People tend to say that college is the “best time of your life,” but I would have to disagree. When I stopped to reflect and write about my experience in Amman, Jordan, as a Boren Fellow, I realize that I am actually living my best life. I have never been placed in an environment where I am constantly stimulated. Everyday I find myself challenged, curious, and conscientious of my surroundings in ways I never could as a resident of DC.
I applied for the Boren Fellowship with two goals in mind: improve my Arabic language skills to a level of professional proficiency and gain hands-on experience working in the development field. In the first half of my fellowship, I interned with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on a project focused on improving social cohesion between Syrian refugees and Jordanians in host refugee communities. Of the approximate 640,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan, over 80% of the population resides outside of camps. As a graduate student focused on national security policy in the Middle East, I felt it was important for me to gain exposure to the development field and population displacement in particular, as these issues are closely tied to national security. Interning with the office was not only a great opportunity to gain expertise on a topic at the nexus of national security and development, but also test my Arabic skills in a professional context and learn the day-to-day dynamics of a large international bureaucracy. After seven months serving with the organization, here are my key takeaways:
● The UN faces the same problems as any other large bureaucracy.
● You need people on the ground in order to inform policy.
● International staff and national staff do not always get along.
● Private sector organizations have much more influence on the public sector than before.
● The development field can be disheartening, but the work ultimately matters.
In addition to my internship with UNDP, I study Arabic at the Sijaal Institute, a language and cultural center housed in Jabal Amman, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. I enjoy the method of instruction at Sijaal because it combines formal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) with the Jordanian dialect, or ammiya. Unlike at Georgetown, where I was learning how to debate BBC’s headlines from the comfort of a classroom, my greatest language gains here have been made outside the classroom: watching Jordanian comedy shows, haggling for groceries in the souks downtown, and learning the best comebacks in Jordanian street slang. I have gained a new appreciation for studying dialects because it enables you to build closer relationships with people and integrate into communities outside the typical expat bubble. Still, after three years of intensive Arabic study and almost a year living abroad in Jordan, I admit that studying the Arabic language is as rewarding as it is mentally numbing and frustrating at times.
Outside of my program, I have found that one of the biggest challenges in living abroad has been confronting my own identity. As a brown-skinned, female daughter of a Bangladeshi immigrant, with an Arabic name, I am constantly thinking about what it means to be part of a community and have a sense of belonging. In both Amman and DC, I am constantly asked, “Where are you really from?” In the US, my fellow Americans tell me that I look “exotic” or have a strange name and must have origins outside the country. In Jordan, people assume that I am Arab due to my appearance, Arabic name, passable Arabic accent, or some combination thereof. When I tell Jordanians that I was born and raised in America, people say, “But your name is Arabic. Your face is not American. Where are your mother and father from?” In the perspective of my Jordanian friends, maybe I would appear more American if I had a lighter complexion or Anglo-Saxon name who talked about American football and loved hot dogs. I am often assured that I am not the “stereotypical” American expat, as though that should be some sort of compliment. Why shouldn’t I represent the stereotypical American? As a US citizen, I feel just as “American” as any other American, but I recognize that my country does not always live up its reputation as a proud nation of immigrants. At the same time, I am learning not to presume that all Jordanians are religious or socially conservative, as often portrayed in the media. Overall, living abroad has reinforced the importance of thinking about how the aspects of our identity that we cannot control — heritage, ethnicity, race — shape perceptions of belonging and nationality in a given community.
I remain eternally grateful for the opportunity to live abroad in Amman, Jordan, as a Boren Fellow. I know I will look back on this time as one of the most formative in my life, both personally and professionally.
Yasmin’s personal blog about her experience in Jordan can be found here: https://alkhatun.wordpress.com/