Hanan Mahmoud is among the 641 students who enrolled in fall 2019 to participate in virtual exchange. Traveling and studying abroad has always been Hanan’s dream but her current circumstances make it impossible for her to leave her hometown Benghazi in Libya. “My father was kidnaped in 2014. To this day, we don’t know where he is, or who’s responsible, or if we will ever hear from him again. As the eldest daughter, I am responsible for providing and taking care of my family.” Hanan is an applied linguistics major at the University of Benghazi in Libya.When she is not studying, Hanan works as a translator and an editor for a local news website to support herself and her family. When her teacher told her about the virtual exchange, she jumped on the opportunity. It offered her a window to the world at a time she needed it the most. Virtual exchange also provided Hanan the opportunity to form relationships with peer from around the world, something she thought wasn’t possible.
Evanthia Karageorge is a student in Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where she majors in journalism. She and Hanan ended up in the same virtual group in the Fall of 2019, as part of the Connect Global: US-MENA, a virtual exchange program that brings together college-aged youth in the United States and in the Middle East and North Africa for cross-cultural learning via online, face-to-face, small-group dialogue.
In October 2019, Evanthia and Hanan met for the first time via Soliya’s Exchange Portal, an online video conferencing platform custom designed for virtual exchange. Hanan is the first Libyan that Evanthia ever met while Evanthia is the first American met by Hanan. For eight weeks, Evanthia and Hanan were joined by students from Morocco, Jordan, Maryland, and Michigan for online discussions around values, culture, politics, media, and current events.
As part of their assignments, they were asked to identify cultural stereotypes and explore their source and impact on society. Growing up as a Greek-American, born and raised in Virginia in a very traditional Greek household, Evanthia knew firsthand how easily people resort to assumptions and stereotypes. She always feared being misunderstood. “Many people are afraid of what they do not understand, and instead of asking questions to clarify, most people make assumptions,” Evanthia said. “When I signed up for the program, I knew in order to be understood, I needed to better understand others. I needed to hear, to be heard.” The Connect Program gave Evanthia the opportunity to ask the questions she always wanted to ask, with greater intention and awareness. “The program taught me to step back, empathize, and identify the right question to ask,” she said.
Do all Muslim women have to wear a hijab? Is there a certain age when a woman has to wear it? Are women who go to university in your country looked down on? Evanthia was surprised to learn that hijab was a choice for some women, while Hanan was surprised to learn that her American peers also viewed religion as influential in their life choices.
An eye-opening moment for all was realizing they share a struggle for women’s equality.
“When I opened up about my own struggles with unwanted attention, what not to wear or whether or not a late-night ice cream run is a good idea to do on my own, my peers understood concerns and opened up about their own experiences with different standards and expectations set by the society for women,” shared Evanthia.
As much as she could relate, Hanan was surprised to hear that in “a liberal country such as the United States, women would also be afraid to walk alone at night or have to think twice about what to wear…My female colleagues, despite living in secular communities, experienced gender-based injustice similar at some level to what I experienced in my conservative community. I learned that patriarchy is not a religious system or a cultural system. Patriarchy is a social system of male privilege that can exist even in the most secular and culturally diverse societies.”
A self-described introvert, Hanan usually avoided non-essential conversation. “I would often refrain from expressing my thoughts because of my lack of self-confidence and my lack of experience on discussions around serious topics,” Hanan said. “Thanks to my experience in the Connect Program, I have become more confident, more courageously outspoken and predisposed to accept different opinions.”
From Evanthia’s perspective, the world is diverse but siloed. Virtual exchange fills the gap, she said. “It’s not the same with phone-calling, texting or emailing. Looking in the eye and speaking with people about difficult subjects…This is not always possible even if you travel to their country.” Media hardly provides a window to the daily lives of people behind the big headlines. Often neglected in big stories are stories like Evanthia’s and Hanan’s. As distanced as they may be physically, virtual exchange helps them discover a common value for important issues like women’s equality.
Connect Program is implemented by Soliya and is supported by the J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative (JCSVEI). JCSVEI is a U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs program administered by the Aspen Institute.