How Studying Abroad Has Made Me An Ambassador

When I started telling people I was studying abroad in Morocco, I got some strong reactions:

“Why would you even want to set foot in a country where women are treated so badly?” 

“Why do you want to learn Arabic? Because they’re trying to take over your country?”

“The FBI is probably tracking you now since you’re learning Arabic and studying in Morocco.” 

“Are you going to convert to Islam?” 

“Is it safe there?”

I interned at a civil rights organization that explicitly works with Muslim and Middle-Eastern-Americans who are discriminated against because of their religion or people’s assumptions about it, so Islamophobia is not a new concept to me. 

Since 9/11, many Americans have become afraid of the Middle East and its dominant religion—despite that the strain of religious extremism that takes the form of terrorism is miles away from the reality of the daily routines of most Muslims around the world. Studying abroad in Morocco has not only educated me further on Arab culture and the Muslim religion, but I believe that it will also make me an ambassador when I come home; I will be able to share with people my real experiences with the Middle East and Islam and serve as a bridge between two cultures.

In my time in Morocco, I have learned more about what Muslims believe from conversations I have had with friends here and from my classes. Since the Moroccan state is heavily tied to religion, not learning about Islam would have been impossible. I know that I will now be able to go home and answer questions about Islam—as well as conquer misconceptions—for the people in my life who otherwise would have had little exposure to this culture. 

‘Hijabs’ One vendor in Chefchaouen dressed my friend and I up in the traditional headgear worn when in the Sahara desert. While it serves a practical or sometimes religious function, unfortunately this accessory has become a symbol of fear for some Americans. 

Not only will my increased understanding of what Islam looks like in people’s lives help me to be an ambassador back home, but even my experience of having lived in an Arab country for several months will set a positive example for people. Many Americans perceive Muslim-majority countries as being war-torn and dangerous, but most have also never visited. I have been going to school, shopping in the markets, eating in restaurants, and riding buses all over Morocco for the last three months and have felt safe every second. Being able to tell people about my positive experience in Morocco will help break stereotypes of Arab countries as being dangerous. 

‘Traditional Moroccan Wedding’ I was invited to a traditional Moroccan Wedding in Fez last week. The celebration lasts several days, and each night the guests are treated to traditional music played by musicians in traditional Moroccan clothing to accompany the marriage ceremonies. 

I hope to pursue a career someday in political mediation—to help people with very different perspectives to come to agreements. However, thanks to my semester abroad in Morocco, I am able to start that work even now. I have now lived in a predominantly Arab, Muslim-majority country for four months and will be able to promote understanding among the people I meet back home by sharing my experiences. 

I can’t wait.

Olivia Heale is a student at Seattle Pacific University. She is an ISA Featured Blogger and she studied abroad with ISA in Meknes, Morocco.

Author: Olivia Heale

Seattle native and junior studying Global Development and Middle East and North African Studies at Seattle Pacific University. Lover of water sports, musical theatre, and trying exotic fruits.

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