Diversity and Democracy

"I Could Be You": Reflections of a CBL Instructor in Cairo

I have a story to tell. I am no hero. I am like you. I could be your brother, father, uncle, cousin. I could be you. In another time, in another place, this could be your story and that’s why you must understand. I am one man, with one story, but there are many more like me.                       

—Sudanese refugee in Cairo, 2006

I watched the flood of Syrian refugees cross borders north and south—anonymous faces, young and old, fearful and hopeful. Who were these people, and how did they handle the pain of displacement? What inner strength kept them going? A picture of a middle-aged woman cradling the face of a young man brought on a mix of emotions. Something about her looked like me. Was the boy her son? Had he been in college? Had he played for the basketball team? Had he stayed out late with friends, and had she constantly told him off? “I could be you,” I heard the woman’s voice in my head. I was reminded of another time, almost ten years previously.

It was 2006. I was teaching a capstone course, Writing for Publication, in the rhetoric and composition department at the American University in Cairo (AUC). The students were taking the class as part of their core curriculum, and they came from majors as diverse as literature and engineering, economics and philosophy. Working with the theme of “Citizenship and Inclusion,” we grappled with definitions and implications, difficulties and failures. Questions were raised and concepts were challenged. As a teacher passionate about experiential pedagogies, I seized the opportunity to introduce a community-based learning (CBL) project—a difficult one.

Just a few months before, about three thousand Sudanese refugees had settled in a park in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Cairo. Without documentation testifying of their refugee status, they had no access to employment, education, health care, and legal protection. For three months, the refugees had camped in the park, waiting to be heard. Residents of the neighborhood spoke of them with great disdain, saying they “dirtied the streets,” “hampered the traffic,” and “spread diseases.” Few people listened to their complaints or understood their problems. They were seen in mass form, rather than as individual humans with families, goals, and lives. Eventually, they were violently dispersed and detained by police authorities.

“Who are these people?” I had asked. “What are their stories?” And, thus, the idea of the CBL project arose. What better service than enabling refugees to have their stories told and their worth acknowledged? And what better opportunity for learning than writing with engagement, communicating voice, and seeking publication? I envisioned a collection of first-person oral narratives, highlighting personal experiences and dreams. This was going to be a great service project.

Invaluable Learning

When the semester started, I shared with students the course learning outcomes of research, writing, editing, publication, and presentation. As undergraduates, none had published before, and they were worried about what was expected of them. We analyzed journal mission statements and submission guidelines, critiqued articles, examined book proposals, and learned about publishing policies. By the fourth week, the students felt comfortable with the language and expectations of publication. Their enthusiasm for the CBL project rose, and they were eager to embrace both learning and service.

We watched a documentary on Sudanese refugees in Cairo, covering history, politics, social conditions, and current challenges. The tough reality brought most of us to tears, but one student was so agonized that she refused to take part in the project. “I can’t listen to stories of trauma,” she sobbed. “I can’t handle it.” I was moved by her reaction, but how could she not participate? The teacher in me worried about uniform assessment and grading. No incentives or persuasive tactics convinced this student, and I eventually gave her an alternative assignment: to work with another marginalized group, writing an individual’s story that she would submit for publication. She selected the Bedouins of Sinai and blossomed as she spent weekends in the hilly desert, listening to Bedouin narratives.

The rest of my students were busy at work. We contacted AMERA—the Africa and Middle Eastern Refugee Assistance NGO—and invited the founder, Barbara Harrell-Bond, and several refugees to our class. We wanted to negotiate a partnership, where both students and refugees were learning something valuable while supporting each other. The meeting was exceptional. “What do you know about the Sudan?” asked one of the older guests. We didn’t know much: that it was in Africa, south of Egypt, and had been in conflict for a long time. The guest pulled a large map from his pocket and unfolded it on the floor. One by one, we slid off our seats and knelt beside him. The geography, history, culture, politics, art, and literature of the Sudan came to life as he walked us through the territory. One by one, the refugees opened up and introduced themselves. One by one, our stereotypes about refugees came crashing down. We had assumed refugees would be poor and uneducated. They were teachers, lawyers, businessmen, students, landowners, and farmers. They could be any one of us.

For the next couple of classes, we planned the project more thoroughly. Some students became concerned: “What if we hear stories we can’t handle?” “Are we allowed to cry?” “What if they are too emotional?” “What if I ask the wrong questions?” We contacted our community partner, AMERA, and received coaching in conducting interviews with people who had suffered loss, persecution, and violence. Students also took an online training course on protecting human subjects. The learning was invaluable.

Lasting Impacts

Students spent the semester composing stories with their partner refugees—selecting pseudonyms, mapping story lines, adopting voice, negotiating angle and word choice, developing detail. They worked on and off campus, occasionally sharing coffee and snacks, visiting each other’s homes, and communicating through social media. Deep friendships developed, with jokes and tears and secrets. The students, the refugees, and I grew in the process, and became … well, better human beings—more sensitive, more empathic, and more refined.

As the stories took shape, we wrote a book proposal for AUC Press. This was the service we were offering: a publication that brought the distant mass of people closer and made visible their familiar human side. I invited my colleague, Brooke Comer, to engage her own students in a similar activity the following semester. The stories from both classes would form the collection for publication, edited by my best student writer, Nora Eltahawy, as well as Brooke and me. The book royalties would go to AMERA, in support of refugee legal aid. In 2009, AUC Press published Voices in Refuge: Stories from Sudanese Refugees in Cairo—the press’s first book written and edited by undergraduate students. 

As I reflect on this activity, I know that it was not without challenge: the constant negotiation of a delicate partnership, the breaking down of boundaries and stereotypes, my own uncertainty and parallel learning, and the extended publication process, which culminated several semesters after the students had graduated. But when the students and refugees received the e-mail with the published book link … my, we had a celebration!  

As a teacher, I continue to celebrate my CBL experiences. I have learned that keeping sight of course learning outcomes is key to success. The best CBL experiences are those with clear relationships to academic goals; activities that are loosely relevant lose their significance and appeal. I have also learned that conversations with community partners need to be ongoing. They help shape, refine, inform, and assess the activity throughout the process. I have learned to listen attentively to students’ comments and to read between the lines of their reflective writing. Their feedback suggests much to address—ethical issues, confusions, learning gaps, and personal fears and hesitations—and enables the teacher to make the learning significant for all. Finally, I have learned to exchange pedagogical experiences with colleagues, and to maintain a connection with the CBL Office on campus. There is always an opportunity to learn from others.

In fall 2008, I received an e-mail from a former student. She needed advice on a book proposal she was writing for a collection of oral narratives on the Bedouins of Sinai. I still cry when I remember that e-mail.


Amani Elshimi is director of undergraduate research at the American University in Cairo.

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