Shereen Shafi, a second-year student at Johns Hopkins University, plans to major in International Studies and Anthropology, with a minor in Psychology:
"Before embarking on the trip, I could already tell that the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project was an opportunity unlike any other, and I expected that the program would be a formative experience. After returning, I can say that my expectations were met and exceeded.
This is by no means a thorough tour of the Middle East, and it isn’t supposed to be. As I left each country, I felt a bit rushed, as if my time there was incomplete—and when I returned to the U.S. and continued reading about the region, I knew there were many other places in this diverse part of the world that I still wished I could see. But this trip was definitely a well-organized way of “dipping our toes into the water” and observing for ourselves many phenomena that we’ve studied.
The first country we visited, Oman, was only the program’s back-up location due to us being unable to visit Saudi Arabia. Personally, though, I’m happy to have traveled to Oman instead. I didn’t know anything about the country before I arrived—and the reasons for my lack of knowledge are the same reasons that the country is so special. The Omani people are very observant Muslims, but they still manage to have created possibly the most tolerant country in the region. The Sultan is deeply revered, although he rose to power through a coup with the help of the British. The country seems strangely devoid of extremism and violence, which is why the Western media never covers it. Yes, it would have been exciting for our group to visit Saudi Arabia, given how hard it is to make such a visit, and it would have been a special experience for me as a Muslim in the midst of the holiest sites of Islam. But ultimately, I think we learned more in Oman than we could have ever learned in Saudi Arabia—and we could probably discuss Saudi Arabia more freely in Oman than in Saudi Arabia itself...
The last stop on the trip was Israel, a country I have studied extensively and thoroughly. This part of the program was by far my favorite. Professor Mark Rosenblum did an amazing job organizing our visit, and I think that we really received a balanced set of perspectives from the people we were able to meet. My one wish is that we could have spent more time talking to Palestinians—we definitely spent much more time on the moderate Israeli perspective. We only spent a day in Ramallah before we were rushed back to the U.S., and unfortunately many of the people who were supposed to talk to us could not make it. Like some the other cancellations by Israelis, this was out of our hands, but it’s important to note because many of us left feeling we didn’t hear enough of the other “side” of the conversation. Regardless, the program in Israel—from the West Bank settlement tour, to the tour of East Jerusalem, to the tour of the Old City—was exceptional. I left the country wanting more, but not in a bad way; I had such a great time that I can’t wait to return."
Shereen's primary academic interest lies in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, from North Africa to South Asia; she is a Muslim-American of Pakistani descent, and this background has fostered and maintained her personal connection to this part of the world. Shereen strongly believes that understanding a country's individuals—empathizing with their values, beliefs, motivations, and desires—is the most accurate way to understand the country itself and the most responsible path toward developing the best policies for its people. In her education and career she hopes to develop this kind of insight, particularly regarding Muslim populations that, as she realizes, often hold interpretations of Islam and its significance in the public sphere that differ from her own. Shereen has also put much effort into understanding the perspective of a specific group of non-Muslims in the Middle East: the Jewish residents of Israel. She recognizes the cruciality of understanding their narrative and how it shapes their actions, especially relative to the Palestinian narrative, about which she grew up learning much more. Thus, she is very involved in her school's chapter of J Street U, a pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian group that focuses on reconciling these narratives. Shereen also spends time tutoring young refugees to the U.S. through the Refugee Action Project. In the future, she hopes to shape a career in development, diplomacy, or conflict resolution.
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