of articles like that. So we kind to run away from the censorship, the more news coming out and people keep talking about sexual harassment, me too movement.

Sophia Huang:

I write a story. I promote this movement. I do the report. I also work with an NGO. So we had the NGO, which connecting the victims with the lawyers. If they want to make their case to the court. We connect them with lawyers, who has a better sense of gender equality, who has a better sense about women. And we also connect the victims with psychologists, because a lot of them suffer from PTSD, is very serious one. And we also connect them with social media, when they want to share the article in public. And we also connect them with social workers when they need some other service, from different kinds of people. So this, I think what I did here is not done by myself. It's a group of people are doing that. A lot of people get involved. So I was thinking like, "Why they choose me? I'm not really leader." I don't think I am leader, but people said that, "You are a leader." So maybe it's kind of destiny to choose me to be here.

Audio Clip: (Music)

Sophia Huang:

So it's kind of like we are trying to build a network. A supporting network for the victims to come forward, to speak their story, to share what they had been through. And to make it a better place for us, or for women or for men. All the people, all the victims coming together to share their story.

Sophia Huang:

I met a lot of people in doing these field, like fighting for women's rights, LGBT rights. And focus on the victims, especially sexual harassment. So I actually learned a lot from here. When we visit the police department in Des Moines, and they had a special session. A family conflict session, they had 12 policemen focus on domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape. And those policemen are specially trained.

Sophia Huang:

And I asked, "What do you mean by specially trained?" They mean, they send them to the university to start to get more knowledge about sexual harassment, about [inaudible 00:14:40] violence, about gender equality. About the different kinds of violence, some gender based violence, some are not. So they have better understanding about these. So they are specially trained. There are victim centers, they were helping the victims. Not just, because it's very difficult it very surprise me, because it's so difficult for Chinese women to come forward, to go to the police station, to report a case.

Sophia Huang:

If you don't have a good sense about gender, about the victims, it's not easy to make case. They just accuse the victims, "Why you do this? Why you do not do this." So I was so surprised to see in Des Moines, they train these investigators or policemen. I feel like this is what I want to bring it back to China. I want to tell, if I have the chance, I can talk to the police station like, "This what we should do." Because less than 2% of the victims will go forward to report to the police station. According to my report.

Sophia Huang:

Because we are hurt, we still [inaudible 00:15:48] guess what happened to me sometimes, right. We don't really know how to respond immediately. We don't know whether they are going to trust to believe me or not. Are they going to ask me to provide more evidence? So this is also the problem. When we are talking to the policeman here in Des Moines, they said like, "Yes, not a lot of victims have come forward, but they absolutely will choose will try to believe the victim. And we'll try to collect as more evidence as possible to support them." So this thing I will definitely bring back to China.

Sophia Huang:

It come to me, it's a mom, a mom who had the organization names, the moms action in Des Moines. She was telling, sharing as her story, like she used to be a very successful business woman. She had the happy life. She had the two kids. And one day in 2010, I remember if I'm not wrong. So there's a gun shooting in the school. In their community. She was shocked because she had kids go to the same school. So she's like, "Oh God, what can I do?" She said, "I can't live back to my normal life. Just ignore or move to somewhere else." Best just think, "No, I cannot do it." Because even in some place else, she can not predict that. What if you had a gun shooting again? She's so afraid that her kids will be in danger. So every day she dropped her kids to this school.

Sophia Huang:

She will keep kids, sing them and say, "I love you. I love you. I love you." Every day, every moment like so afraid that this will be last time for her to say that. And she want to say do more. Even she was upset. She was disappointed. She transform all this anger, or sorrow, or sadness into action. She connected a lot of moms in the community. And they talk about what they can do about this gun violence in United States. So they have built a network, started with a group of moms. And then they had 3000 women join this NGO, or what we call a network. And they know that it's impossible to ban gun in United States. Behind that is a huge money. And yeah, so she knows the problem. And she approached this issue with a different strategy.

Sophia Huang:

So she said like, "Okay, then we don't ban guns, but we are promoting trainings, for you to how to use guns safely. How to lock your gun in your home, in case your children has the chance to use the gun." They also like providing a lot of [inaudible 00:18:37] for the victims. I mean, the victims who has been suffered from gun violence. So they also suffer from PTSD. So to help them, I think this has really come to my mind, like, "Okay, you are hurt and you are angry. But women suffer this and we transform all this emotion into real action and make a difference. Do something to change and make it better for the society."

Audio Clip: (Music)

Sophia Huang:

I feel like, oh wow, you see women really suffer, but we really just be strong again. And then we know the issues there we cannot really ignore it anymore. So we had to take action to change. Yeah, that's the moment I feel so impressive and really touch my heart.

Sophia Huang:

We learned some good things here. Good advice here. And we will try to make it fit into Chinese law. That the bigger part I will do, and I want to do. And I already connected with a lot of lawyers, they're also pushing this law. We keep writing articles, writing petitions. Also keep asking them like, "When are you going to have these meetings?" We ask, because their problem it's like, "Oh, we will have meetings with you." And then this and that. So this is one thing I will do. And the other thing is still building this network for the victims. Like the workshops, the training workshops. We actually have some already. And I think the good things I learned from United States, like raise the bar program. That's also can work in China. So I'm going to do it. And I'm working with a lot of universities right now. They're also starting about this anti sexual harassment mechanism, how to do the prevention, how to do the training.

Sophia Huang:

I'm going to do another petition soon for the media. An open letter for the media, as the media to report sexual harassment fairly. To respect a victim. I'm going to do that soon, next week. So I get a lot of support actually from Asia country, they say, "Oh, journalist from Asia. Oh, we also want to do it to our media. We also want to join your petition. Can we join? Can we sign our name? Do you have Chinese version?" Now I have Chinese version. They asked, "Do you have English version? I would like to bring it back to my news room. I wouldn't want to bring back to my, work place can you send me this report? I want to know more." So I was like taking my, I took 20 copies of the hard copy of my report. Now I had only one here. So it's like, everyone was so eager to offer help.

Sophia Huang:

Even the speakers in the United States and the professors or the mayor, she was like, "Oh wow. What can I do? Like, what can I do for you? What kind of support you need?" So everyone offering to help each other. So I think with this network, we really can do something. I mean, it, I'm not just saying like, "Oh, because I'm here." Yeah, because I'm here. I'm so happy to see so many people are working on the same subject. We are working on the same thing, promoting peace, security, and then equal rights. That's very important. We say it, but if you don't really live in a world without equal rights, you don't really know how it feels.

Sophia Huang:

To really bring all this amazing lady together. And let us know more about different country. Yeah, I know about China. I don't know a lot about other country. But when they share the difficulties, the challenges, I feel like we are the same. And if we know more about each other, we have a better understanding. There will be less conflict happening in this whole world.

Sophia Huang:

So yeah, an Indian friend, Indian fellow asked me like, "Hey, why are you trying to want to control everything?" I was like, "Oh what? I did not control everything." And then, and she also went to ask the Pakistan, like, "Why you want to cause so many problems into our country." I feel like, "Okay." But when we are together, we are as a family and friends. So next time when I come back to China, share something about United States, or something about India. I have someone to talk to. I will share the real person there, share her story and her problems. And her achievements and her work in that country. And that's something really links us all together, connect people. So I feel like this opportunity is really amazing.

Audio Clip: (Music)

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.

Chris Wurst:

This week, Sophia Huang shared her experiences from her IVLP program. For more about IVLP, which stands for International Visitors Leadership Program and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. You can subscribe to 22.33, wherever you find your podcasts. And we whole heartedly encourage you to do so. And you can write to us if you like what you're listening to @ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov, that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L -E-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Very special thanks this week to Sophia for her inspiration and her stories. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was, "Step in, step out" and "Algea trio" by the blue dot sessions. "Alexandra" by Löhstana David. And "Fragile-Do not drop" by Podington bear. 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.

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Season 02, Episode 37 - An Accidental Activist (A Study in Courage) - Susanna Liew Koh

LISTEN HERE - Episode 37

DESCRIPTION

This is the incredible story of Susanna Liew Koh, a 2020 recipient of the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award. Following the February 2017 abduction of her husband, Christian pastor Raymond Koh, allegedly by state agents, Susanna Liew has fought on behalf of members of religious minorities who disappeared in Malaysia under similar circumstances or who face persecution for their beliefs.  Susanna actively pursued justice during the Malaysian Human Rights Commission’s 2018-2019 public inquiry into enforced disappearances and continues to push the government to investigate these cases and prosecute those responsible.  Despite police harassment and death threats, she continues to advocate for her husband and others, not because of her faith or theirs, but because of their rights as Malaysians.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

You call yourself an accidental activist. And while it's true that you did not set out to take on a giant, there's nothing accidental about your courage and drive to be a voice for the disappeared. In the face of a horrible crime, your resolve has been an inspiration.

Chris Wurst:

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

Susanna Liew Koh:

So it was in February 2017, that one ordinary day when I was babysitting for my friend, suddenly my husband was taken from the streets and he has not been heard from since.

Chris Wurst:

This week, a life turned upside down in a matter of seconds, bravely taking private matters into the public eye and finding a voice for the disappeared. Join us on a journey from Malaysia to the United States, and becoming an accidental International Woman of Courage. It's 22.33.

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

Intro Clips: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Intro Clips:

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 Clips: (singing)

Susanna Liew Koh:

My name is Susanna Koh, and I am the wife of Pastor Raymond Koh, who was abducted in February 2017. I come from Malaysia. I'm here to receive the award for the International Women of Courage.

Susanna Liew Koh:

I grew up with my grandmother in Petaling Jaya, which is a suburban area near to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. My parents were busy at work, and we kind of look after ourselves. I attended primary and secondary school there. After school, I had a short stint with a newspaper company, then I joined a Christian organization as a volunteer. It was on a ship that goes around the world and they sell books and give training to Christian leaders. I think in the two years there, as well as in India, it kind of impacted my life. We had to work hard on the ship and we had to mix and adjust with people from many different nationalities. I think it was there that I learned to be selfless, to be thinking of others.

Susanna Liew Koh:

After two years, I went home and I took a course in preschool education, majoring in Montessori. Also at this time, I met my husband and we were both passionate about just work. I was running and operating a kindergarten as a business. I really enjoyed working with children, seeing them grow as a person and also in their studies. After about 13 years, my husband retired from his pastoral work and we founded a non-profit company working with the poor, the needy and marginalized, particularly those infected and affected with HIV/AIDS. And it was this time that we learned more about people who were needy and how to help them.

Susanna Liew Koh:

My own passion was with the single mothers who had lost their husbands through divorce or through death. Even as we taught the children literacy, we also try to help the mothers because it's interrelated. If the mothers were not well, the children too would not do well. But we saw the way that the children improved in their studies as we helped the mothers. We used to give them groceries every month because some children were not able to even have their breakfast in the morning. And then we begin to make friends with them and get to know them.

Susanna Liew Koh:

During this time, because we work with everyone, irregardless of their race or religion, however, there were some Muslims coming to our reading center, so my husband was accused of proselyting to Muslims. So we received death threats to stop us from doing our work. It was in February 2017, that one ordinary day when I was babysitting for my friend, suddenly my husband was taken from the streets and he has not been heard from since. My children and I, we went about looking for CCTV footage and we managed to find it. It was really shocking to see a very professionally executed operation involving just 40 seconds only.

Susanna Liew Koh:

The next day I was asked whether I want to take an interview. I was thinking to myself that, "Well, they have done this in secret, therefore I'm going to make it public." So I took the interview, and from that day on it snowballed into where citizens of Malaysia came in solidarity to stand with the family and to make a statement that this extra legal, extra judicial, operation should not happen to anyone. Malaysia is governed by rule of law, and if he has done anything wrong, then the authorities should bring him to court. He should have the right to counsel.

Susanna Liew Koh:

From that day on, it was no turning back. So in a way, you choose it. But in another sense, you also have no choice. If you don't take a stand, if you don't speak out, there's no one to speak up for you. The head of family is gone, who is going to take charge? Who is going to lead? I felt that my children were not able to lead, that I have to fill those shoes. And so I did. You can say I am an accidental activist. I never actually thought I would be speaking in front of TV or radio or press, but I was thrust in the situation, and somehow found the strength to stand up to what I feel is against the basic human right to life, to movement, freedom of speech, freedom to believe and to practice your faith.

Susanna Liew Koh:

Morally, I know what is right and what is wrong. We play a game in Malaysia when we were young, it's called The Eagle and The Mother Hen. The mother hen will have some kids with her. There will be a wolf trying to catch her children, and she will spread her hands, her wings, to kind of protect them, to keep them from being taken or eaten by the wolf. I think that is partly how I feel, that I'm trying to protect my children from harm, and therefore, it's like my instinct to protect them. Even though it might seem dangerous, even though I'm facing the giant and it's intimidating, I'm facing a system and obstacles and challenges in my pursuit of justice, but I want to know the truth, and therefore I don't give up.

Susanna Liew Koh:

You have to know your rights and you have to stand up for your rights. I was being questioned many times by the police and special branch. There was one time I was questioned for five hours. Even though it was very stressful and intimidating, I stood up and told the police officer that, "I'm not going to answer anymore questions. I have my rights. I'm going to walk out of here and I'm going to find my husband." I told him, "The important thing for you to do is to find my husband, not to question me because I'm the victim." They seem to took a step back, and they realized that she know her rights. There was a little fear. There was a little fear, but it didn't paralyze me. I just expressed it confidently.

Susanna Liew Koh:

Since this case happened, I feel like I need to know more, and to go and support the civil rights activists, especially when they have been called for questioning. I always try to be there to show my support to them, to let them know that I'm there for them. I give them moral support, and they really appreciate it when we turn up outside the police station. I feel like anyone can be speaking out for peoples' rights. Because if they don't speak out, if they are silent, who knows, the authorities may think this is normal, they can continue with what they are doing, and what they're doing is not right. So people should not be afraid, but to speak up.

Susanna Liew Koh:

Recently, we took a civil suit against the government and police, as I felt that was my last option because they were very quiet about it, and that after three years, there was no updates, there were no new development. Where do I go from here? And that's why I'm really very, very grateful and happy to be here in United States to have this opportunity to share my story. Hopefully, this will make the government of Malaysia and the authorities sit up and be accountable, and that they would be serious about the investigations and bring the perpetrators to justice. This is my hope and my personal appeal, that not only Raymond, but the three other people who have been disappeared, Amri Che Mat, Joshua and Ruth, that they too will be released in the near future.

Susanna Liew Koh:

I think this desire to help others is because of what I've been through. I know that it's painful to lose someone so suddenly. I don't want other people to have to go through with it, and therefore I speak out for those that do not have the platform and do not have the voice. By speaking about it, I find that I'm slowly being healed because it takes the attention off myself. When I am busy looking to the needs of others, when I help others, I find that it just helps them, and it also helps me.

Chris Wurst:

What would you say to your husband about what's been going on while he's been away?

Susanna Liew Koh:

Well, I would tell him that things are all right, not to worry, the children are okay. Even though they were affected in the beginning, they went through a bit of depression and we had some counseling and that really helped. It's okay to say you're not all right because it's a difficult situation. We miss him and we hope he will come back to us soon to be reunited with us. We are doing all we can to get him released because I believe that he's alive. We have dreams that he's okay. And one day, our hope of being reunited with him will 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. Our stories come from participants of a U.S. government-funded, international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst:

This week, Susanna Liew Koh shared her emotional story fighting for human rights and abducted citizens in Malaysia. Prior to our interview, Susanna received a prestigious International Women of Courage Award, presented by the First Lady and Secretary of State, before embarking on a special International Visitor Leadership Program, or IVLP in Minneapolis.

Chris Wurst:

For more about IVLP 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. 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 @22.33stories.

Chris Wurst:

Special thanks to Susanna for her selfless courage and inspiration. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music at the top of this episode was Sebastian by How The Night Came, and the end credit music was Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.

Susanna Liew Koh:

Never in my wild imagination would I have known that this could happen one day. When they told me about the nomination, I just couldn't believe it. And sitting there just now, with the Mike Pompeo and Melania Trump, I was asking myself, "Am I dreaming? Should I pinch myself? Is this real?"

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Season 02, Episode 36 - Finding Perspective on Robben Island - David Rader

LISTEN HERE - Episode 36

DESCRIPTION

As a Gilman Scholar, David Rader thought that going from the United States to South Africa would be a radical change, but it turned out to be nothing compared to the dramatic contrasts within his new home and the realizations they provided.  This week: poignant stories from Capetown.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

Living in South Africa, you simultaneously experience some of the most luxurious and most poverty-stricken conditions on earth. And on Robben Island, you learned about the power to find peace, and to forgive. And that changed how you see the world. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

David Raider:

We went to an elephant sanctuary, and they have elephants who are there rehabilitating. Either they were circus elephants in Europe, or America, or Asia, or somewhere, and they're bringing them back into their natural environment. Or two, they were animals who may be diseased, or family members died, and they would not survive alone in the wild. We were able to walk with them, and you curl your hand backward. And the elephant latches its trunk onto your hand, very softly. And it reminds me of, if you've ever had a baby hold your finger, they'll wrap their entire hand around your finger, it was like that. And I was walking guiding this, I don't know probably five ton elephant, weigh about 10000 pounds behind me. And I'm walking through knee-high brush and I'm talking to the guide, who I think he was Congolese. And I'm walking with this 10000 pound elephant behind me, just walking through the woods. Or not the woods, but the brush, and I'm like, man oh man, there are not a lot of people who would A, believe this, or B, it's out of a movie. You can't make this stuff.

Chris Wurst:

This week, seeing the world from Nelson Mandela's jail cell. Experiencing uncalled for generosity in a rainy township, and feeling okay with feeling small. Join us on our journey from California to Cape Town, to find humanity within extremes. It's 22.33.

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

Intro Clips: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Intro Clips: 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 ...

Intro Clips: Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange. Oh yeah.

David Raider:

My name is David Raider. I'm originally from southern California, Laguna Beach specifically, and I attended Stellenbosch University for the summer program in 2011. And that was through a Gilman Scholarship.

David Raider:

I actually enlisted in the army out of high school, spent four years in the army. I was fortunate enough to be stationed in Germany for a year. It was kind of always in the back of my mind to study abroad or get the chance to go abroad again. So with that, after I got out of the army, I went to the University of Arizona for undergraduate and they have a very big study abroad push. So I applied. The guidance of our study abroad coordinator for the Gilman Scholarship, she said, you're a veteran. You want to see the world.

David Raider:

And I actually had a natural kind of affinity for South African politics. I'm a political science undergrad major if that means anything. So apartheid fascinated me. I didn't get it, but I knew what it was and I never felt fully connected to it, to the study of it nor the experience of the South Africans. So I applied to the Gilman Scholarship and got it. So I was fortunate enough to go to South Africa for about nine weeks for the summer program.

David Raider:

One of the most memorable experiences there was going to Robben Island and standing in front of the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. And Robben Island, it's beautiful because the backdrop of it is Cape Town and the Table Mountain. And the beautiful ocean and the water is clear, but it's cold and it's a hard barren island. And you think, so he was in prison for roughly 27 years, and he split time between multiple places. But at Robben Island, even if you're there for a day as an inmate, it would be a very tough life.

David Raider:

It was brutal. Horrible manual labor all day in the sun, and they had horrible physical ailments from it. Yeah, it's one of those lasting things to have to ... So you do that, then you go back to a very small cell where he slept on the floor of hard cement with a little mat that looks like a potato sack. And the wind whips through there, and it's cold and there's sideways rain. It would be very easy to ... Yeah, to walk out of there an unhappy and angry, spiteful person

David Raider:

And they said that on some days you could hear if the wind was the right way, you could hear a noise coming in from Cape Town or from surrounding areas. And so you'd be sitting there, you'd hear people having fun and boats would sail by and you'd be breaking big rocks into little rocks with a pickax. And you look up and there's a yacht with a bunch of people drinking wine shooting by you. So yeah, it would just, it would hammer at home more and more about the desolate situation you were in relative to what was an arms length away from you.

David Raider:

And it would make you hard and jaded. And I would be at least. And so, knowing that he was able to be in that circumstance, not treated fairly and not well most of his life, as well as many of his countrymen and forgive and look and say, the way to go forward with this is not with spite and malice and hatred. It's with forgiveness and for reconciliation for my people. And for all of us to together and move forward from that. And so from a leadership standpoint, as an individual it taught me a lot about the actual challenges I face in my life relative to his.

David Raider:

Not that bad. Life's been pretty good to me. You learn about a lot about yourself and leadership in the army, but being in Robben Island and seeing a person being able to forgive years of oppressive treatment and step forward from that with the thought of something bigger than himself being what's best for my country and the people around me, and how can I make the world a better, safer, freer, more prosperous place under those circumstances, it's had a lasting impact on me and the way I view my problems, my colleagues. The way I'm empathetic towards issues or sympathetic.

David Raider:

I had a friend come visit me while I lived in South Africa. We were driving from Stellenbosch and there's a huge township right next to the airport in Cape Town. But as we drove by, there was a child going to the bathroom on the side of the road, just pulled down his pants and was going there because that's what they did. There was a dead horse. Man, it was about 400 feet past that. And there's kind of stagnant, there's a little bit of running water, but it's mostly stagnant swampy kind of water. And this kid's going to the bathroom there. There's a dead horse 400 feet later. And so I say, it's not all like this. Let's just keep going. You drive another three miles and you hit the top of Camps Bay. And Camps Bay for everyone is like the Beverly Hills of South Africa. But it's on this water, on this beautiful oceanfront beach property. And we're driving, and two Ferraris were kind of racing past each other playfully.

David Raider:

It was a four lane road, so they had room, but they were ... You could tell it was two guys out joy riding. And you think, I just three miles ago, I saw a dead horse on the side of the street. A child was going to the bathroom next to it. And then three miles later I'm watching two Ferraris shoot around as they were going out drinking for the day. I thought, man, okay, this is ... There could not be a moment more vividly captured. The haves and have-nots or abject wealth and abject poverty within 10 miles.

David Raider:

So there's still a lot of tension. And so being there and studying apartheid ... And it's funny because from an academic standpoint, you say, well, apartheid ended in 1994, roughly when Mandela was elected president. And we've moved forward and things are good. And that's not the case. A lot of the things I saw were how they were able to reconcile and really go forth the government. But it's not like that in practice there.

David Raider:

You walk in as an American and say, I've learned about you, and I see how it is here. And they'd say, you have no idea. You have to be there and experience it. And you have to meet the people, and see the problems they're facing or the challenges they're facing to really understand how far they've come, but how far they have left to go. And then you reflect upon that in America. And we say, oh, everything's great. It's the most prosperous country ever. And that's true for some people, but some people here, life's tough too. And it's not always as buttoned up as we like to make it on 4th of July, when we're all waving the flag and happy and celebrating.

David Raider:

While there we went on a tour through Kayamandi Township. And so it's right on the hill next to Stellenbosch. And so Stellenbosch is an absolutely beautiful part of the world. So they identify as white, black, and colored. Colored there is an accepted social classification. And so during apartheid, the whites were treated the best. Colors were then treated second best. And then black, we think of Africans were treated the worst. And so a lot of them ended up congregating in Kayamandi Township, which is right next to Stellenbosch.

David Raider:

And so you have these beautiful Dutch colonial houses with wineries, and these beautiful mountains. And right across the road is ... I'm making up numbers here, but 2000 people living in rusted tin huts on mud floors. So we went on a tour of Kayamandi, and I remember thinking, I'm a six foot four white guy. I am everything that somebody here could hate about that other side of the road. And they were the warmest, friendliest, funniest, sweetest people. And they have nothing. So I was there in June and July, which as you said is their winter. And so it was kind of rainy one day.

David Raider:

And this guy walked by and I was getting rained on. I don't have a lot of hair anyway, but this guy was like, "Do you want my hat?" The guy maybe makes $4 in a day, and he was offering me his hat. And I'm a student touring his country on a scholarship there. And it was just a lasting memory too of how sweet and kind and considerate the people are despite constantly again, the whole Robben Island thing being physically faced feet away from you with the haves versus the have-nots and a constant reminder. And he was willing to give me something that he had. And I guarantee he didn't have a lot.

David Raider:

It was fascinating talking to people there because they too, the same way I had stereotypes in my head of Africans, and then more specifically South Africans, they do of Americans. And especially so being from southern California, they would joke and they'd be like, "Oh, you know Pamela Anderson. You're from California." My dad was a lawyer, my was a special ed teacher. We did not interact with celebrities at all. And they would look at me, not disappointed, but kind of bewildered like, no, no, you do. You have to know Tom Cruise. I thought the same thing with South Africans. You say, well, you have to go on safari. You have to have school canceled because a lion walked through. Which I'm joking, but they look at you too and say, you have all these stereotypes. You don't know anything about me.

David Raider:

You realize quickly that you're an ambassador of the United States, and that's when you're in class or when you're at a restaurant, or when you're grabbing a taxi. At all times you're a representative of the United States. And at all times you have to be cognizant of that. Of how people are going to perceive you, and which stereotypes you can challenge and beat for the better. Or also which stereotypes you're going to play into exactly. And are you a loud, boisterous American? Or are you a very observant, polite participant of society? That integration into society even though temporary, is very important to be aware of at all times.

David Raider:

Well, there's four South Africa's to me. So there's the bush. There's the proper, what you think of for safari, and that's Kruger National Park. And it's these expanses of wild animals. And it sounds ridiculous because it's like The Lion King. If you could fly over in a drone, you would see zebra and Hemsbach and lion and jaguar and elephant, and it's real. And it's something you feel like you've only seen in a movie. So then there's Durban, which is this large industrial port town, which has I think almost a million Indians. And it's a very unique, different diaspora of Indians that they put curry powder on pineapple. And so you have this weird convergence of the Portuguese influence of merchants and sailors with Indians. Then you get to the Northern Cape and it's rural and raw and it's hard.

David Raider:

It's rocky. Not a lot grows. And then there's Cape Town, the Western Cape. And Western Cape is like San Diego weather surrounded by Napa with some Stanford kind of buildings with the Rocky Mountains right behind it. And it's the most aesthetically pleasing place I've ever seen in my life. And it's like Lord of the rings, which was so in New Zealand. But the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa are very similar. And it's the most just cragged rocks leading down to the most pristine beaches, and these gorgeous hillsides covered with vineyards. And these white Dutch colonial buildings all against the backdrop of this raw and unfiltered and primal South Africa. An African nation of just friendly, sweet people who are there to eat food, drink wine, marry, love, dance, raise families, be happy and left alone.

David Raider:

And conversely it's against the backdrop of crime and abject poverty and oppression and economic under-performance. And it's a fascinating place that just kind of marries together a lot of senses and feelings that you have throughout your life, as well as a lot of visuals and experiences that you can bundle all into one place. It's a very complicated and very special place.

David Raider:

At the southern most tip of South Africa, 50 feet to your left is the Indian Ocean, and 50 feet to your right is the Atlantic. And you can put your feet in the Indian and it's warm, and you walk over to the Atlantic and it's ice cold. And it's funny because it has to do with the way the ocean currents push the water because the Atlantic water basically comes from Antarctica and circles up. And the Indian Ocean is coming down from the Gulf, Somalia and Oman and Yemen, and it's warm. And the water churns and it's beautiful.

David Raider:

And it's this blue/green, it's really special. But I just remember it being these two massive oceans are converging right in front of me. And one of them is like bathtub warm, and the other is icebox cold. And that was a very lasting moment about how small we are in the world as humans, as well as even just the landmasses because Africa is gigantic. I flew from San Francisco to Dubai, which I think was about 12 hours. And then I flew from Dubai to Cape Town. And it was nine hours. And I thought, geez, that's three hours past the length of the entire United States from a width standpoint, if you fly from New York to LA. I thought, holy cow, this is a big chunk of rock. And then you realize of course, the ocean still covered two thirds of the planet.

David Raider:

So you realize quickly how small you are. And there's something special about the African sky. We call Montana, big sky country. And South Africa is the same way. The sky seems to go on forever, and it's bluer. And then it's blacker than what we see in North America. And they explained it, it was because of the atmosphere and the way the earth is and all that. But yeah, it's a very primitive kind of place. It's very untouched by man, and it's very welcoming. And in a lot of ways, it brings you back to center on how you feel about it being as a human.

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 David Raider told us about his time in South Africa as a Gilman scholar. For more about the Gilman and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and you can do so wherever you find your podcasts. And while you're doing so, why not leave us a review? What the heck? We'd also love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov, that's E-C-A C-O-L-L-E-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. And finally, photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage. That's at eca.state.gov/ 22.33. Special thanks this week to David for sharing his insights and his love of South Africa. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was my favorite regret, instrumental version by Josh Woodward. And that horse Ethica and farcical thematic 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.

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Season 02, Episode 35 - Technology as a Force for Good - Will Tyner

LISTEN HERE - Episode 35

DESCRIPTION

This week, Will Tyner, a coder from Silicon Valley, travels to Romania on his Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, to see the power of civic tech unleashed.  On the frontlines with Code for Romania, Will witnesses how the first generation after Communism uses technology to hold their government accountable and makes it a force for good.

TRANSCRIPT:

Chris Wurst:

You didn't know much about Romania before you landed. Not even that it was the home of Dracula, but soon, you met an entire generation of young people, using technology in new ways to hold the post-communist government accountable. Beyond ordering food and getting a ride, you witnessed firsthand the power of technology to change a society for good. You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

William Tyner:

Bucharest is a beautiful, beautiful city, and it's also this seemingly surreal city. It feels like another dimension of Paris, for example. If Paris were to have a fourth dimension, it is Bucharest.

Chris Wurst:

This week: from first world problems in Silicon Valley, to witnessing a civic revolution, touring a diamond tool factory, and using technology to fight corruption and pave a new society for a new generation. Join us on a journey from Silicon Valley to Bucharest, Romania. It's 22.33

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

Intro Clips: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Intro Clips: 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-

Intro Clips: (singing)

William Tyner:

So my name is William Tyner, and I am a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling fellow from 2018, and I went to Romania.

William Tyner:

I was a Code for America fellow back in 2015, and I had been working in Silicon Valley and had been interacting with the technology sector, and really was disappointed with what I found. For me, technology has always been this thing that can really be an empowering tool and a liberating tool, and I learned that in California, a lot of it is also driven just by capitalism, and there's a lot of inequality, in this really, for me, that's a very wealthy place of technology and great skills. So I was disappointed with that. And so, I worked for this group called Code for America, and learned about civic technology. It's this idea of technology that helps people get closer and have more power in the civic space, and improve government services, and I learned that civic tech wasn't just an American idea, but it was actually growing all around the world, from the U.S., to Nepal, and to Romania.

William Tyner:

I learned about this group called Code for Romania, and they are a civic technology organization in Romania, Bucharest, and now they're expanding to other parts of Romania. But also, I did some research and learned that Code for Romania was emerging out of a really interesting political moment. In the past, I guess, now seven or eight years, there's been a lot of political upheaval in Romania, where people are really trying to really fight against corruption, and really improve their society there, and there's been some big incidents that have happened, but that's kind of how Code for Romania was born, out of this really significant political upheaval.

William Tyner:

My intention with going to Romania was to understand how this group started. What were the inciting incidents? What motivated people to join? There's now over 800 Romanian civic technologists working in and out of Romania, using technology and code, and civic tech to build technology tools that increase transparency, and overall, the service delivery of government services in Romania. So it's kind of meant to support the civil society, and then also begin to try to teach, I guess, the government how things should be done in this modern age.

William Tyner:

Technology in Romania, it plays a really big role. It's not just about consumption. It's not just to help you order an Uber, or order some food. It really is changing how government works. It's increasing transparency, it's empowering people, it's giving information. So technology still has the potential to do a lot, but it depends on who you ask, and the eyes through which you view it.

William Tyner:

And I also wanted to understand a little bit about how the civic identity of these activists was developing. I mean, what did it mean to use technology to empower yourself and improve your society? What did that really mean to the individuals? Because I have my own kind of dynamic with technology, and how it helped me as a person growing up in rural Ohio as a black kid, and for me, opened up so many new worlds and it was, I think that empowered me. And so, I kind of began to see a similar dynamic between myself and people in Romania who were a part of this group. And so, I didn't really expect to see that connection, but I think that that ended up being really helpful for me, being able to tie my own story, to this seemingly very different world in Romania, but actually the intention and the outcome is the same, as far as technology goes.

William Tyner:

When I first arrived in Bucharest, the first thing that that was happening with the Code for Romania group was that they were preparing this really big conference, the civic tech conference that was based in Bucharest, and it was this big deal, one, that it was happening in Romania, and that Code for Romania was kind of leading the charge. And the first thing that we did was prepare for that, and so I arrived and it was late, and I remember everyone was putting in all the badges, and trying to move the tables, and it was a real community effort. Everyone had an all hands on deck. That was the first time that I really got to hang out with my friends in Romania in that way, and that was really, really fun. I remember just trying to organize the beanbags, and where things would go, and just help, be helpful. So that was a really positive memory of just trying to put this thing together, which really felt like it was emblematic of what civic tech is. It's was like, everyone is all hands on deck trying to make this thing happen, whatever it might be.

William Tyner:

In the United States, the UK, civic tech operates as a modernization tool. It's meant to improve how services in government are delivered, and it's meant to kind of improve an already pretty okay system, more or less, and I think I didn't appreciate the extent to which the governmental system needed a lot of support. The fact that it was coming from people who were citizens, that was really interesting to me to see that over 800 people, as a result of a variety of different instances and incidents, felt the need to really take up this technological arms, and begin to build this new society through technology.

William Tyner:

I didn't really realize the extent to which communism had impacted how the government operated, and I think in Romania, what really struck me was the generational, and socioeconomic, and geographic divide. It kind of mirrors the United States in a lot of ways, just the urban-rural divide in Romania, and the fact that 46% of people don't live in the city, and then the other half of the society lives in the city ,and is traveling all around the world and doing different things, and so you really see that there is a generational perspective, a difference, and I think we have that in the States, but it was for me, very pronounced in Romania.

William Tyner:

The first thing I noticed of the activists in Code for Romania, is they're all 30. It's been 30 years this year since the fall of communism, in 89' in Romania, in Eastern Europe, in general, and they are all the product of that. Well, they may not have lived for 15 years under communism, they were babies, and it seemed like they had collected the stories of their parents and the memory, the collective trauma and memory of that period. There is a big generational divide, and many people left the country and went to different places and learned different things. And so, they gained more skills and had more money, and so that does create a lot of inequality, as far as society goes. Seeing just how badly the younger generation wanted to move away from the past, and it has such resentment, and they were the beneficiaries of this really negative past, and that through technology, and through exposure, and education, they're trying really hard to change things there. And that was really, really powerful to see.

William Tyner:

When we talk about modernity and development, there's so many different groups that are all moving at different paces. We have the young people who are all over the world, doing all this stuff. Then we have people in the countryside who are living 80 years ago, in that timeframe, and then we have people who are Roma, the Roma population, who were then told a whole different context. And so, there's lots of parallel realities going on, and I think that to me, it characterizes a lot of the world now. The question for me is always, how can technology be something that begins to patch them together in a way that is healthy, holistic, and helpful?

William Tyner:

Code for Romania is trying to really work to standardize information and data sets, and I think one important example is I learned that during communism, a lot of jobs like sociologists, and very, very important social scientist roles were totally dismantled, more or less, and put under the state. And so, after communism and to this day, there is not a lot of data that the state has about people and information, so there's no standard data. So when you want to build an app or a tool that improves a process, there's no information to really do that off of, and so that's a big, a big focus of Code for Romania, is building data portals, just organizing the information that exists, so that people can use it and make decisions more effectively. That's a really powerful thing that I learned, is just, it's not the sexiest thing, but it's really important that we have information about the city, and we have good data that we can make choices off of.

William Tyner:

My flatmate, her name is Ina, and she is just amazingly talented, a maker and architect by training, and she's really talented with all of that. And so, we hung out for the entire year, and she invited me to her family's home. Just the generosity from her mom and dad, and all the food, I mean, I gained like 10 kilos in that one trip, and they were so incredible. And I think one thing that sticks out to me was when Ina's father, he has a diamond tool factory, so his big, big, very industrial facility, and he showed me around the facility and showed me all of his diamonds, and he just took me into this interesting world of what he does every day.

William Tyner:

He was so excited, and proud and happy, and for me, that was really, really cool to be able to talk to him, and just be in Ina's home, and they just were feeding me like crazy, and we were drinking like crazy, and the dad was singing. He's really talented pianist, and he would serenade us on guitar, and I felt really at home at that point, and it was really, really nice, and that was definitely a highlight of the entire time. Even if I've talked to politicians and all these cool people, and that one time with Ina and her family was like, takes the cake, for just a demonstration of utter hospitality to someone who they didn't know from Adam.

William Tyner:

I have committed myself in a new way to telling stories that talk about technology and liberation, from the perspectives of places that are not necessarily associated with technological advancement, even whether there are actually or not. As a film maker, I'm very interested in this idea of Afrofuturism, or I learned about this idea of Eastern futurism as well, and Roma futurism as well in Romania. How can you change representation of places through technology, and putting people who aren't typically at the table, in the seat of power and what that looks like? And so, I'm really interested in shifting power dynamics, and using technology as a tool to do that, from a variety of [inaudible 00:14:15], I wouldn't have ever considered that Romania fits into that model of empowerment. I wouldn't have ever thought about that. And to me, I'd like to find more places where you can shift how places and people are seeing through technology.

William Tyner:

The end goal is to paint a portrait of this specific time in Romania. I think it's a really interesting time, that while particular to Romania, it also is a universal story to me. People advocating for themselves, people, quote, kind of waking up to their power in society. One of the big findings for me was that Romanian people haven't had... There's not a big culture of civic activism in the way that we have in other places. I learned that over and over again, that after these big protests, people were really waking up, and they had told me that, and I learned that over and over again, that people were realizing how to organize, how to be collective, how to empower themselves. And so, I think that that's also a thing that is happening in the States too, and in France, and in Sudan, and other places, and while it's particularly relevant for Romania, it also speaks to a broader global movement and progress of how we all interact with our governments, and how we use technology tools to communicate our own power.

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, William Tyner talked about the power of civic technology, as part of his Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling fellowship. For more about the Fulbright Program and other ECA exchanges, 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 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. Special thanks to Will for taking the time to meet with us, and tell his stories.

Chris Wurst:

Ana-Maria Sinitean did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Romanian Hora by The Underscore Orkestra, Decompression by Blue Dot Sessions, and an instrumental version of Bags of Water by Josh Woodward. 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.

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Season 02, Episode 34 - Now There's a Word for It - Meaza Ashenhafi

LISTEN HERE - Episode 34

DESCRIPTION:

A very special episode, featuring the story of Meaza Ashenhafi, Ethiopia's first female Supreme Court Chief Justice. Her story is an inspiration for women and girls everywhere.

With over 225,000 International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) alumni, each has a story to tell and Maeza Ashafeni has been selected as one of the outstanding #FacesOfExchange. This initiative will highlight 80 years of the IVLP by showcasing 80 accomplished alumni, their lives and leadership, and the impact of their exchanges on the global community.

Check out more stories at eca.state.gov/facesofexchange!

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Wurst:

Your native language in Ethiopia is Amharic. As a child learning Amharic, you might not have noticed that there were no words that represented violence against women or sexual harassment. But later as a lawyer, and still later as Ethiopia's first female Chief Justice, you made sure to create those words and to educate the public about their meaning. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Meaza Ashenafi:

I definitely lacked education. I wanted to join university and I knew that education is the key out of poverty, but I would never imagined that one day I would be the chief justice of my country and this is a privilege.

Chris Wurst:

This week, fighting bullies and standing up for women, taking the government to court and winning. And so what if there's not a word for it? He'll make a word for it. Join us on our journey from Ethiopia to the United States, learning to use the law and fight for women's rights. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip:

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

These exchanges shaped who I am.

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 ...

Meaza Ashenafi:

My name is Meaza Ashenafi and I come from Ethiopia. I am the chief justice of Ethiopia. I was appointed just a little over a year ago, November, 2019.

Chris Wurst: What was the name of the program that you were at?

Meaza Ashenafi:

International Visitors Leadership Program and the year was 1997, 23 years ago.

Meaza Ashenafi: I grew with up in a small town, you can call it in fact a remote rural town, 800 kilometers from the central capital city. I was one of nine children and I'm the fifth in my family. Five girls and four boys. Growing up was pleasant because we have a very supportive family, supportive community, but in terms of facilities, there was no running water while I was growing up, there was no electricity. When I came to university to join law school that was the first time I saw a television set.

Meaza Ashenafi:

Since I was a child, I always stood up for my rights as well as the rights of my friends or even siblings. There is a story that my mom likes to tell. My older brother used to get bullied at school, so she decided to send me early to school so that I protect my brother. So my sympathy to people whom I think are disadvantaged or discriminated started on very early.

Meaza Ashenafi:

I always had that inclination to human rights issues, to protection of the rights of others, but at that time I was not able to articulate it and we don't have like formal counselors and then we don't have formal guidance. While I was growing up I was not sure if I was going to study law, but decided that that is the subject for me to pursue.

Meaza Ashenafi:

So after graduating from the university, I was working with the government, but after a few years of service in government office we have established our organization called Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association. This organization was established by a group of women lawyers. We're focused on identifying discriminatory laws and advocating for amendment of such laws. We are also focused on public education awareness as well as supporting women who are victims of different kinds of crimes. So I was appointed as a director of the organization and at that point I was already active. I was already visible and I assume that that's how I am identified by the embassy of the United States in Addis Ababa to participate in this program.

Meaza Ashenafi:

I felt the importance of the program once I am here and once I have that opportunity to really actually experience it. It was 19 of us, young African lawyers and community leaders and six of them are women. My general take away from the experience was that the importance of building institutions and I was so impressed how in America institutions are built and how they are run. We had the opportunity to visit academic institutions, to visit community organizations. It was an eye opener for me and of course different factors contribute to our success, but some experiences have a very critical benefit, especially earlier on our career path. It was very important.

Meaza Ashenafi:

I was inspired and I understood the value of leadership and in a way also rediscovered my potential, and that was very helpful because we were starting the organization. I was given this important task as a young director of an important organization and we are trying to persuade the public about our mission and some of the insights that I got about leadership, about team building, about public service, about commitment was very, very useful. I would say it was empowering.

Meaza Ashenafi:

Words represent reality and words are very important, very powerful. Back when we started the organization, the woman lawyers organization, there was no words that represents a concept of violence against women. There was no words that represent sexual harassment and it was new conversation and that we had to find words and legitimize them. Later on of course through our advocacy work, these concepts as well as words have become part of the national policy. They have become part of the laws of the country. We started from scratch to popularize the concept as well as the importance of those concepts.

Meaza Ashenafi:

There was a shared division, we were a committed group of women and also some men who really collaborated with us. The fact that we're also trained as lawyers is very helpful because it's a tool, because we use international standard, we use the country's constitution and those are our reference and our tools.

Meaza Ashenafi:

So we always try to engage policy makers or legislators, and even members of the community in that terms, in that framework. So they tend to listen to us and there are some cases that were represented that has got global attention and all that enhance the credibility of the organization and the influence that we started to create.

Meaza Ashenafi:

It's kind of a new conversation. We brought the issue of gender equality squarely on the national agenda. People members spoke about rape or sexual violence of children, but once we started providing service, people started to talk about it. People started to come to our office to seek advice and support. So it kind of changed the conversation. I don't know if you heard about this particular case that we represented, this is a case of a 14 years old girl and she was abducted, she was raped and she killed her abductor. That was kind of a shock in our communities and when I'm talking about the one particular community because abduction in that community at that time was considered just part of how people perform marriage. So we represented her case and that trial took two years and finally she was acquitted. So this created kind of a new narrative because nobody contested abduction before. They have done it to her grandmothers, probably to her aunties, so that was like a new chapter. Yes, our activism has changed the conversation in many ways and at different levels.

Meaza Ashenafi:

Yeah, we also took some bold actions and another incident was there was this girl who was harassed by a person who wants to be her friend and she was not interested. This person was following her year after year and she was reporting to the police and they were not interested because they think that it's just normal and she just has to deal with him. But then we made an interpretation. We had to appeal to the minister of justice at that time and we said, you have to take seriously this case and this is happening. We were ignored. We started community mobilization, we started to call for rallies. So the government was not happy with that and they decided to close our organization and we did not accept that situation either. We took the ministry to court and that is like unheard of because no civil society organization would dare to take a government ministry to court. So they have to negotiate with us and the minister was made to resign and our organization was reinstated. That's of a courageous stories.

Meaza Ashenafi:

It is not easy because you always have to keep that bar high because it's not only about you but it's about girls, it's about women in general. I want to give you another example. Later on, I have assisted woman entrepreneurs to establish a commercial bank, but a woman focused commercial bank. It was a hard project, it was a very challenging project. But then whenever we sit together, discuss about the challenge about raising all the money that is needed and putting in place organizational structures to run a bank and so on. We say if we fail, we're going to fail girls, we're going to fail women. It's not about us. So we feel like we have no choice but to succeed and of course we have done it. Now it's very important and big financial institution. So yeah, challenges are there, but if you persist I think you'll be successful.

Meaza Ashenafi:

When I was a student at the law school, I was the only girl in my class out of 50 boys. But now we have on the average, 30% of students in any law school are woman. So when I run into them, families or the girls themselves, they say, "Oh, we grew up looking at you on the television, listening to you on the radio and we're really inspired by your achievement." So that's absolutely true. This is importance of role models in our societies. Yeah. Yeah, they do get inspiration.

Meaza Ashenafi:

My current job is very challenging. When I was approached to take this position a year ago in November, 2019 I had a job, a very comfortable job at the United Nations and I have also family responsibilities. But then I also thought that this is something of historical significance and I'm going to be the first ever chief justice of a very big population, over 100 million. And I said, actually I should be able to take up this challenge. So it's a complex assignment because the court that I am leading, there is no public trust.

Meaza Ashenafi:

People has lost faith in the judiciary in our country. And probably this is the case in other countries as well. We have very limited resource because it was completely neglected, the judiciary was completely neglected. And we have put together very important reform agenda. We are making some critical steps including legislative reform, training programs and we're not doing that only with the government budget and my contact was U.S. embassy and U.S. government is still helping me. And we're working on a very important reform project with USAID, which is under the state department. I am really grateful about my continuous collaboration with the government and people of the United States.

Meaza Ashenafi:

Our judges are more confident and they're more independent and more than ever before. They are confident that if they use the law and make decision there is not consequence that they're going to face. This has not been the case some time ago and this itself I feel is a big success, is a big success. I think there's a shared vision and there is support and I am optimistic we're going to make a difference.

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, Ethiopia's chief justice Meaza Ashenafi reminisced 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 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 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:

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 @22.33_stories.

Chris Wurst:

Special thanks to chief justice Ashenafi for taking the time to reminisce about her IVLP experiences. I did the interview along with Sam DeFilippo and edited this segment. Featured music was She Dreams in Blue by Josh Woodward, and three songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Palladian, Rodney Scopes and Silver Lanyard. 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.

 

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Season 02, Episode 33 -  Special: Connecting Through Isolation, Part 9 (May 15, 2020) 

LISTEN HERE: Episode 33

DESCRIPTION

This week is all about gratitude--for the essential workers keeping us safe and for those we are closest to.  From 91-year-old "Granny" in an assisted living facility in Alabama to a little boy obsessed with garbage trucks, to an international super-host.  With original new songs from Grace Jerry and Nelly's Echo.

TRANSCRIPT

Gracie Milstead: What are you all up to?

Sheila Olem: We just thought we'd call and see how you're doing.

Gracie Milstead: What?

Sheila Olem: We just thought we would call and see how you're doing.

Gracie Milstead: Oh, hanging in honey. That's about all I can do right now.

Sheila Olem: So, you've been out for a walk today?

Gracie Milstead:

Not really. We're just sitting out in the living room. [crosstalk 00:00:30] And that's all we're doing.

Sheila Olem: All right.

Bilal Khan:

Ask her to introduce herself and tell how everything is, like, "Hi, my name is Gracie" [crosstalk 00:00:38]

Sheila Olem:

Oh, can you say, "Hi, my name is Gracie Milstead", or "Hi, my name's Gracie Milstead". Bilal wants to do some kind of-

Bilal Khan:

So, I'm going to send... I want to tell the whole world how you're doing, you know, just a message from your side to the young people in these times. Okay.

Sheila Olem: In the Corona times.

Gracie Milstead: Oh, look at my hair.

Bilal Khan: No, no, no, it's audio. It's only audio.

Sheila Olem:

It's only voice, and all he wants to do is have you say, "Hello, my name's Gracie Milstead" and maybe a sentence or two about what it's like being in this virus environment.

Bilal Khan:

Because you're in the living home. You know, a lot of people are not hearing from people who are living in the senior living. So that's why I thought that I would just call my granny. You could be like, "Hi, I'm Gracie. I'm Bilal's granny", right, "and this is my message for the world". There we go.

Gracie Milstead:

Okay. Hello, my name is Gracie Milstead.

Gracie Milstead:

And I'm living in an assisted living home. We can't go out and visit anyone and no one can come in to visit us. It gets lonely, but at least we're safe with no viruses coming in.

Bilal Khan:

Granny, have you ever seen anything like this in your lifetime?

Gracie Milstead: Never. Never.

Christopher Wurst:

Hey everybody. It's week nine of connecting through isolation. I guess we could call it "new normal" time. Things that once felt surreal, like not seeing any friends or family, not commuting to work, not going to bars and restaurants, those are starting to feel normal. Well, leaving the house, it feels stranger, but all of this new daily life is only made possible by those who can't stay home, workers on the front lines of this crisis, people who are just doing their job providing for their families, essential workers from nurses to grocery store clerks who did not sign up for this, but who are continuing to help our country run. We want to thank you today. I want to thank you for keeping us safe and fed and comfortable while you try to remain so yourselves. The theme this week is gratitude.

Christopher Wurst:

This week, our 22.33 contributors talk about who they admire and appreciate from a long distance call to a wise granny in Alabama, to a little boy who idolizes garbage trucks, to a Nigerian musician fighting for equality. If you would like to help in your community, I encourage you to reach out to charities who are helping in this time of need tip generously, and look for ways that we can support each other. Stories this week from Baltimore, Pakistan, Alabama, Alexandria, Virginia, Nigeria, Bulgaria, and more. Next week, we're going to start running some of the 22.33 shows we had lined up before the crisis started. More stories of inspiration at a time when they are needed most. But today we're connecting through isolation. It's 22.33.

Speaker 5:

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

Speaker 6:

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

Speaker 7:

Things are unpredictable.

Speaker 8:

I think that people perhaps will be thinking that you're stuck at home.

Speaker 9:

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

Speaker 10:

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

Gracie Milstead:

Never have I ever seen anything to even come compare with it.

Bilal Khan:

So what is your message to young people who are worried? I know everybody's worried, but I just thought that I would ask you what is your message to the young people around the world who are listening?

Gracie Milstead:

Okay. All we know to do is follow the advice of the doctors that know what they're doing and hope that they will soon find a cure for this virus that's going around now because you know, if you get the flu, we know what to do for that, but this is something that we just have never experienced before. And young folks are being stricken with it the same as older people. You have to very careful and please, and please do what they ask you to do, washing your hands, don't get too close, and if someone's coughing don't dare get close to them.

Bilal Khan:

How's the morale in the assistant living? All of your friends, how are you guys talking about this? How are you guys? What is your feeling like?

Gracie Milstead:

Well, most everyone just stays in their room. They even serve our meals in our rooms, so we do get lonely, and we can come out and visit with other residents that are here, but we just hope and pray that they'll soon find a cure for it.

Bilal Khan:

What is the first thing you are going to do, let's say when the virus is over? You're going to go have a beer outside? What are you going to do?

Gracie Milstead:

No, I'm going to the beauty shop.

Bilal Khan:

Of course you look beautiful even right now, but I know you miss that?

Gracie Milstead:

Oh, I do, and all of us here, they're looking forward to the day they can go back to the beauty shop and get their hair fixed.

Sheila Olem:

They aren't the only ones. I will be happy too.

Gracie Milstead: Oh good.

Sheila Olem:

So, are you enjoying all of us FaceTiming you instead of just a phone call?

Gracie Milstead: Oh, it's wonderful.

Sheila Olem: Oh, good.

Gracie Milstead: I can see their faces.

Gracie Milstead:

My name is Gracie Milstead, and I live in Sheffield, Alabama. I want to say hello to everyone who's in the same boat we are in. We just have to have patience and hope and pray that the doctors know what they're doing and will soon find a cure for us.

Sheila Olem: Amen.

Bilal Khan:

Amen.

Gracie Milstead: Amen.

Bilal Khan: Thank you granny.

Bilal Khan:

I hope wherever this goes, you're safe, your loved ones are safe, you're able to talk to them, you're able to spend time with them, because isolation can get to you, but the company, friends and family, that's what is keeping me going through this. Gracie Milstead is my host grandmother. She's 91 years old. As I'm making this audio, she has been hospitalized. She had cancer last year, and she was able to successfully beat it, but 48 hours ago she started feeling something again in her liver. I do not know the specifics if I'm being honest. Maybe I don't want to know because I just wanted her to get better, get back so she can listen to her episode because she's a star, and her voice is going to 170 countries, and I think that would be a really proud moment for her and for my family.

Bilal Khan:

She is not only my host mother, she's a vice mayor for the city, and the reason I did a lot of civil society work in my life in Pakistan because I was inspired by how she was running the campaign by herself. My host father, her husband, he passed away. He disappeared actually in early 90s. He was a scientist whose plane was shot down by the rebels in Latin America, and she had to go and talk to many people in the Department of Justice and Defense and different agencies to get to the bottom of what happened. This is why she is very mindful of my story, and she has always been very supportive.

Bilal Khan:

And Sheila's mother Gracie, she lives in Sheffield, Alabama, and I spend time with her. I talk to her, and I'm really hoping by the time this episode airs, she's awake and she can listen to it. Thank you for the opportunity and do not hold back on your thank you's, sorry's and love you's because we are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, but I just believe that I'm catching myself thinking about every friendship I ever had and thinking about how I am praying for everyone that I ever met, and I will never ever take anything for granted. I think [inaudible 00:11:28] can wait if I can send a message that would make somebody happy, you know?

Bilal Khan:

I have not celebrated Eid, which is, for our global audience, Muslims celebrate Eid, which is an equal of Christmas. So, it's coming up in few days. I was supposed to be at home in Pakistan with my family. For the first time in seven years of Eid, before my flight, the national lockdown happened. I think everything happens for a reason. I was able to do a lot of good work and connect a lot of good people from here to the communities that need help. I was able to assist a lot of people in my neighborhood in America. I'm able to keep my granny company and my host mother company, and I miss my family, but I just wish that everyone just forgets about all their grudges and resentments and arguments and just come together because that's what God is telling us, you know? That's the sign that I'm taking.

Christopher Wurst:

Bilal Khan has been a valuable partner to the 22.33 podcast, connecting us with many inspiring people from around the world. Bilal originally came to the United States from Pakistan in 2009 as part of the Youth Exchange and Study, or Y.E.S. Program. Earlier, we heard from his host mom, Sheila Olem, with whom Bilal is as close as ever. She lives in Herndon, Virginia. We also heard from her mother Bilal's American granny, Gracie Milstead, who lives in Sheffield, Alabama. She's not feeling well these days, and the entire 22.33 team is sending her our best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Samantha DiFilippo:

An Ode to Essential Workers by Ben Abbott, two years old.

Samantha DiFilippo: Benjamin, do you see the mail truck?

Ben Abbott: Yeah, the mail truck.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Yeah, the mail truck. The mail woman is delivering letters.

Ben Abbott: It's the same truck.

Samantha DiFilippo:

It's the same truck. You've seen it before.

Ben Abbott:

Here comes the mail.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Here comes the mail truck. What color is the mail truck?

Ben Abbott: It's white.

Samantha DiFilippo:

It's white? What color stripes? Oh, here comes the mail woman. Hi.

Mail Woman: Hi, how are you?

Samantha DiFilippo:

Good. Ben loves the male truck. [crosstalk 00:14:46] Let's look inside the truck. Wow, look at all those boxes and packages and letters. Thank you so much for doing your job. Ben loves delivering letters in the mailbox.

Mail Woman: Have a good one.

Samantha DiFilippo:

You too. Bye. Say bye Ben.

Mail Woman:

Bye, bye. Oh, I got a bye bye.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Oh, good job. Bye mail woman.

Ben Abbott:

Thank you mail truck.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Thank you mail woman. Can you say, "Thank you mail woman"?

Ben Abbott: Thanks.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Thanks. Ben, what's your favorite truck?

Ben Abbott: A mail truck.

Samantha DiFilippo: A mail truck?

Samantha DiFilippo:

The highlight of our weeks in quarantine, at least for Ben, has been the arrival of the garbage truck on Monday and Thursdays. When Ben was in daycare, he didn't get to see the garbage truck. So this has become part of our new routine, part of our new normal. My husband has the best view of the garbage truck from his office. So, it's his job to make sure that we don't miss it, and when we do get to see it, it's pretty much all Ben talks about for the rest of the day.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Benjamin, do you see the garbage truck?

Ben Abbott:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), it's the garbage truck.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Yeah, they're picking up the garbage. Hi garbage man. Can you wave?

Ben Abbott: Hi.

Samantha DiFilippo: Hi.

Ben Abbott:

It takes on the garbage truck.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Yeah and then what happens once they put it on the garbage truck? Do they crush it?

Ben Abbott:

They're crushing the garbage.

Samantha DiFilippo:

They're crushing the garbage?

Ben Abbott:

They're crushing it in the garbage truck. Oh, bye.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Bye. We love you garbage truck.

Ben Abbott:

Back up garbage truck.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Do you love the garbage truck?

Ben Abbott:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Samantha DiFilippo:

Benjamin? What's your favorite truck?

Ben Abbott: Garbage truck.

Samantha DiFilippo:

On behalf of myself and Ben, I just wanted to say thank you to all of the essential workers who are working so hard right now. Thank you. [crosstalk 00:17:05] Yes, the water comes out of the fire hydrant.

Ben Abbott: The water comes out of the house.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Yeah, and the hose comes from the fire truck, and now the fire woman can put out the fire.

Ben Abbott: Thanks firetruck.

Samantha DiFilippo: Thanks firetruck.

Christopher Wurst:

Collaboratory Deputy Samantha DiFilippo and her two year old son Ben have been regular contributors to the connecting through isolation series, helping our listeners see the world of social distancing through a young boy's eyes. They checked in with us from Alexandria, Virginia.

Jesse Lovejoy:

There was a quote that I like that I've always kind of been a fan of, and it's from Bruce Lee. It's Be Like Water. When you pour water into a cup, it becomes the cup, and when you pour water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, and I've always kind of understood that to mean that you just need to be fluid in any situation and really learn to adapt and be malleable and be willing to do what it takes to adjust and it certainly is... I feel like it's very appropriate for these times.

Christopher Wurst:

Jesse Lovejoy is the Director of Steam Education in the San Francisco 49ers Museum, working on connecting sports and science technology. He was a sports' diplomacy envoy last year, traveling to Fiji to teach young people about what he does. He reached out to us from Santa Clara, California.

Jesse Lovejoy:

My mother is a nurse. She's working at a hospital in my hometown. I haven't seen her since the lock down started. I talk to her every day over phone. Every time I ask her whether she's scared of it. She never is. She says that she's doing her duty, keeping her oath that she made when she joined the noble profession of nursing. Since she's old and has some preexisting conditions, she belongs to the vulnerable group. The hospital administration recently asked her to retire. Well, she agreed. She's going to retire soon, but until then, she's still on the front line, helping people during this global crisis. To me, she's my hero.

Christopher Wurst:

Musif Khan is our correspondent in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and a frequent 2233 contributor. We wish he and his mother all the best and our thoughts go out to the people in Bangladesh for strength and courage during this time of the super cyclone.

Musif Khan:

As coordinator of the Americans with Disabilities Act 30th anniversary campaign at the state department, I have had a pleasure to work with many of our inspirational alumni from all over the world. One person comes to my mind immediately, musician, disability rights advocate, and state department alumni from Nigeria, Grace Jerry. Despite many obstacles and difficulties she has faced, grace keeps inspiring and cheering up everyone around her. She composes songs to educate her community about health precautions and the importance of taking one's own responsibility. She promotes the rights of persons with disabilities and gives hope to everyone around her in this uneasy situation. As great sings in challenging times, all we need is unity. It is time to embrace your ability.

Grace Jerry (song):

This is for the dreamer who sees great things, whose faith can't be selfish. Women, children, those with disabilities who have conquered many obstacles. For the warriors in scrubs who are working to save lives. We can make it easy, end this struggle, by staying home. Staying home, staying safe, staying strong. Wash your hands, sanitize, isolate. It's time to take responsibility, play your part. Stay home, stay safe, stay strong. Wash your hands, sanitize, isolate. It's time to take responsibility, play your part. [inaudible 00:22:35] in these hard times. Share hope, laughter and prayers. Be determined that we will come out of this better. This is a test of humanity to test the rest [inaudible 00:22:59]. Yes we can, yes we can. We can beat this COVID-19 down. Stay home, stay safe, stay strong. Wash your hands, sanitize, isolate. It's time to take responsibility, play your part. Stay home, stay safe, stay strong. Wash your hands, sanitize, isolate. It's time to take responsibility, play your part. Stay home. Stay safe. Stay strong. We can beat this COVID-19 down.

Christopher Wurst:

Grace Jerry was a 2015 Mandela Washington fellow. She's a music artist, disability rights advocate and peace promoter in Nigeria. She uses music to highlight the important roles of persons with disabilities in development. Recognized as Nigeria's Ms. Wheelchair National Queen, she's also the country's official spokesperson on disability and water, sanitation and hygiene issues, working to ensure access for persons with disabilities. Grace uses the knowledge and experience she gained from her Mandela Washington Fellowship to deepen her advocacy efforts and end discrimination and violence against women with disabilities in Nigeria.

Christopher Wurst:

Jan Woska is a foreign service officer from the Czech Republic. He's currently serving as a transatlantic diplomatic fellow here at the state department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, where he has been the coordinator of ECA's campaign to highlight the summer's 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Back in Prague, he runs a civil society organization that promotes mutual understanding and integration for people from all around the world through soccer.

Ellen Davis:

My name is Ellen and I live in Greenbelt, Maryland, about 16 miles from The White House. I'm 75 years old and have been hosting exchange students through YFU USA since 2000. In 1990, I met a woman from Latvia while I was working at a hotel in Washington, DC. We corresponded for years, and then she told me she had a son who wanted to study in America. In 2000, he emailed me that he had found an organization in Riga, YFU, and that if I signed on with them, he could live at my house. I did that in October of 2002, and two weeks after that, I got a phone call from YFU asking if I would host a young man from Ecuador whose current host family had some kind of medical issue. Thinking that it was a few days before Thanksgiving and that after New Year's it'd probably be okay, I agreed. I asked when he would arrive and was told in two days. They did the interview on the way to the airport.

Ellen Davis:

If I had known that this would be the start of an almost lifelong passion, I doubt I would have believed it. As it is, I have hosted 35 or 40 students who lived with me full time and added another 40 or 50 maybe through short-term placements, family connections, kids for whom I had been area rep or Y.E.S. Coordinator, or even simpler, just the adoption of friends and kids that I liked. Each and every one has been special and has enriched my vision of the world and encouraged me to share the things that I love and discover new and unexpected wonders.

Ellen Davis:

The current pandemic has me hoping and praying that the beloved members of this exceptional family are well and share my belief that this too shall pass. My first new son, Juan, was the perfect student for me, funny, very smart, honorable, adorable, and fearless. His family embraced me as much as I embraced them, and his addition to my family. My own grown children accepted him, as well as most of the kids who followed him easily and treated them like younger brothers and sisters and included them in every event we had. My neighbors have also accepted my kids, have invited them to participate in some pretty wonderful experiences. They ask me every year where the next kid or kids are coming from. With almost no exceptions, my kids and their natural families enfolded me, and suddenly I was a member of a growing global family. As more kids and their families joined our group, the kids connected with each other and have brothers and sisters all over the world waiting to welcome them.

Ellen Davis:

I've been told that I'm doing a very nice or generous thing by hosting these kids. It's almost impossible for me to explain how much more I get out of the relationship than they do. I'm inspired by watching them grow and mature into remarkable people. I visit as many as I can and invite them to join me wherever that might be and love it when they go far out of their way to do so. Imagine a dinner in Amsterdam with eight people from seven countries.

Ellen Davis:

There are two sayings that I find inspirational. One was a favorite of my mothers. It is by William Watkinson and it says, "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness". My own message to my kids is from A.A. Milne, from Winnie the Pooh. It says, "Promise me you will always remember, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think". God I love those words.

Christopher Wurst:

Ellen Davis reached out to us from her home in Greenbelt, Maryland. A home that for the past two decades has welcomed nearly 100 exchange students from all around the world, primarily through the Youth For Understanding or Y.F.U. Program.

Christopher Wurst:

And now it's time for quarantine memes from Ana-Maria.

Ana-Maria

A snapshot of different people during quarantine. Friend One, "I'm spending lockdown learning to bake". Friend Two, "I've taken up knitting". Friend Three, "I'm doing this mindful meditation. It's great for balancing your aura". Me, "I've worked out the exact method of cooking melted cheese, so it's really gooey, but still firm".

Ana-Maria

Anyone else feel like they're on an airplane and all you do all day is eat snacks, watch movies you've already seen and start drinking wine at 2:00 PM?

Ana-Maria

Looking forward to Hallmark's holiday offering, A Very COVID Christmas. When a big city lawyer and a country candle maker accidentally meet when they go into the wrong Zoom meeting. Coming to theaters near you.

Jan Woska:

Ilkay Osman is the 2019/2020 participant on the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study or Y.E.S. Program. She is from Bulgaria and was hosted in Kent, Washington, where she attended the Washington State School For The Blind. We were so impressed with Ilkay that she was selected as the Y.E.S. Program Student of the Month for April. Ilkay was not afraid of anything and never let her disability hold her back. Not only did she try so many new things, but she excelled at them. Last year, she arrived in the United States without knowing how to swim. She ultimately won a medal in a swimming race. Although she had never played on a Goalball team, which is a sport similar to soccer and designed specifically for people with visual impairments, she became the first international exchange student at her school to be invited to the annual Goalball tournament in Tacoma, Washington.

Jan Woska:

Her team took bronze there. Though the pandemic prevented her from participating in activities in person, that did not stop her from fulfilling the goals of her exchange. To entertain other students in her area exchange cluster, she designed a series of activities for sighted kids to try doing blindfolded. The students enjoyed these blind challenge activities so much that they have been conducting them at home with their host families. She also spent time teaching her host sister Bulgarian and was learning to work with her host sister's dog who was training to become a certified guide dog. These are just a few of the reasons that Ilkay was an inspiration to us and we are so proud to share a bit of her story.

Nelly's Echo:

My name, Nelly's Echo, is based off the premise that music is a two-way street. It's a give and it's a take. So, my producer and I had planned to release an original song of ours called High Five For Me this summer. However, we decided to push the release of the song to much earlier. We wanted to make it meaningful for the times we currently live in. So, we decided to make the song now to celebrate everyone, especially those people who are saving lives and keeping our economy alive. You know, people like the health care workers, people like the parent teachers and the volunteers. Obviously due to the fear of spread and infection, we cannot give them a high five, but we can tell them to give themselves a high five for us. So it's a little play on the phrase high five. So we made the song for the heroes of today.

Christopher Wurst:

Nelly's Echo is the performing name for Nelson Emokpae. The name is based on the premise that music is a two-way street, a give and a take. Nelly's Echo band has worked with the state department's American Music Abroad Program, traveling as U.S. musical ambassadors. For more information, you can check out nellysecho.com. Nelson reached out to us from Baltimore, Maryland.

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 U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Christopher Wurst:

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 they're grateful for, what's inspiring them and what they are feeling. Huge thanks to Bilal Khan, Sheila Olem, Gracie Milstead, Munif Khan, Jesse Lovejoy, Grace Jerry, Jan Woska, Ellen Davis, Nelly's Echo, Ilkay Osman, Ana-Maria Sinitean, Samantha DiFilippo, and Benjamin Abbot. And listeners, we would love to hear what your thoughts and inspirations are, what you're grateful for in these times. Could be a story, a poem, or a song, whatever you're feeling. Please send your audio to us at 2233@state.gov. You can always find more information about the podcast at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And of course you should follow us on Instagram at 2233_Stories. And remember to tune in to our Instagram conversations with 22.33 participants each Wednesday at noon, eastern standard time.

Christopher Wurst:

Special thanks to everybody for mobilizing to send audio on such short notice. The 22.33 team working from various locations was instrumental in the making of this podcast. Thanks to Kate Furby, Ana-Maria Sinitean, Samantha DiFilippo, Edward Stewart, Desiree Williamson and Niles Cole. Kate Furby helped with the script and designs are awesome graphics. Ana-Maria Sinitean scours the web for the highest quality quarantine memes and Samantha DiFilippo and her son Ben share their world with us. Bilal Khan and Munif Khan, who are unrelated by the way, one's from Pakistan, one's from Bangladesh, have been key partners in this series, and we thank them. Thanks to Richard Stigner for his Quarantine Memes song, which we love. Very special thanks to Grace Jerry also for her song Take Responsibility and to Nelly's Echo for the High Five song. Other music included Algea Trio and Filing Away by Blue Dot Sessions, Blue Spring by Ramsey Lewis, and Chipper Dan by Padington Bear, and the end credit music is Two Pianos. 

Until next time, stay healthy everybody.

+

Season 02, Episode 32 - Special: Connecting Through Isolation, Part 8 (May 15, 2020)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 32

DESCRIPTION

This episode is all about the power of music--to connect people, to break down barriers, to inspire, and to evoke powerful emotions.  This week: musical inspiration from all over the world and original songs by Giselle Felice & Erik Abernathy, Wordsmith, Seth Glier, Stela Botan, Tony Memmel, Just Wade Tam, and more.  Turn this one up loud!

TRANSCRIPT

Wordsmith:

(singing)

Chris Wurst:

Hey everybody. This week, music. Music is its own language. It has the power to convey emotion and to transcend words. There is no culture in the history of the world without a musical tradition, and not only just this world. In 1977, Carl Sagan sent 90 minutes of music out into space. Everything from Beethoven's fifth symphony to Chuck Berry's Johnny Be Good, to the Aboriginal Australian song, Morning Star. All of which now making the extra terrestrial rounds. Sitting outside this morning, I could hear the music of Alexandria Virginia. Recycling trucks rattling by, with essential workers helping us stay safe and healthy. There's a fox that barks, which leads my dog, Rex, to bark even further. Squirrels are chattering, woodpeckers are hammering and mockingbirds are singing their sweet songs. At the state department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, we have Arts Envoy and American Music Abroad or AMA programs.

Chris Wurst:

We send musicians around the world using music to form deep connections with foreign audiences. They come back with incredible stories of how effortlessly music bridges cultural divides. How in one moment of playing together, they're able to communicate more than hours of translated dialogue. They say music is one of the last things that we keep. Even after memory care patients have forgotten their families and their past, they still remember the words to their favorite songs. In this difficult time, for all of us, music can bring us together still. This week, original music from Moldova, Brooklyn, Baltimore, Nashville, and all over the world, and one musical piece that traveled virtually from Massachusetts to Mongolia, to Mexico, to Vermont, and now into your earbuds. Sing on, friends. This week, Connecting Through Isolation through music. It's 22.33.

TV News Audio Clip:

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

Speaker 1:

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

TV News Audio Clip:

Things are unpredictable.

Speaker 2:

I think that people perhaps will be thinking that you're stuck at home.

TV News Audio Clip:

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

TV News Audio Clip:

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

Luis Armstrong:

(singing)

Giselle Felice:

This is a song that Eric wrote for our duo, and it highlights the sweeter moments versus the more crazy moments of being quarantined together as a duo and a young couple.

Erik Abernathy:

I just finished the song and I went up to Giselle to show her. The first thing she said to me was that, "Well, it'd be more grammatically correct if the lyrics read, 'It's just you and me.'" Bad mama.

Giselle Felice:

But Eric gets a free pass, because this is a great song.

Erik Abernathy:

Please enjoy It's Just Me And You.

Giselle Felice:

(singing)

Chris Wurst:

Giselle Felice and Eric Abernathy began playing together while studying in the University of Florida's jazz program. Their style melds their roots in jazz and pop with Brazilian spirit and folk influences. Both songwriters, they offer their audiences a collection of original music that pairs Giselle's voice and piano with Eric's Brazilian flair and jazz influences. We originally met Giselle when she interned in ECA's Cultural Programs Division last summer. You can learn more at gisellefelice.com. They reached out to us from their home in Gainesville, Florida.

Chris Wurst:

Wordsmith, who was featured at the very top of this episode, is a rapper, musician and entrepreneur from Baltimore, Maryland. He's an alumnus of the American Music Abroad program and is among other things working on a collaboration currently with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. This is his second appearance on the Connecting Through Isolation series.

Chris Wurst:

Chris Ott's version of Bob Marley's Three little Birds was created in his home studio during quarantine using conch shell horns and toy instruments. Chris is the trombone player and beatboxer for the jazz funk horn group, the Huntertones, who have three AMA and two Arts Envoy tours to 11 different countries under their belts. Chris recorded this song specifically, he told us, to take people to a place of calm and peace for a moment in these challenging times.

Seth Glier:

[foreign language 00:09:15]. My name is Seth Glier. I want to give you a little backstory of what inspired this video. Right as we began practicing social distancing in America, I emailed my friend, [Duala 00:09:29], who was playing the drums. I met Duala when I was doing an AMA tour in Mongolia. It was a tour that was sponsored by the U.S. state department, and I just wanted to see how he's doing. What's it like in his country. He sent me back this video, which is of him playing the hang drum on a balcony wearing a face mask. I was just so inspired by it and I started playing some piano. At the very end of this video, there is a siren, and the siren ended up becoming the first note of the melody. I sent it back to him. He changed the part around a little bit and we just started emailing each other over the last few weeks.

Seth Glier:

Right before social distancing measures took place in the States, I was actually planning on doing another one of these tours and going to Mexico. So it was a ton of preparation. I sort of didn't get to meet anyone. I didn't get to do the trip, but I had been working with a number of folks from Mexico. So I reached out to my friend, Daniel Perez, who was a school teacher in Tepito, Mexico, and told him about this and just said, "Hey, do you think you want to play some saxophone?" He did. Also reached out to my friend, Kelly Halloran, who is self-quarantining up in Vermont right now. I just think that in times where our borders are becoming less porous and we are needing to isolate ourselves in order to address this, music serves as a great reminder that there are many ties that bind us together. Music is one of those things, so I'm very grateful to have been able to make something with all these incredible musicians from around the world.

Seth Glier:

(singing)

Chris Wurst:

Seth Glier is a frequent contributor to the Connecting Through Isolation series, as well as an AMA performer. He met the hang drum artist, Doula [Boda Saikan 00:13:55], in Mongolia on an AMA program. Hopefully, he will be able to meet saxophonist Daniel Perez in person in Mexico soon. Seth's friend, Kelly Halloran, also appears. Seth reached out to us from Holyoke, Massachusetts. For more information, you can check out sethglier.com.

Michael Littig:

Particularly in my travels, music has always been a source of inspiration, and most importantly, memory. And so, when I look back on this time and I'll think about the music that has sustained me, I wanted to share a story that I believe will be forever etched in my brain that surrounds a piece of music. Every week, I host a conversation with a monk who works alongside His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, and we talk about concepts around mindfulness and particularly, as of late, sadness. And so, I asked my friend, [Geishai Tensi Dentio 00:15:00], "How do you deal with sadness?" And he told me this amazing story. Both his parents have passed away and also his teacher, and he said, "When my father was passing away," his mother was still alive at that time. Because he was a monk, he was there to really help give mindset around how to deal with sadness and in the passing of his father.

Michael Littig:

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, often a monk sits at the side of your bed because hearing is the last sense to die. And so, the monk stays there to tell you and help you transition to give you instructions. It was very important for Geishai to share with people to not feel sadness so that the spirit wouldn't worry. He told this to his mom, and so when she went to go cremate the body, she came back. He goes, "How did it go?" She said, "Well, I followed your order." He said, "What? What order?" She said, "I didn't cry because I didn't want other people to cry and I didn't want your father to pass in a way that was not good for him." And he said, when she said that, it felt like as if spears were going into his heart. He went over to his friend's house and he just cried and cried.

Michael Littig:

As he was telling this story, he actually started to cry. He said, "You must feel the sadness. You must feel the loss, as I imagine, we're all feeling." And he said much like his father has passed on, his mother's passed on, in fact, their memory will live on by you acknowledging that they're still there, but letting them go. As he continued to cry, he simply pulled out his cell phone and began to play Eric Clapton's Tears In Heaven. We sat there quietly, closed our eyes, and he just played that song. I think the moral of that story for me during this difficult time is to allow myself to feel sad, allow myself to feel hurt. To keep those voices around me that give me strength as well.

Eric Clapton:

(singing)

Chris Wurst:

Michael Littig's regular episode of 22.33 will be released later in 2020, but this is his second appearance on Connecting Through Isolation. He's the co-founder of the Zuckerberg Institute and reached out to us from New York City. Now, let me set the scene for what you're about to hear next. We pulled this audio from a wonderful video greetings sent to ECA by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra recently. I want you to picture a video feed with four separate shots, each in someone's house, a cellist, two violinists and a viola player. Though each is sitting alone, this is what they sound like together.

Yumi Kendall:

Hi. I'm Yumi Kendall. I've been a cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2004. From all of us in Philadelphia, we want to thank you in the state department for the hard work you are doing during these challenging times. Hopefully, by reflecting on better times, we are able to find inspiration for the future. Some of my favorite memories with the orchestra have been from our international tours. We are proud cultural ambassadors, connecting people through the power of music. Even beyond playing to sold-out concert halls, we make deep and personal connections off stage, with students, with hospital patients, with community partners and more, everywhere we go.

Yumi Kendall:

Our rich legacy of touring dates back to our work after World War II, visiting the capitals of Europe, to our historic opening of relations with China, and more recently commemorating 30 years of partnership with Mongolia and 70 years with Israel. These key moments over many decades have been made possible thanks to the help of the state department. From all of us in Philadelphia, please know that while we cannot travel or perform together right now, we hope that sending you music virtually will help lift your spirits. Please enjoy this energetic effervescent movement from Beethoven string quartet, Opus 18, number six. I'm joined by my Philadelphia Orchestra colleagues, Julia Li, and Christine Lim on violins, and Che-Hung Chen on viola. Thank you for the great public service that you do.

Chris Wurst:

The Philadelphia Orchestra has toured the world under the auspices of the state department's cultural affairs programs, sharing music and goodwill around the globe. In this piece, we heard cellist Yumi Kendall, violinists Julia Li and Christine Lim, and violist Che-Hung Chen performing together and alone.

Chris Wurst:

(singing)

Carla Canales:

I feel that this moment has given me a real gift in that it just gives me a chance to learn so much. At this time, I'm very inspired by Wagner and romanticism in general. I'd always been extremely curious about Wagner's work, particularly The Ring cycle, but hadn't really gotten a chance to perform any of it. As such, really never dove into it, but it had been in the back of my mind for a while and suggested by some colleagues. So I'm really using the time to learn this incredible musical language and this world that Wagner created that is highly romantic. So in that sense, it's very hopeful and inspiring to me right now.

Chris Wurst:

Carla Canales is a mezzo soprano opera singer and long time veteran of U.S. state department cultural programs around the world. She was featured on 22.33 in 2019. I'm looking forward to catching up with her further when she joins me for an Instagram Live conversation on May 27th. She reached out to us from New York City.

Tony Memmel:

I have a special song that I want to share with you. It's called Bright, Bright Light, and it's written with over 200 co-writers who happened to be elementary school students in Nashville, Tennessee. This song predates COVID-19 a little bit, and I just want to tell you a little bit of the backstory. We had just started our two-week songwriting residency, where we are going to create a song from scratch, and the students were going to contribute lyric ideas and melody ideas and I was going to take all those ideas together and create them and record them to bring to the students in school. At the end of the first day, the Nashville tornado hit on March 3rd. It disrupted our community. It shook us hard. Dozens of families were displaced.

Tony Memmel:

When the streets were cleared of the debris, we went back to school a week later with the goal and the mission to complete the project that we had already begun. It was just three days later that the school was shut down, as was the city, as was the country, for COVID-19 concerns. Since I've been at home, I've been coordinating with the music teacher at the school named Tracy Roberts, and I've taken the ideas that we did have, recorded them in my modest home studio, and it's with a special appreciation and joy that I have the opportunity to share the song with you today. This completed song that talks about letting your light shine, even on the darkest days, even when it's toughest. That is what the song and what this community is all about. I dedicate this song today to the students at Dodson Elementary in Nashville, Tennessee. Here we go.

Tony Memmel:

(singing)

Chris Wurst:

Tony Memmel is another frequent contributor to 22.33. Most recently bringing us into his living room, along with his wife, Leslie, for an Instagram Live last week. When he's not collaborating with students on music, like the song we just heard, he's a frequent state department musical ambassador, sharing music and inspiration with audiences around the world. For more information, you can check out tonymemmel.com.

Stela Botan:

The song, [foreign language 00:28:48], inside your world, this song is also about that divine energy. That life force that we all have, and we all have access to, and we can all enhance inside of our bodies and around our bodies inside our soul and, obviously, in the spirit that we have. It is about this love that actually can heal you on a cellular level, because when you're filled with love, and when you empty yourself of fear, you can actually feel that everything falls into place. Just like the pieces of a huge puzzle that this life is, and the balance comes in. I wrote the song being inspired by this divine love that we can receive and we have inside of us. We're just maybe sometimes not aware of it, or maybe we sometimes replace it with other emotions, fears and states of mind and heart.

Stela Botan:

What we should actually do is feel it with our heart and not with our minds. Thinking is not bad. It's just that sometimes we have to give way for the heart to think as well, to feel and to help you get closer to your true self and your higher self. This is what I wanted to tell you, guys. I'm really optimistic and I really think that this isolation is going to make us come closer spiritually, one to another. To me, that is the most important part of existence. When you can actually understand and feel the other person. Maybe become more empathetic, maybe gain more compassion, become less selfish or egocentric. Look beyond the veil or beyond the masks that people are usually putting on to get validation and to be liked. I really hope this song helps people and the vibration of it will get to the core of your souls. Thank you so much and take care of yourselves.

Stela Botan:

(singing)

Chris Wurst:

Stela Botan is a well-known performer in Moldova, singing often in Romanian. An alumna of the Future Leaders Exchange, or FLEX program, she spent a year of high school in Byron, Illinois. You can find out more on her YouTube or Facebook page, both called Stela Botan. She reached out to us from Moldova's capital, Chisinau.

Justin Wade Tam:

(singing)

Chris Wurst:

On Your Side is the second song that Justin Wade Tam has generously shared with 22.33's Connecting Through Isolation series. The song's official release date is also today. I encourage you to visit justinwadetam.com for more information. Justin's band, Humming House, has toured with the AMA program and it was featured on a regular 22.33 episode earlier this year. Justin reached out to us from Nashville, Tennessee.

Samantha DiFilippo:

My son, Ben's favorite songs right now are The Garbage Truck Song and The Excavator Song. They are definitely not my favorite songs, but he's pretty obsessed with them.

Samantha DiFilippo:

(singing)

Samantha DiFilippo:

But some cool kids' music that I can recommend are music by Caspar Babypants. They're really whimsical and funny. I really enjoy and would maybe listen to, even if my kid wasn't around. The singer, Caspar Babypants, was actually the lead singer of this alt rock band from the '90s called The Presidents of the United States. That's a fun fact. My favorite song by Caspar Babypants is called Emotional Robot. It's about a robot who feels left out, like he doesn't fit in, because he has feelings and none of the other robots do. It's a good one. You should check it out.

Caspar Babypants:

(singing)

 

Chris Wurst:

Samantha DiFilippo is the deputy director of The Collaboratory and a frequent contributor to 22.33's Connecting Through Isolation series. Her son, Benjamin, declined to comment on his favorite song for this episode. However, I did reach out to Caspar Babypants, who was cool enough to give us permission to use some bits of Emotional Robot. You can check out more about his cool music for kids at babypantsmusic.com.

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, we heard from 22.33 musical friends who were kind enough during these times of uncertainty to share their amazing art with us. Huge thanks to; Wordsmith, Giselle Felice and Eric Abernathy; Chris Ott, Tony Memmel, Justin Wade Tam, Seth Glier, and his collaborators; Doula Boda Saikan, Daniel Perez, and Kelly Halloran; the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in particular Yumi Kendall, Julia Lee, Christine Lim, and Che-Hung Chen; Stela Botan, Carla Canales, Michael Littig, and of course, Casper Babypants.

Chris Wurst:

Listeners, we would love to hear about your thoughts and inspirations. It could be a story, a poem or a song, whatever you're feeling. Please send your audio to us at 2233, that's 2-2-3-3@state.gov. You can always find more information about the podcast at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. Of course, you should follow us on the Instagram @22.33_stories. This coming Wednesday, May 20th, we'll feature an Instagram Live conversation between Ryan T. Bell, a real live American cowboy, and our own Ana-Maria Sinitean. That's at noon, Eastern Time.

Chris Wurst:

Special thanks to everybody for their participation. The 22.33 team, working from various locations as always, was brilliant. Thanks to Kate Furby, Ana-Maria Sinitean, Samantha DiFilippo, Edward Stewart and Desiree Williamson. Kate Furby help with the script and designs our awesome graphics. Ana-Maria scours the internet for the highest quality memes, and Sam and her son, Ben, invite us into their world. I edited this episode.

Chris Wurst:

Special thanks to Bilal Khan for rounding up a bunch of YES and FLEX alumni to share their stories. Special thanks also to J.P. Jenks for helping us with some musicians. Special thanks, again, to all the talented artists who shared their work. Thanks also to Richard Stigner, who recorded the quarantine memes theme. The end credit music to this episode, as always, is Two Pianos by [Tagiolios 00:44:13]. Until next time, stay healthy everybody.

Chris Wurst:

Munif Khan is such a frequent contributor to 22.33 and the Connecting Through Isolation series that we have this week officially named him our correspondent in Bangladesh. He reached out to us from the Capitol in Dhaka.

Munif Khan:

I've been listening to very mellow songs these days, the kind of songs that give me hope, help me gather the strength to move forward. I'm not a singer, but sometimes I play karaoke music on my computer and try to sing along. This time though, I took help from an ex-colleague and a friend of mine. His name is Max, Maxim [Orko 00:45:00]. I asked him whether he could strum his guitar for me a little bit so that I can sing this gospel song. This is a very popular song and it has a Bangla version. Thanks to Max for helping me out.

Munif Khan:

(singing)

+

Season 02, Episode 31 -  Special: Connecting Through Isolation, Part 7 (May 8, 2020)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 31

DESCRIPTION

This week it's all about human connection--valuing it, missing it, and finding creative ways to get it.  Stories about discovering a newfound appreciation for little things, feeling empowered and out of control at the same time, and the magical community-building qualities of the Lily of the Valley.  Plus a premiere of Tim McDonnell's song "Stir Crazy."

TRANSCRIPT

Speaker 1:

I miss talking to people. Not the kind of talking that we do right now over phone or looking at a computer screen, but actually talking to people. Reading their faces, looking into their eyes, responding to all the nonverbal elements of communication. All the flaws, the human flaws. I want to feel like that I'm talking to a human being in flesh. I think that's what I miss the most right now.

Speaker 2 (Chris Wurst):

Hey everybody. It's ironic this week that at a time when we are all apart, our themes more than ever center on human connection. Missing it, valuing it, and finding creative ways to get it. Despite the pandemic seeming dire, I'm digging deep into the audio stories that you send us and finding a well of hope. And thank you for that. In addition to giving us content for this podcast, you're giving us much more. I get to sit in my studio, some would say tiny closet, every day and still have a lifeline to incredible people all around the world. And I know it's my job, but that means in these extraordinary times, we are so lucky to be able to receive and share your stories. And as we see time and time again this week, our most powerful tool for overcoming these difficulties is connection. If you're able to reach out to someone today, do it.

Speaker 2 (Chris Wurst):

Our biggest allies are each other. And when this is all over, I can guarantee you that while we may regret some of our food choices or Netflix binges, we will much more so treasure the bonds that we have strengthened with others. Stories that prove that point this week from Alabama, Virginia, Washington DC, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and France. And another quarantine song and premiere, "Stir Crazy" by Tim McDonnell who we met in last week's episode. And Sunday is Mother's Day, love you Mom. So we want to say a special thank you to all the moms out there. You can tune in next Wednesday when motherhood will be one of the themes during an Instagram live program featuring former astronaut and international space station resident Katie Coleman. That's May 6th, at 12 noon Eastern standard time. And now, Connecting Through Isolation, it's 2233.

Speaker 3:

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

Speaker 4:

This is a recording for 2233 and it's in the Covid crisis.

Speaker 5:

Things are unpredictable.

Speaker 6:

I think that people perhaps will be thinking that they're stuck at home.

Speaker 7:

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

Speaker 8:

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

Speaker 9:

Just because we're self isolating physically does not mean we have to isolate socially. And I think that is something that has been something that I've been leaning on. Definitely making sure that I'm communicating with as many people as I can. Even if I have not left my house in a long time.

Speaker 10:

I have to say I wish I had the magic stick to help me get rid of this anxiety I was mentioning or the bad feeling and emotion that can sometimes take me down or knock me down. But I don't have, and actually through this crisis I'm going through a fast learning process and acceptance that it's okay not to be okay and it's okay not to control everything. Actually, it's even more than this. And it's the perfectionist Carol speaking here so it might be funny for those who know me. But I get to realize faster than ever that there's nothing we are in control of but or speech and thought to ourself and the way we are interacting with others. Our intention.

Speaker 10:

We are currently facing unprecedented time all over the world. We as individuals and as society can choose to build more walls or more bridges. If we choose the walls, we going to choose the worst version of the social distanciation that is cutting ourself from humanity. While on the other side, it might be harder to choose the bridges because the best version of social distanciation is actually cutting ourself from the one we love and from some activity that are making us happy. But it's also an opportunity to become more empathetic, more resilient, and to be more emotionally connected than ever with other people.

Speaker 10:

Not to forget the smile of the people I love and that I'm grateful to see through technology. The surprise in the eyes of my two years old niece whose birthday was yesterday. Or the creativity of my six years old nephew, who was playing in his room with his Lego through a screen with the nine years old boy that I'm growing up here in my apartment, the son of my boyfriend. All this is of inspiration to me, and by this I literally mean the positive energy and vibes. The call that I feel for a better world so that we all get up and stand up and stand for what is the best version of ourself.

Speaker 2 (Chris Wurst):

Carol Ponchon was a participant in the global sports mentoring program where she did her mentorship with women's sports foundation, learning about positive social change through sports. An advocate for gender equality in sports, Carol works as a project manager for the European Observatory of Sports and Employment. Carol reached out to us from her native France.

Speaker 2 (Chris Wurst):

Meenu Bhooshanan was featured along with her dad Shri in an episode called father daughter exchange, which we released last year for Father's Day. Meenu is an alumna of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth or NSLI-Y program. She reached out to us from Madison, Alabama. Munif Khan, who we've heard at the very beginning of today's episode, is a frequent contributor to 2233. He reached out to us from his home in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Speaker 1:

[foreign language 00:08:12] The circumstances we're all in are extra ordinary. Being a former exchange student, I have friends around the globe and in these times I cannot stop thinking about their safety. The situation in Pakistan is still under control. I'm seeing the figures of United States and many European countries where my friends from my exchange year reside, it really worries me. I pray for them and I mainly utilize this time to reflect upon the things that we take for granted. I think this time has made a lot of us realize what's important in life.

Speaker 1:

To cope with these thoughts, I recently created a Facebook group which goes by the name "Keeping it Reel." Real here is spelled R-E-E-L. The group is solely dedicated to people who enjoy watching shows or movies. If you really like the last show that you watched on Netflix or if you need a suggestion for your favorite genre, you post on the group and people comment. It's the [inaudible 00:09:17] community and I believe people enjoy reading short movie reviews. That's what inspires me and that's how I spend my time nowadays because I believe it is important to engage and to talk to people. Ramazan has started and I hope Allah will show mercy and make things better for all of us. [foreign language 00:09:43].

Speaker 2(Chris Wurst):

Arham Mahmood is an alumnus of the YES program. He is currently at home in Karachi, Pakistan. Tim McDonnell is a science journalist, musician, and baker. He was a Fulbright National Geographic storytelling grantee and his original 2233 episode was called "Picturing Coffee Farmers and Refugees." Last week, we aired a story about his band and his neighbors. He's a trained tuba player, but these days he plays guitar and harmonica with his mostly outdoor band Travel with Giuseppe. We're thrilled to premiere his new quarantine song "Stir Crazy." (singing).

Speaker 11:

When my episode of 2233 aired, one of the stories I explained was that during my Fulbright year, I ended up with some emergency medical leave for what turned out to be gallstones. And so this past week marked the seventh anniversary of that surgery. And so it's gotten me thinking a lot about that time in my life. There are some parallels. There was a several month period where we didn't know what was wrong and I was sort of wondering if I was going to need to stare down my mortality. We didn't really know how it would end and during all of that time, my symptoms were just getting progressively worse and worse to the point where I couldn't really keep things down. I was throwing up most of what I tried to eat and I had such severe abdominal pain that I didn't really move very much. And a lot of my life got put completely on hold just because I didn't have the stamina for it.

Speaker 11:

And it was a tough thing for me to grapple with because you know, I had fought so hard to win my Fulbright and there was a part of me that felt really weird sort of sitting out my life, but I didn't have the strength to do anything else. And so everything sort of unexpectedly got put on hold. And then once I had surgery, and was able to return to normal, I noticed that I saw a lot of what I had previously considered to be normal things, I saw them in a different light. That's something I've been thinking about a lot and this context as well and what I might learn or grow to appreciate in a new way. Once all of this is behind us, I probably didn't really think much about being able to eat or enjoy my food. It's no secret that I love cooking and I love feeding people, but that's certainly gone a new light when I could actually keep food down again.

Speaker 11:

This week in particular, to give you one example. I've been thinking about the fact that then in DC, I often complain about being on the red line during rush hour. For those of you that aren't in DC, it gets very crowded especially in the morning when you're trying to get on the Northwest. I often come into work and complain about how terrible the Metro is, but this week I've spent a lot of time thinking about in the absence of my commute, I sort of don't have the separation of badging out of my office and going home and sort of shutting that part of my brain off for the night. I'm having a hard time I think or a harder time in quarantine cutting off my work day with everything at home and shutting off my work brain and doing other things. And it's made me think that I may look at my commute in a new light when I'm able to make it. Even if I have my quips about the Metro, it does sort of provide me that in between time to transition between work and home life.

Speaker 11:

I'm really fairly introverted but I work with a lot of people that I really enjoy spending time with. And we do sort of socialize in the morning when we get to work and you know, eat lunch in groups and go out to happy hours together. And I mean obviously I'm still talking to them, calling them, but I have realized that even though I categorize myself as an introvert who doesn't really like small talk. I've realized that like the two minutes when somebody drops by to see how you're doing or if you have questions means more to me than I thought it did. I think I've learned to value those little check-ins just a little more.

Speaker 2 (Chris Wurst):

Alyssa Meyer is another frequent contributor to 2233. The feelings she recounts in this episode referred directly to her experiences that she described in her original episode from 2019 entitled "Keeping the Lights on", which I highly recommend . And now it's time for quarantine memes from Ana-Maria.

Speaker 12:

My favorite part of quarantine is that we are all forced to be alone with our thoughts for a little bit and everyone was like, absolutely not. I will learn to bake bread from scratch. During quarantine, I've been trying intermittent fasting. So far, I'm up to 12 minutes without eating and to be honest, I just love seeing the results. Welcome to 2020 where jobs are obsolete, friends are illegal, and every day you somehow manage to spend a hundred dollars on Amazon.

Speaker 12:

Anyone else have grandparents do weird things that was explained by the fact that they lived through the depression? We're going to be those grandparents. Daddy, why is Grandma Clorox wiping the grocery bags? She lived through Covid honey, she doesn't talk about it. Even during the pandemic, memes can be short lived. For example, this was a great meme a week ago. If we all stay inside a bit longer than maybe we can starve mosquitoes to extinction. If there was ever a cause to unite all of humanity than this is it, until we heard about killer hornets.

Speaker 13:

Life is going on. And so that helps get you through the day to day, the week to week, the month to month, as well as you know, really a hope for the future. They've always said that hope springs eternal. And so I think as long as we collectively say this will end, we will get through this, we will be better because of it. There's positivity and there's beauty in everything and there's even beauty in the broken, so find that, use it. That's what's getting me through. So for everyone out there who's struggling with this, you're not alone. People are here for you. Push through, persevere. We've got this and we'll come out stronger.

Speaker 2 (Chris Wurst):

Kristen Erthum works for the Department of State. While her original episode is slated for release later this year, this is her second time on the Connecting Through Isolation series. She's still working from her Arlington, Virginia home.

Speaker 14:

My thoughts are on and for everyone. The friends I've already met and those I have yet to meet and that's another form of sustainability. Because we've shared an experience, we've created a foundation for each and every one of us and the internet keeps us alive in these relationships. It happens because of the nature of the physical distance that's integral in an exchange experience. But you know, this time of quarantine has almost become a time of renewal. A time to make sure that we do stay connected, connected to each other, and connected to our common humanity.

Speaker 15:

You still get bore in this lock down just like you feel yourself in a cage. But you know what really makes me happy is helping my people to understand the situation and I'm constantly telling them to be more conscious. I'm connected with my community members through social media and I'm sharing all the necessary information I have as a medical professional. In fact, it's a great deal to [inaudible 00:23:31] of us feel good about their lives instead of just thinking about the safety of ourselves. It's coded very beautifully by Cori [inaudible 00:00:23:50], a professional

Speaker who said that the quality of your life will be determined by the quality of your contribution.

Speaker 15:

When you work to improve the lives of others, you are life improves automatically. We are dicated and I feel we're responsible of guiding others in a proper manner. I believe that our simple inspirational messages can change the lives of thousands of people around the world. And I believe that you can be that voice of peace to make people relaxed and stress free at their homes. And I believe that you can be that voice to share love and you can be that voice who saves lives and brings smiles into faces. And this personally gives me the joy I desire because I want my people to understand this and stay at homes in order to stay safe. At the end I would like to say that I do my part and you do yours. So we will both live in harmony.

Speaker 2 (Chris Wurst):

Muhibullah Ghafoorzai is another YES alumnus and an active member of the alumni network in Afghanistan. Before that you heard Bobbie Demme-San Filippo, a former arts envoy to the Dominican Republic where she focused on sustainable fashion. She reached out to us from Central Florida.

Speaker 16:

Needless to mention, most of us are going through a very stressful time emits the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the challenges, something that I find really inspirational is the hope in people. We are going through changes that we never even imagined could possibly happen, right. Social media is flooded with news that may cause panic or anxiety or confusion, but I'm trying to seek positivity nevertheless. So when I see people trying to keep their calm, participating in different sort of challenges, making food, doing online classes, posting workout updates. Most importantly, everyone's staying home and doing their best, playing their part. Portraying the hope that we all possess for a better world, for a healed world. What I find really beautiful about this diversity is how unique we all are, yet we can connect through some common values such as spreading love and compassion. No matter where we come from, at the end of the day, we're all humans. We're all global citizens.

Speaker 2 (Chris Wurst):

Shomy Hasan Chowdhary is a water sanitation and hygiene activist and the co-founder of Awareness 360, a youth awareness organization. She was a youth exchange and study or YES participant, attending a year of high school in Cheboygan, Michigan. She reached out to us from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Speaker 17:

If it's sunny outside, I'll go for a walk. That's one of the few routines I have kept during quarantine. Luckily this is all happening during peak spring season here in Washington D.C. so it's given me plenty of opportunity to get to know my neighborhood in all its glory. I've started to know houses by their front yard flowers, and rainbows on windows and teddy bears on porches. First came the daffodils, then the cherry blossoms, then tulips and lilacs. And most awaited by me, the Lily of the Valley. My grandmother used to have a garden full of these in her village in Romania, so they always remind me of her. In Romanian, they're known as [foreign language 00:27:57] or teardrops and have kind of a sad connotation, but nonetheless they're my favorite flowers. They have an intoxicating scent, but I never see them for sale at farmer markets or flower shops.

Speaker 17:

Walking around Mount Pleasant, I started to notice early signs of Lily of the Valley shoots in front yards at almost every block. Envy eventually turned to inspiration as I posted a friendly ask on our neighborhood listserv. "Have any Lily of the Valley to share with me? It would make me the happiest person on earth." Soon enough, a handful of neighbors responded with their address and offers to pick my own flowers. What I was most touched by was a bouquet of Lily of The Valley tied neatly with a green bow from a neighbor I've never met. I saw her only from my window as she did a contact list delivery on my porch and then continued walking her dogs. I just threw the flowers out yesterday, but they lasted a good week and were the subject of many of my Instagram posts. From now on, Lily of the Valley won't only remind me of my grandmother, but they'll also remind me that in the time of Corona virus, neighbors did little things that brought others so much joy.

Speaker 2 (Chris Wurst):

Ana-Maria Sinitean is a 2233 producer and well known curator of quarantine memes. She is currently in week eight of working from home in Washington DC's Mount Pleasant neighborhood with her cat Snow and a handful of squirrels that seem to be inching towards domestication.

Speaker 1:

When the life returns to normal, I want to go meet my friends and hug them really tight and say I've missed you.

Speaker 2 (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. 

This week we heard from 2233 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. Huge thanks to Munif Khan, Carol Ponchon, Arham Mahmood, Tim McDonnell, Alyssa Meyer, Kristen Erthum, Bobbie Demme-San Filippo, Muhibullah Ghafoorzai, Shomy Hasan Chowdhary, and our own Ana-Maria Sinitean. 

 

And listeners, we would love to hear about your thoughts and inspirations. Could be a story, a poem, or a song, whatever you're feeling at the moment. Please send your audio to us at 2233@state.gov. That's 2233@state.gov. You can always find more information about the podcast at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. You can follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories. And check us out every Wednesday at noon Eastern standard time on Instagram for live conversations.

Speaker 2 (Chris Wurst):

Special thanks to everybody for their participation this week. The 2233 team, as always, working from various locations was brilliant. Thanks to Kate Furby, Ana-Maria Sinitean, Samantha DeFilippo, Edward Stewart, and Desiree Williamson. Kate Furby helped with the script and designs are awesome graphics. Ana-Maria scours for the highest quality memes and I edited this episode. Special thanks also this week to [inaudible 00:32:05] for rounding up a bunch of YES and flex alumni to share their stories. Very special thanks to Tim McDonnell for allowing us to premiere his awesome song "Stir Crazy." Thanks also to Richard Stigner who recorded the quarantine meme's theme, our current soundtrack. Other music this week included "Fragile Do Not Drop" by Podington Bear. "Swapping Tubes and Curio" by Blue Dot Sessions. "Bones for Jones" by the Clifford Brown ensemble. And "Piano Man is Not Sam" by Lobo Loco. The end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time, stay healthy everybody.

Speaker 18:

May you be strong, may you be healthy, may you be safe, and may you be sane.

+

Season 02, Episode 30 - Special: Connecting Through Isolation, Part 6 (May 1, 2020)

LISTEN HERE - EPISODE 30

DESCRIPTION

This week: Getting to know a musician playing backyard quarantine concerts in his Washington, DC neighborhood. An exclusive new song from Seth Glier. A massive recommended reading list from all around the globe. And more quarantine memes...

TRANSCRIPT

Sam DiFillipo: Benjamin, do you want to read Diggersaurs by Michael Whaite?

Benjamin: Yes.

Sam DiFillipo:

What's bigger than a dinosaur? Bigger than digger? Diggersaurs are bigger. Diggersaurs dig with bites so big, each scoop creates a crater. Chomp. Benjamin, is this your favorite book?

Benjamin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sam DiFillipo: Maybe. Okay.

Benjamin: Maybe.

Christopher Wurst:

Hi everybody. It's that time again, connecting trough isolation. Week six already. The uncertainty of living in isolation sure has me digging deep and reflecting on my life these days. What do we want our lives to look like after this? What do we value? What do we want to keep and what are we happy to let go? One common theme that we hear again and again is the reliance on family during these uncertain times. And with that in mind, today's episode is a bit of a family affair.

Christopher Wurst:

We opened just now with our producer Sam DiFillipo and her son Ben. You met them on 22.33 a few weeks ago and we want to continue to check in with them and see the quarantine world through the eyes of a brand new two year old. Our producer Ana-Maria Sinitean is back with more quarantine memes. And this week's feature story was produced by our own Kate Furby, who remotely interviews her neighbor, who just happens to be a previous 22.33 guest and Fulbright alumnus.

Christopher Wurst:

And Seth Glier, a musical friend of the podcast, shared with us a brand new song about life in these times. We also know that many people are turning to books to help get them through these days, so this week, we take a close look at what people are reading and recommending, our very own quarantine book list. Finally, we've begun hosting Instagram live events every Wednesday at noon, Eastern Standard Time. So in addition to our Friday morning podcast, follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories, where we catch up with former podcast guests. Next week, I'll talk with Tony and Leslie Memmel, two musicians who have traveled for our American Music Abroad program. They might even treat us to some live music.

Christopher Wurst:

Stories this week from Mount Pleasant, right here in Washington DC, to a remote village in Pakistan, to the capital of Bangladesh, and featuring book recommendations from all over the world. Connecting through isolation, it's 22.33.

Intro Speaker 1: Politicians, scientists, and even celebrities all want us to practice social distancing.

Intro Speaker 2: This is a recording for 22.33, and it's in the COVID crisis.

Intro Speaker 3: Things are unpredictable.

Intro Speaker 4: I think that people perhaps will be thinking that they are stuck at home.

Intro Speaker 5: So we're asking everyone to be selfless for others.

Intro Speaker 6: We're all in this together. We all have a voice. We all have a story to tell.

Kate Furby:

Every day the couple next door brings a plated lunch out onto the deck and eats it with a fork. Sometimes I chat with them through my window while I'm eating M&Ms in front of my computer. I'm doing fine. At the beginning of the lockdown, when I realized that I might have to stay home for a long, long time, I actually thought I might be fine with it. I'm an introvert, I like jigsaw puzzles. I don't even know if I like people that much. I don't want to tell you that I've been training for this my whole life, but what if I have?

Kate Furby:

A couple months ago, my roommate left to stay with family. I actually can't remember the last time I hugged anyone. That's what I fell asleep thinking about last night. So much has changed so fast. I don't know if I like people more, it might be less really, based on how wildly I avoid them on the sidewalk now. But even still, I'm realizing how much I value human interaction. And right now, that means my neighbors. I usually travel so much, I never bothered to become a plant person, but now I want to grow food. I don't want to go to the store, so I'm baking bread. I know, it's so basic.

Kate Furby:

But my neighbors, they chime in with advice on my scraggly seedlings, offer sourdough starter, they play music on the porch, the project movies on the back wall. Maybe these things seems small, but they are my world right now. This is a story about the power of neighbors and music and how one corner of Washington DC is making it through.

Band Member: G minor

Tim McDonnell: G Major.

Band Member: G Major.

Tim McDonnell: And F-sharp 7. That's a good one. That is a sexy chord.

Tim McDonnell: All right, I am running on this side. And I think this level looks good.

Kate Furby: Perfect.

Tim McDonnell:

I was really worried that the neighbors would not have this reaction. After that first week that the band played in the backyard, some kind neighbor left us a bottle of wine with a nice note thanking us for the music, which I wiped down when I got home. But then enjoyed it very much, and that was really nice. And, actually, it turns out that some the band mates' work colleagues actually live in our neighborhood, as well, and were talking on their internal work chat about, "Oh, there's this band that's been playing on the weekend. We don't know who it is, but they're really cool." And Soren chimed in, "That was us. That's actually me."

Kate Furby:

Tim is our neighborhood renaissance man. He's a science journalist, musician, and baker. He agreed to do this interview with me as part of our connecting through isolation series. Because he's actually already been on the 22.33 episode, as a Fulbright alum. So we decided to try to do this interview in a new way, which involved me placing a sanitized microphone into a bucket, which he then hoisted up from my porch to his.

Tim McDonnell: All right, here she comes.

Kate Furby: Thanks.

Tim McDonnell: Here comes the bucket.

Kate Furby: Oh sweet. Thank you.

Tim McDonnell: There's [inaudible 00:07:25] in there.

Kate Furby: Oh cool.

Tim McDonnell:

I am Tim McDonnell, I am a science journalist for the business magazine Quartz. And I was a 2016-2017 Fulbright National Geographic storytelling fellow in Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria. (singing). I started out in middle school band playing the tuba, and I was the tuba guy all through middle school and high school. And I went to college, at first, actually as a tuba major. But guitar, for me, it's very meditative. And well before this coronavirus crisis, I mean, for the last decade at least, it's been something that I've spent a couple hours a day practicing and playing. And, for me, that's my meditation. (singing).

Kate Furby:

I just moved into the neighborhood in December, so most of the time I've lived here the weather has been pretty cold. Is playing music outside something you were doing before the pandemic?

Tim McDonnell:

When we started getting this band together, we were usually going to a rehearsal space that we would always go practice there, because they have amps and a drum set and microphones and everything that you can kind of set up and play really loud and not bother anyone. So doing it in the backyard is more of a product of the need for social distancing. Obviously, those rehearsal spaces are not open right now, and so we're kind of making do with what we can. But, I feel like it's had the benefit of being fun for neighbors, hopefully not too annoying to listen to. Yeah, so we've been enjoying it. (singing).

Kate Furby:

Can I just say at this point, that Tim is grossly underestimating this. I'm basically trapped in my apartment with my dog. I can't see anyone because I'm taking isolation extremely seriously. I'm not even going on walks with people. That means by main human interaction, my main face-to-face are my neighbors and this band.

Tim McDonnell:

We have a really interesting neighbor set-up. And I've been feeling, throughout this crisis, really lucky with the set-up that we have, because we have a bunch of neighbors that are all really close friends.

Kate Furby: Can everyone cheer?

Band Member: Are you going to splice that?

Kate Furby: I have to now.

Tim McDonnell: Splice it.

Band Member: Can you guys just-

Tim McDonnell:

And our backyard is kind of an interesting set-up, so these are two adjacent row houses that each have an upstairs and downstairs balcony. Everybody can kind of socialize and enjoy themselves in this really cool way. So I've been feeling really lucky to have this community. And I guess they've also been beneficiaries of the band. Our backyard is big enough that we're able to have the four members of the band kind of set up at different levels of the backyard and spread out so that we can maintain distance from each other, but it's a rock band, so we don't have any problem hearing each other.

Tim McDonnell:

And we got really lucky, because it used to be a trio and then we had a new neighbor move into the attic apartment, this guy Max, who turned out to be an amazing guitar player, so he's in the group. So it's actually very convenient. He just walks downstairs, I walk downstairs, we set up in the backyard, and it works out really well. It's super fun.

Kate Furby:

Yeah, between the band playing every Sunday and Skyler our upstairs neighbor projecting movies out into the back, the neighbor dynamic has made everything better, and it's totally changed this experience for me.

Tim McDonnell:

Yeah, I think our neighbor dynamic has been absolutely crucial for getting through this thing. Yeah, so, no that's been really fun. I think our next goal for that is to set up some karaoke on that.

Kate Furby: Yes.

Tim McDonnell:

And do some shouted karaoke from the balconies. I mean this is a situation where we're all sort of living in ways that we're not accustomed to and spending a lot more time at home and, in some ways, technology video conferencing and everything has allowed us to kind of function effectively as a society across much greater distances. Video conference parties with your friends even, that kind of thing. So in once sense, we're sort of connected over great distances, but at the same time, I think because we're all at home, I think it is causing people to take a look around. Who are the people that you can actually still have a face-to-face conversation with?

Tim McDonnell:

And you've seen videos of this on social media from cities all over the world where people are standing on their balconies and singing together or cheering or just making music. Just kind of coming together in this way where, most of the time, those are people that you would, probably, just totally ignore, which is a sad thing about our society. So, in a way, it's really nice that this has forced us to sort of take that second look, get to know these faces a little bit better. And, yeah, certainly these are people who have become my closest friends, throughout all of this are my neighbors. Those are the people that I'm seeing every day and are really helping me get through this. And I do feel really lucky in that respect. (singing).

Kate Furby:

Every morning I wake up during quarantine with this feeling of dread. And then I look at my phone and see what time it is and I get stuck in this hole of social media and news. I remember you said when you wake up you try to do a pause on all that stuff?

Tim McDonnell:

I hate waking up and feeling like I have to immediately go to work. I want to be able to enjoy some moments of peace throughout my day. You have to make a very concerted effort to do that. It's not something that's going to come easily or come naturally. You have to work hard on giving yourself a break from work. It's kind of counterintuitive, but I think it can really make a huge difference in your life if you sort of force yourself to take some time, take space and also just remind yourself, as well, that it's also okay to just do nothing. You can take time throughout your day to just sit on the couch and think and not look at a screen. And you don't have to be doing anything.

Tim McDonnell:

People are talking a lot these days about what we can kind of do to make the most productive use of our at home time. And this is the time to redo your apartment or learn a bunch of new skills or something. And that's all great, but it's also okay to just sit and do nothing and your mind needs a moment to reset. And that's going to make you so much more productive if you've given yourself just a little bit of space to just relax and take your mind off of it. I think that that can really go a long way. For me, it's essential, I have to.

Kate Furby:

Yeah, I've been thinking about that a lot the last couple days. In fact, yesterday when you guys were playing music, I had set my hammock up on the porch and I was just laying there listening to you guys play music and talk, not even reading a book, just laying there. And it was the best thing I did all day.

Tim McDonnell:

Absolutely. Definitely. I'm glad that our conversation was so stimulating to listen to. (singing). And another thing that's been interesting for me is, so most of the time I cover climate change, that's my main beat. And that's, obviously, this other sort of existential crisis that's looming over society, but in some ways, most of the time, except when you have major disasters or things like that, climate change is kind of a slow drip. It's a long term process of change and it's not always really evident in most people's daily lives.

Tim McDonnell:

And so that can make it, sometimes, challenging to report on because you want it to stay relevant for people, you want it to feel immediate, and for many people it is. But it's a challenge as a journalist. But then covering coronavirus... the immediacy is so obvious and it's kind of picking up the pace so much, so that's just been a really interesting challenge to work on.

Kate Furby:

Yeah, yeah. As a scientist who studied climate change, I think about that. There was this meme on the internet early on, I think things were funnier then, and everyone's freaking out about the pandemic and then it's like, "Climate scientists: Welcome to the apocalypse, we've been here for sometime." Just feeling existential dread, but far more acute and widespread and obvious that it was before.

Tim McDonnell:

Right. And at the same time, I think this crisis has been a chance for society to kind of come together in addressing a global challenge in a way that could be a kind of hopeful signal for climate change if it shows, here we are, we're all facing this immediate crisis. Everyone in the world is kind of joining hands and trying to work together on this problem in a way that I can't think of any other example of when we've had this kind of global cooperation on any problem ever, certainly not in my lifetime. (singing).

Kate Furby:

I really want to talk about how you're dealing with this in terms of your job. I think a lot of people are talking about the new cycle getting them down and how it's really tough. But as a journalist, you're inside the news cycle.

Tim McDonnell:

Yeah, it is tough to be inside the news cycle during something like this, because it is kind of all consuming and from a personal perspective, it can be tough, because you're in this kind of coronavirus zone all day. And then even when you go after hours to talk to your friends, of course, in social settings, that's what everyone is talking about anyway. So it does feel like it's hard to get a break. And my partner is also a journalist and she's been doing amazing work really on daily wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage that's even more exhausting than what I've been doing. And so, we're living in this bubble together.

Tim McDonnell:

And I think it's been really important for us to try to make a concerted effort to take breaks from work, especially first thing in the morning and in the evening to try really hard to not look at our phones, to not be chatting with colleagues, or just be able to turn off and unplug, even more so than maybe we would've normally done before this. And also to dive into our other hobbies, if it's music or making art, or doing other things that we're doing to try to keep each other sane. Baking a lot, obviously, as everyone is doing, those things have become even more important to kind of get a break from the news cycle. (singing).

Tim McDonnell:

I don't know, I mean, one thing that's coming to mind, I mean, maybe this is too shameless, but I think, actually, I can really say that the time that I spent on my Fulbright project really was a kind of crash course in resilience for me in a lot of ways. That I was spending a lot of time traveling and working on projects and trying to see what would work and what wouldn't work and having to scrap plans and come up with new ones at the last minute for the stories that I was trying to tell in that context. And just getting used to sort of rolling with the punches and finding ways to cope with really stressful circumstances, those were all lessons that I learned during that Fulbright that I think have really stuck with me and that have been important through this coronavirus crisis, as well. So I'm really appreciative of that experience. (singing).

Kate Furby:

I can really relate to Tim's closing words here. This pandemic, this really hard to understand virus, it's changed the topography of every day. It makes the joyful moments sharper and more focused, because they are staccatoed into long periods of chronic stress. And I can tell you that a big part of my daily joy, when I can grab it, is the people around me, my neighbors. And, of course, my dog, Banjo.

Christopher Wurst: And now it's time for quarantine memes, from Ana-Maria.

Ana-Maria Sinitean: Is anyone else turning corners at the supermarket like you're at a haunted house?

Ana-Maria Sinitean: 2020 came out looking like a warm chocolate chip cookie, then one bite in and, bam, surprise, it's oatmeal 

raisin.

Ana-Maria Sinitean:

Home isolation has its ups and downs, one day you're flying high, being productive, and cleaning the baseboards with a Q-Tip, and the next day you're drinking wine and watching squirrels out the window, there's no in between.

Ana-Maria Sinitean: 2020 in one sentence: A roll of toilet paper is worth more than a barrel of oil.

Ana-Maria Sinitean: When your boss asks if you can give him a call. Can I call you back in three hours? I'm cleaning my groceries right now.

Shujat Ali:

I'm now attending graduate school in the city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. As I set on a journey towards Italy in 2016 for my undergraduate education, I would have never thought that it would take me four years to return home to see my loved ones and to hug my beloved mother once again. To my disappointment, COVID-19 hit the world and it feels that even after four years, I might not be able to return home soon. As I sit in my room and try to work on the daunting and long master's thesis for my university, one thing still keeps me going and motivates me to hang in there, that thing is the realization of the real essence of human freedom, which is usually not realized during times of peace. This brings me to an aspect of my life which keeps me focused and motivated, it is my love for philosophy and reading philosophy.

Shujat Ali:

The famous French philosopher Sartre writes that freedom is not the freedom to do something, but the possibility of choice, so choose. Paradoxically, the freedom to choose creates anxiety, fear, and self-deception leading to inauthentic lives. This leaves us with the possibility that a human being is free when he comes to the realization that something is lacking in his life, and by acknowledging it, he or she commits to a purpose in his or her life, this is usually realized in times of foreign occupation. Our war is with COVID-19 and we have been occupied by this enemy, by putting us all in lockdown behind closed doors. The silver lining, however, is that human beings have started to realize what's lacking in their lives.

Shujat Ali:

It starts from the simple [inaudible 00:24:43] earth is healing, which means we have slowly been destroying nature. To people regretting or not spending enough time with their loved ones before the lockdown. What's lacking in our lives? Among many examples, includes the closeness which we once experienced, both with the nature and with our loved ones. Amid this lockdown and hard times, I am happy for myself, my loved ones, and all the friends I have made around the world. I'm happy that, finally, we will realize the real essence of human freedom. After all, what other end result could motivate us to continue our hard work and robust toil if not the achievement and realization of our freedom. A freedom satisfying in all its aspects.

Shujat Ali:

So, hopefully, once this is over we will get to choose again, and not merely for the sake of being able to do something this time, but to fix and fulfill what our lives lack and maybe to [inaudible 00:25:34] what has been taking from us by technology, automation, and the quest for modern, materialistic needs. The freedom awaits us, and it is upon us how we shape the human condition for our coming generations.

Christopher Wurst:

Shujat Ali is from a small village in Pakistan called Chi, Chitral. He is an alumnus of ECA's Youth Exchange and Study, or YES program, where he attended a year of high school in New Auburn, Wisconsin. He checked in with us from Maastricht in the Netherlands where he is both attending graduate school and stuck far away from home.

Christopher Wurst:

Earlier this week, I was thrilled to find a new song by Seth Glier in our 22.33 inbox. Seth is a veteran American Music Abroad performer, serving as a cultural ambassador around the world. We're grateful to present this brand new song, Til Further Notice, which poignantly captures the current mood.

Seth Glier: (singing)

Christopher Wurst:

For more about Seth's music, I encourage you to go to sethglier.com.

Bahara Hussaini:

The positive things that I see in these days are enjoying my times with my family members, and especially, reading my favorites books. I, with my team The Bookies, started a campaign with a message of let's recommend our favorite book to encourage our members, friends, and other [inaudible 00:30:26] to read books and share a few lines of their thoughts about the book that they have read.

Seth Glier:

And, in regards to literature, I always keep this copy of the Tao Te Ching, a Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching on hand. And it's one of those books where you can kind of just open up and any page you find, you'll find yourself somewhere on that page. It's a powerful book in that way.

Reader 2:

Divine comedy, by Dante Alighieri.

Reader 3:

As a computer science professor, I'm actually doing the reverse and using my extra time at home to actually get back to reading books. So I've been reading Code Girls by Liza Mundy, which is a story about American women code breakers from World War II. It includes topics of bravery and pulling together when needed. I hope that when back in the classroom, to use these examples to encourage more women that they can succeed in anything if they just put their mind to it and work together.

Reader 4:

There's a book inspiring me, or helping me through this right now, it's Antifragile. I was reading it kind of when coronavirus broke. And so, there's a weird parallel between the world presented in there in different parts and the world we all live in right now. And it's making me understand about how every once in a while, we need to have things break, for better or for worse and it hurts and there's some growing pains, but we become more resilient out of it.

Ana-Maria Sinitean:

One book I've read during quarantine is The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. It's part speculative fiction, sci-fi, part philosophy, theology that tells the story of Jesuit priests and scientists leading a secret mission to a newly discovered planet in order to make first contact with intelligent life forms. Let's just say there's no happy ending, but it's definitely a book that draws you into another reality and helps the days go by.

Reader 6:

A Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. The title is apt, so is the book itself. Which recounts the amazing story of Nelson Mandela, who stayed locked for almost three decades. May we be the best version of ourselves, may we get the courage to see it, and the determination to live it.

Reader 7:

I've been reading a Joy-Filled Life: Lessons from a Tenant Farmer's Daughter... Who Became a CEO, author is Mo Anderson.

Reader 8:

I read the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which I really find valuable and applicable in my life.

Reader 9:

I feel that this moment has given me a real gift, in that it just gives me a chance to learn so much. I'm also diving very deep into Russian literature and Dostoevsky and some of that. So, kind of the big stuff that would take a lot of time, and because of that I've always put it on the back burner, but this is a great time.

Reader 10:

1984 by George Orwell.

Reader 11:

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson.

Reader 12:

How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship by Ece Temelkuran.

Reader 13:

I actually have three books with me right now. I'm almost halfway through Angela Duckworth's Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It's such an amazing book for teachers who want to prepare their students for 21st century. I also have Why Nations Fail, this is by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. And the last book that I have, I'm gravitating towards biography, so I have Becoming by Michelle Obama.

Reader 14:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Reader 15:

Dubliners by James Joyce.

Reader 16:

The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie.

Reader 17:

I am currently on an old-timey mystery kick right now. I'm currently reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And I just finished The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. And, also, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. I also just finished The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I'm trying to keep up my Arabic by reading Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi.

Reader 18:

Chicken Soup for the Soul written by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen.

Reader 19:

Currently rereading De kabbalist by Geert Kimpen. It's an amazing novel, very inspiring, everybody I've talked to so far, it had an impact on them, on their personal lives and, therefore, during this corona crisis, I am reading De kabbalist.

Reader 20:

I am currently reading, or I better say, I got back to reading this book called Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling. And I think it's a very important time to understand facts and reading this book. Because this book is about all of us who do not see the world as it really is. And it's about how relying on facts can make us feel more positive, less stressed, and more hopeful about this world.

Reader 21:

I'm digging stuff out to see what I can reread since I've read everything already. I decided against Camus' The Plague and Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, because as appropriate as those might have been, I just didn't think it would be too uplifting. So, instead, I went for Italo Calvino, he's one of my favorites. And then I picked up Rita Mae Brown's Ruby Fruit Jungle, which I also hadn't read in many, many, many years. And I know because the price on the book is a dollar. That's a book about challenges and it's full of humorous anecdotes, so I'm looking forward to reading that again.

Reader 21:

And then, Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden. Monty Don is a master gardener. He and his wife Sarah had a jewelry business, but they overextended themselves and ended up losing everything. And with many of my friends now on the verge of, perhaps, losing everything, I really wanted to read this book because it's also about them looking inward and finding the strength to carry on in a different way and build these beautiful gardens. And so, I'm looking forward to it.

Reader 22:

I am reading The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I hope this chilling story of a dystopian future could never happen.

Kate Furby:

The book I would recommend right now is Exhalation by Ted Chiang. It's thoughtful sci-fi without being scary or apocalyptic. I really enjoyed every page. And the next book I'd like to read is How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. I don't know that much about it, but I feel like those are the lessons I need right now.

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 statue that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of US Government funded international exchange programs.

Christopher Wurst:

This week, we heard from 22.33 friends new and old, who were kind enough, during these time of uncertainty, to record themselves talking about what is inspiring them and what they are feeling. Huge thanks to Tim McDonnell, Seth Glier, Shujat Ali, and [Shomi Hassan Chaudhry 00:38:47]. Our book recommendations this week came from all over the place. Thanks, in order, to Bahara Hussaini, from Pakistan; Seth Glier, Massachusetts; Munif Khan, Bangladesh; Melissa Stange, Virginia; David Rader, Washington DC; Ana-Maria Sinitean, Washington DC; [Sultan Mahmoud 00:39:08], Pakistan; Kyle Dillingham, Oklahoma; Malik from Uzbekistan; Carla Canales from New York City; Demetry and Elena Wurst from Minneapolis; Alyssa Meyer from Virginia; Anito Ramos Librando Jr., the Philippines; Richard Steiner, Melbourne, Australia; Grace Benton, Virginia; Inusah Al-Hassan, Ghana; Chantal Suissa-Runne, the Netherlands; Rūta Beinoriūtė, Lithuania; Lenny Russo, St. Paul, Minnesota; Bernadett Szél, Hungary; and Kate Furby right here in Washington DC.

Christopher Wurst:

And listeners, we would love to hear about your thoughts and inspiration during these times. It could be a story, a poem, or a song. Whatever you're feeling, please send your audio to us at 2233@state.gov. That's 2233@state.gov. You can always find more information about the podcast and complete episode transcripts at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And, of course, you should follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories. Special thanks to everybody for their participation this week. The 22.33 team, working from various locations was brilliant, as always. Thanks of Kate Furby, Ana-Maria Sinitean, Samantha DiFilippo, Edward Stewart, and Desiree Williamson. Kate Furby helped with the script and designs our awesome graphics. Ana-Maria scours the internet for the highest quality memes. And Sam and Ben spent a lot of time analyzing trucks.

Christopher Wurst:

Special thanks also to Belal Khan for rounding up a bunch of YES alumni to share their voices with us. Huge thanks to Seth Glier for sharing his amazing song, "Til Further Notice." Thanks also to Richard Steiner who recorded the quarantine memes theme, which we all love. And, of course, the music of Tim McDonnell, which has been a gift to his Washington DC neighbors. Other music this week included Step In, Step Out, by Blue Dot Sessions. And the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagerlius. Until next time, stay healthy everybody.

Outro Speaker:

My code, my inspiration code for everyone is don't get sad, get glad that we've been through this together and that we will win through this together and we will have this experience that we've been part of something that we shared across the continents, across the borders, that definitely makes a difference in the way, how we perceive, how we are so connected with one another.

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Season 02, Episode 29 - Special: Connecting Through Isolation, Part 5 (April 24, 2020)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 29

TRANSCRIPT

Shazia Mohsini:

In compassion and grace, be like the sun. In concealing others' faults, be like the night. In generosity and helping others be like a river. In anger and fury, be like death. In modesty and humility, be like the earth. In tolerance, be like the sea. Either appear as you are or be as you appear. Homely.

Christopher Wurst:

Hey everybody. Somehow it's already our fifth installment of connecting through isolation. How did that happen? This week feels sort of like what is connection? What is isolation? How are we getting through all of this again? It might sound cheesy, but this week I'm thinking a lot about the human spirit, all that we've accomplished and all that we're working towards together. We even have a song from Anito in the Philippines that really captures this later in the episode. Things are hard, but I am grateful for what we have. Some on our team might think I've included too many dramatic poems, but dramatic poems are a real quarantine mood this week. But to balance it all out so we don't go too crazy, or maybe because we're already going a little bit crazy, we're starting to add a little bit more humor to these podcasts.

Christopher Wurst:

Through all of this, memes are really having their moment. I do wonder, of course, whether they're something that will endure the test of time, but just in case they don't, we're going to start memorializing them here. Today, we introduce a new segment called Quarantine Memes with Ana-Maria, where our colleague narrates a few of the topical cartoons making their rounds on the internet. We need humor just as much as anything else to get through this. Stories this week from the Netherlands, Ghana, Togo, Afghanistan, the Philippines, California, Nashville, Tennessee, and New York City. Connecting through isolation, it's 22.33.

Speaker 3: Politicians, scientists, and even celebrities all want us to practice social distancing.

Speaker 4: This is the recording for 22.33 and it's in the Covid crisis.

Speaker 8: Things are unpredictable.

Speaker 23: I think that before perhaps we'll be thinking that you're stuck at home.

Speaker 3: So we're asking everyone to be selfless for others.

Speaker 8: We're all in this together. We all have a voice. We all have a story to tell.

Inusah Al-Hassan:

A friend of ours was walking down a deserted Mexican beach at sunset. As he walked along, he began to see another man in the distance. We notice that a local native, kept leaning down, picking something up and throwing it out into the water, time and again. He kept hauling things out into the ocean. As our friend approach even closer, he noticed that the man was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach, and one at the time he was throwing them back into the water. Our friend was puzzled.

Inusah Al-Hassan:

He approached the man and said, good evening friend. I was wondering what you are doing. I'm throwing these starfish back into the ocean. It's low tide right now and all these starfish have been washed up onto the shore. If I don't throw them back into the sea, they will die up here from lack of oxygen. I understand, my friend replied, but there must be thousands of starfish on this beach. You can't possibly get to all of them. There are simply too many, and don't you realize this is probably happening on hundreds of beaches all up and down this coast? Can't you see that you can't possibly make a difference. The local native smirked, bent down, and picked up yet another starfish, and as he threw it back into the sea, he replied, made a difference to that one.

Kalina Silverman:

Well, since I live in Los Angeles, California, and right now the clouds and the sunrise and the sunsets are so clear. That's what's inspiring me. The smog has lifted so we're all driving a lot less and there's a lot of beauty to see. Every day when I watched the sun go down, I like to say out loud three things I'm grateful for and three things I'm looking forward to for the next day or the bright, broader future.

Kalina Silverman:

I would love to tell my friends around the world to try to keep smiling, mask on or mask off. I'm often reminded that loneliness can kill us and compassion saves lives. So please remember, no matter what you're going through right now, you are very far from being alone and we can use this opportunity to check in on one another, build new relationships and strengthen existing ones in spite of the physical, social distancing and regardless of race, socioeconomic status, workplace hierarchy, geography, religion, we are all going through this unprecedented time together, experiencing similar life changes and likely sharing common feelings. You have the same fears, concerns, coping mechanisms and joys and perhaps the kindest thing we can do right now is radiate hope, humor, inspiration and compassion towards each other and continue to strengthen our social solidarity and knowledge so that we can prepare for whatever comes next.

Christopher Wurst:

Kalina Silverman appeared in back to back episodes of 22.33 last year entitled no more small talk and lots of big talk. She's the founder of the media project Big Talk designed to help people make meaningful connections. And just a few days ago, she was 22.33's first ever Instagram live guest. She checked in with us from her home in Santa Monica, California. Before Kalina you heard Inusah Al-Hassan from Accra, Ghana as a youth exchange and study or YES student, he spent a year in Austin, Minnesota. The story he read called "One at a Time" was from the book "Chicken Soup for the Soul." This is the second time that Inusah has appeared in the Connecting Through Isolation Series.

Carmen Pozo Rios:

We are locked down in my country. This is my fourth week and it can be otherwise. So I found different ways to keep myself busy at home and I teach in person, but because of these I have learned to cook different dishes now, so I am proud of myself. I do exercises every day. I jump rope, I do planks, I run in the garden and that helps me to not stress out. I also listen to different kinds of music like Maroon 5.

Carmen Pozo Rios:

I know many people are using programs on the web to be connected and they get good talks about sports. I tried to listen to them like the one Women's Sports Foundation had. It was very inspiring to see such good athletes sharing their experiences, letting us know that all of us are going through this together. I just know that it's prohibited to give up. We cannot fail. We're strong people and we can beat this virus soon. We just have to take care of ourselves. Stay at home, do things that can keep you safe at home. It's hard, but it's not impossible. We can do it.

Christopher Wurst:

Carmen Pozo Rios, or Piña, was a participant in the 2017 Global Sports Mentoring Program, a sport's journalist with a passion for getting women and girls involved in sport. She checked in with us from her home in LA Paz, Bolivia.

Hodabalou Anate:

During these trying times for humanity. I remember the tremendous experience I have had while in the U.S. In general, and in my host university in Michigan in particular, what the Corona virus is doing now, bringing all the well people together. Fulbright has already succeeded in doing it for years now in the privacy of my little house. I remember many friends from USA, South Korea, China, UK, Canada, Nigeria, then Egypt, Australia, to mention but a few.

Hodabalou Anate: I remember one of my poems of inspiration, titled Paradox. This is the poem:

Hodabalou Anate:

The one you call sweetheart is the one who broke the heart of your fellow sister. The one you call president is the one your neighbors call criminal. The one you call buster is the one that's anonymous girl calls rupees. The one you call father is the one who made other children for their love. The one you call husband is the one who made other women with those. The one you call angel is someone else's devil. My brother, you are not yet really human. If you find the wrong with society only when your interest is abused.

Christopher Wurst:

We first met the poet Hodabalou Anate when he was a Fulbright scholar lecturing at the University of Michigan's campus in Flint, a native of tropical Lome, Togo. What he was really trying to do was acclimate to his first below zero winter. His reference to this struggle became the title of his 22.33 episode, Life in an Open Fridge.

Christopher Wurst: And now it's time for Quarantine Memes from Ana-Maria.

Ana-Maria Sinitean:

Quarantine has turned us all into dogs. We roamed the house all day looking for food. We're told NO if we get too close to strangers, and we get really excited about car rides.

Ana-Maria Sinitean:

Everyone during quarantine, now is a great time to do the thing you've always wanted to get done. Write the script, organize the closet, learn a new recipe, reconnect with old friends. Me the fifth day of sitting on my couch, I wonder what cat food tastes like.

Ana-Maria Sinitean:

This is a public service announcement, not muting your mic is the new reply all.

Ana-Maria Sinitean:

So imagine a photo of really cute alpacas. Personally, I would have preferred an alpaca-lypse.

Joey Wengerd:

Honestly, the most inspiring thing maybe I've ever experienced in my life has been seeing the way our community has come together; in understanding, in unity during these difficult times. About a week before the Covid-19 quarantining started, the three of us and Tony Memmel and his band, we're from Nashville, Tennessee, and a big tornado hit downtown Nashville and devastated a good chunk of our community. And so immediately after that, just seeing the outpouring of help and encouragement from our community and then into the quarantining and social isolation. It's just inspiring to see that everyone's in this together and we all understand that we're going to go through hard times and that together we can get through this.

Speaker 8: (singing)

Christopher Wurst:

Joey Wengerd is the guitarist in the Tony Memmel band, veteran ECA cultural ambassadors who have played around the world. The band also contributed the song you just heard entitled Try to Trade. Joey's currently in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. For more about the band. You can check out tonymemmel.com.

Chantal Suissa-Runne:

I'm living in greater Amsterdam, in the suburbs of Amsterdam, called Amstelveen and I'm a very active part of the Jewish community. And other than that, I'm a social entrepreneur and our community has been hit pretty bad by this Corona virus because our elderly home had a Purim party, which is sort of like a Jewish carnival, one week before the government measures got into place. Probably, not certainly, but probably resulting in lots of casualties. There were lots of people who came to that party, also from outside that elderly home, and one fifth of the population of that elderly home passed away as the result of the Corona virus. Which is very sad because amongst them are many parents and grandparents of dear friends. So yes, this is real and this is happening. At the same time, I see this as opportunity for change, change the way we look at what is really important in our lives.

Chantal Suissa-Runne:

I'm recording this during Pesach which is the passover holiday, where the Jewish people commemorate that they got rescued out of slavery and brought into liberty, into real freedom by Moses. And in a way we are also constrained and unfree now, and I feel this in a very real way because at one hand we are confined to our homes and we are in some form of isolation. At the same time I experienced a lot of freedom of thought and time to reflect upon how we have been dealing with our friends, our communities, the world, the climate and this could potentially be a great reset. Which makes me happy, and even reflecting on the passover holiday, which this year we celebrated like our Passover dinner. We did that on Zoom, which is very different of course, and we missed our greater families and our elderly, but thank God for technology.

Chantal Suissa-Runne:

And I've been reflecting on the idea of redemption. In order to be redeemed, which is in Hebrew the word ge'ulah, you need to first get out of galut, which is exile. And we are, not just did Jewish people in the diaspora, but we as human beings, in a way have been an exile. Many of us chasing after money and power and like things short term happiness. But do we nourish our souls? Do we really think of who matter to us? Who are we doing this for? Do we have the power and the courage to reflect and to actually really be like close to people who need us to think about solidarity and not just turn on that Netflix and forget about our responsibilities. To me, the idea that comforts me is in order to see what the power of light is, you first need to be in the dark, and in order to be redeemed you first need to be in exile. So this might be our opportunity to get to ge'ulah.

Chantal Suissa-Runne:

This crisis also leads to beautiful initiatives, creativity and opportunities. As a president of our dialogue community of our Jewish community, we are going to do something that really nourishes my soul. We're going to go together with the Muslim community to an Islamic elderly home where there are a lot of people with all kinds of needs, different care levels. We're going to give them right after passover nice typical Jewish pastries with a beautiful text full of inspiration and love. And the Islamic community, the Moroccan Islamic community, is going to provide flowers for all these people, and some families going to visit from afar. They will wave from outside and we will play music for them outside.

Chantal Suissa-Runne:

And we will repeat this at the Jewish elderly home and at a Christian shelter just to show that as people of faith, in our interfaith work, we care and we realize that even if we cannot hug or hold the people, we can still be there with them even from outside. And we'll do our best to make them feel heard and seen and loved. And I hope this crisis offers everybody the opportunity to find their inner power and to find that pieces of strength and love and compassion and patience. Because of course it's challenging, but you know, it's a great lesson into patience and compassion. Also, self-compassion. If you don't do everything perfect, if working online or from a distance, homeschooling your children is not going perfectly. So what, have some compassion with yourself. This is a time that everybody needs...

Christopher Wurst:

Chantal Suissa-Runne is the founding director of YOUnite and has been a leading interfaith voice, a leader in the Jewish community working with Christian and Muslim communities to address prejudice and fight discrimination in the Netherlands. Last year she was a participant in the International Visitor Leadership Program. Her original 22.33 episode, called Shining Light against the Dark, aired early in March 2020. She reached out to us from home on the outskirts of Amsterdam.

Shazia Mohsini:

I know we are all going through tough times, but I feel for us it is to say that every situation of life should be taken as an opportunity, and that's what brings optimism in our lives. Since the most powerful barriers are patience and time. The key is not spending time but investing it. Most of the times I would run out of time to learn new skills and to be creative in different aspects, but during this isolation I had a chance to achieve a few goals that I had set for learning. I would like to share an inspirational point with you all.

Shazia Mohsini:

Rustling leaves down memory lane, a glass of fire burning through the pain. Your silence for years have longed to speak. Your time has come to reach the peak. You no longer will wait and watch the rain. You no longer will feed the fear and pain. It's time to rise and make a name. It's time to unleash and change the game. For tomorrow, who knows? What do you have is the air. You will make the most when your goal is here. Your silence for years have longed to speak. Your time has come to climb the peak.

Shazia Mohsini:

You no longer will wait and watch your back. You no longer will linger to fill the crack. It's time to unfold your wings and fly. It's time to unshackle and touch the sky. You won't hold back and wait for today. You won't stay low and feel the dismay. For tomorrow, who knows? What you have is the air. You will make the most now, and your goal is clear. Have faith and courage to draw your scope. Have trust in yourself and a dash of hope. Your silence for years have longed to speak. Don't waste your moment and claim that peak.

Shazia Mohsini: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Christopher Wurst:

Shazia Mohsini was nominated by the U S embassy in Afghanistan to take part in the Leadership in English Advancement program, or LEAP, and the English Language Teaching Mentoring exchange programs. She checked in with us from home in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Anito Ramos Librando Jr.:

I think the last time I was in the podcast I sang for everyone. And so this time I'm going to share another song and I hope everybody will like it and appreciate it. So here it goes.

Anito Ramos Librando Jr.:

You broken down in of living life on a Merry go. Who? And you can't find the flight. A dye can see it in you. So Megan at work it out.

Anito Ramos Librando Jr.:

move mountains. We kind of walk it out. Moo.

Anito Ramos Librando Jr.:

no, now rise. I rise like the daily yell, rise up, rise handle, do sometimes again, no rise up high like the waves. I'll rise up in handle, do wait a thousand times.

Anito Ramos Librando Jr.:

So that's all and I hope you guys enjoy and stay safe everyone. Bye.

Christopher Wurst:

Anito Ramos Librando Jr. is an alumnus from the Fulbright English Language Teaching Assistant. Or FLTA program. We originally met him during a memorable 22.33 live episode where he led a raucous sing along to Miley Cyrus's Party in the USA. He's currently a registrar at Xavier University in the Philippines.

Michele Benjamin:

During the crisis, I've been connecting through isolation by answering the call to all makers and designers by state and local governments to try to help provide PPE, personal protective equipment. I've been creating protective face masks which involved retooling, problem solving and making new designs that will contribute to the community. The PPE masks are my own designs and they are currently in production for the purposes of donation to local area hospitals and essential workers. This experience has inspired me to join in the community effort to help make New York City strong while facing this crisis as I continue to exchange ideas and communication with my friends and colleagues overseas.

Christopher Wurst:

Michele Benjamin is a New York based artist and jewelry designer. She was an ECA Arts Envoy in 2019 visiting Southeast Asia to promote women's empowerment and wildlife conservation. She reached out to us from Queens, New York.

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 U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

Christopher Wurst:

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. Huge thanks to Chantal Suissa-Runne, Inusah Al-Hassan, Kalina Silvermen, Carmen Piña Rios, Hodabalou Anate, Joey Wengerd, Shazia Mohsini, Anito Ramos Librando Jr., and Michele Benjamin. And listeners, we would love to hear about your thoughts and inspirations as well. It could be a story, a poem, or a song. Whatever you're feeling at the moment, please send your audio to us at 2233@state.gov that's 2233@state.gov and let us know where you are, while you're at it. You can always find more information about the podcast at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233, and of course you should follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories. We've also started doing Instagram live interviews every Wednesday, yet another reason to follow us.

Christopher Wurst:

Special thanks to everybody for mobilizing to send audio on short notice. The 22.33 team working from various locations keeps everything on track. Thanks to Kate Furby, Ana-Maria Sinitean, Samantha DiFilippo, Edward Stewart and Desiree Williamson. Kate Furby helped with the script and designs our awesome graphics. Ana-Maria Sinitean is our official meme guru. I edited this episode. Very special thanks to the Tony Memmel Band for their song Try to Trade. Other music included Negentropy by Chad Crouch, Paper Boat by Podington Bear, and three songs by Blue Dot Sessions, OneEightFour, Pinky, and The Coil Winds. The end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time, stay healthy everybody.

Inusah Al-Hassan:

In the ways of Mother Theresa spread love everywhere you go, first of all in your own house. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to a next door neighbor. Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of gross kindness, kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warmth greeting.

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Season 02, Episode 28 - Special: Connecting Through Isolation, Part 4 (April 17, 2020)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 28

TRANSCRIPT

Nejra Rizvanovic:

I've come across poems by William Butler Yeats, and one that I find very fitting to this period that we find ourselves in is his Lake Isle of Innisfree, and it goes like this. "I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree, and a small cabin build there of clay and wattles made. Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee, and live alone in the bee-loud glade. And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings. There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, and evening full of the linnet's wings. I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore. While I stand on the roadway or on the pavements gray, I hear it in the deep heart's core."

Nejra Rizvanovic:

We can learn a lot from the protagonist who seems to so simply and so easily enjoy these little things, little but important things in life, and manages to find some peace in his solitude and to find enjoyment from just observing nature, soaking up all the feelings that the nature or that his experiences provide, like for example, listening to the sounds of the lake water or the bees. And I think this is something that we urgently need to relearn especially in this fast-paced lifestyle.

Christopher Wurst:

Hey, everybody. So I feel like the stir-crazy is really setting in this week. Staying apart, of course, is still very serious, but being alone is getting weird. A new kind of eerie routine has started. I was used to getting up early, checking the sports scores, letting Rex out, and taking the Blue Line into Foggy Bottom. Automatic things that didn't require too much of my thought, but it has all gone away. And now my routine is wobbly and weighted with big moral questions. Where is it safe to walk Rex? Should I go to the grocery store? I don't miss the robotic nature of life before, but I miss everything else.

Christopher Wurst:

Working on this Connecting Through Isolation series this week, it was surprisingly uplifting. While the pandemic is still oppressively changing everything, there are steady moments of light and hope coming into our new 22.33 mailbox from our friends all over the world. This week, stories from India, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Washington, D.C., New York City, northern Virginia, and my own home state, Minnesota. From teenagers in Afghanistan to a parliamentarian in Europe to an award-winning Midwestern chef. This week brings us reminders of the power of art to connect and transport us and the surprising power of flour, sugar, and eggs to bake away our isolation. Have cupcakes ever seemed so profound? Wherever you are today, I hope our stories bring us all a little relief and maybe a little closer together. Connecting Through Isolation, it's 22.33.

Speaker 3: Politicians, scientists, and even celebrities all want us to practice social distancing.

Speaker 4: This is a recording for 22.33, and it's in the COVID crisis.

Speaker 5: Things are unpredictable.

Speaker 6: I think that people perhaps will be thinking that they are stuck at home.

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

Speaker 8: We're all in this together. We all have a voice. We all have a story to tell.

Speaker 9: Ooooh, yeah.

Shams Aalam:

In this difficult time, everything is not locked down. What I feel is sunrise is not locked down. Love is not locked down. Family time is not locked down. Kindness is not locked down. Creativity is not locked down. Learning is not locked down. Conversation is not locked down. Imagining is not locked down. Reading is not locked down. Relationship is not locked down. Praying is not locked down. Meditation is not locked down. Sleeping is not locked down. Work from home is not locked down. Hope is not locked down. Cherish that you have. Lockdown is an opportunity to do what you always wanted to do, and that's what I'm doing. I'm utilizing my time.

Shams Aalam:

Our central government has declared a country-wise, nation-wise lockdown due to coronavirus pandemic. We are staying at home and keeping safe ourself and saving the lives around us. Staying at home is very important right now because we can only fight this coronavirus by staying at home, and we can wash our hands and give a various kind of cleaning message to our people around us and in the society.

Shams Aalam:

I have a dream to make this world a better place for everyone. And as we know, in our life, ups and downs is a part of our life. Due to coronavirus, I'm at home, but I have not stopped dreaming. I'm dreaming to participate in Paralympics and represent my country. I'm doing physical workouts, whatever I can do on a wheelchair at my home. And the most important thing is, by seeing me doing exercises on a wheelchair, my father, who is 85 years old, he get inspired and he also do a physical fitness workout at home. So that really motivates me.

Shams Aalam:

As I'm a working professional and staying away from my family, my family stays in Madhubani Bihar, and right now I'm in Gurgaon Haryana. So everything I have to do, I'm doing. And the best part is now, due to this lockdown, I'm trying myself to learn how to make food. My maid is not coming, so I'm making food, and I'm cooking food for myself and my father. And now I'm learning how to make circular... The first day, I actually posted a picture of a plate of flatbread, what I was doing, trying to make. And it was coming all the shapes of different countries. Many of my friends commented on my post, but that really motivated me: that being a boy and that too, most importantly, a paraplegic person can make and can cook food for himself.

Nejra Rizvanovic:

I've also recently discovered, or any time I have to procrastinate, of course, I discover great music or great new artists, and one of them is Tamino, who is a Belgian-born singer and musician with Egyptian roots.

Tamino: (singing).

Nejra Rizvanovic:

I've just now been listening to him, drinking tea out on my balcony and looking at these beautiful hills in Sarajevo that I've always enjoyed so much. And what I like, what I particularly like about his music is that it's a mix of somehow really, really this deep Oriental charm, so to say. It takes me back or it takes me to places that I've never been to that I would like to visit, but I can't at the moment. So in a way, it's through his music I get to travel to these faraway places and maybe experience a lot more than I normally would in the normal rush of day, so to say. I like the calming and soothing qualities of his voice.

Tamino: (singing).

Christopher Wurst:

Nejra Rizvanovic checked in with us from her home in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In her original 22.33 episode entitled Learning From One's Mistakes, she described her time in Alaska as a youth exchange and study participant. And oh, by the way, I actually reached out to Tamino and shared her clip. He thought it was awesome, and he gave us permission to use his song Indigo Night, which is Nejra's favorite. We thank him.

Tamino: (singing).

Christopher Wurst:

Before Nejra, we heard from Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh, an Indian Paralympian who holds the record for the longest open-sea swim by a paraplegic person. Shams was a participant in ECA's global sports mentoring program in 2018. He checked in with us from Mumbai, India.

Grace Benton:

Hi. My name is Grace Benton. I was a Fulbright English teaching assistant from 2011 to 2012 in Amman, Jordan. I live in Arlington, Virginia, with my partner and our blind cat, Mish-Mish. Beginning next fall, I will be an immigration attorney at a non-profit defending detained immigrants, but for now, I am a full-time student in my last semester of law school.

Grace Benton:

One of the things that this social isolation period has done for me is that it's allowed me to become reacquainted or better acquainted, let's say, with the living things in my immediate space. This includes my cat, Mish-Mish, with whom I've established a deep, close companionship that I never thought was possible. Pre-pandemic, I'd give her a pat or two, leave food for her, and then rush out the door. But now we really spend lengthy quality time together. My cat was a little irritable at first when I was at home all of the time, but we've grown into this easy camaraderie that has resulted in a lot more purring and snuggling than I've ever seen from my normally stoic feline friend.

Grace Benton:

I've also taken solace in my house plants, recognizing that it really is a privilege to get to watch them grow and proliferate in the spring sunlight. This time at home represents an opportunity to pause, to take things in, to be mindful and intentional about how I order my time and my space. Unstructured time at home, once a premium in my chaotic law-school student life, now stretches out endlessly before me.

Grace Benton:

My biggest inspiration by far has been baking. It's been a way to fill all of this extra time, but it's become so much more than that. I've always been a pretty avid baker, feeding my sourdough starter, baking for study groups, hostessing butter-and-carb-filled brunches. But baking during the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on a completely different meaning for me and filled a completely different space in my life. It's come to occupy a really important space, and it has underscored for me in a really important way this bond between food and human connection. In its most basic form, baking helps me decompress, de-stress, and just generally process what's happening around me.

Grace Benton:

I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a Costco bag of flour several weeks ago, which has allowed me to really branch out and attempt a lot of increasingly elaborate recipes. Like, the longer that I have to knead the dough, the more times that I have to laminate the dough, the more effective baking is as a de-stressor for me. More importantly, though, baking has become a way to foster connection at a time when we can't, by necessity, see one another or be together physically. My social media is alight with #QuarantineKitchen, #CoronaCooking. And it's been this really neat way to build community, which was sort of unexpected for me.

Grace Benton:

For example, I've connected with folks who I hadn't talked to in years in languages for which my skills are very rusty. Former students from when I lived in Jordan, former colleagues from when I worked in Egypt and Iraq have reached out and commented on my loaves of sourdough, on my tie-dye cupcakes, on my half-failed attempt at croissants. These, in turn, have sparked longer conversations over private messaging about the well-being of our families, exchanging recipes, how our respective governments are handling the pandemic. I've really kind of leaned into being one of those quote "those people." My Instagram consists of my cat and baked goods, but it's been a really wonderful and meaningful way to connect with folks, particularly in a time when I know I feel so far removed from other humans.

Grace Benton:

Baking has also helped me to feel like I'm contributing in some really minuscule way to the war against coronavirus, to use our administration's military framing of the situation. My partner, with whom I live, runs a scribe program at the emergency department of a large hospital in the area, so he is still going to work like normal. He is one of the healthcare heroes on the front lines, and I'm so proud of him and his colleagues for their dedication and incredibly hard work during this dangerous and uncertain time.

Grace Benton:

About a month ago at the beginning of our social isolation period, I was stress-baking some cupcakes, and I decided to send some along with my partner to his colleagues in the emergency room. They were warmly received, and my partner told me that people really enjoyed them and that a doctor had told him that it was like the brightest spot in his day. So I kept making and sending cupcakes. I started taking requests and getting more elaborate in my piping designs and creative, as my supplies ran low. It's given me this real sense of purpose over the weeks, as if I'm doing my part in some tiny way to support our community of healthcare providers out there on the front lines. I do wish that instead of cupcakes, I can make N95 masks and PPE.

Grace Benton:

True, there have been so many silver linings to this process of socially isolating from one another, like finding solace in the simple things, the mindfulness and intentionality, encountering human connection in unlikely places. However, the fact remains that we are living in a really scary time, a tragic time, where we are forced to confront our fallibility, our mortality. What the pandemic has also done in a really powerful way is lay bare some of society's deep inequities, underscoring the socioeconomic stratification that's always been there, but it's becoming increasingly pronounced amidst this crisis.

Grace Benton:

The coronavirus pandemic has, for me, introduced a level of uncertainty into my life that I don't think I've ever experienced before. It's the big things in my personal and professional trajectory. Like, will I have a bar exam this summer? Will I be able to become an attorney and practice like I'd planned? But it's also the small things. It feels like I'm constantly questioning my actions. Like, should I have taken that walk yesterday? Was I socially distant enough? Did I wash my hands for long enough? Have I wiped everything down adequately? And thinking about the future sometimes doesn't even feel possible. What if we don't contain the virus? What if my parents get sick and I can't get to help them? What if, what if, what if? Things feel really precarious and really uncertain.

Grace Benton:

Much of my adult life has been devoted to studying and working on issues of forced displacement and migration. I worked with refugees in the Middle East previously, and now I work with immigrant populations in the US. One thing that I've learned in the course of this work is that uncertainty and instability are defining features in the lives of people forced to leave their homes. When the system doesn't work for you or the system is set up specifically to exclude you or discriminate against you, your life teams with uncertainty. While the uncertainties in my own life don't even begin to compare to what a refugee or a forced migrant has to experience on the day to day, the fear and instability surrounding the current public health crisis has helped me to reframe my perspective and cultivate a deeper appreciation for what refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented folks have to contend with on a daily basis.

Grace Benton:

I feel extremely fortunate and privileged to have my health, the health of my family, my home, the ability to take my classes remotely, the ability to buy a Costco-sized bag of flour. All of this marks my immense privilege. And something I can't stop thinking about and also trying to figure out how to begin to adequately address is how this pandemic is already affecting impoverished and vulnerable communities in our midst. I hope that we can come up with interventions to prevent widespread suffering, that could stem from the far-reaching impacts of the pandemic. And I hope very deeply that we can emerge from this as a closer community with deeper empathy for what others are going through and a clearer, more coherent sense for addressing inequalities both at home and abroad. I hope you and your families are staying safe and healthy during these troubled times.

Christopher Wurst:

Grace Benton is a soon-to-be human-rights lawyer. Her 22.33 episode, one of our first, was called Practice, Practice, Practice, and I strongly suggest you give it a listen to find out why. It's about her time as a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Amman, Jordan, and it is touching and hilarious. Grace is currently baking cupcakes from her home in Arlington, Virginia.

Hamid Rezaee:

Promise yourself to be strong, that nothing can disturb your peace of mind; to talk health, happiness, and prosperity to every person you meet; to make all your friends feel like there is something in them; to look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true; to think only of the best, to work only for the best, and expect only the best; to be just as enthusiastic about the successes of others as you are about your own.

Christopher Wurst:

Hamid Rezaee is an alumnus of the US Embassy in Afghanistan's Leadership and English Advancement Program, or LEAP. He checked in with us from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, where he is currently a high school student.

Bernadett Szel:

My name is Bernadett Szel. I live in Hungary. I am a member of Parliament, and I participated in IVLP. These days I find myself remembering and thinking about the old curse: May you live in interesting times. This also brings to mind the quote by the late Robert Kennedy: "Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty, but they are also more open to the creative energy of man than any other time in history." In these words, I try to find hope that after all of this, we can find the strength and learn from it and to carry forward in a positive direction. But in the midst of all the chaos, fear, and tragedy, there is hope and positivity to be found in the world.

Bernadett Szel:

Thanks to the internet and social media, people around the world can reach out to friends and family and even complete strangers to find support, education, and even sometimes laughter. I can get online and learn up to the minute what the situation is here in Hungary or anywhere else in the world.

Bernadett Szel:

I am finding inspiration in my family and colleagues and the people I represent. It means so much to me that there are people who rely on me, and that moves me greatly. This is the light at the end of this dark tunnel the world is living in. That makes me want to continue every single day, no matter how hard the struggle seems.

Bernadett Szel:

Before the situation in regards to the coronavirus, I had started reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale since I never had time to watch the TV series. I am also looking forward to reading Michelle Obama's book. And to give myself inspiration, I plan on watching Nine to Five, since I have heard so many great things about it. It's funny, I just realized that these are all projects by women or about women, and yes, I'm a feminist, but this happened by accident.

Christopher Wurst:

Bernadett Szel is an opposition party member of the Hungarian Parliament, fighting for human rights and equality issues. She was originally featured on 22.33 in an episode from 2019 entitled On Stage with the Entire Globe. She took time away from her packed schedule to check in with us from Budapest, Hungary.

Lenny Russo:

Hello. This is Lenny Russo from St. Paul, Minnesota, where it is Easter Sunday, and there is a steady snowfall. I and my wife and our dog Vito arrived here about a week and a half ago from Charleston, South Carolina, where I was doing some consulting work. Some of you may already know that I am a chef and that I work primarily here in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but also in other parts of the country. Last summer I was outside of Paris at an eco-center giving a lecture on sustainable gastronomy to a group of young people who had gathered from around the world to discuss issues of food security, food production, and environmental and economic sustainability, topics of which now seem to be more important than ever given the current pandemic that we are all imprisoned by currently. And that was what also prompted our leaving Charleston.

Lenny Russo:

It has been a difficult time, I guess, for all of us. Right now, the things, I guess, that are keeping me, I guess, engaged, even though we are isolated, is the garden. I've been planting the gardens and hoping to get back in there, uncovering what was out there and seeing what was up and vibrant. And then yesterday in a frenzy, covering most everything with hay in the hopes that it would last through this next few days while the snow falls and the temperatures overnight drop below freezing.

Lenny Russo:

One of my farmers came by last week and dropped off a bunch of storage crop from over the winter, some purple sweet potatoes and garnet yams and parsnips and cipolline onions and shallots and, of course, some of the greens that they had growing in the greenhouse. And then I went about sharing them with some of our friends here and watching our community come together to help one another. So I guess, those are really the things that are inspiring me now and, of course, cooking.

Lenny Russo:

We got home and filled the larder. Of course, being a chef, our basement was full of pasta and canned tomatoes and preserved vegetables, things that are pickled and ready and on the shelves, and so I knew we were secure there. Then I spent the week making stocks and soups and putting things up and making sure that we had enough stock here to outlast things.

Lenny Russo:

My wife is downstairs busy listening to be-bop and puzzling. I believe that she's got a Monet impressionist 1,000-piece puzzle on the table right now. It makes it a little difficult at dinnertime as we have to shuffle around the puzzle, but it's keeping her sane, and she can really kind of zone out and take her mind off of things as we wait to see what will happen.

Lenny Russo:

Obviously, we've all been horribly displaced during this time, some of us more than others. Some have been putting their lives in danger to be caregivers. Many of those people are my friends. I've been checking on them too and making sure that they're safe and sound at least for the time being while they imperil themselves to help others. And I guess that's probably one of the most inspiring things I've seen.

Lenny Russo:

Another thing that's really been of comfort is to see families out together. With everyone home, with the kids out of school, it's nice to see families of five out and about, enjoying each other's company and enjoying nature again, doing the things that families used to do before everybody got into their own little bubble or silo and spent less time connecting and more time distancing themselves. When this whole thing happened, I said, "Well, social distancing, we're already doing all of that, so how hard can it be?" Particularly here in Minnesota, where people are a little less engaging and a little more introverted than in most places. It's been nice to see that, I think.... I think that it's a weird dichotomy, where we're supposed to be distancing ourselves, yet it's also fostering a reconnection between and among people that love and know each other. So I think that that's really nice to see.

Lenny Russo:

We need to be more cognizant of those around us. We need to be concerned about everyone's well-being, and we need to lift each other up together. That means that business owners, management, labor, everyone, even those who are severely disenfranchised who are somehow compromised physically, mentally, that we're all in this together and that we can all lift each other up together and move forward.

Christopher Wurst:

We first met chef Lenny Russo in a 22.33 episode called Seasoned by an American, about his time as an ECA arts envoy filming a television series in Slovenia. Lenny is a six-time James Beard nominee for Best Midwestern Chef. He and his dog Vito, I heard, checked in with us from his home in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Joanna Lohman:

Hey, everyone. This is Joanna Lohman. I'm a former professional soccer player for the Washington Spirit and sports diplomat for the Department of State. So many people are coming together during a very dangerous health crisis and still trying to offer hope and motivation and just love and care around the world to keep us as healthy and happy as possible during this very sad time. Getting out onto the soccer field even by myself during this time and getting to work on my game and getting to play the game that I love and use the game even more for social progress and to move the world forward. So seeing us all continue to work hard at what we love and doing what we love is a huge inspiration for me.

Joanna Lohman:

And I just recently created a poem for an organization called DC SCORES, which is an incredible organization in DC that pairs soccer and poetry to help youth become the leaders of tomorrow and to stay connected to the community. So I created a poem of why my community is so important to me. So I am really trying to continue to make a difference by staying home, making smart decisions. Together, we can really get through this crisis, and we'll come out the other side, and hopefully I'll see everybody again when we can open up the world to travel. Thanks for your time, and I'm sending all of my love from Washington, D.C.

Christopher Wurst:

Joanna Lohman was the star of the very first episode of 2233, called Don't Stop, Keep Moving, about her work as a sports envoy teaching girls about the importance of play in Botswana and other countries. A former professional soccer player for the Washington Spirit, she now leads a movement called Find Your Cool about quote, "meeting yourself, being yourself, and encouraging yourself throughout life," end quote. For more information, you can visit joannalohman.com. She's currently in Washington, D.C.

Jonathan Hollander:

Hello, this is Jonathan Hollander. I'm in New York City. I'm with the Battery Dance Company, and I did exchange programs through the Fulbright in India and Malaysia and took part in embassy-sponsored programs around the world since then. Battery Dance is in its 44th year, and I am the founder, so international cultural exchange is something that's very much in my blood. Unfortunately, like everyone else around the world, we are quarantined, living in our homes. When I say us, I mean the team of dancers and managers of Battery Dance. We were supposed to be going to Nigeria actually on the 15th of March, and of course, that program was postponed because it would have been dangerous to leave the country at that time.

Jonathan Hollander:

Instead, we found it very inspiring to launch a new program, Battery Dance TV, in which we've been able to put dance lessons, stretch classes, creative dances that people are doing in their living rooms, and interviews with international artists to explore what life is like for them now at this time of isolation. And this is a way that we've found of continuing the wonderful relationships that we've built over time through the exchange programs in which we've participated. And we're excited to say that, in the first five days of Battery Dance TV, we had people logging on from 68 countries around the world. It seems like this is the moment where the arts and culture can play a very, very important role in inspiring people and making them feel happy and joyful and connecting around the world at a time when the four walls of one's room or house or apartment can begin to feel oppressive. What we're finding is that everyone's going through the same thing, and if we can share inspiration, so much the better. It just makes it that much easier to get through this difficult time.

Christopher Wurst:

Jonathan Hollander is the founder and artistic director of Battery Dance in New York City. A veteran of numerous ECA-funded cultural exchange programs, he's also a Fulbright alumnus himself. Jonathan touched base with us from New York City. And to learn more about that new initiative Jonathan described, Battery Dance TV, check out batterydance.org.

Mohammad Ahmedi:

Long story short, as we live in Herat, a city that has imposed quarantines on citizens due to the virus corona, and we spend most of the time at home. So I would like to read a corona poem that I have seen on a Facebook page. "East or West, home is the best. Take some rest, don't call guests. Enjoy home fest, no outing zest. So be in your nest, this is my request." Thank you.

Christopher Wurst:

Mohammad Ahmedi was nominated by the US Embassy in Afghanistan last year to take part in the English Teaching Mentor Program. He reached out to us from Herat province in Afghanistan.

J.P. Jenks:

Hi, my name is J.P. Jenks. I'm a program officer in the Office of Citizen Exchanges in the Cultural Programs Division. I manage the American Music Abroad Program, which sends American artists overseas to play for foreign audiences. When the crisis of COVID-19 started back in January, we had bands on the road out in Asia. All told, we had four bands that were touring in Asia and in Africa between January and March, and they all safely completed their tours and now are back home. But we do have a number of tours that we're scheduled to go out, and of course, they have been paused. We're not doing any exchanges at the moment.

J.P. Jenks:

In fact, we had one band that was coming through Washington on their way out to go on their tour when they were sitting in our conference room and the word came in that we would have to pause that particular tour. So we took them out on the mall, and we did a whole bunch of shout-out videos for those countries and did the best that we could with that.

J.P. Jenks:

If we can't go out with our music exchanges, technology actually allows us to reach audiences and to do collaboration over the internet, and there may be ways that we can innovate and be creative and still meet some of these very important objectives at our embassies around the world. And in the meantime, I've got a song for you. It's a song called Moon River. It was debuted in 1961 in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's. It's a very appropriate song right now because the songwriter is imagining as he looks at this river where it disappears off into the distance and dreams of going down that river and getting to the other side and what his life might be if he were to be able to get there.

J.P. Jenks:

And in some ways, all of us in our society facing this pandemic, we're looking down that road right now, and we're all wondering, what's on the other side of this pandemic? And so two drifters off to see the world; there's so much world out there to see. And we're going to all see it with new eyes when this all comes to an end and we emerge like butterflies and moths from our cocoon into a brave new place. So I hope you enjoy this song.

J.P. Jenks:

(singing). Good night, everybody. If you stayed for that last one, you're the winners. Moon River. See you guys [inaudible 00:45:46] and around the internet and around the globe. Take care. Bye-bye. Goodnight. I love you all. Woo!

Christopher Wurst:

My colleague, J.P. Jenks, has one of the coolest jobs in the world, recruiting American music artists to tour all around the world as cultural ambassadors for the American Music Abroad Program. J.P. is also an avid musician, and has been spending the last few weekends performing Facebook Live concerts while raising funds for the USO. Last week's was dedicated to the late, great John Prine, an American original, who we lost far too early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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 US government-funded international exchange programs.

Christopher Wurst:

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, huge things. Nejra Rizvanovic, Shams Aalam, Grace Benton, Hamid Rezaee, Bernadett Szel, Lenny Russo, Joanna Lohman, Jonathan Hollander, Mohammad Ahmedi, and J.P. Jenks. And listeners, we would love to hear about your thoughts and inspirations as well. It could be a story, a poem, or a song, whatever it is that you're feeling at the moment. Please send us your audio to 2233@state.gov, and let us know where you are while you're at it. You can always find more information about the podcast at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And of course, you should follow us on Instagram @22.33_stories. Special thanks to everybody for mobilizing to send audio to us on such short notice.

Christopher Wurst:

The 22.33 team, working from various locations, was instrumental in this special series. Thanks to Kate Furby, Ana-Maria Sinitean, Samantha DiFilippo, Edward Stewart, and Desiree Williamson. Kate Furby helped with the script and designs our awesome graphics, and I edited this episode. A very special thanks to Tamino for giving us the permission to use his song Indigo Nights, and thanks to J.P. Jenks for letting us use his version of Moon River.

Christopher Wurst:

Other music included Someday You'll Be Sorry by Ruby Braff, Climbing the Mountain by Podington Bear, Seagull by Jahzzar, and two songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Waterbourne and Trod Along. The version of Moon River you heard was by the New 101 Strings Orchestra. The end-credit music is Two Pianos by [Tegurlios 00:48:53]. Until next time, stay healthy, everybody.

Lenny Russo:

I am optimistic that we will find our way through this and that we will come out the other side transformed and transformed in a better way.

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Season 02, Episode 27- Special: Connecting Through Isolation, Part 3 (April 10)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 27

DESCRIPTION

Lillygol Sedaghat:

I'm sitting here in the little office space that I've created beneath the window of my room, sandwiched between the dresser and a little bench. The light is best here. It peels from the sky and drapes itself all around me, so it's really nice. It's mostly quiet. Although I live in one of San Diego's largest apartment complexes, so considering the density of the people living here, the noise level is less than what one might expect. I did hear someone's bass music blasting into the early hours of the morning last night, but that's okay. People are doing what they can and they need to in order to cope.

Christopher Wurst:

Hey, everybody. We're back for part three of Connecting Through Isolation. This week, as things in the U.S. have gotten more serious, so too has the nature of some of our responses. We find that people feel divided, inspired by all of the hope that comes with springtime while coping with the seriousness of current events. It feels hard for me to wrap my brain around what's going on. It's wild. It's incomprehensible. But the 22.33 friends you will hear from today are managing to find balance, even if it is delicate. And even though social media and the Internet has always had its dark side, technology is helping us all stay together, despite being isolated in our homes. In this episode, we learn about virtual dance ops, virtual playdates, and for those who cannot be outside in nature, some virtual chirping birds all the way from Lithuania. And at the end of this episode, we hear some gratitude for science and technology.

Christopher Wurst:

Science, of course, will eventually lead to the elimination of the virus threat, along with technology. There's never been a more critical time to support scientists and medical workers. I feel grateful for people working in the front lines and behind the scenes of this crisis to solve it worldwide. This week, stories from California, Massachusetts, Lithuania, Washington DC, and little Hideaway, Texas. Thanks for continuing to listen. In the absence of in-person connection and cultural exchange, we will keep working to bring stories to you from across the globe. We're in this together, so we're never alone. Connecting through isolation, it's 22.33.

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

Speaker 4: This is a recording for 22.33, and it's in the COVID crisis.

Speaker 6: Things are unpredictable.

Speaker 2: I think that people perhaps will be thinking that they are stuck at home.

Speaker 9: So, we're asking everyone to be selfless for others.

Speaker 11: We're all in this together. We all have a voice. We all have a story to tell.

Savon Jackson:

What's been inspiring me thus far has been really seeing spring in action. For me, this means watching the leaves come out of the trees, watching flowers blossom, hearing the birds earlier in the morning, and noticing the sun rising a lot earlier each day. Also decided to pick up a new hobby. And for me, that's been harmonica. And so, I'll play a little bit of what I've learned thus far.

Lillygol Sedaghat:

In Southern California, I'm blessed that A, this is happening in the spring, so the sun is shining. And B, I'm in Southern California, so most of the time, the sun is shining. It really evokes a sense of peace in me, a sense of serenity, a sense of hope. And the other thing about being able to be indoors when the sun is shining, or not shining, is that there are books that I've always wanted to read but always put off, always too busy with too many responsibilities or movement or things in my life, so.

Lillygol Sedaghat:

But this time is forcing me to do is just sit down and focus on myself for a few hours each day, in between the family responsibilities that I have to do, and not run away from myself, and to let me face myself, my racing mind, and all the things that I've tried to avoid. And instead, to sit down, in quiet, hopefully in silence, and read, and think, and reflect, and write, and read some more. And in the process, being able to find peace and adventure and being able to learn new things and exhibit and experience beautiful, beautiful language.

Lillygol Sedaghat:

The book that I'm reading now that I would absolutely recommend to everybody is a book called The Shadow of the Sun. And it's about the experience of a Polish reporter, Kapuscinski, who lived in Africa on and off for over 40 years. And it's a continent that I'd never been to. And his words draw my attention and definitely arouse my curiosity about all these new places and cultures and histories and this diverse array of people who live and exist there, and I'd never known very much about. So, being able to learn through his words and experience it is a gift.

Lillygol Sedaghat:

Hi, everyone, my name is Lilygol Sedaghat and I'm currently in San Diego, California. I'm a storyteller and I participated in Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.

Lillygol Sedaghat:

So, I was asked, what inspires me now? And the answer to that is music. I'm a dancer, so I love to move. Music is like a universe. There's a lot of empty space and then suddenly, you come across a gem and build a whole new world in your mind. A good friend of mine, Maya Gold, sent this to me, and it gets my spirit and my body moving every time. I want to play it for you. I'm using a voice memo so hopefully, you can hear it.

Singer: (singing)

Lillygol Sedaghat:

So, as you can hear, it's definitely really upbeat. And every time I listen to it, it makes me feel so alive. This is the best part of dancing. The choreographers in this video are Meka Oku and Lionel Vero, and they make everything look so easy, and they just radiate positivity. I can't help but smile and bob my head, you know? There's also a crowd of people in the background. They're supporting them. And the energy in that video is so incredibly vibrant, happy, and wholesome. It's the best kind of feeling to marinate in.

Lillygol Sedaghat:

I play this song on my phone often throughout the day, and attempt to mirror their dance movements in the little space between the bed and the door to the room. So, this idea popped into my head to make a video and send it to my friend, Maya, so I did. And she made one too and sent it over to me. And I got to see her dancing in her little dorm room to the song, underneath the disco ball and some sunflowers and a purple Instagram filter. The results of sending dance videos to your friends, I have to say, are quite amazing.

Lillygol Sedaghat:

Speaking of learning, I figured I would also share with you how I ended up in San Diego. So, I was in the UK just a few weeks ago while I was studying for my master's degree when the coronavirus made its inroads into Europe. And after a conversation with my partner, I realized that I had to make a choice. I either stay in the UK for an inordinate amount of time or come home. And it took me two days to make a decision. In the third day, I hopped on a plane back home. And I had prepared for the worst for that adventure. I had gloves, mask, and hand sanitizer. Interestingly, all of them were from, they're all part of this, the first-aid kit that I had brought with me when I first moved over to the UK. So, I was really thankful that I was prepared.

Lillygol Sedaghat:

I didn't know what to expect with all the international travel, but I kept telling myself the same thing over and over and over again. That death is inevitable, so I choose to live. It might sound contradictory, but at the same time, it makes a lot of sense to me. We make the most of what we have. We do what we can with what we've got. And we continue to live. The fear and all of this surrounds the immediacy of death, the intimacy of death, the closeness of death, but it makes us feel like what we're doing has, in terms of living, has a purpose. And what this crisis has demonstrated to all of us is our desire to want to live and to keep on living, and to be with people that we love, and to learn new things, and to persist and endure and survive, to appreciate all the little things.

Lillygol Sedaghat:

When I first got back home, the first thing I noticed was the infinite blue sky, and felt the warm sunlight, and saw the hundreds of wildflowers that had sprung up on the little hillside near my complex. It had rained in this city that is known for its sun, and transforming the landscape. I just couldn't stop smiling. They were there, they were radiant, they were beautiful, and they brought me so much joy. So, what makes me happy and what inspires me are these little things, the wildflowers, the natural light, the books waiting to take me on adventures, the silence that allows me to think and exist, the love I have for my family and my friends, the music that makes my body move, and the desire to live and see this through. Because ultimately, how we live determines who we are, and who we are determines how we live. I want to wish you all nothing but health, safety, and happiness during this tough time, and hope that we'll make it, able to make it out into the other side. Sending lots of love to wherever you are in the world. Lilly.

Seth Glier:What is inspiring me now?

Seth Glier: Hm.

Seth Glier:

It's a weird thing to articulate, but I'm feeling two parts. My body in this corona crisis is feeling so deeply saddened, and bracing myself for what is inevitably going to be so much tragedy and loss of life for the world. And there is another part of me that is watching so many of the ways in which we have constructed our lives, falling apart. And from that, something completely new will come from it. So, of course, the cliche is there's opportunity and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But I think at the core, I'm feeling the duality and I'm reminded that social security came from the Great Depression, but in the most immediate sense, I'm trying to push away the deep well of sadness.

Seth Glier:

My thoughts are, make things, because I feel like art is going to show the way here. So, to continue to make things, even if it doesn't have a lane or an economy to go into, just keep making them.

Seth Glier:

This is a melody that I've been kind of puttering around as I've been working on the stairs for the last couple of weeks. And I don't know if I'm going to add any lyrics to this. I feel like it just sort of, the melody feels uncertain and that's where we are. At least, that's where I am.

Christopher Wurst:

Seth Glier checked in with us from Holyoke, Massachusetts. His original 22.33 episode called, It Starts When It Ends, featured an original song that Seth created, using sounds sampled while overseas, performing as a cultural ambassador as part of the ECA's American Music Abroad program. For more about Seth's wonderful music, you can check out SethGlier.com. We thank him for the beautiful piano piece that he shared with us.

Christopher Wurst:

Before Seth, we heard from Lillygol Sedaghat. Lillygol's year in Taiwan as a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling fellow created the backdrop for her original 22.33 episode called, Trash Truck Tunes and Hip Hop Grooves. And yes, it is as eclectic and entertaining as it sounds. She's currently in San Diego, California.

Christopher Wurst:

We also heard from Savon Jackson, who was kind enough to share his progress learning the harmonica. Savon's episode aired a couple of months ago and it's called, The Arc of the Moral Universe. He's currently in Washington DC, working as a program manager for CET academic programs.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Hello, my name is Samantha DiFilippo. I work at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the State Department. I'm currently at home in Alexandria, Virginia with my husband and son, Ben. I feel really fortunate to be healthy and with my family during this time, but being stuck at home with an almost two-year-old while working is not easy. And even though I can't explain to Ben what's going on, he definitely knows something is up, because he doesn't go to daycare anymore or the playground or see his friends or his grandparents. So, I want to show you what COVID-19 quarantine life is like for a two-year-old.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Ben has written letters to six of his friends and family, and every day, we try to write a new letter and-

Ben: Steamroller.

Samantha DiFilippo: Steamroller sticker, and he loves putting the letters in the mailbox.

Ben: Mailbox.

Samantha DiFilippo:

And one of his friends wrote him a letter back. And the letter says, "Ben, we miss you too. Love, Simon."

Ben: Stickers.

Samantha DiFilippo:  And he included stickers.

Samantha DiFilippo:

We've been video-chatting with family and friends a lot, and Ben loves it. And my parents and in-laws have been really good sports. Because sometimes, when both my husband and I are really busy with work, we'll just call one of them up and ask them to talk to Ben for a while, just to keep him busy and occupied. It doesn't last that long because Ben doesn't really understand that he has to look at the camera, but it's been a great way to stay in touch. And he really loves story time.

Speaker 22:

Elmo's hunting Easter eggs. So far, he's found just three. But who's behind the flower pot? Sparkly ones, who could it be? Who's behind the flower pot, Ben? Do you know?

Ben: Abby.

Speaker 22:

Let's see. I'm going to count to three and we'll see. One. Two. Three. You're right, it's Abby.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Zoom hangouts and happy hours are amazing for adults, but we try to do one with like 10 toddlers and it was total chaos. I'm not sure if the kids got that much out of it, but I know that he misses his friends a lot, and I miss my friends too. So, it was mostly an opportunity for the kids to show off their toys to each other.

Samantha DiFilippo:

There's a boat. [Crosstalk] Where's the helicopter that goes on the boat?

Speaker 27: Well, look, it's a boat.

Speaker 28: There's a boat.

Speaker 29: A helicopter that goes in a boat.

Speaker 30: Is there a cow in the boat? [crosstalk].

Speaker: You guys are going to see every single truck now.

Ben: No.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Every single piece of machinery.

Speaker 23: I think Ben just... wiped out.

Samantha DiFilippo:

We've been trying to do new activities with Ben while we've been home. And since I like baking, I thought it would be fun to involve him. He really loved banging on the mixing bowl as loud as possible. And it was a good alternative to screen time, since that seems to be how he spends a lot of his time these days. And to paint a visual, he wears this really cute apron that says, "Chef Ben."

Samantha DiFilippo:

We're making peanut butter cookies. Do you want some peanut butter?

Samantha DiFilippo:

Uh-oh.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Don't touch, okay?

Samantha DiFilippo:

Now, we need to just scrape the sides of the bowl.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Don't touch that.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Don't touch that.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Don't touch that.

Samantha DiFilippo:

You're funny.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Oh, my God.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Ben's current obsession is trucks, really, anything with wheels. And so, even though we can't go anywhere, we can sit outside and look at the cars and trucks drive by, and that makes him happy. And it really helps that my husband likes cars and trucks too. We call it Car TV.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Ben, what are you looking at? What are you looking at?

Ben:

Truck. Truck.

Speaker 23: Is it a big truck?

Ben:

Big trucks.

Ben:

Truck. Firetruck.

Ken Abbott:

Firetruck. That really is a firetruck.

Ben:

Real, real.

Ken Abbott:

Let's see where it's going, buddy. Because I think it's going to go up here.

Samantha DiFilippo:

Before the quarantine, we tried to limit screen time for my toddler. And now, we don't even try. He is officially addicted, so that is bad. But we started watching some Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and that's been a delight. The thing that's definitely getting me through this is just spending so much time with my husband and son. My son is at such a cute age, and when he's not driving me crazy, he is just the sweetest boy in the world.

Ben Abbott:

Laughing

Christopher Wurst:

My colleague, Samantha DiFilippo, is the deputy director of the Collaboratory, an innovation space within the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Her son, Ben Abbott, will celebrate his second birthday in May with his mom, dad, video chats to friends and family, and lots of cupcakes.

Ruta Bienoriute:

My name is Ruta and I work as a project manager with a program called Create Lithuania, where I currently look for ways to improve media literacy in Lithuania. And I think this time in particular is so important for us to stay critical about what we see online, as this becomes not only pandemic but infodemic as well. That being said, I want to say that I'm particularly inspired by all the work that journalists do. I think having an access to information right now, to accurate information, is crucial for everyone, no matter where we live at the moment. So, for every journalist out there working around the clock to keep us all informed, I just want to say thank you, and your work means a lot to us right now.

Ruta Bienoriute:

I also want to say that I've been inspired by all the initiatives that make us all come together. There's one story I want to share with you. The other day, I saw a social media post of a local bookstore saying that they might not open their doors to their customers after all this ends. So, many people have shared this post saying they have very special feelings about this bookstore, that they've made a lot of memories, and it's their favorite bookstore. And they're inviting their friends and followers to buy books and gift cards online. So, the very next day, bookstore announced that they got over 300 online orders, which is quite a big number for a small country like Lithuania. And the bookstore was saying that they're so thankful for everyone, for helping them financially, but more important, helping them mentally. Because it's not just about staying in business, it's also about keeping people who love their job and their workplaces.

Ruta Bienoriute:

So, even though I took a very small part in this, I just bought a gift card, but it felt so nice to do just contribute to something much, much bigger. And I cannot wait to go to Vilnius and go to that bookstore when this all ends. And I think this is just one example. We can spot so many other beautiful things being done by people and businesses. And I think each of us can tell 1, 10, or 20 beautiful stories that we've seen during this crisis.

Ruta Bienoriute:

Even though this crisis has brought a lot of uncertainty, I think it's also a good time for something really important and that is slowing down. I think we all have to take time in a day to do things that make us relaxed and calm. And one thing in particular has helped me and that's taking walks outside. I know I've been privileged to be spending this quarantine with my family in a remote area in Lithuania, where I can go outside of the house with no social contact with anyone other than my family members. I know that some of you are stuck in places with no escape from your house or apartment. So, there is one message or, better say, some sounds I want to share with you from my walk. I hope you all stay safe.

Christopher Wurst:

We first met Ruta Bienoriute in an episode called The Barefoot Route of Ruta, a kind of a how-to guide of what to do when you get locked out of your apartment with no shoes, no money, and only one bar left on your phone. She checked in with us from a small town in Lithuania.

Sue Royappa:

Hello, everyone. This is Sue Royappa. I'm a physician specializing in internal medicine and global health. I was a Fulbright researcher in India for about nine months between 2017 and 2018. Today, I was asked to share what is inspiring me right now. And I realized that with the horror of the pandemic around us, it is so easy to forget about all the good that is happening around us as well. So, it's really uplifting for me to focus on the positives for a change.

Sue Royappa:

First and foremost, I'm amazed and inspired by our healthcare workers on the front lines. Most doctors and nurses didn't sign up for hazardous duty. Police officers, firefighters, Peace Corps workers, and military personnel, they all go into these professions knowing the dangers involved. But most healthcare workers went in thinking, "We'll be checking blood pressure, treating diabetes, appendicitis, or cancer," not going into a war zone in a hazmat suit, putting our lives at risk. In fact, some of these healthcare workers don't even have masks to protect them in this situation right now. Now, most of my work is currently in public health and away from the hospital. And my prayers are with all my colleagues who are in the trenches, literally in the war zone, and any words of thanks or gratitude from me seem completely inadequate, but that is all I can offer at this point is my sincere gratitude to people out there taking care of us.

Sue Royappa:

What is also amazing to me and inspiring to me at this time is the miracle of modern science and technology. There's been a significant erosion of trust in science, the world over. And I'm hoping this pandemic will open the eyes of people to how different their lives would have been if not for science and technology. Within a matter of weeks, scientists were able to sequence all the different strains of COVID-19 and share it with the entire medical and scientific community. I mean, this would have been impossible even just a couple of decades ago. In the past, I would have had to wait for months and possibly a couple of years, first for the information to be discovered, then for it to be published, and then for the library to have a copy of the journal, and then when it did have a copy of the journal, they'll probably be this month-long waiting list to check it out. But now, the same information is at my fingertips almost instantaneously.

Sue Royappa:

It's equally incredible that the first human trial for a vaccine has already begun. And there is real hope now that we can vanquish this disease forever, thanks to supercomputers. Researchers screened something like 8,000 compounds in a matter of days, and they identified 77 potential beneficial compounds that can treat the virus. And several clinical trials were already underway for using our existing drugs while others are looking for new ones. I fervently hope that effective treatments and vaccines will help restore the faith of the public in medicine, that many seem to have lost and that some actively deny even now.

Sue Royappa:

And finally, I'm inspired by how ordinary citizens in India, the country where I did my Fulbright research, have successfully used technology to help the elderly, the disabled, and the vulnerable, such as the migrant workers, again with little regard for their own safety. Within a day of India announcing their total lockdown, regular folk started Caremongers India on Facebook and WhatsApp, now with tens of thousands of volunteers, reaching out to people in need. These are the people that we cannot forget and these are the stories that we need to share. I'm a very realistic and practical person, so I understand the gravity of what is happening, and the massive way in which our lives have changed and will change for the future. But I'm also an eternal optimistic person and a believer in the goodness of humanity. So, I want to tell my friends in India and around the world to not despair. We will all get through this together. Of this, I am certain.

Christopher Wurst:

Sue Royappa is a health worker checking in from Hideaway, Texas. An alumna of the Fulbright program, she did her fellowship in India. And when there, worked with another Fulbrighter, Kiley Adams, whose forthcoming episode, Trekking in India, will air sometime in 2020.

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, we heard from 22.33 friends, new and old, who are kind enough during these times of uncertainty to record themselves talking about what is inspiring them and what they are feeling. Huge thanks this week to Lillygol Sedaghat, Seth Glier, Samantha DiFilippo and Ben Abbott, Ruta Bienoriute, and Sue Royappa. And listeners, we would love to hear your thoughts and inspirations. It could be a story, a poem, or a song, whatever you're feeling at the moment. Please send your audio to us at 2233@state.gov. That's right, careful listeners. We finally got a new email address, and I will never have to spell Collaboratory out again. And let us know where you are while you're at it. You can always find more information about the podcast at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And of course, you should follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories.

Christopher Wurst:

Special thanks to everybody for mobilizing to send audio and to share their current state of being. The 22.33 team working from various locations was instrumental in this special new series. Thanks to Kate Furby, Ana-Maria Sinitean, Samantha DiFilippo, Edward Stewart, and Desiree Williamson. I edited this episode and Kate Furby helped with the script and designs our awesome graphics. You heard two pieces of original music from Wordsmith: Music for the Masses, and Topics. Seth Glier contributed a song that he told me to call, Waiting for the Zoom Call to Start. Also featured were Ren and Skepto by Paddington Bear, A Bit Of This by Steve Klink, and Dzongkha and Tartaruga by Blue Dot Sessions. The end credit music is Two Pianos by Taglerius. Until next time, stay healthy, everybody.

Speaker 22: Hi, Abby, Easter fairy.

Speaker 22: There she is. Abby spots the hidden egg that Elmo too has seen. But someone else is in that can. He's grouchy and he's green.

Speaker 22: Who's grouchy and green, Ben?

Samantha DiFilippo:

Who's in the can?

Ben: Oscar.

Speaker 22: Oscar? Let's see. I'm going to count to three. Ready? Count with me. One...

Ben: Two.

Speaker 22: Two.

Ben: Three.

Speaker 22: Three.

Speaker 22: You're right, it's Oscar.

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Season 02, Episode 26 - Special: Connecting Through Isolation, Part 2 (April 3, 2020)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 26

DESCRIPTION

The second 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.

TRANSCRIPT:

Munif Khan:

"Suddenly, we slept in one world and woke up in another. Disney has no more magic, and Paris is no longer romantic. Suddenly, in New York, everyone sleeps, and the Great Wall of China is no longer a fortress. Suddenly, hugs and kisses become weapons. Holding hands and walking the parks become outlawed. Suddenly, not visiting aging parents and grandparents become an act of love. Suddenly, our bombs and machine guns, our tanks and artilleries, begin to gather dust. Suddenly, we realized that power is with God alone, and that money has no value when it can't even buy you toilet paper. Suddenly, we have been put back in our place by the hands of the universe, and we have been made aware how vulnerably human we truly are when faced with a microbe so powerfully inhumane." I found this post on social media. It's by an unknown author, but it truly, truly touched me.

Christopher Wurst:

Hey, everybody. I know today feels like our 20th week of quarantine, but this is actually only the second week of our special series "Connecting Through Isolation." This week has felt much longer than that. Time itself has become a little bit elastic. At one point this week, I knew the correct date, but had the day wrong. For the entire day, I had the day wrong. On April 1st, nobody felt like joking, but we're still here with you trying to manage when everything is changing so fast and yet time seems to move so slow. As we navigate our collective new reality, stories are still coming in from around the world. More and more we see how things that we might have taken for granted before, like art or music, culture, even our own families, are supporting us through this.

Christopher Wurst:

My weekend walks through the woods with my wife and our crazy beagle have become our daily window to the outside world. The weekly team meetings have become daily video calls, as much about supporting each other as our work agenda. We may be all alone, but we're all alone together. Today we offer a small window into others' lives. Stories came in this week from Bangladesh and Libya, Oklahoma City, and Baltimore. No matter where you live, I hope you're all staying as safe and healthy as you can. And if you're not a big Harry Potter fan now, our own Des Williamson makes a pretty poetic case to become one. Connecting Through Isolation, it's 22.33.

Speaker 3: Politicians, scientists, and even celebrities all want us to practice social distancing.

Speaker 4: This is a recording for 22.33, and it's in the COVID crisis.

Speaker 5: Things are unpredictable.

Speaker 6: I think that people at the house will be thinking that they are stuck at home.

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

Derik Nelson:

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

Wordsmith:

Why do we struggle to say thanks? Why is it common to stand above and measure love by the dollar signs in our bank? When life ends in a blank, and your legacy's in what you think, did you give or were you selfish? Which one had a higher rank? I want the truth, and I'll get it, so no offense. A life without purpose should be in the past tense, and a day full of some joys, the time the reminisce, or going back to no worries as kids of innocence. So this is your moment that change and feel proud. An ode to showing joy's the challenge for this crowd. No excuses. The time is now.

Wordsmith:

Hey, everybody, my name is Wordsmith. I'm a songwriter and performer out of Baltimore, Maryland. Like a lot of other artists during this COVID pandemic, I've lost all my shows. I lost all my tours internationally, so I had to shift my focus a little bit. You know, I have two sons, and they're out of school. So my biggest focus right now is keeping their education alive. On the flip side, I've really been working on my Beethoven Nine original text. So I've been working with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And hopefully if all goes well, we'll be doing a brand new rendition of Beethoven Ninth as the 250-year anniversary comes upon us. They tasked me with writing brand new spoken word poetry, but also I've updated the classical, classical piece Ode to Joy.

Desiree Williamson:

Do what you can when you can if you're in a high-risk group. I myself am in a high-risk group. But I'm still doing what I can for those that I can around me, whether that's for my elderly neighbors or for when I'm at the grocery store if someone needs money or food or, heaven forbid, toilet paper, do what you can for those who you can because we're not going to get out of this global pandemic without supporting one another.

Desiree Williamson:

Hello, this is Desiree Williamson, senior program designer at ECA's Collaboratory. I started rereading the Harry Potter book series. I often find a lot of inspiration in Harry Potter, mainly because in Harry Potter there's a lot of dark material even though it's a children book. Harry is as most readers already know, or most listeners I should say already know, he's orphaned. He has to face off with dark witches and wizards. And there's a growing global threat of Voldemort, or He Who Must Not Be Named. But throughout the entire series, there's always love. There's laughter. There's hope. And there's lighthearted revelry in his learning who he is but also that he's a wizard and just him learning magic and building friendships.

Desiree Williamson:

There's something to that right now that I think the world is finding that even though there's this threat. And in many cases, just like in Harry Potter, he can't necessarily see Voldemort in all of the books, but you know that Voldemort is there, that we're seeing love and that we're seeing laughter and that we're seeing bravery and hope just as in Harry's case and that like in the book series, there are people who die that Harry loves and that the readers come to love throughout that series. But in the end, you end up being hopeful and that without that love and that hope and that laughter and that bravery, you wouldn't have a better day. And that's what's bringing me inspiration right now.

Desiree Williamson:

While there are several quotes throughout the book series that are apropos for our current global climate, the one that sticks out the most to me is when Dumbledore is addressing the entire school at the first dinner feast in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which his also known as the third book, when he says, "Happiness can be found in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light." We're going to be faced with a lot of grim news. Some of us will be very personally impacted by the virus. A lot of our families will be impacted as well, and people we love will be impacted. It's easy to get swallowed up by all the negative news and reports and to just give in to the darkness. But oftentimes, you have to remember that there are positive stories, moments of inspiration and bravery and love and happiness and friendship out there, too.

Christopher Wurst:

My colleague, Desiree Williamson, is a senior designer at the Collaboratory, an innovation space within the U.S. Department of States Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She is currently working from home in Arlington, Virginia.

Christopher Wurst:

Hiphop artist Wordsmith is a frequent State Department arts envoy and musical diplomat. He was featured in the 22.33 episode entitled Gems of Wisdom. His collaboration with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Beethoven's Ninth is scheduled to make its debut in June. For more about his work, you can check out wordsmith.com. He's currently in Baltimore, Maryland.

Peter Markes:

Hello, this is Peter Markes. I am a professional musician based out of Oklahoma City, and I am the guitarist with Kyle Dillingham and Horseshoe Road. For 16 years, I was a classroom orchestra teacher and in 2014 was named the teacher of the year for the entire state of Oklahoma. In 2017, I left the classroom to pursue performing full time. I think what's most interesting right now is that many of my friends are going through what I kind of went through in 2017. They are not able to teach right now, and so they are venturing into other creative outlets. It's really fun to watch them.

Peter Markes:

Right now some of the books that I read that continue to give me inspiration, one is called "Resisting Happiness" by Matthew Kelly. The idea is twofold that very many of us resist happiness. We don't do things, like go out to a party or sit down to work on a project. Even though we know that it will make us happy, we resist that happiness. It's the idea of fighting through that resistance and getting right into the present of the moment. The other idea of resisting happiness is that we very often do things that won't make us happy in the future. We indulge in work or food or alcohol. And right now is one of those times when many people might be tempted to indulge. And in the end, we don't end up being happy, and so through our actions we are resisting our own happiness. It's a pretty interesting book. This is my third time to read it in the past couple of years since it came out, but it's a pretty special book to read and help me stay focused.

Peter Markes:

For my friends around the world, this is the same thought as for my friends right here at home. In fact, I wrote a song about it. It's about our expectations. So often we are surprised or we are disappointed or maybe we're elated because our expectations already preset how we think we might feel. Right now, many people are finding their expectations are being turned upside down. My idea for my friends around the world and right here in Oklahoma are perhaps this is a time for us to set aside our expectations. We can be like children. Children very often don't have the same expectations as adults, simply because they haven't had the same experiences. So right now, many children are perhaps experiencing less anxiety. I know my own two boys are here in the house, and they're having a great time. It's a mixture of spring break but also the school break that looms ahead and the certain freedoms we have and how we get to use our time.

(singing)

Christopher Wurst:

Peter Markes is a guitarist in the band Horseshoe Road. Along with fiddle player Kyle Dillingham is a frequent State Department cultural ambassador. Kyle can be heard on our 22.33 Valentine's Day episode, You are My Reason, and will be featured on an as-yet unreleased episode. Peter checked in with us from Oklahoma City.

Hend Elarbi:

Hi, this is Hend Elarbi from Libya. I am a civil society activist, and I've had the chance to be one of the participant in a program at the United States called IVLP. What make me motivated during that hard time we are all going through is the deep thinking about the blessing we recognize as a human being, but unfortunately we were and we still taking it for granted. And I'm also seeking for the truth and wondering about the wisdom behind that tough test all the human are facing. And actually, I would like to share some thoughts that I managed to think about. The quarantine is very bad experience, I guess, but it has good impact on the environment. The earth is recovering, and the environment as well. Both of them are taking break from the human harm. I would love you to imagine the Mother Nature is opening its arms again to the human. Those who recovered had the chance to win the battle against COVID-19. There is light of hope there, I guess.

Hend Elarbi:

I also saw the wisdom of the equality among all developed and non-developed countries, poor and wealthy people, educated and those who are ignorant. They are all stood still witnessing small virus harvesting human souls. I wondered here how the world would look like after COVID-19. I guess massive change will appear. That change covers different level, economic, political, and health. I guess it's time for the lesson to be learned. We shall never takes things for granted as nothing guaranteed. When the wind of change take the lead, no one can step it, neither a healthy person nor powerful countries. All we need to do is showing solidarity and pray for all human pass this hard time. We need to keep in mind strong belief and also hope as well as taking the positive part of that experience. Behind every bad experience there is a good coming. I would like all of you guys to stay at home and be safe. Salaam.

Christopher Wurst:

Hend Elarbi is a civil society activist and trainer. She was a recent participant in the prestigious International Visitor Leadership Program where she was featured on our first live episode entitled Women Heroes of Peace and Security. She reached out to us from her home in Tripoli, Libya.

Derik Nelson:

Hi, this is Derik Nelson coming to you from Olympia, Washington in quarantine. As a former participant on the 22.33 podcast, I am honored to be back on the show. Obviously, these are much different circumstances than when I first appeared on the podcast alongside my brother and sister, Dalten and Riana. We perform together regularly as Derik Nelson & Family, a sibling singing trio. We recorded that episode around one microphone in the same room all together. We had just returned from our cultural exchange program abroad representing our country as cultural ambassadors for the United States. And we had traveled to Moldova and Albania to conduct educational workshops about music and performance and perform concerts all across these incredible countries. And now to be reflecting back on that experience... And you can go back to the episode if you want to hear the specific stories and details. Reflecting back on that time, the thing that stands out to be the most is the impact and the connection that we made with these people halfway around the world through music.

Derik Nelson:

What's really inspiring to me now that we're in a position globally to be so isolated physically from one another is to see and experience online virtually and hear stories and see pictures and videos of those same kinds of connections, these same meaningful emotional deep connections. You could argue and say that people are becoming more connected now at this point in time that we were before this entire coronavirus outbreak. Tonight I went on my Instagram @deriknelson and just played an improvisational piece of music at the piano. I asked everybody tuning in to just close their eyes, take a break from having to interact, take a break from having to look at your phone, just turn the volume up, and put the phone down, and close your eyes, and just go on a journey.

Derik Nelson:

And I know that might seem a little bit out there, but it really was an amazing experience just to feel that connection to people virtually. And after I had finished, I got a message right away from someone in Argentina who said that she really needed this and it made her cry. But to be honest, it was really touching to me just to know that I had made that kind of impact and connection on someone through music a half a world away without having to be in the same room. I think that's the power. Again, we talk a lot about music being a universal language, right? And that's something that is best understood by feeling it. And to be able to feel it at a time like this when we're so disconnected physically, it's an opportunity to be even more connected emotionally. And that to me is what's most inspiring.

Derik Nelson:

To my friends around the world that we've met in our journeys, that we've had the privilege to interact with and make such incredible connections with, that number one, we're all in this together. Number two, we all have a voice. And number three, we all have a story to tell. The power of all of that is amazing content that can help other people. So my biggest idea for how we can get through this and use this time as constructively as possible is to create. Create something. I believe that by creating art and creating music we put something out there in the world that connects us to each other. And it's such a simple thing, but by giving that piece of ourselves, it's a gift. It helps us. It helps somebody else feel a little less alone in this.

Derik Nelson:

And I want to just segue into a quick story of a time that I was feeling really anxious, really stressed. I was about to conduct one of my first workshops ever teaching songwriting and music to high school students. I didn't know how it was going to be received. I didn't know if they'd like the methods I was trying to convey. One of my peers pulled me aside right before I went on and said, "Derik, you're overthinking this." Surprise. "Share your heart. Share your art." And that's stuck with me ever since, "Share your heart. Share your art." And it really is so true.

Derik Nelson:

And to be honest, songwriting is my biggest outlet. Music has always been my version of therapy and the way that I deal with the things that are going on in my life that are tough to process. And this is definitely something that's difficult to process. That's an understatement. But music has been what I turn to in my life to help me through those times. This is no exception. I've been playing a lot of guitar, playing piano, writing music, listening to music, reframing this period of time as an opportunity. It's an opportunity for gratitude and to remember all the things in our life that we're thankful for and I think that everybody really needs that right now to get back to the core of who we are without the distractions of our normal routines and our careers and our goals. All of that gets put on hold, and it forces us to look inward.

Derik Nelson:

So the positive, I always like to try to find the positive in any situation. The positive result that will hopefully come from this is a better awareness and respect for each other and for our planet, an opportunity to reflect on what we're grateful for in our lives. And hopefully we all come out the other side of this with more music, songs, books, creations, artwork, and validating proof of who we are as human beings and the impact and connection that we have to one another.

Christopher Wurst:

Derik Nelson is a member of the sibling music trio Derik Nelson & Family. Their original episode "Three Deep Breaths", was historic for the fact that it marked our first ever live Little Nook concert. The piano piece you heard, "Quarantine Piano Meditation", was recorded live during the Instagram concert that Derik describes. For more about the trio, you can check out deriknelson.com. Derik is currently in Olympia, Washington.

Cheyenne Boyce:

My name is Cheyenne Boyce. I am the director of program development at the Confucius Institute U.S. Center. We're a small nonprofit with the mission of supporting mutual understanding between the U.S. and China through educational and cultural exchanges. So for our office, we started to feel the unprecedented and monumental effects of the Corona outbreak very early on because it was January, and we had just figured out what we wanted our programming to look like. And so then all of a sudden, we had to completely shift our focus and start to work on ways to combat misinformation and address the xenophobia that was rising against members of East Asian communities and figure out ways that we could best support our community, both in China and in the United States.

Cheyenne Boyce:

So our office very quickly put together a fund raiser that we hosted at a local tea shop in Washington, D.C. People wanted to give. I talked to so many members of the community who wanted to be a part of our project, which was to purchase medical supplies for hospital staff at three different hospitals in Wuhan. So it was very uplifting to know that sometimes people just need to have their compassion directed in a way that is going to be helpful. And for us to be able to be a vehicle for allowing people to show their support all the way from Washington, D.C. and give it to people in Wuhan was a really inspiring experience.

Cheyenne Boyce:

And now as the outbreak has become a global pandemic and is beginning to impact me and my friends and my family and everyone here in the United States and pretty much across the globe, I've really had to hold onto those feelings of empathy and compassion and share those with people as we all really work to combat a challenging time in our lives and in our history.

Cheyenne Boyce:

What I have found hope in is focusing on the fact that communities will continue to help communities get through this. I have read articles that talk about chefs who are opening grocery stores in Houston to support people in food deserts and radio stations in Italy that were reading children's books over the air to keep children entertained while they were in quarantine. And all of these stories of the amazing ways that people create opportunity to bring people together are just so inspirational to me.

Cheyenne Boyce:

During this time I think that the creative, innovative people of the world and of this generation will find ways to help and bring us through this very difficult time. The good thing is all ideas are great. It doesn't matter if you have a very small scale way of trying to help your community or if you're thinking about a large scale way to improve technology around medical device supply chain, all of those things are great ideas. And they're needed now. And so now is the time for anyone who is compassionate and empathetic and understands that this virus knows no borders, it knows no nationality, and that our common humanity is visibly linked now more than ever, this is the time for those people to be able to share their voices and step up and really be the leaders that I think our world needs. The people who have always demonstrated the values of global education, whether they have actually participated in a program or not, are going to be the people who rise and help recreate our future.

Christopher Wurst:

Cheyenne Boyce's original 22.33 episode was called "Who Says You Can't Be a Boy Band?" It centered around her teaching English and maybe a few killer dance moves in a guise of creating a teenage boy band in Malaysia. She's currently in Washington, D.C.

Justin Wade Tam:

(singing)

Christopher Wurst:

That wonderful song, Calm Yourself Down, was contributed to the Connecting Through Isolation Series by Justin Wade Tam whose band Humming House was featured in the 22.33 episode A Cup of Kindness Can Lift Your Spirits Up. He recorded Calm Yourself Down as a solo project with Jamie Drake. You can find that and more at justinwadetam.com and more about Humming House at humminghouse.com. Justin is currently in Nashville, Tennessee.

Munif Khan:

My name is Munif, and I'm an English and ESL teacher currently working in a high school. Amidst this time of crisis, I refuse to stop being a teacher. I'm helping the learners online from home. While working from home, I now have more time on my hands to reflect on life. I realize that this process that we call learning is so vital for human life. Learning is something that we never stop doing until we die if you think about it. When we die, we cease to exist. But as long as we are existing, we are continuously learning. Even as a teacher, I learn from my students, from my coworkers and everything that exists around me.

Munif Khan:

So when I took this oath to teach, to help others with this most important process of their lives, I myself learned that this is probably my purpose in this world, to serve humanity by providing people with quality education. The education that will make them think and question and research and make them future generations of this earth richer, richer in empathy, richer in humility, and richer with knowledge. In times like this when humanity is captivated by confusion and greatly challenged by morality, I believe our hope are those people who think of others before thinking about themselves, those who have taken the oath to serve humanity, those who we call volunteers.

Munif Khan:

I like to share a quote by Tagore with my friends I've met around the world and also to the listeners who, like me, might find a glint of inspiration when we have these dark clouds looming over us. "I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold service was joy." Stay safe, everybody, and don't stop serving others. Peace.

Christopher Wurst:

Munif Kahn, who you also heard at the very beginning of this episode, is an English teacher. His original episode "The Same Earth Everywhere," told the story of his high school exchange year. It turned out that his native Bangladesh and adopted Iowa are roughly the same geographic size. It's just that Iowa has 160 million less people. Munif reached out to us from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Christopher Wurst:

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. Huge thanks to Munif Kahn, Wordsmith, Desiree Williamson, Peter Markes, Hend Elarbi, Derik Nelson, and Cheyenne Boyce. And, listeners, we would love to hear your thoughts and inspirations as well. It could be a story a poem or a song, whatever it is you're feeling right now. Please send us your audio 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 webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33. And of course, you should follow us on Instagram at 22.33_stories.

Christopher Wurst:

Huge special thanks to everybody around the globe for mobilizing to send us your audio and to lend your voice to this conversation about positivity in such uncertain times. The 22.33 team working from various locations was instrumental in this episode. Thanks to Kate Furby, Anna-Maria Sinitean, Samantha DiFilippo, Edward Stewart, and Desiree Williamson. I edited this episode. Kate Furby helped with the script, and she also designs our awesome graphics. Very special thanks to Justin Wade Tam for letting us use his song, "Calm Yourself Down." An instrumental version of this song was also used several times during this episode. Thanks, too, to Peter Markes for his song "Expectation." You can go to Peter Markes Music on Facebook for more information. And thanks to Derik Nelson for sharing his song "Quarantine Piano Meditation." Thanks to Wordsmith for the instrumental clip of "Living Life Check to Check." Other music included Miss You by Paddington Bear and Cash Cow by Blue Dot Sessions. The end credit music is Two Pianos by Taglerius. Until next time, stay healthy everybody.

Desiree Williamson:

Until we get to see each other in person and have that hug and that physical touch that we all need, stay safe, stay healthy, but most importantly, stay in touch with one another and support each other when you can.

+

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 25

DESCRIPTION

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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]

Translator:

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.

Inusah:

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.

Inusah:

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.

Inusah:

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.

Inusah:

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.

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 24

DESCRIPTION

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.

TRANSCRIPT

TRANSCRIPT

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.

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

LISTEN HERE: Episode 23

DESCRIPTION

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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:

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 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."

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 22

DESCRIPTION

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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.

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

LISTEN HERE: Episode 21

DESCRIPTION

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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.

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 20

DESCRIPTION

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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.

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 19

DESCRIPTION:

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.

TRANSCRIPT:

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.

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 18

DESCRIPTION:

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).

TRANSCRIPT:

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.

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 17

DESCRIPTION

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).

TRANSCRIPT

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.

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 16

DESCRIPTION

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

TRANSCRIPT

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.

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 15

DESCRIPTION

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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.

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 14

DESCRIPTION

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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.

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 13

DESCRIPTION

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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.

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

LISTEN HERE: Episode 12

DESCRIPTION:

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.

TRANSCRIPT:

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.

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Season 02, Episode 11 - The Prosecutors with Leslie Thomas

LISTEN HERE - Episode 11

DESCRIPTION

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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.

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

LISTEN HERE - Episode 10

DESCRIPTION:

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

TRANSCRIPT:

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 t