“Why Ottawa Again?”-Debunking the Comments I’ve Heard Since the Beginning of this Journey

A lot of people (I’m not exaggerating when I say a lot) have said things that were similar, if not identical, to me about my decision to go Ottawa. I will be honest, Ottawa may seem pretty vanilla compared to other places I could’ve gone. In fact, I’m the first student from DU to go to the University of Ottawa (UOttawa). It hasn’t been a popular choice for a long time, mostly because it doesn’t fit the stereotype of “studying abroad”. A place such as Canada, doesn’t scream “adventure”,  “exotic”, or “diverse”. Often times, people will want to study abroad in places that offer all the above and beyond. Or, at least, that is what the stereotype of the studying abroad calls for.  Ottawa, nor any Canadian city is featured in any of the multiple videos that DU shows to prospective and freshmen students about the their study abroad options. People ask me “Why Canada?” and give me confused looks. In this post, I will address some comments I’ve received and offer explanations toward why they aren’t necessarily fair and viable.

“You’re not really going that far.”

No, I’m not going that far. In fact, the only bodies of water I will cross are the Great Lakes. Part of me is happy that I’m not crossing any oceans. My tickets weren’t terribly expensive and the flight isn’t too long either. What I like about Ottawa is that it offers a completely different dynamic than America, in terms of politics, languages, climate, and other factors as well. I realize that politics are a risky and touchy subject for some, but there is no denial that the politics of Prime Minister Trudeau juxtaposed to that of President Trump are radically different. Living in an environment sans Trump will be interesting, but I can only imagine I’ll be reminded of it on a daily basis. Ottawa is also officially bilingual and every thing on the UOttawa campus is bilingual. I would actually recommend students who consider Ottawa to take one or even two French classes. Some students on campus only speak French and it’s helpful to have some basic French in your pocket. Finally, in terms of climate, the warm, summer days of Denver will come to an end when I leave on September 2nd: temperatures will be in the low 60’s and 70’s and it will be rainy when I arrive. Moreover, on my first day of class, I will need to break out my jacket because low temperatures will be in the 40’s! It’s definitely a different climate to experience compared to the sporadic weather patterns of Colorado. Those are a few of the big changes I will experience, even though Canada is only north of the United States.

“Why not go somewhere exotic? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity!”

I can understand the perspective of this comment. Some people never had the opportunity to study abroad. Perhaps, everything in the media about students studying abroad shows them going everywhere around the world and has set the stereotype that all students should go to “exotic” locations. The truth is that just doesn’t happen for all students. It takes a special type of disposition and personality for students to feel comfortable in those “exotic” locations. I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and I am not an adventurous and outgoing person. Going to Ottawa and living there by myself pushes me enough out of my comfort zone. I’m also prefer to focus on my studies instead of adventuring in and around Canada. Again, trekking through downtown Ottawa and all it’s trendy neighborhoods is good enough for me. It should be noted that I’ve never been to Canada before. Thus, Ottawa is indeed an exotic location for me!

“It’s just like America, you wouldn’t need to adapt to anything.”

Canada is not America 2.0. It is indeed a different country! Just because Canada is above the United States does not make it completely “American”. Parts of Canada are indeed “Americanized,” however, Ottawa itself is not at all “American”. Actually, it is more identical to France and any French-speaking European country than it is America. It’s worth mentioning that my experience with registering and communicating with UOttawa resembled that of a French university instead of an American one, like DU. Some quick differences between Canada and the USA:

  • Canada has Canadian dollars (CAD) and America has American dollars (USD).
  • Canada has it’s own dialect of English and French, whereas America has only one official and de facto language: English.
  • Canadians write their dates with the number date first, followed by the month (an example is 29/08 for August 29th), but Americans write theirs in the opposite fashion (08/29 for August 29th)
  • Canada’s government is a parliamentary democracy and America’s government is a federal presidential constitutional republic.
  • Canada does not have a president, but the USA does.
  • Canada’s current prime minister is Justin Trudeau. America does not have a prime minister.
  • Canada has a monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. America has not had a monarch since 1776.
  • Canada operates on the metric and Celsius measurement and temperature systems, respectively. The USA operates on a customary measurement system and the fahrenheit system for temperatures.
  • And finally: Both the USA and Canada recognize red and white as their official colors, but add blue to the mix for the USA.

While the differences seem small, it is the combination of such tiny factors that create completely different societies all around the world.

People are allowed to have their opinions. I don’t have a problem with that. What is most important is that when you choose a study abroad location, make sure it’s where YOU want to go to and not one that you think with satisfy everyone else. You will indeed be the person living there, you might as well choose somewhere you want to go. Even after virtually everyone said those things to me, I still kept my program and stuck true to how I wanted to pursue this experience. That is truly the most important thing to remember.

In four days, I will finally be in the home of the Beaver (their national animal), singing God Bless the Queen instead of the Star Spangled Banner. That’s unbelievable! Until next time!

Sources for Facts: http://www.diffen.com/difference/Canada_vs_United_States

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We Found Love in a Hope-Filled (Za’atari Refugee Camp)

This post is long overdue for many reasons. I have been in Jordan for three weeks now and have not had the urge to write down my experiences and share them. Well, that’s not true. I’ve had so many moments and times and inspirations to put my experiences into words, but I’ve been scared. I’ve been scared because I want to do these experiences justice. I don’t want to let people down. Then I had a dear friend remind me that this space and this blog isn’t a place where judgement is welcome. It’s my space to invite you in to take a peek at the wonderful moments that are perfectly imperfect. That’s all. And there is one moment, one day in particular that is imperative to share and frankly, I have a responsibility to do so because of the life-changing, eye-opening capacity this day embodied. So – here it goes.

On September 19th, my study abroad group had the incredible opportunity to visit the Za’atari refugee camp, a refugee camp that currently is called home by about 80,000 Syrian refugees. I won’t spend this time delving into the facts about Za’atari, but take a moment to educate yourself about this particular camp because it’s commonly called a “model” refugee camp (if there really is such a thing). If included in Jordan’s population count, it is the fourth-largest “city”. In my opinion, Za’atari looks and functions as it’s own city.

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We started our morning with meeting with a member of the Jordanian police and a women from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who gave us a quick overview of how the camp runs and answered our eager questions. We were scheduled to then visit an NGO called Questscope.

Questscope is an NGO that is run by Syrians for Syrians within the camp. It is a safe-space where youth can come to seek mentors, knowledge, art, and everything in between. Syrian adults have the chance to be mentors and teachers of their craft to the Syrian youth who are seeking a haven to be themselves and regain some sense of normalcy.  Questscope offers alternative education for the youth who have lost years of education when “formal” schooling is sometimes not an option. We started by getting an overview and history of Questscope and what they are advocating. They are advocates of dreams. The selfless people who work/volunteer for Questscope strive to unlock the abundant potential that these Syrian youth have bursting from their souls.

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Some of the workers from Questscope we had the privilege of meeting. (Photo courtesy of Questscope blog)

After a quick tour of Questscope’s facility (which is comprised of caravans),  I was in awe. Syrian youth have access to a library, computers, art supplies, sports facilities and trainings, and most importantly, support. One of the most prominent images that stuck with me after this tour was the art space. The art work these people created wasn’t bleak or sad – it was joyous and unique. I didn’t see art that could have easily depicted the tragedy every single Syrian had been though. I saw dancers, mermaids, pride for Syria, and creations that proved hope was abundant in the camp. It was a moment that took my breath away.

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A sports field that provides a refreshing patch of green where kids can be kids. (Photo courtesy of the Questscope blog)

After lunch, we were invited to interact with the youth during some of their activities. If you know anything about me, I immediately rushed to the room where music was blasting and dancing was infectious. It was a women-only zone where the women, both mentors and mentees alike, could shed their inhibitions and own their bodies. They immediately turned on the TV and cranked the volume so all the women could participate in Zumba. Side-by-side, we danced, we sweat (a lot), we looked like fools, we laughed and smiled.  Zumba organically morphed into free-dancing where the women could openly express whatever their bodies wanted. We were taught dance steps from dances that you could tell were an important part of their identity. Every time I looked into the eyes of these women, pure joy was spread across their faces and their smiles never once left faded. I lost track of time because I was overflowing with joy.

Let me take a moment to be selfish. Dancing with these women meant more to me than I can put into words. Dance was re-introduced in my life when I was at a low point and it renewed my spirit and made me whole again. Being able to share such an intimate and personal moment with these women, expressing ourselves though dance, still brings tears to my eyes like it did that day. It was a truly magical, euphoric moment that I will never, EVER forget.

These women and these people could have given up. They could have said life treated them unfairly and stopped living it. But they didn’t. They continue to dance and they continue to smile and they continue to move forward because of their incredible courage and unwavering pride. I held their hands and I felt their strength. I shared moments with them that are forever etched on my heart. These people have not and will never give up. They want to return to Syria and resume the lives that were taken from them. They want to be doctors, lawyers, activists, and artists. They want the world to know that they’re simply mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and at the end of the day, people just like you and me. They watch the same sun set and dream of a better and brighter future because no one can take their dreams away from them. They are my heroes.

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Watching the sun set after a day at Za’atari.

Please, share this story. Not for me, but for the 80,000 Syrian people who have had their lives changed forever. They are not Skittles, they are not peanuts, they are not your next news story, they are not the enemy. They are HUMAN BEINGS with families, passions, hopes, goals, pride, dreams, and ambition I wish I had. They are true inspirations. Give them the autonomy and respect they so rightly deserve and share their stories. It is a small move that can have lasting impact. Hope is abundant at Za’atari and it’s time the world knew.

*None of the pictures within the camp our original or my own (only the sunset at the end of my day in Ajloun). I wasn’t going to Za’atari to take pictures and diminish these people to a social media post because they are SO MUCH MORE than that. I went to learn, listen, and observe. And to have my life changed forever.