(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
My father was abducted in April 2014 and his disappearance shook my family. Nevertheless, I made it to a master’s degree program in applied linguistics at the University of Benghazi. In the fall of 2019, I was on a semester break. I had a job working as an editor for a local news website and I was looking after my family’s day-to-day needs. Five years into my father’s abduction—an all-too-common occurrence in Libya—we were unable to find out his whereabouts or who was responsible for taking him.
Libya was still torn apart by the civil war that has made it impossible for much of the country’s population to move forward in any productive manner. Becoming frozen in time and place like this was difficult for a 25-year-old who has always dreamed of exploring the world.
But I had reluctantly accepted my circumstances and the responsibility for being the sole breadwinner of my family of six. I had no choice but to give up on many dreams, including travel abroad.
Before my semester break ended, a professor at my university announced a call for participation in a new virtual project, the global nonprofit organization Soliya’s Connect Program, which seeks to build meaningful relationships among university students across national, cultural, religious, and ideological boundaries. The program is co-sponsored by the Stevens Initiative, which seeks to grow virtual exchange programs across the Middle East and North Africa.
About 100 other students and I were told that this program, the first of its kind to operate in Libya, would connect us virtually with students from the United States and the Middle East and North Africa region. I instantly applied to join the program. I felt like I could fulfill my yearning for cultural exploration.
Soon, from the comfort of my home, I was in dialogues with students from other countries about a wide range of issues, from education to cultural differences to media representation to gender equality. We even discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (See a related article, “Beyond Facebook: Deeper Online Cultural Exchange.”)
My experience with Soliya’s Connect Program was eye-opening. In the course of two months, we held weekly two-hour sessions. I attended all of them. During this time, some of my perceptions about American culture have changed.
We held weekly two-hour sessions over the course of two months. During this time, some of my perceptions about American culture have changed.
I was surprised to hear that in a liberal country such as the United States, women would also be afraid to walk alone at night or have to think twice about what they wear outside of their homes. My American female colleagues, despite living in secular communities, seem to experience gender-based injustice similar at some levels to what I had experienced in my conservative religious community. This discovery made me decide that patriarchy is not based on religion or culture. Patriarchy is a social system of male privilege that can exist even in the most secular, culturally diverse and so-called liberal societies.
One of the most interesting discussions we had was about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In anticipation of a heated opinions, I reminded myself it would not be a debate, but a dialogue. I must not judge my colleagues based on their opinions, nor should I be triggered emotionally by anyone’s conflicting views. During the session however, to my surprise, my American colleagues and I expressed very similar perspectives on an extremely divisive political issue. We both had similar views of the historical basis of the conflict; we both agreed that foreign interference had played a negative role; and there was unanimous consensus that the only solution to the conflict is a peaceful one.
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During the program, we were each tasked with an assignment to interview members of our local community on a topic we agreed upon as a group. We chose the topic of education and we chose to ask our local community members whether or not they believe education should be free. We found that all interviewees from our respective local communities believe that education should be free or at least affordable. My colleagues and I were interested to discover that youth from different communities view such a critical issue in the same way.
Indeed, over the course of the program, I was surprised to discover that youth from the United States and the MENA region have a lot in common. Both are curious about their respective cultures; both seek a better understanding of each other; and both share similar struggles.
I was surprised to discover that youth from the United States and the MENA region have a lot in common.
The safe environment of the intercultural dialogue in Soliya’s Connect Program made me gain some of the most valuable skills I possess. I became more open-minded and predisposed to accept different opinions. I learned during the dialogues to listen actively and to be understanding of my peers’ views and experiences. I learned to challenge my assumptions and to try to understand the personal background that has formed my views.
During the last session the group was divided up to create individual conversations in “breakout rooms” without facilitators. The atmosphere was very friendly and I got to know some of my colleagues a lot better. Later, we told our facilitators that we wished we could have done that more often.
Before saying goodbye, we shared our personal contacts. My colleague Kylea from Michigan and I text each other on WhatsApp sometimes. My colleague Evanthia from Virginia and I had our shared impact story featured on the website of the Stevens Initiative.
As a final assignment, I submitted an essay to my university professor, in which I discussed the interview assignment and reflected on what I had learned.
After the program ended, I strongly encouraged other students in my university to join it the next time it is available.
Soliya’s Connect Program showcased for me how much cultural miscommunication is rooted in assumptions and pre-conceived notions about “the other.” These assumptions have been created by many factors including media representation and geopolitical conflicts. A safe, judgment-free environment helps young people to challenge those assumptions and build a better and more informed understanding of each other.
Such programs are needed now more than ever. The pandemic has forced countries to close their doors to one another. Nationalism could grow stronger in the post-pandemic world. Virtual exchange programs are a way to inoculate youth to protect them from the harmful effects of nationalism and to cut through all of the geographical barriers to enable youth to stay connected globally.
*Hanan Mahmoud is an editor for The Libyan Address Journal and a translator for Translators Without Borders.