The MENA-SEA Teacher Program is an outreach collaboration between the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) and the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies (CMENAS). Throughout the school year, the program, organized by Jessica Hill Riggs (CSEAS) and me, trains a cohort of Grade 6-12 educators from across Michigan in deepening their understanding and appreciation of religious diversity in the two regions. The 2019-2020 cohort of six includes: Greg Dykhouse (History, Black River Public School), Kiersten Gawronski (English, Saline High School), Colleen Kalisieski (English, All Saints Catholic School), Amy Perkins (A.P. World and A.P. U.S. History, Lakeshore High School), Gabrielle Popp (Special Education English, Beacon Day Treatment), and Alison Sullivan (World Geography and World History, Traverse City East Middle School). 

The program’s second session on Saturday, October 19th, focused on religious and ethnic minorities. The day began with a conversation with Wai Wai Nu, Rohingya activist for human rights and Obama Foundation scholar resident at Columbia University in NYC. “Wai Wai discusse[d] the horrors she faced while incarcerated,” recounted Gabrielle. “She [also] discussed her studies, what she has done since fleeing Burma, her family, the use of social media as a tool for revolution, and her struggles to create a better Burma.” Greg added, “She shared that oppressive conditions in Burma are ‘systematic and gradual’ against the Rohingya.” The teachers were deeply moved and inspired by Nu’s first-person account. For Kiersten, the conversation was “life-changing”: “Her poise, fortitude, and grace was humbling and inspiring.” “Nothing tops being able to hear directly from Wai Wai Nu,” agreed Alison. Yet her story, said Colleen, “resists the melodrama that could easily accompany the story of anyone imprisoned for so long and instead really focuses on the possibility of and hope for change.” 

For the next talk, the teachers had been assigned a chapter by Joshua Cole, Professor of History at U-M, about relations between Algerian Jews and indigenous Arabs under French colonialism. Daniel Williford, his student and a PhD candidate in History, situated events against the backdrop of interbellum Algerian nationalist movements and compared relations with those in contemporaneous Morocco. He “framed Constantine’s complicated history,” suggested Amy, “as a response to one overarching question: to what extent is intercommunal violence the result of debates over citizenship?” 

In the session’s final workshop,  Darin Stockdill of U-M’s Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research led the teachers in a two-hour discussion about how to integrate the day’s content knowledge into their teaching. “[U]sing [Darin’s] expertise and advice,” Kiersten stated, “I know that I will be able to disseminate my learning in a way that can impact my students' learning.” Greg might “attempt to consider the experience of Ferguson, MO, and how residents felt rights were protected or violated, then extend to consider Jews and Muslims in French Algeria.” Gabrielle liked the idea of “using J. Cole's article and D. Willford's presentation as a case study about how colonialism leaves a mark on countries with language, religion, and economic systems.” And Amy “would like to use the instance of intercommunal violence in Constantine to challenge my students to identify the ways in which colonial powers throughout history have nurtured (even invented) rivalries among native peoples in an effort to expand and perpetuate their power.” 

That afternoon, everyone took an excursion to "19 Drips," Ann Arbor’s new Yemeni-owned coffee shop on West Liberty Road. The café strictly uses beans sourced from fair-trade farmers across the world. Owners Hisham and Saeed Ebrahim talked to the group about the origins of Yemeni coffee and father and son’s reasons for starting the business. (Did you know that it takes 19 drips to make a shot of espresso, and that coffee cultivation started in Yemen circa 1450? The beans were shipped from the port city of Al Mokha, the eponym for “mocha.”) Sitting at a bench in the sun, the group partook of several pots of cascara and Adeni shai. Cascara is made from the husks of coffee beans, and the shai is a concoction of black tea, cardamom, and cloves in sugary evaporated milk. Hisham and Saeed graciously and gratuitously served their guests hot honeycomb bread (Yemen is also renowned for its honey!) filled with cheese and sprinkled with black caraway seeds, famously efficacious against illnesses and traditionally used to treat, among other misfortunes, scorpion sting. The cohort’s camaraderie bloomed as they talked, laughed, and enjoyed the food and drink together. Later, Alison summed up the experience: “This is the heart of why we are all there -- to enrich our teaching….Having the time to do this together is very beneficial.” 

Since then, the teachers have been agog about what they learnt and how to teach it. “In Classical civilizations, how available are ‘marginalized voices’ to use with students?” mused Greg in a post to his peers. “[R]egarding the genocide in Burma,” Amy wondered, “how do you teach your students about these developments in a way that is age appropriate (for young minds) but still true to the tragic elements of the story?” Colleen teaches Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to seventh- and eighth-graders and contemplated setting the Nigerian novel within a comparative framework of colonialism in Africa. 

The MENA-SEA Teacher Program would next convene on November 23rd and feature Filipino and Egyptian diasporic narratives in the U.S. Besides engaging with scholars and artists in the program, the cohort meets with community leaders, visits cultural and religious sites, and attends artistic performances. To learn more about and/or to apply to the 2020-2021 program, please visit this page.