After five months in the Middle East and far too many hours on airplanes, I’ve settled in for a summer with Americans for Informed Democracy. I’ll be AIDemocracy’s Global Development Campaign Intern for the next two months before starting my final year at American University. If it weren’t for the frightening level of humidity, I’d be overjoyed to be back in Washington.

View of Cairo, Egypt

At this point, I’m smiling before people have even finished asking me where I studied abroad. If mentioning my first semester in Nairobi, Kenya, doesn’t cause people’s eyes to pop out of their heads, telling them I’ve just arrived from Cairo, Egypt, certainly does. When they’ve recovered from their shock, most people smile and ask me how I liked Africa and the Middle East. I can’t help feeling that they’re inwardly wondering why a sweet girl like me would choose to live in the big, scary, developing world with the Muslims, starving children, and deadly water-born diseases. Maybe that’s just my own paranoia.

I’m frustrated, I suppose, that my study abroad choices generate so much surprise. First of all, Kenya and Egypt are not scary places. There are certainly dangerous conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East, but there are many more beautiful places full of kind people who will draw you into their homes and lives with both arms. Second, these are the two regions about which Americans know the least—aren’t those the places I should be going as a student? I was in Nairobi following Kenya’s violently contested December 2007 elections, in Egypt following Obama’s inauguration, and in Syria for his historic address to the Muslim World. How could professors, government officials, or the American media possibly teach me more about global politics, ethnic and religious conflict, and the perspectives of people in other parts of the world? We should really be surprised that more students aren’t studying in Cairo, Nairobi, Damascus, Accra, Amman, or Abuja.

Everyone’s question these days is about Obama, of course. Will US relations with the Middle East heal at last? Will Americans finally see the complexities of identity, diversity of experiences, and artistic and intellectual offerings of the 1 billion people we lump together as “Africans”? The people I’ve met are, like Americans, cautiously optimistic. They know our new president is confined by the limits of the our government and is confronting problems he can’t possibly solve alone. Significantly, however, they are encouraged by Americans’ vote for change. All doubts aside, they know the American people are with them in spirit, looking for answers to the same problems.

Schoolchildren looking to practice their English and make new friends

One day on my last trip has stuck in my memory. I was crossing the border from Jordan to Syria and had no visa, as I hadn’t applied the required six months in advance. Relations between Syria and the US have been less than warm over the last few years, as you know. Americans now spend up to six hours at the border waiting to receive visas. This isn’t a matter of processing time; it’s a matter of politics. With this in mind, I sat down at the border with a book and chatted with the border officials in Arabic. By the time I was given my visa, hours later, I had made a dozen new friends. A man named Basel invited me to his home to eat dinner and meet his wife and five children, then drove me to the bus station in the neighboring town so I could continue on my way. It was a fascinating juxtaposition to witness in such a small space of time: on the one side I saw politics and hostility, and on the other, I was swept away by the kindness of strangers.

I find myself very much at home here at AIDemocracy, where students like me are empowered to share such experiences. There’s plenty of work to be done, but every student who travels to Cairo instead of London, Bamako instead of Prague, brings the world closer and makes it a little less scary for the next student. I hope I’m able to do my part.