Aya Chebbi is at Georgia Southern University as part of the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program. She’s been taking the opportunity to teach students and local groups about her country, Tunisia, her religion, Islam, and all about her heritage and culture. Recently she spoke with one group that had a particular impact on how she sees the U.S., and her hopes for her future. Here’s her story:
One of the main reasons I applied for the Fulbright Scholarship FLTA “Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program” was the chance to be an ambassador not only of my country but of my whole region. I hold the complex identity of being a Tunisian African Muslim Arab woman, and I wanted to use that to break a lot of stereotypes and represent Tunisia’s revolution, the African unity, the Arab culture and the true Islam.
I was hoping to be sent to one of my dream universities, Johns Hopkins or Georgetown University, because Washington D.C. is the state most alive with politics, but also full of false assumptions about the MENA region. When the program sent me instead to the very southern state of Georgia, and the very rural area of Statesboro, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to accomplish my mission with people whose accent, lifestyle and orientations I don’t fully understand.
Reading about American history, I expected the south to be very conservative and very Republican, and I doubted I would find opportunities to open constructive debates However, at Georgia Southern University, where I am teaching Arabic and taking some graduate courses (and which I now proudly call “my university”) I found the Global Ambassadors Program. Through that program I get to represent my country, region and culture by speaking to groups both on and off campus.
I have become very delighted whenever I get a speaking invitation, and last semester I got to speak in some of the Global Citizen classes on campus, as well as at high schools around Statesboro. This semester, the experience has already been even more intense and interesting.
Last week, I was invited to speak at the Statesboro First United Methodist Church. I was very surprised that a Muslim would be asked to speak in a church in a very conservative area like Statesboro. Though last year I spoke at the National Cathedral School when I visited the states for the first time as MENA Democracy fellow, that was on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where my expectations were more of an open community to other religions and cultures.
I expected that speaking at a church I would encounter some sensitive questions or statements about Islam, especially since my religion has often been portrayed as hostile and violent since 9/11. However, I didn’t think twice and immediately accepted the invitation because I saw it as a great opportunity to give the true image and highlight what unites us regardless of religion. The invitation was, in particular, from the United Methodist Women, and I was excited to meet active women working in a faith non-profit organization, share and learn from them.
I first wondered what to wear for such an occasion. I looked in my closet for a dress but most of them were tight or short, and I felt that wouldn’t be appropriate. I told some friends that I was going to a church and they advised me not to wear boots or sandals; only formal shoes.
It was 8am, slowly raining outside. I decided in the end to put on my Tunisian dress, my black shoes, a Tunisian shachia (hat), and also my new earrings with the Tunisian flag on them. I looked at the mirror and I felt 100% Tunisian.
At 9:30am, I arrived at the church on time. It was very beautiful old, huge building. For some reason, I expected the group of women inside to be young married ladies in their 30s, maybe because in my society young women are involved in faith organizations, but to my surprise the women ranged in age from about 40 to 80. I even met one woman celebrating her 100th birthday. We had refreshments before the event, and as I started interacting with them, they all welcomed me with caring smiles on their faces.
After keynotes from the president of the organization, prayers and reciting the purpose of the United Methodist Church, the floor was mine.
I talked about myself, my work, studies and where I come from, but the most interesting part for me was, as usual, the questions. This group of pretty women didn’t only ask the regular questions about my language, food, or the weather in Tunisia, but also about politics, youth, and activism. Some asked me about the security in Egypt, others about the role of social media in the revolution.
I was very impressed how informed and connected they were to what is happening outside Georgia and the U.S. Since I came to the US, I had to explain every time where is Tunisia on the map though it has been in the news for the last two years. I have found that American students are not very connected to the outside world.
They asked me why I came to Statesboro in particular and what I think about it. I found myself telling them that I didn’t actually choose to come to Statesboro and my feelings of “what am I doing here, in the middle of nowhere?!” when I first arrived. Just as I started worrying I should have been more discreet, an unexpected spontaneous laughter arose from everyone in the room. I’ve been in many situations of culture clash where I said something that might be offensive to Americans and I learned to watch what I’m saying. However, with these ladies, I felt so comfortable to speak without thinking about misunderstanding.
We also talked about my family. Once I told them I am an only child, they wanted to know about my mom. I told them that my mom wants me to get married as soon as possible so she can live to see her grandchildren – when I tell her I’m not ready yet she always says, “You give me the children and go travel wherever you want.” While I was telling about my mom’s worries, I saw in their eyes sympathy with her, because they are mothers and grandmothers themselves. I even felt my mom’s love and wonder in their eyes, looking at me with a lot of caring.
Besides organizing these speakers’ events, I learned that these active women were regularly attending workshops and conferences, doing research and discussing issues such as immigration and conflicts, and organizing charity events, among other work they do.
By the end of the meeting, many of them came to me and held my hand with words of gratitude, support, and inspiration. I couldn’t say more than “thank you” because they didn’t know that I learned from them as much as they did from me. They inspired me to keep being an active woman even when I’m celebrating my 100th birthday, leading a project in my organization rather than sitting in the corner of my house watching TV.
Actually, we all have stereotypes, certain expectations and prejudices of people around us or even those we have never met. These women have broken all expectations with their openness, knowledge, hard work and determination to serve their communities and help each other.
When it was time to leave the warm room full of laughter, love and sharing, I left with a smile on my face, peace in my heart, and a lot of knowledge and enlightenment.