UW Geography is excited to share undergraduate student experiences with you. This week, we would like to introduce you to Ms. Hallah Ghanem. Ms. Ghanem is a senior, majoring in Geography (human geography concentration), and currently living in Washington, D.C. She was a recipient of an award from the Kohn Geography Fund. Read more about Ghanem’s adventures below.
Can you describe where you are and what took you there?
I am currently in Washington, D.C. for an internship at the National Defense University—the small academic arm of Department of Defense. Its focus is on international affairs, and, oddly enough, I am the only geography major here.
I spent the summer of 2016 in Jordan studying Arabic. Following that program, I was at a loss for what to do, as I was essentially without a place to stay for the month between my summer abroad and my current internship. A good friend in Madison reached out to me and told me about an opportunity to continue practicing my Arabic by putting it to good use. I found myself on the Greek Island Moria.
Moria is an immigration hub for peoples traveling between the Middle East and Europe. There is a refugee camp there, which needed volunteers to help with a variety of tasks. The island is closer to Turkey than it is to Greece. It is run by the Greek military and managed by Greek police. Around 3,000 people inhabited this camp while I was in residence. My goal was to practice Arabic, which was a success, but—as a human geographer—I gleaned a lot more than that from the experience.
In fact, the experience on Moria has inspired my senior thesis research questions: 1.) How are borders created outside of borders? 2.) How does discrimination (ethnic, racial, religious, etc.) contribute to building communities? I am interested in questions of diversity, cultural communication and community building, to name a few. Moria inspired these questions and my commitment to my volunteer position.
My role in the camp was to place new arrivals in housing. This meant considering how to fairly place everyone according to their own community preference and safety. It is a community built on the outspoken preference of the people living there.
What has been the most surprising or rewarding aspect of your work?
To begin with, I was surprised at what I learned to say in Arabic, like “All you need is duct tape.” That is something I thought I’d never say in Arabic.
More so, however, I expected all refugees to be Syrian or Iraqi, when in reality the Camp was really diverse. There were over forty-one nationalities in the Camp alone, with over sixty spoken languages. This diversity blew me away.
I remember one row of the housing units was exceptionally peaceful, diverse, and successful. Generally, rows of housing units were organized along stringent, community-driven ethnic lines. This housing row was special and pre-existed my volunteer involvement. Unfortunately, it burnt down completely recently as the result of some race riots that had been broiling. The riots began two days after I left and the fire burnt for an entire week. The BBC covered the incident.
What has challenged you most?
Having to deal with discrimination on a day to day basis in a very evident way, like “We have space but we don’t want that person here because they’re like this.”, or witnessing two Iraqi men making fun of an African woman as she walked by them. It was really emotionally challenging.
What are your plans following graduation?
I hope to work in the security and intelligence field for the US Government. I have tentative plans to get an international internship, in Moria perhaps, and to work in a Syrian refugee camp in northern Jordan.
How did the discipline of geography help you get to this point?
I am from Texas originally, but I followed some non-profit work after high school to Madison. I was only meant to be in Madison for six months to complete training with the non-profit. With them, I had worked internationally at schools and had met leaders from all over the world. This informed me and fueled my interests in geography. I ended up staying in Madison, working in business full time for several years, until I finally enrolled at the University.
Because of my education in geography, I am well informed and well prepared for experiences of the kinds I’ve had. I have used everything I have learned in my human geography classes and some from my physical geography classes in actual space, which is amazing!
My work and international experiences before school provided valuable skills. And then this Geography Department provided incredible preparation, knowledge and support. To bring it all together, this field work sharpened those skills and allowed me to both apply and broaden my geographic education.
How did Geography at UW-Madison support your work/research?
The Geography Department is supporting my research in several ways.
I have funded my work at the camp and in DC now through an alumni scholarship that is awarded annually to a geography student engaging in inspired research. That has been a big factor.
My advisor Joel Gruley both encouraged me to study a language and was even the first person to suggest that I study abroad—it hadn’t even occurred to me. Joel is fantastic and I credit him with playing a major role in my academic career. I can’t say enough about him.
Really, I can’t say enough about the entire Department! It is really an incredible department, with incredible human geography faculty.
Would you have done anything differently? Or, is there something that would have made your experience better?
I would have studied language earlier in my geography career. Using Arabic has helped form my experience of geography itself.
What advice would you recommend to other Geography undergraduates at UW–Madison?
Geography as a multidisciplinary field gives us incredible skills. Study abroad! Find someplace that interests you, and go get experience there! Study a language! Find a professor whose work you’re interested in and go talk to them—pose the questions of “Why?” and “Where?” to them. In one word: pursue!