When friends and family ask me how my time studying abroad has been, I generally answer, “I miss home, but I love the people here.” Every time I travel, I’m led to the same conclusion: people are more important than places.
This semester in Qatar has been unique. It’s difficult to have a "typical" cultural experience here because Doha is very westernized. There are American restaurants everywhere I look, everything is written in both English and Arabic, and my education is based off the American model. I would characterize the culture here as globalized, not necessarily Middle Eastern.
I’ve done just about all that I can do here. I’ve hit up expensive bars a few times, gone on a dhow trip with great views of the city, eaten Qatari cuisine, attended a Qatari football (soccer) match, and spent a night in the desert. But what I’ll remember most are the priceless interactions I’ve had with people from—wait for it—the United States, Afghanistan, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Cyprus, Denmark, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Greece, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Jordan, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Qatar, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, and Venezuela. I’m sure I've forgotten a country or two, for which I apologize.
Above all else, the people make up a place, and what makes Qatar special is that the world populates it. Here are a few aspects of my life that have been enhanced by the people around me:
Education: Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar is an International Politics major’s dream. I was already receiving a tremendous education on the main campus in Washington, DC, but there is no substitute for having nationals from the regions we’re talking about in our classes there to provide perspective. My water politics class was completely transformed when the Israel-Palestine dispute took over our discussion about the Jordan River basin. I’ve never seen individuals so passionate about an issue before. My very next class that day, "Nuclear Proliferation," heated up when a Pakistani and an Indian fiercely debated the pros and cons of nuclear deterrence. No wonder these issues are so difficult to solve: when studying policy, it’s easy to forget that real people with real emotions are the ones ultimately making the decisions.
Faith: When I signed up to study in a country governed by sharia law, I expected my Christian faith to be challenged. As I prepare to return home, I find my faith strengthened. For the past two months, my friend and I have been worshiping at the only Protestant church in the country. It’s an incredible feeling to share communion with people from all over the world—from Australia to India to Great Britain to the United States. It’s also fun to hear the lively Indian and African services and check out the diverse Catholic Mass next door. As we’ve driven around the overflowing parking lot on the outskirts of town looking for a parking spot for up to a half hour, I’ve found myself inspired by the piety and passion of Christians around the world and have realized I definitely take my religious freedom at home for granted.
National Identity: I’ve never felt guilty for being American until now. Unsurprisingly, most polls show that the image of the United States in the Middle East is mostly negative. These statistics have come to life here. From Islamophobia to the Western bias in the media to unnecessary US meddling in the Middle East, I’m starting to see why the Arab community is frustrated. I appreciate the opportunity to see the other side; however, studying in the Middle East has made me realize I will never lose pride in being an American. Last week I spent Thanksgiving with family friends and American troops stationed at the air base here in Qatar. Each one of them was polite, humble, and respectful. I’m incredibly thankful they’ve chosen to serve what I believe is the greatest country on earth. I don't believe we should blame all Americans for unrest in the Middle East. Blame our poor foreign policy of the past and present.
This is an exciting period of history we’re going through, and while globalization may limit the typical study abroad experience, it has given me a glimpse of a future where people are recognized as people, one in the same, finding understanding between one another.