Sunday, December 22, 2013

Journey to the East

Today I decided to revive this blog. In case our readers needed more inspirational stories from people experiencing different cultures, countries and way of living, I will today introduce you the article of Sabiha Kapetanović, a member of AEGEE- Izmir. Originally Bosnian, this young girl has decided to move to Turkey, and made us lucky enough to share her inspiring stories with us. Also, she likes to interview people with experiences just as intereting as hers. Today's post has the title: Journey to the East and is the interview with Vahid., who has got his own blog.

Who we are? Where do we come from? Are we all from the same sinners Adam and Eva? What and who made those invisible borders between us? Why do we hate each others, and why do we love each others? What kind of pasion and desire is living in humans that is making them so inexplicable? Questions that I am asking myself every day. Because I can't understand why we are constantly lifting walls around ourselves.

I have luck that all of my friends are specific persons, with all their beauties. And here I want to share with you unusual memoirs of my friend, Vahid, who visited East of Turkey, place known as not so peaceful nor democratic.

Firstly who is Vahid? J

Vahid's story starts 03.08.1988.when he was born in Novi Pazar, city which is now part of Serbia. As he said he grew up in a religious spirit, where he was thought to be tolerant and to show respect to everyone, with no difference. As Vahid said if he hadn't grown up in multicultural area, as Balkan, probably he wouldn't have been the same person as he is today.

After finished high school, he ran away from home, to other, different world, that he didn't know that exist, Turkey. Living away from home, on the beginning wasn't so easy, but by time, you realize you won more than you lost. Turkey has awakened in Vahid the hunger and desire for knowledge.

 - I got chance to meet with people that were part of nations I didn't know that even exist, hear languages I never heared before, eat food I never ate before. And all of it had it's magic. We have saying „If you want secure future, you have to know your own history“, and there, in Turkey, I realized that my history, is our, human history.

I visited many cities of Turkey, but I couldn't leave Turkey without visiting the East. Where civilization was born. Through school all stories that I heared seemed unreal, and now I was there with chance to discover reality. I wanted to see, feel, and discover secrets of mysterious East.-

And there Vahid's interesting journey starts, here you have opportunity to read some of Vahid's amazing experiences from the East.

My trip started in Diyarbakir, which is capital city of non-existent state of Kurdish nation. Through the city is passing famous river Eufrat, which was main orientation many times through history. From airport I entered in bus which was going to the center of city, and on my big surprise  driver of that bus was a woman.
I have to mention that before I will start my trip, as I am just human under different  influences, I heared a lot of negative things about this part of Turkey, but my stay here proved the opposite of it. Truth is that incidents are happening, but like on every other place. And disagreements between Turkish and Kurdish people is old story, but it doesn't mean that you don't have those who are getting good along, as I could see it. My first impression was, normal, I didn't see nor feel anything from media's stories interpretations.
I took walk down the streets, and I reached Safa (Parli) Mosque. It was built in 16. century. Unusual thing about this mosque is, while they were building it, they mixed mortar with different nice flavours, so mosque could always smell nice. I talked with Imam of mosque and he told me that in center of city live around 800 000 of people, together with 4 more municipalities that are part of Diyerbekir it has  1. 600 000 people. Most of population are Kurds with minorities of Turks and Zaze.
Who are Zaze? I never heared of them.
Took from Internet: The Zazas, Kird, Kirmanc or Dimilis are an Iranian people whose native language is Zazaki, spoken in eastern Anatolia. They primarily live in the eastern Anatolian provinces. Almost all speakers of the Zaza language consider themselves as Kurds. Name Zaza is mentioned in Bible too, where it means – abundance-.
After Safa I visited Ulu Mosque, which is 5th the most important mosque in Muslim world, it was used for spreding Islam. Firstly it was church before Arabs invided Diyerbekir, it is the oldest mosque in Anadolia. Style of architecture of this mosque was taken from Umayyad mosque from Damascus which is particularly important for both,Muslims and Christians. Because there is story that in that place when Judgment Day comes, Jesus/ Isa a.s.will appear.
In my long walk I met an old man Catin Yilmaz, Protestant, who is living in Diyerbekir for 35y. He was very nice and polite man. Together with him I went to visit Protestan church which is built before 12 years. In church I met few people, we had nice talk, they were interested and surprised; who am I, how did I come ect. One of questions was; did anyone paid my trip, as I said no, they gave me 50TL, to have it, you never know.
This act reminded me when I was kid, when guests would come to visit, they would always bring some presents for kids, or leave us some money. Those acts would made us infinitely happy.
So my next step was with kids that I met in one old Mahallesi- neighborhood. They reminded me on my childhood. I couldn't believe that I am seeing kids in this century playing outside with each others, and playing Klikera- taws-. As today, we from the west know only for computer, playstation, GTA, PES ect.
With my, already mentioned 50 TL, I bought bag full of sweets, and went there to share with them. On the beginning they looked scared. Despite of it they realised I am not joking, sweets were for them, they were smiling, laughing, you could feel warmness coming from them. For me that honest happiness was enough. With that they conquered me, and I conquered the world.

In my visit to Mardin, one night I got atraccted by sounds of music that I could hear from my motel. I went out to investigate the bar. Music that I heared there was the most interesting music that I heared lately. It was rock’n’roll, but hell of rock'n'roll.
In Mardin you can find few nation, like Arabs, Kurds, Turks, so music was combination of all of their languages. And they were sitting there together, playing it together. It is kind of funny when I think of it, I never thought to look on you tube for some arap or kurd rock song...  So many prejudices around us... I asked guitar player could I play something, with a simle on his face he gave me his guitar. And there I was, in Arap-Kurdis-Turkish bar playing guitar. I played 2 songs, one on Bosnian, one on English.
What experience! When I think of all places and people that I met, it seems like I am dreaming. I am trying to put everything on paper, on photograph, but it is impossible. There will be some places and people that will only stay in my memory, never  told.
After I played, whole bar knew where I am coming from, and they greeted me with loud applause.
Next moment I was on place where you could hear silence, there was no people nor housewarming, nothing.
Stop! Who came from the West to ruin my silence?! Who are you?!
East! I came to teach me peace!
You came to ruin my silence!
East! I came to teach me peace!
So, there I was, sitting with East. I was observing beauty of East, and I let East to teach me peace. On the moment I felt how I am part of West, but part of the East too. Then I felt how Earth is round, and Space whole too.
I attended the service of the Syrian Orthodox Church
Took  from the internet:
The old Syrian Orthodox Church is known also as Jacobite church. After the persecution of Antioch (Arabs conquered Antioch 638 yrs.), Church relocates its headquarters in Mardin (Turkey today), then in Homs (Syria), and the 1959th in Damascus. Syrian Monophysites serve the Liturgy of St. James in Syria. The seat of the Church is in Damascus.
The service was in Arabic, Syriac. One act of prayer particularly attracted mine attention. Hands in the air, on the way the Muslims do it too. They were repeating the prayer in itself. Service was attended by about 60 people.
In this area you will see one of the earliest collision three largest monotheistic religion. Big part of those places of worship and important historical sites are preserved. People still use them for the service, and for adoration to the Only One.
While I was leaving  Mardin, behind me childerns were running and waving me. I knew, I passed exam.
People here are different from those in Diyarbakir. Culture is different. More covered women. 90% of old people wearing Traditional Indian trousers and red, black or other Palestinian scarf around their  heads. You couldn't see that in Diyarbakir, because of it Diyarbakir is more modern city than Urfa.
I went to  Balikli Gol (Fish lake). There you can find old bazaar and  fortress, the place is a tourist attraction. Beauty is in old inns, old mosques, Fish lake, and little cave where Ibrahim a.s./ Abraham was born.

In the end of conversation with Vahid he said next for Turkey: „Turkey is one very colorful country, where many civilizations begun, through which many passed. A country rich by it's culture, religions, traditions, languages, food, literature, music, art in general. Sometime I think that Turkish people don't realize how rich country they have.
Turkish nation is very hospitable and polite,  and I have high respect for them, their county and culture, they thought me many things. However they are not really ready to talk about history, and historical facts. They are scared to admitt, and see beauty of their multiculturality. They are scared that on that way they will destroy their country, Turkey.
And my memoires, I can't describe you my happiness. It was first fairy tale I was part of. There are so many things I couldn't put in paper. But those I put are try to describe beauty of East. I hope you could at least partly see it, and enjoy in it.“

In my hope that I am giving you other point of view, that you can't get easily, I enjoy in sharing, retelling and writing this kind of stories. Natural, realistic stories,  stories without manipulation, stories about people, that are coming from people, and being voice of people.

Vahid Hodzic

Sabiha Kapetanović

Follow Vahid's blog in Bosnian language for more inspirational stories and breathtaking photos

Monday, May 27, 2013

Greek Agenda

From 20th to 26th  March 2011 I went to Greece for a Comenius project. We were 7 people, 2 students, myself and 4 teachers from our school. We left Rome at about 09.30 and when we landed in Salonic. I met Nicholas , the student who would be hosting me in his house in Filyro , a small village 10 km form Salonicco. Nicholas hosted me in his house for a week: the first day I stayed at his house for a bit where we watched TV, played with his XBOX . In the afternoon Nicholas brought me on a tour of Filyro , and in the evening we had dinner and we went to sleep. On the second day we all met all at School and I got to know all the students from Portugal, Poland, Greece and Turkey. Together we visited the school and later we went to a Church and then to Salonicco. In the evening we all went to a Cafeteria and we toured Filyro . On the third day we visited 2 museums in Salonicco and after reaching the Tower of Salonicco ’on foot , we had lunch
at MacDonald’s and later, we walked across half the city reaching the Turkish consulate. After this trip everyone went home to change and to rest and in the evening we all met at Thodwra’s
house (a student) where we spent the evening.
On the fourth day we all met at school, because the school had organized a big party for us so we danced, ate, and played football. We returned home and we rested and later we wen tto a big school in Salonicco, and then to the city’s biggest mall, Here we ate, and bought a few things. On the fourth day we visited a museum out of town , and later we went to mount Olympus, toured a little village, then went to the sea, where we walked on the beach, ate ice‐cream and took photos. The fifth day (25.03.2011) was an important day in Greece, because on that day a parade is organised . After that we went to a Café, where all of the students and teachers from the comenius project received the certificates of attendance. In the evening we all met at a student’s house and we stayed until midnight and said goodbye to each other. It was a bad time for all us, we were all crying. The last day was the saddest of my life, in the morning the father of a student took us to the airport. I was very very very unhappy ! because I had met the best friends I have ever meet in my life. I will never forget them and they will always be in my heart ! I promised to go and meet them again in the summer. I would like thank my teachers Mrs Latempa and Mr Marrocco , the principal and the secretary and all those that made this experience possible and really hope to repeat this unforgettable experience , because it is the best trip I have ever done.
Thank you my Portuguese, Polish,Greek, Italian and Turkish friends,

By Souktani Mohamed

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Poland internship

 In Poland I got a very warm welcome. Each person who I met was so nice and friendly… even if I was with huge luggage in a big city at the wrong station at 3 a.m. There were always people who helped me. So one of the first feelings I had was feeling of safety!
Torun is the birthplace of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, in list of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gothic architecture, the spirit of Teutonic Knigths, live music, cozy pubs, gingerbread and ice-cream – this is atmosphere of Torun’s streets. Great, isn't it?
My internship was in Ecological Organization, where I participated in the development of scenarios and preparation of events open to the residents.
My colleague and I lived in a hotel of the recreation complex where the organization and forest school worked and a lot of events took place. Moreover, I could learn hotel administration at practice. So home, work, study and distraction – all this activities were so interesting and …in one single place! =)
Although we were only two interns, we didn't feel all alone at. From the first step at the train station till the last hugs on the same station we were surrounded with AIESEC-ers (those 24/7 funny and smiling people) and interns from other projects. And with these GREAT PEOPLE are connected my most vivid and precious memories. Together we traveled through Poland and reached the Baltic Sea, partied hard and spent a wonderful time.
Communicating with a whole bunch of different people (now I know at least one person from each continent  ), quest for a common language with them, other country’s life and culture, splendid cities and landscape – it was an amazing trip and fantastic experience! I want one more time! =)

By Olga Neamtu

Sunday, April 28, 2013

الحياة في المغرب : تجربة امريكي


قبل انتقالي للمغرب بعدة شهور, كانت لي عدة احكام و وجهات نظر حول العيش في شمال افريقيا و الدول الاسلامية.
ماذا يتوجب علي فعله حين اسمع اذان الصلاة؟ هل سأعامل بتسامح كوني مسيحي ؟ هل سيسمح لي ان اختلط بالنساء؟
كانت هذه جل الاسئلة التي كانت تجتاح فكري كلما فكرت بالذهاب الى المغرب.
المغرب الذي كنت اتخيل هو المغرب في افلام هوليود, كلما فكرت في المغرب ..كانت تتراء لي الجمال و الخيام و الفرق الاجنبية الفرنسية و الف ليلة وليلة.
من قدومي الى المغرب, اهلي و اصدقائي في امريكا يسألونني مختلف الاسئلة : هل لديهم طرق سريعة عامة  في المغرب؟ هل لديهم هواتف نقالة في المغرب ؟ هل يمتلكون غسالات الية ؟ كما اني سمعت اسئلة عديدة متعلقة بالجمال و الصحراء.
الان انا هنا, عشت و اشتغلت في مدينة فاس لعدة اشهر و كنت نادرا ما ارى اجنبيا في هذه المنطقة. استطيع القول اني مغمور تماما وسط الثقافة المغربية, فأنا أكل الاكل المغربي, أصدقائي مغاربة, ملابسي مغربية ,كما اني سافرت و زرت عدة اماكن.
منذ وصولي, رأيت كفايتي من اجهزة التلفزيون و الهواتف النقالة و الطرق السريعة و السيارات الفاخرة الاوروبية الصنع, الا اني لا زلت انتظر الوقت الذي ارى فيه الصحراء و الجمال التي يتحدث عنها الجميع.
كثير من الغربيين يحملون افكارا خاطئة عن المغرب. انا نفسي لم اكن أعي بشكل صحيح شيئا الى حين قدومي الى هنا.
لا يتم عزل النساء المسلمات في جناح بعيد بالمنزل ليتم منعها من اي تعامل مع الرجال, بل النساء في المغرب يعملون جنبا الى جنب مع الرجال في جميع المجالات  و الوظائف تقريبا. و يجدر بي ذكر ان النساء في المغرب لسن جميعا محجبات فالمغرب هو كباقي الدول يتمتع بتنوع ناسه و ثقافته.
بعض النساء من المحجبات يرتدين قفزات كي لا يظهر منهن الا منطقة العينين حين ينظرن من خلال حجابهن, كما ان البعض منهن يعتبر غطاء الرأس وحده كافيا. في حين ان بعض النساء لا يغطين رؤوسهن و لا وجوههن و هذا لا يضايق احدا من افراد المجتمع.
و من الملاحظ كثيرا ايضا رأيت محجبات يمشين رفقة سيدات لا يرتدين سوى وشاح لو لا يغطين رؤوسهن على الاطلاق, فهن نساء تجمعهم صداقات وطيدة  رغم اختلاف قناعاتهم الدينية .
تتمتع النساء هنا بحقوقهن ايضا, بعض الناس يعتقدون خطأ بأن النساء المسلمات يعشن في اضطهاد لمجرد ان نسبة قليلة منهن لا يعشن حياة حرة. أنا أعتقد ان النساء في المغرب هن من اكثر النساء حرية في العالم الاسلامي, فهن يذهبن و يجيئن متى يحلو لهن, يقودون السيارات, و يمارسن الاعمال التجارية او باقي الاشياء الضرورية.
ينبغي على المرء ان يعرف انه و بخلاف للنساء في الغرب, فالإسلام ضمن للمرأة حق التملك و الوراثة للممتلكات.  كما ان الحضارة الاسلامية عرفت عدة نساء قويات كان لهن تأثير قوي على مدى هاته الحضارة.
ففي فاس و على سبيل المثال, ستجد كنيس يهودي و مسجد الجامعة والذي تم تأسيسه من طرف نساء. جامعة القروين التي أسستها فاطمة الفهرية و تشتهر بكونها أقدم جامعة في العالم  تعمل بكيفية مستمرة, فمن الواضح ان النساء لم تكن محتجزة في اماكن مخصصة للحريم طوال اليوم بل كانت تلعب دورا هاما و مؤثرا في مجتمعاتهن.
و يجدر بي الاشارة الى ان المغرب هو دولة في طور التقدم تتمتع بشوارع واسعة و مرصفة ,كما ان في فاس توجد نوافير في كل منعطف .
كما شهدنا دعاية كبيرة لمشروع الملك لبناء خط الترام في الرباط و الذي يبدو انها كانت تجربة ناجحة. وخلافا لما قد يظن البعض فلدينا كهرباء و مياه جارية و كل متطلبات الحياة المريحة في هذا العصر الحديث. فلم ينقصني اي شيء مما كنت معتادا عليه في امريكا حتى مزيجي المفضل من تبغ الغليون.
يتمتع المغرب ايضا بقدر كبير من التسامح, فقبل سفري الى المغرب, فقد حذرني الكثير من الاصدقاء بخطورة ما أنا مقدم عليه خصوصا انني مسيحي و على وشك الانتقال الى دولة اسلامية. فالمسلمون يكرهون المسيحين ,هذا ما يقولون, ربما كان هذا صحيحا في بعض الاماكن لست ادري فمنذ مجيئي الى المغرب كنت اتناول طعامي مع مسلمين و نمت في بيوت لهم و اهتمت بي ممرضة منهم  حين مرضت لم احس باضطهاد او تمييز او احتقار في شخصي قط لكوني لست مسلما. اصدقائي كانو على دراية بأني لم اصم شهر رمضان و لم يزعجهم ذلك البته.
في الواقع, قمت بزيارة بعض الأصدقاء مسلم خلال شهر رمضان, وقد اصروا ان يعدوا لي طعاما لكي يتسنى لي تناول الطعام خلال النهار كالمعتاد بالنسبة لي. هم لا يتنولون الطعام الى حين الغسق و رغم ذلك لم يطلب مني احد ان اصوم معهم. ولم يحاول قط احد من اصدقائي المسلمين من مجيئي الى المغرب ان يقنعني باعتناق الاسلام. ببساطة ديانتي لا تشكل بنسبة لهم ادنى قلل.
انا الان اعيش في المغرب, مفاهيمي الان تتمتع بأسس اقوى و اصح و قد تم تصحيح جل المفاهيم الخاطئة و موافقتها مع الحقيقة.
الان اعلم أنني حين اسمع اذان الصلاة استطيع تجاهله. فالحياة عندي لا تتوقف حينها. الان اعلم ان معظم الناس لا يكترثون لديانتي و لا شيء يدعوني للقلق باحتمال تمييز عنصري و ديني في حقي. كثير من المسلمين يدعونني اخا او صديقا و انا متيقن انهم صادقون في مشاعرهم. أستطيع التواصل مع النساء, استطيع مرافقتهم, المشي و الحديث معهن سوى في الطريق او في منازلهن دون ادنى مشكلة. من السهل العيش في مجتمع اسلامي و انا مرتاح جدا هنا, و أعتقد بأنني سأبقى في المغرب وقتا أطول.

                                                                            جيس ل نورتون : مراسل المغرب اخبار العالم في فاس المغرب

English version: here

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Belgium: a truly neat place

I first arrived in Belgium when I was nine. It was an experience so new but exciting. I felt that my life was launched into a new direction. I had no idea how long I would be living in Belgium, but I knew it was going to be an experience far different from living in Fairfax County, Virginia.

I remember driving to my new house from the airport. As I looked out the window, I tried to read the signs and advertisements. Now that I think of it, it was almost funny. I remember being frightened, because I didn't understand what the signs and advertisements said. I asked my parents what they meant, and they didn't really know either. They told me not to worry, because in my new school I would learn French. That almost scared me even more. At the time, I was nine, so I really didn't understand the world, fully. I was going to have to learn French! What about English? I was so afraid at the time that I would forget how to speak English and only know French. Now, I am so grateful that I have been taught French. I feel so much more cultural. Plus, now that I know French I can understand what and where I am going when I travel.

While living in Belgium, I have been able to experience life differently than most Americans my age. I live in the town of Waterloo, where the famous battle which brought Napoleon to his final defeat, was fought.  Waterloo is a town known for its historical background and its international community. Waterloo is probably one of the most international places in the world, being that a lot, if not most, of the people living there are not from Belgium. This is largely due to the fact that the European Union, NATO, SHAPE, and other such organizations are headquartered in Brussels. Brussels being only a few minutes drive from Waterloo makes it a prime location for the many diplomats and businesspeople.

Belgium is truly a neat place to live. It is located North of France and south of the Netherlands. Also bordering Belgium is Luxembourg. To the right of Belgium is Germany. People from all over the world live in Belgium, due to its strategic place on the map and its connections with the rest of the world. With all of these people from different cultures intermixing in Belgium, it truly makes the Belgian culture richer. I have learned so much about cultures from all over the world. For example, the custom of greeting people in Belgium is with three kisses to the cheek. The American custom is usually to shake hands, but to the Belgians this is considered almost impersonal.

With Belgium's close vicinity to the rest of the world, it is really an awesome experience. For example, on school-sponsored trips like basketball, volleyball, or ISTA (International School's Theater Association), I have been to The Hague, Paris, Frankfurt, Milan, and Dussledorf and stayed with families from these cities.

Living in Belgium has really helped me, too. As I said earlier, while living in Belgium I have learned about the different cultures and met people from all around the world. This has really helped me in things like the MUN (Model United Nations)or MNATO (Model North Atlantic Treaty Organization) programs. I have been able to use my knowledge of the world and better portray the viewpoints of the countries I represent in these conferences. For example, last year for MUN at The Hague, my school was picked to represent the United Kingdom. I have been to London quite a bit, and in my school there are many students from the United Kingdom, and that really helped. I was able to talk to them about how they view certain topics. I was even able to find information through the British Embassy, which was really beneficial.

There's something about Belgium that is far different from living in the United States. Don't get me wrong, the United States is my home, but Belgium has characteristics that are unique and special. It's a place where I think the world really comes together, and all the different ideas and cultures can really be seen.

Source: here

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Journey through the United Arab Emirates

When I arrived at Dubai International Airport, I was struck by how cosmopolitan and busy it was, despite the very early morning hour.  The women in the airport were covered from head to toe in flowing black robes, and I could see the dark eyes of only a few.  Among some of the younger women I encountered, however, I noticed hints of “Western wear” under their traditional dress, including jeans and designer handbags. 
Once I left the airport, I was struck by the humidity and proliferation of expensive cars outside – Mercedes, BMWs, and SUVs with tinted windows.  Many of the drivers were talking on cellular phones, anxiously honking at other drivers, and attempting to pick up newly arriving passengers.
At that moment, it finally became real to me that I was thousands of miles away from the small Georgia town where I grew up in the United States; a town where everyone knows everyone and where, at first glance, you might not believe there is much to do.  How was it possible that I, a wheelchair user and Black woman, was able to travel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone, with all of the obstacles that seemingly confronted me?

"Regardless of the level of accessibility abroad, we learn something about ourselves and others. Furthermore, others may learn from us.  In fact, the more people with disabilities travel, the better accessibility will become."

In addition to growing up in a small community, I have a disability (Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis), so I never imagined that I would be able to travel to another state, not to mention another country.  Furthermore, until I met Dan Hopkins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Technical Assistance and Consulting Center, I had never met a person with a disability who had traveled internationally.  Mr. Hopkins has a visual impairment, and it was he who “planted the seed” in me to travel abroad.  With his encouragement when I was an Assistant Professor at Langston University, I applied for a fellowship from the Center for International Rehabilitation Research Information and Exchange (CIRRIE) to spend one month assessing the attitudes of people with disabilities in the UAE.
In addition to preparing for my first international travel experience, I had to prepare to travel to a country where attitudes regarding my disability, ethnicity, and nationality were a concern for me. I also knew that the infrastructure would not be as accessible as it is in the United States. Still, I knew that I could adapt.  I played out every scenario in my head before I left.  What if I can’t get off the plane?  How will I get around?  How will I be perceived?  Will I be able to use the restroom?  What impact will I have, if any, on the people of the UAE?
In the end, my many concerns proved unwarranted.  Everyone was receptive and warm towards me. I did not experience any negativity from the people assisting me off of the plane, nor at any other time during my month-long stay in the UAE. I never experienced any fear, as strangers treated me like family from the moment we met.  I reciprocated this respect, often in small ways.  For example, I am not fond of tea or coffee, but drank it graciously each time it was offered to me. I quickly learned the need for an open and flexible mindset when traveling, especially internationally.
Each morning, before the busy day we had planned, I woke up to the beautiful sound of the call to morning prayer. I stayed in Al-Ain, a city in one of the seven emirates of the UAE.  During my stay, however, my host, Dr. Nasser Al-Ameri, took me to other emirates, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as to a number of rehabilitation centers.  We also visited sand dunes in the desert and the highest peak of Jabel Hafeet Mountain.  I never thought that I would be atop a mountain, but there I was.  Travel makes many experiences possible! 

Access and People with Disabilities in the UAE
Despite the beautiful sites and a warm reception from local people, I did face architectural barriers in the UAE. In truth, I would have been unable to navigate on my own, a fact that was not lost on my host, Dr. Al-Ameri.  In order to adapt, I relied on my host, and others, for assistance entering inaccessible buildings, including restaurants, and getting in and out of vehicles.   
The barriers that I experienced in the UAE were architectural, all of which could be fixed given the tools and knowledge to do so.  For example, some of the public restrooms I encountered in the UAE were big and modern, purposely designed for mothers who need changing space for their infants. Given similar forethought to people with disabilities, accessibility could have easily been added to the design as well.  Since this wasn’t the case and there were no handrails in sight, I stood using the sink, or anything else that was available, for leverage.  I also had use of a bathroom in my host’s home that was accessible, although not by design.
Prior to my arrival, my host constructed a ramp to his villa and offered to rent a car for the duration of my stay, knowing that it would be difficult for me to climb into his SUV.  I declined, however, certain that we would find a way for me to use his vehicle, and we did.  I am unable to bend my legs or walk up steps, so we placed bricks on the ground in front of my wheelchair as leverage.  As I pulled up from my chair, I stood on the bricks themselves, instead of the ground, and thus was high enough to maneuver into the vehicle.  It was a perfect example of a reasonable, practical and inexpensive accommodation! People with disabilities who travel to the Middle East, or any other region, should ensure that they have an excellent point of contact in the host country, in addition to creative ways to handle challenging situations.
During my stay, I also got to observe how people with disabilities from the UAE manage.  At a governmental rehabilitation and employment center for people with disabilities, I learned a great deal about the services that are provided to young adults with disabilities in the UAE. The goal of the center is to increase opportunities for people with a variety of physical disabilities by providing not only employment training, but rehabilitation training, counseling and guidance, and recreational and cultural activities, as well. Some of the students were receiving employment training in graphic design, computer maintenance, and receptionist training, to name but a few occupations. One student boasted to me that she had recently received her driver's license!
Fortunately, I had an opportunity to attend the graduation ceremony of some of the students, which left a lasting impression on me.  I was surrounded by graduates in traditional dress, and I blended in with them, as I, too, was dressed traditionally.  The audience listened attentively as the President of the UAE, Shiekh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, addressed the students directly via video.  The graduation ceremony was indeed more “royal” than any I have ever attended. Moreover, the expressions on the faces of the graduates left me speechless. They were proud, as they should have been. Although I was only there for a few hours, I felt a certain kinship with those students, knowing that their accomplishments had not come easily.

The Lessons
Although the initial purpose of my trip was to assess the attitudes of people with disabilities in the UAE, I discovered that my visit had brought a new sense of awareness to my host, Dr. Al-Ameri, of architectural barriers to people with disabilities. He had observed my independence during a trip to the United States and realized how inaccessible the environment was when traveling with me in the UAE.  As a result of my visit, he too learned something about access and the need to foster change. For local people to internalize that attitude is very powerful.
During my short tenure in the UAE, I learned more than I ever could from a textbook.  I learned that this world truly is smaller than we think. It is easy to say that, but unbelievable to actually experience it.
Dr. Shonda McLaughlin has since moved on to become an experienced full-time counselor with the Washington, D.C., Regional Office of the Department of Veterans Affairs
Second, regardless of geography and disability, people with disabilities really can “go anywhere.”  Yes, there may be some barriers, but that really is the fun part!  Regardless of the level of accessibility abroad, we learn something about ourselves and others. Furthermore, others may learn from us.  In fact, the more people with disabilities travel, the better accessibility will become.
My experiences in the UAE have impacted me professionally as well.  In the classroom, I am now able to share my experiences with students and to encourage them to travel internationally.  Furthermore, I have discovered that my positive experiences in the UAE have helped to dispel preconceived notions of the Middle East.
Most importantly, I learned that stepping outside of my comfort zone is very rewarding, even if I am from a small town in Georgia. Exposure is a great teacher.
As Salaam Alaikum.

For more information:
The Center for International Rehabilitation Research Information and Exchange (CIRRIE) conducts four types of international exchange programs involving researchers and technical assistance experts.

The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) has an online database of international exchange programs for students and professionals, including programs located throughout the Muslim World and the United States. 

A World Awaits You: Muslim World Issue features an extensive list of local, regional and international disability organizations, by country, and includes links to scholarship and financial aid resources for Americans and citizens of predominantly Muslim countries.

The Independent Living Institute offers to people with disabilities and their organizations online services and information, training materials, consultancy and technical assistance.  The Study and Work Abroad for All project builds a database with information about international study and traineeship opportunities for young people with disabilities.

The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH) is an educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to raise awareness of the needs of all travelers with disabilities, remove physical and attitudinal barriers to free access and expand travel opportunities in the United States and abroad.

About the United Arab Emirates
With a history of over 5,000 years as an important post on ancient trade routes and thriving ultra-modern cities, infrastructure, shopping and entertainment, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has an astonishing mix of past and present.  This combination of the traditional and modern makes the United Arab Emirates a rich and fascinating travel destination in the Middle East.

Located within the Arab world, the United Arab Emirates borders Saudi Arabia, Oman, the Persian Gulf, the Straights of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman.
Comprised of seven separate, but united Emirates or kingdoms (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajamn, Ras Al-Khaimah, Umm Al-Quiwain and Al-Fujairah), the UAE gained its independence from British colonial authorities in 1971 and has since built itself into a modern success-story.
Like many countries in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates is relatively accessible for people with disabilities – especially in the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.  Early in 2004, a draft law was submitted to grant and protect the rights of people with disabilities in the areas of employment, healthcare, education and access to facilities and services.  Equal rights without discrimination is the underlying goal.

By Shonda McLaughlin

Source : here

Monday, April 15, 2013

My Trip to Paris, France in a Wheelchair

The overnight flight from Houston Intercontinental airport took 8 hours 45 minutes, and left town at 3 pm central standard time.  It was almost impossible for me to get any sleep.  For some reason, I’ve always had a hard time getting any on airplanes.  Just 3 or 4 hours after dinner service would’ve been nice, but no dice.
We landed in Paris, France, at 6:45 am (French time).  Baggage claim was close to our gate, as was customs, and we breezed through both without any problems since we had an airport person usher us through.  He even took us to the taxi line where we piled into a mini-van style taxi before leaving on the 45 minute drive (40-50 €) into the city to the Hotel Prince and what I’d hoped was a wheelchair accessible room.
Situated in the 7th arrondissement, we found the Hotel Prince to be in a quaint part of Paris that is only 8 or so blocks from the Eiffel Tower.  It has one accessible room on the bottom floor which is spacious (by French standards) and costs 130 €/night.  No roll-in shower, but I wasn’t complaining about that.  Paris is a very old city and accessibility is obviously an afterthought here.
Our rooms weren’t ready so we dropped off the luggage and crossed the street to a sidewalk café for a celebratory drink and then an early lunch.  Afterwards, we got into our rooms and took a good long nap until about 5 o’clock.  Oddly enough, we were fresh and ready to do a little exploring before finding another place to dine.
Not surprisingly, the first place we struck out for was the Eiffel Tower which was only eight or so blocks away from out hotel.  All the sidewalks had cut curbs and I found it smooth wheeling there and back.  In fact, most of the city, that we covered on foot, was easy to get around.  We hung out around the Eiffel on the ground for about an hour.  There were long lines to go up and wheelchair users can only go to the first level anyway so we decided to stay down.  It was a grand sight to see.
On the way back, we stopped at a corner café to have dinner on the sidewalk as the sun set and with the Eiffel looming over our heads.  What I didn’t know was that they light it up at night with a million dazzling lights that periodically put on a show of their own.  I found something else out that day too, that you aren’t supposed to tip after meals in Paris like we do in the states.  You’re supposed to only leave a few euro if your service was superb.  The tips there are already figured into the price of the meal.
All of our waiters were friendly and most spoke a little English.  I didn’t notice any of them getting annoyed with us unlike some of the stories I heard about over the years.  Perhaps that’s because we came during the tourist season and the French people are expecting an influx of American tourists.
Day two, dad and I went down to the Eiffel to try to get on one of the double decker tour buses because they told us that they had an accessible one.  Well, maybe they did, but we got to the location and waited for more than half an hour.  Then they tried to just get me on the next bus and park in the opening just inside the door on the bottom floor.  I think maybe they saw that we were about to leave and wanted our money, but I’m too old to fall for something like that.  I told them ‘aint happening’ and we took off down the Seine river on foot toward the Musee d’ Orsay.  The river cuts Paris almost in half and a lot of landmarks are on or near it.  Again, keep in mind that these places are a fair piece apart from each other, a couple of miles sometimes, but getting there was easy and I wanted to see the city on foot anyway.  Musee d’ Orsay is the impressionists’ museum and a lot smaller than the Louvre.  Another nice surprise is that disabled guests get free admission to all the museums in Paris.  Merci’ beaucoup!
Tip:  Follow the crosswalk signals or you take your life in your own hands.
Another neat thing about this city is that everything you need is right around the corner.  We did a little exploring around our hotel and found a supermarket, a bakery where we had breakfast on the sidewalk every morning, a fine cheese shop, a butcher, several bars and cafes, fruit stands, delis, a small park, you name it.  Every little side street had several charming little shops it seemed like.  These places come in handy if you want to eat in Paris on the cheap.  We quickly discovered that all our money was going to eating at the sidewalk cafes and restaurants.  You can, however, pick up cheaper meals at the supermarket & deli and take it to the park or back in the room.
One of the little differences while dining in Paris is that the waiters leave you alone for long periods of time.  In France, meals are more of a social event and are supposed to be enjoyed without a lot of interruptions.  Don’t expect them to be coming over to constantly fill your glasses or check on you, it won’t happen.  I really started to enjoy this too by the time we left.
After Musee d’ Orsay, dad and I kept going down the Seine until we got to Notre Dame.  What a site!  Dad was impressed with the architecture since it is one of the oldest structures in the city and the first to use flying buttresses to support the walls.  I was impressed with the inside of this cathedral.  It’s breathtakingly beautiful.  We got in and around very easily.  They do have stairs up to where the hunchback used to hang out but that isn’t accessible, and there are a few steps up to the area behind the altar that I decided not to do but dad could’ve gotten me up them fairly easily if I’d wanted to go.
By the time we made it back to the hotel, the day was over and it was time for dinner.
The next day we took on the Louvre, once again on foot.  And let me just say right now, you’re going to need at least three days if you want to do it right.  The place is huge.  It’s also bustling with tourists, which is a drawback because it’s not easy enjoying the unbelievable artwork with twenty people hurrying by snapping pictures of everything with their digital cameras.  It’s also difficult to not get swept up in the fast pace.  Take it slow and appreciate what you’re seeing.  The highlights are the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory as well as the many wall-sized painting and sculptures by Michelangelo.  It’s tricky finding your way around in the Louvre so you have to find out where the elevators are and where you want to go.  Study the maps.
That evening, the four of us walked down to Champs Elysees to see the Arch De Triumph which was commissioned by Napoleon.  Another must see of the Paris sights.  Before we found a quaint little restaurant.  Of course, most of the places in Paris are this way.  Expect a lot of places to have a step up into them and not very much room to get around in.
We didn’t attempt the Metro (subway) because very few terminals have working elevators I heard while doing research for the trip.  The only other option, other than a cab, were the public buses that we didn’t bother with either.  We also didn’t go on one of the riverboats that go up and down the Seine which are accessible.  Maybe next time.
Tip:  Be aware that if you phone for a cab to pick you up, the meter starts as soon as he leaves.
We took a cab up to Montmartre which is another cool place that overlooks the entire city and is a popular place for tourists.  There are places to eat and drink and several local artists have their work on display.
Another thing to know when you go to France is to give everyone a simple greeting the first time you meet someone or enter a business.  And do it in their language.  If you do this, the people are more willing to help you.  Overall, Paris is an extremely charming city, especially at night.  It’s not cheap though while the euro is stronger than the dollar.

Source: here