Fulbright-MTP participant Ammar Mohammed, a Fulbright student from Yemen, reflects on the overall feel of the MTP cross-country U.S. journey — highlighting Fulbright connections in Minnesota, and inspirational communities in Portland and Milwaukee.
In the words of Ammar Mohammed, a Fulbright student from Yemen:
I found it really hard to write the last blog for my MTP experience as many memories and thoughts are pushing back and forth wanting to be penned. I have been reflecting on my voyage and sometimes I question if it really happened. It has been a once in a lifetime experience to the outer and inner worlds, as Millennial Trains Project (MTP) offered a 10-day journey of professional and interpersonal growth. It is a learning class on rails!
In Portland, we met with decision-makers, including the first lady of Portland, and entrepreneurs who shared their inspiring stories with us. I interviewed an African American pioneer in entrepreneurship who gave me a great perspective on social integration through entrepreneurship. Dwayne Johnson, Founder and Executive Director of Center for Inclusive Innovation, explained some of the challenges that African American entrepreneurs face and lessons that can be replicated in the ‘marginalized’ African Yemeni context.Prior to hitting the rails to Seattle, I visited On-The-Move Community Integration. I was stunned by the great effort the volunteers and participants are doing to integrate into the society. This organization, which works with developmentally and intellectually disabled, has taken integration one step further. Instead of inviting the community to the organization, they go out to meet with the community and participate in outdoor activities.
In Seattle, another chapter of beauty and learning was unlocked. We began the morning at WeWork with mentors from Amazon Web Services and Citizen University. One of the best take-aways from Mr. Eric Liu of Citizen University is that “Rigid individualism never builds a community.” This really resonates with me, as I believe in collaboration as a crucial part of building strong, effective and diverse communities. Then I went to the Northwest African American Museum. Indeed, the visit exceeded my expectations. This relatively small but eye-opening museum exhibited how African Americans in Seattle merged with the society through sports, arts and music. I saw original sport outfits, musical instruments, and portrayals of the champions of social justice and equality; including, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy.Even though we had quite little time in Seattle compared to the rest of the MTP stops, it was a rewarding city to see and learn from.
One of the highlights of my MTP experience was in Whitefish, MO. It just magically captured my senses. I never knew much about Montana and it wasn’t on my to-see-list while in the United States. We kicked off with breakfast at Montana Coffee Trader and set out to the Glacier National Park. I saw landscapes that took my breath away. The scattered accumulation and compaction of ice, the greenery, trees, high mountains, and wild life conjure up an excitement to explore the beauty of nature and the drive to sustain this God-sent gift. It compelled me to meditate God’s meticulous and marvelous creation. The beauty of the glacier national park brought back to memory the romantic poetry I experience during my undergraduate study and soon John Keats’ opening stanza of “Endymion” came to mind:
“A THING of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing”
I was stunned to see how the rest of the group was also blown away by what we were seeing. I took heed of our behavior; that is how we stepped out of the virtual world most of us live in and came back to mother nature where smiles were illuminating our faces and delight coated our time. As we drove back, we came across a mountain goat family as if saying, “ Don’t forget to come back to nature. To come back to life.”
Approaching the Twin Cities, our next destination, brought to mind some kind of Dickensian images used to portray Charles Dickens’ novels settings such as A Tale of Two Cities. I was counting the minutes and seconds for the train to stop to see my inspiring undergraduate teacher, brother and colleague whom I haven’t seen for 7 years. Waleed Mahdi is a Fulbright Alumni, junior faculty of English at Taiz University, Yemen, and currently a PhD candidate of American studies at University of Minnesota. It was moment of great delight. I had so much to talk about. We talked endlessly about Yemen, America, American-Yemenis, Arab and Muslim diaspora and education in Yemen. Never wanted to finish any of the conversions, as Waleed’s knowledge and insight are really enlightening.
In the tour, I was fascinated by everything I saw, from the Victorian architecture style, modern skyscrapers to the natural beauty of the Twin Cities. When we contemplated lunch, we decided to have African cuisine as my research topic is focused on integrating marginalized African-Yemenis. We went to Ibrahim restaurant, a well-known Somali restaurant in Minneapolis.
On Lake Calhoun, we had our formal interview on social integration in Yemen. Waleed special interest lies in Critical Race Theory and Race Relations of Communities of Color. We discussed color, tribal, racial and craft based discrimination in Yemen and how communities ascribe moral values to justify discrimination. We examined some potential initiatives to start the discussion over social integration and challenges that may come my way. Waleed also gave me great insights into the writing composition process of the research, as well as the project design. To cut it short, it was the most rewarding interview and meeting I had on my trip!
On the train, we proceeded to Milwaukee, WI, where we had a good mentor session with Ms. Michael about politics in the US. She talked about technology for the millennial generation, which provides unprecedented access to information, and the importance of engaging youth in political movements and decision-making. Arriving to Milwaukee, we were received by Newaukee’s organization who arranged for dinner and a panel discussion at Marquette University. The panel members discussed why Milwaukee is an attractive place to live and their efforts to improve and attract more people to come live and study in the city. The next day we explored the city on bikes, going to the Urban Planning center where we had our mentors including the city mayor. We then went to the Global Water Center and saw how the center is promoting green roofs. In fact, Milwaukee was surprisingly amazing as it looks like a big city yet doesn’t feel as hectic as big cities. It’s quite accessible, clean and organized. We then went to Discovery World Museum, a hub for young kids to create and innovate. I then went to the nearby Milwaukee Arts Museum with some Millennials, which is housed in a grand structural design, where we took some photos and headed back to the hotel. We got ready for an exciting outdoor event in downtown Milwaukee. People where gathering from different parts of the city, different walks of life and ages for this event. It was full of dancing, music, food and fun. In fact, one of the great inspirations I got on this trip was from the love and passion of the people of Milwaukee to improve their city, namely the energy of the Newuakee organization. This attitude impressed me as I deeply love my city and I aspire to establish my own organization upon my return to Yemen to work on development of my city.
In Chicago, I got some time to roam around the city with another Millennial where we had a delicious Persian food. Then I went to do something I wished to do since I was back home. I watched a short clip about the Willis Tower and the experience of standing on the glass deck. We soon got there and bought our tickets and got up to the top of the tower. Then I challenged myself to stand on that glass deck which really pushed adrenaline throughout my whole body. It’s a fabulous experience that I might not have been able to do if I wasn’t aboard the Fulbright-MTP journey.
New York City, our final destination, was, as the Arabic saying goes, “the last is as perfumery as a musk.” We toured the city from the Statue of Liberty, Empire State building, the Rock Tower, Times square, to the 9/11 Museum and the Museum of Modern Arts (MOMA). We then headed to the Institute of International Education HQ and had lunch with the organization’s president, Allen Goodman. I also had my first panel discussion at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations office where the Fulbright MTP participants talked about their experiences across the journey. It felt really amazing sharing our stories with the audience and the press. We finally flew to Washington DC for the closing event and lunch meeting at the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
In fact, the Fulbright-Millennial Trains Project experience has really left me inspired to do more and collaborate with Millennials to achieve common goals, especially for the underprivileged, underrepresented and voiceless communities. The train spirit will always be alive as we go about achieving those goals. I will continue reliving those moments as I talk to people about them since the experience in and of itself is phenomenal. The learning we had through the pioneers group discussion, mentor sessions and talking to people in each city is really priceless. I loved the community I lived with for 10 days on the train and certainly they have occupied a spot in my heart.
To see a chronological accumulation of the images of the 2014 Millennial Trains Project, visit the @FulbrightPrgrm’s Storify.