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CONNECTING PEOPLE, BRIDGING DIVIDES

SOLIYA

By Lauren Brown, Between the Columns

Published November 10, 2009

A few minutes before 9:15 a.m. on Mondays, Nelise Jeffrey makes a cup of tea, changes out of her pajamas, steps around the mess in her little brother’s bedroom and starts a conversation with eight other students around the world.

Using video conferencing technology and the resources of the international nonprofit Soliya, the junior majoring in communication talks with peers about issues that often divide the West from the Muslim world. One week it was words that incite emotion, like “gay,” “crusade” “American-“ anything and the n-word. Another week it might be Americans’ role in the war in Iraq or what is Ramadan like in the Arab world.

“I like the opportunity to meet funny, intellectual students who are down to earth and engage in lively conversations,” Jeffrey says.

She’s one of nine Maryland students participating in Soliya’s Connect Program this fall, the second time it’s been offered through communication Assistant Professor Sahar Khamis’ Arab media class.

Soliya—its name comes from sol, the Latin word for sun, with iyaa’, Arabic for “beam of light”—was founded in 2003. It aims to bridge cultural divides by helping young people increase their communication skills and international knowledge and connections. Its Connect Program currently links 300 students from about 30 universities, including Jordan University, the American University of Cairo and Georgetown University, for live weekly Web chats. Soliya trains facilitators, who are recruited from student participants, to moderate the discussions, says outreach manager Reem Marto.

This year, Soliya merged with the United Nations-established Alliance of Civilizations Media Fund, and Marto says, “We’re excited about our mission being made possible to grow bigger and grow to scale in the future.”

Khamis, who co-wrote the June 2009 book “Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses in Cyberspace,” coordinated Soliya’s Connect Program at Qatar University for three years while head of the mass communication and information science department.

The students there wanted so badly to participate, she says, even amid frequent technical difficulties. “If the microphone was not working, they would type. If they could not type, they would text.”

Making “Out There” Real

At Maryland, Khamis’ seminar class focuses on the influence of new media in the Arab world, particularly on young people, as well as its obstacles and misconceptions. Soliya, she thought, would be a perfect fit. She accepted applications from a portion of her 35-member class. The organization strives to balance the number of students coming from different cultures. Because the time differences require most chats to start in the morning in Eastern Standard Time, she allows participants to log on from home.

“We learned a lot about each others’ cultures and that we needed to have more empathy,” she says of last year’s group of 12. “People are not governments. We need to be sensitive to that.”

Leysan Khakimova, a doctoral student in public relations focusing on public diplomacy in the context of the Arab world, was part of that group and helped oversee the undergraduate participants.

“For me, the most interesting part was that the Arab world always seems to be far away,” she says. “But when you get online and you see those faces and they talk to you, it suddenly becomes your life and a personal experience. The Arab world becomes real, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t just ‘out there.’”

This semester, participants are assigned reading to prepare for each week’s discussion, and all have to produce 10-minute videos on any area of interest discussed in the Web video chats. Khamis also requires the students to integrate their work into group in-class presentations, to ensure that the non-participants get a taste of the program.

Rebecca Niazi, a junior majoring in communication, says she got involved because her father is from Pakistan and she wanted to learn more about the culture there. Since the chats started in mid-October, she’s been most surprised to learn how the government in the Arab world controls so much of the media, including TV and access to the Internet.

Jeffrey says she’s liked how the facilitators push participants to think critically: Why do particular words evoke emotional responses? How do our personal experiences shape those responses? Why do students from the Mideast think differently?

The discussions stay civil, she says, partly because it’s difficult to argue with someone face to face. “Video adds familiarity and closeness,” she says.

Khamis says long-lasting overseas friendships often start in Soliya, and Khakimova’s experience bears that out. While studying in Jordan over the summer, she met up with a friend she’d met through Soliya.

“It’s not just a classroom experience,” Khakimova says. “It allows you to meet real people and make real friendships. It’s a great way to promote unity among people.”

For more information on getting involved in Soliya, visit www.soliya.net.

Read the original article here.

Date of Publication: 
11/10/09