Basmatna: Leaving Our Impact on the World Through Virtual Exchange
Allison Finn, GNG Program Coordinator
In our clickable, Tweetable era, we are seemingly more connected to the world. We hear about an attack in Pakistan, Belgium, or Côte d’Ivoire moments after it happens. We wait for Facebook to activate the “safety check.” We scroll our news feed for updates. Then, we watch a Beyoncé video and like a post about refugees. It’s become easy to confuse clicks and likes with meaningful action.
Although they have their place, hashtags aren’t enough. We need to use our new tech tools to improve on our old-school methods of face-to-face dialogue and engagement. By meeting, learning from, and collaborating with people different from ourselves, we can understand problems close and far away, and take steps to change them. Technology helps us make that connection happen, but it is not a connection in itself.
In March 2016, fifty Syrian, America, and Qatari youth went far, far beyond the clicks. As part of Basmatna, a Global Nomads Group and Qatar Foundation International program, Syrian youth at the Amal ou Salamcommunity center in Jerash, Jordan connected with high school peers at Qatar Academy in Doha and Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, DC, USA. Through group videoconferences and classroom activities, students explored their own identities, the humanitarian impact of the Syrian crisis, and their role as young global citizens. Basmatna (بصمتنا) means “our fingerprint” or “our footprint” in Arabic. In other words, basmatna is an integral part of our identity — and also the impact we leave on the world. These virtual exchanges showed just how connected we all are.
“Even though our conflicts may seem huge, the first step we can take towards solving them is spreading awareness. [In Basmatna] I learned that our conflicts are shared with people all around the world, and that as cliché as it seems, we are not alone.” — US student, Washington, DC
My job at Global Nomads Group is to make these kind of connections, every day. I have facilitated hundreds of conversations between classrooms — working with youth across the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Morocco, and far beyond. Participants come from remote villages, urban neighborhoods, public schools, skateboarding class, and community centers. These relationships cross physical, cultural, and imagined borders, but their conversations break through stereotypes, negative media, cultural expectations, security, and time zones. How do they succeed? Young people, somehow, tap into the fundamental humanity we share. Although I have seen countless connections, it was the Basmatnastudents who taught me that.
While so much of the rest of the world sees each other through the lens of terrorism attacks or the refugee crisis, these Syrian, American, and Qatari young people were able to see each other as individuals. In our first videoconference, they wanted to know about each others’ daily lives, passions, dreams for the future, and ways they could take action in their communities. In the second, we talked about the impact of trauma on Syrian youth, and how it paralleled the effects of living with racism and poverty in Washington, DC. They listened to each other.
For some in “Global North” countries, exchange is often one-way. Exchange means tourism, study abroad, a volunteer trip to build schools, a fundraising campaign. The underlying question becomes: How do we help people “over there?” This question makes it easy to ignore the problems in our own communities and our responsibility in addressing those challenges. This question widens the divide between “us” and “them.”
The Basmatna students turned this question inside out. Through virtual exchange and the chance of face-to-face dialogue, they were able to learn from each other — in all directions. The news makes it easy to forget that refugees are people, that they are smart, complex human beings with annoying siblings, favorite recipes, educations, goals, opinions, and dreams. They have lives that extend before and after the crisis that forced them to leave their home. The Basmatna students made it easy to remember.