Each spring, the CASA Without Borders program grants Fellows in both Amman and Cairo the opportunity to pursue long-term community-based learning projects or internships outside of the classroom setting. The program aims to immerse Fellows in local society, encourage real-world applications of the Arabic language, and introduce Fellows to various career paths related to Arabic. Fellows find and select their own placement sites to ensure that the CASA Without Borders experience is as rewarding and beneficial as possible.
We checked in with three recent CASA alumni to learn more about their experiences:
Eleanor Ellis, CASA I, 2017-2018 (Cairo)
Placement Site: Women and Memory Forum
Taha Poonawala, CASA I, 2018-2019 (Cairo)
Placement Sites: Center for Arab-West Understanding (CAWU); Center for Translation Studies (CTS), AUC
Jacqueline Salzinger, CASA I, 2018-2019 (Amman)
Placement Site: International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP)
What were your responsibilities as an intern/volunteer?
EE: I helped translate oral history-related materials for the Women and Memory Forum website from Arabic into English.
TP: As an intern at CAWU, I completed research, English to Arabic translation, and data entry. At CTS, I helped with all aspects of organizing the translation lecture series.
JS: My title was "Intake Volunteer." I was one member of a team of people responsible for conducting intake interviews and writing them up for analysis by the IRAP legal team. Intake volunteers are the face of IRAP for the organization's clients, which include refugees of many different nationalities (Syrian, Iraqi, Sudanese, etc.). We called clients to schedule their time in the office, greeted them when they arrived, and remained their main point-person at IRAP until the legal team decided whether IRAP would take their cases. As Intake Volunteers, the bulk of our working hours were spent conducting in-depth intake interviews in Arabic with heads of household and spouses. Interviews lasted 2-3 hours and covered a variety of topics, including legal and personal details. We took detailed notes throughout the interview and then wrote up a report in English so that IRAP lawyers could analyze and decide whether legal action might support this person's resettlement case with UNHCR or a specific government. We also followed-up with clients to answer their questions and address lawyers’ communication needs.
What were the highlights of your experience?
EE: The highlights of my experience were getting to know colleagues, learning more about translation and transcription, and attending an oral history workshop.
TP: Networking was arguably the most beneficial aspect of the internship. In the course of the research I was doing at the CAWU, I met with prominent Islamic architect Dr. Omar Farouqi and a number of scholars in Cairo. The same can be said for the work I did at the CTS.
JS: I managed a dozen intakes during my season with IRAP. It was really special to work at a refugee advocacy organization in Amman because I worked at resettlement organizations in the States previously. Our clients were grateful for a chance to tell their stories, and I was honored by the degree to which they opened up to me and trusted me with their cases. I was really grateful to get a better sense of the process refugees go through on this end, and I know the knowledge and skills I gained at IRAP will be applicable in my future, whether that's working in the field of refugee advocacy, medical translation, etc. The other highlight of my experience was how much I felt that I was growing as a bilingual communicator with each additional client I took on. I didn't speak a word of Arabic five years ago, and this is just the sort of experience I have had as a goal as I've put time into language classes all these years. The nature of IRAP's work requires a degree of nuance and attention to interpersonal dynamics that pushed my colloquial Arabic to the next level. By the end of my five months at IRAP, it was much easier to find the right words to speak with clarity to the lawyers and with compassion to my clients.
How did your internship/volunteer experience enhance your CASA experience?
EE: I felt that the opportunity to volunteer outside the classroom was an integral part of the spring semester, and provided me with an opportunity to apply the skills we were learning in our spring translation class.
TP: Language development was the key objective of my internships. Working at the CAWU and CTS afforded me the opportunity to apply my language skills in real-world situations.
JS: IRAP provided unparalleled speaking and listening practice. Also, being in a setting that required much more conscious adherence to local cultural norms helped me heighten my cultural awareness and gain the necessary communicative habits to navigate work with Arab clients respectfully and successfully.
When I began CASA Without Borders, I wish I had known...
TP: ... about more internship opportunities. The wider your choice of selection, the better the chance of getting an experience that will be both fruitful and enjoyable.
How did CASA Without Borders influence your career path?
EE: My experience with CASA Without Borders helped prepare me for other translation projects. The program also helped me learn more about approaches to oral history and about producing alternative knowledge about marginalized narratives.
TP: I wouldn't say CASA Without Borders influenced my career path -- I have always been on the track to pursuing a career in academia -- as much as it has influenced my research interests. Although I have always had an affinity toward Islamic Art and Architecture as well as translation studies, my internship experiences helped to further broaden the scope of my research interests. For example, Dr. Farouqi introduced me to the idea of studying the soundscape of Islamic Cairo.
JS: My supervisor at IRAP ultimately served as a reference for my job search post-CASA, and in part thanks to his support, I was able to get a job in Amman for after my CASA year. Also, this was my first time working with lawyers and doing more targeted interview and translation work, and I now have a much better sense of what skills these tasks entail.
What advice do you have for current CASA Fellows regarding CASA Without Borders?
EE: Be flexible and open to doing something different from what you might have originally planned. The CASA faculty at AUC can provide excellent guidance on this, and even if things turn out differently than you expect, they may still work out for the best!
TP: (1) Identify your interests and what exactly -- in terms of language development -- you want to focus on; (2) start looking early; and (3) keep an open mind and be prepared to not get your first choice. I originally wanted to work at the Islamic Art Museum but was unable to secure a position for various reasons.
JS: I recommend setting up your position as soon as possible in the fall so that you can dive right in when you're back for the spring semester. As great as the spring seminars are, CASA Without Borders was the best part of my spring, personally, professionally, and academically.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
EE: For me, CASA Without Borders made clear something that many Cairo Fellows already felt: that being in Cairo was a crucial part of our CASA experience, and that Cairo offers exceptional opportunities to engage with language, culture, and history, and to build relationships that can continue long after the CASA year ends.