Soliya alumnus: "The Connect Program taught me how to discuss difficult topics and understand multiple points of view without losing myself in the process."
December 09, 2020
[The interview has been edited for clarity.]
When did you participate in the Connect Program? What was your school, major, and course?
I participated in the Connect Program in the fall of 2009, while majoring in Middle East Studies at George Washington University. It was part of a course in Geography of the Middle East and North Africa taught by Professor Mona Atia.
Do you remember what you felt and expected at the start of the program?
I remember feeling critical, uneasy, and yet excited at the start of the program. I came from a very religious Jewish background, had spent a year abroad in Israel, and the memory of the intifadas and several wars were still fresh and alive on college campuses.
Do you remember anyone from your group?
Absolutely! I remember numerous people from my program. I remain Facebook friends with many of them. I also enjoyed meeting up with those who were based locally during the course of the program, as well as meeting several of them based in the Middle East thereafter.
Did you ever meet any of the other participants face-to-face? Are you still friends with anyone from your group?
Meeting participants face-to-face was one of the best parts of the program and one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I completed my studies during the height of the Great Recession and had no idea what to do upon graduation. However, earlier that same year, I received a stipend from GW to conduct archival and interview-based research in Israel. On the way back from one of my research trips, the airline bumped me and provided me with a free roundtrip ticket to Israel, valid for one year. With the economy in a tailspin, I decided to take advantage of that ticket and travel alone throughout the Middle East. While numerous students and professors, including Professor Atia, helped me plan the trip, my father nonetheless requested that I meet with the family rabbi first. I grudgingly did so at my father’s insistence, and the rabbi eventually approved of the trip idea, telling me to wear my yarmulke “on the inside” before placing his hands on my head to give me a Hebrew blessing.
Where did you travel?
Over the course of the next several months, I visited Israel, the West Bank/Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Syria. In the West Bank, the highlight was Jericho, which I had never been to before, even as I had passed it many times on the way to the Dead Sea. I then headed back to Israel, where I networked with Jordanian students studying in Be’er Sheva who paved the way for me to eventually spend several days at their family’s home in Hatem, a Jordanian village near Irbid. While in Jordan, I hiked around Amman, travelled the entirety of the King’s Highway, viewed the Madaba Map with my own eyes, hiked Petra, and caught a ferry from Jordan to the Sinai, viewing Eilat and Saudi Arabia in the distance for a few hours.
I became scuba certified in Dahab, Egypt, and saw the sunrise from atop Jebel Musa, which still serves as the background picture on my phone. I also rode horses and ATVs before taking a twelve-hour bus to Cairo. Once there, I was hosted by Waleed Nassar and his family in New Cairo. Waleed was one of my Soliya facilitators and literally welcomed me into his home with open arms, introduced me to his family and friends, and showed me around Cairo.
From Cairo, I flew to Dubai, just days after the botched assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh. I toured the malls that I had studied in Professor Atia’s class and went indoor skiing. I visited a Soliya Connect classroom in Sharjah, where I was invited to discuss what my experiences had taught me and taken by Anthony, one of the Soliya students, to smoke shisha in a Dubai venue.
I arrived in Beirut at twilight, where I was subjected to extra questioning in Arabic about my family’s origins. Over the course of the following day, I toured museums and viewed sites whose significance Professor Atia had explained to us in class. I also met with the head of a Palestinian refugee organization located in the Burj Al Barajneh refugee camp, took day trips along the Lebanese Coast, and met up again with Soliya participants in Beirut who treated me to drinks and showed me around their campuses. At that time, in my mind at least, Soliya must have seemed a major player in regional affairs.
Following a week in Lebanon, I took a shared taxi to Damascus, where I spent days sitting in its coffee houses and admired the majesty of the Grand Umayyad Mosque. I also travelled north to Homs and visited Krak des Chevaliers. I ended the trip by cramming into a shared taxi from Damascus to Amman with two German women and a Syrian couple. That day, I can honestly say that I had breakfast in Damascus, lunch in Amman, and dinner in Tel Aviv.
That trip changed the course of my life forever. It made me more daring, tolerant, curious, hard-working, and adventurous. It taught me to expect more out of life. That trip was also due in large measure to the fear that Soliya helped me overcome by challenging my preconceived notions about the danger that people in the Middle East posed to people of my background and the support system that Soliya created, which made that trip possible.
Do you have any particular memories or specific moments from the Connect Program? Difficult or surprising moments?
One memory from the Soliya Connect Program that sticks out is the challenge of having to produce a short documentary clip about the Israeli incursion into Gaza as part of our final project. That project placed me in the position of a news producer and helped me better understand the challenges that exist in reporting about controversial topics, as well as the ways in which reporting shapes individual views.
Can you tell me about your life now?
Following that trip, I spent a year in New York City working odd jobs in real estate management, completed my first year of law school at Boston College, and then transferred to Georgetown University’s JD/MPP Program. I spent a year as a voting rights litigator at the Campaign Legal Center before beginning work on Capitol Hill. In that capacity, I worked for two members of the House of Representatives and negotiated bipartisan legislation on a hot-button foreign policy matter that passed the House of Representatives. I then spent a year working on judicial nominations in the United States Senate before moving to Philadelphia.
Did you gain any skills during the Connect Program that have helped you in the world outside Soliya?
Absolutely! The Connect Program taught me how to discuss difficult topics and understand multiple points of view without losing myself in the process. It is no exaggeration to say that those skills helped me excel in law school and on Capitol Hill.
Have any of your professional decisions been affected by the Connect Program?
Without question. My memories of the Connect Program discussions and the experiences I had travelling throughout the region helped inform my decision-making in advising Members of Congress years later. This includes discussions on negotiations with Iran, a United Nations Resolution concerning Jerusalem, the American embassy move to Jerusalem, and the congressional response to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s remarks concerning Jewish influence on Middle East policy.
The Soliya Connect Program also helped me build yearslong friendships with people from extremely diverse backgrounds. They remain some of the strongest relationships that I am fortunate enough to maintain.