The sights and sounds as I landed at Damascus International Airport in Syria were overwhelming. Although this was not my first trip to the region, the local dialects, the colourful and diverse forms of dress, and the unique signs and symbols caused my heart to skip a beat. Not feeling quite as self-assured as when I first boarded the plane in Los Angeles, here I was, half way around the world, to start my first job with the Aga Khan Development Network in Syria.
But in just a few days, I found myself thriving in this majestic and ancient city. Even today, two years after returning home, I still long for the city's charm and the welcoming warmth of Syria. I recall how my anxious first steps transformed into a confident stride as I easily chatted with the fruit vendors, efficiently rode the city's mini-bus system, and was inspired by the historical monuments that dot the city. My decision to go to Damascus was motivated by my desire to work in international development, and since then, my time in Syria has sparked an enduring love affair with Bilad al-Sham (the Levant or the lands bordering the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea - Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories).
My journey abroad was not unique. Rather, it is part of a growing phenomenon that young people across North America are embracing in droves, whether to study, work, or volunteer. According to the US based Institute of International Education, more than 200 000 American college students study abroad annually and the number continues to grow every year. In 2001, Lawrence Summers, then President of Harvard University, renewed Harvard's commitment to the world by encouraging all undergraduate students to spend some time abroad during their undergraduate career.
Aly Verjee in Juba, Sudan, with a map of the region showing the few primary roads there. Provided by Aly Verjee
For Aly Verjee, the initial interest in working abroad has become a growing passion. Over the last few years, he has studied in the UK, monitored elections in Somalia, served as an editorial advisor to the first independent newspaper established in southern Sudan, and worked on a project that took him to South Africa, Botswana and Ghana. “I've been quite fortunate with the opportunities I've had,” Aly said. “I've just tried to get involved in things I thought were worthwhile and interesting.”
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits stemming from the growth in international opportunities has been the ability for professionals from around the world to offer their time and knowledge to developing societies, supporting the social and economic development of communities.
Dr. Amina Lalani smiles with a happy patient during one of her work experiences abroad. MEDICO volunteer
Amina Lalani, Director of Academic Fellowship Programs at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, has had several work experiences abroad. Last year, she spent two weeks in the emergency department of Khorog Hospital in Tajikistan. While the experience was challenging because of language barriers, working within a Russian system, and attempting to share knowledge in an environment that is not designated as a teaching hospital, Amina has positive memories. “The doctor I worked with was wonderful,” smiles Amina as she recalls her time abroad. “She was the only emergency doctor working there, but was open to learning new skills. I was able to do some emergency teaching with the nurses using a doll as a mock patient.”
“I am attracted to international work for many reasons,” explains Amina, an emergency paediatric physician. Unlike North America, where patients have easy access to excellent care, a mild sickness can become a devastating illness in a less developed country. Amina adds that “in those countries, children do not come to the emergency department for minor colds. They come only when they are truly sick, so you know that each child you see will truly benefit from your care." Amina feels re-energised by her international experiences as they enable her to “act as a catalyst for bringing hope to the health professionals abroad, allowing them to feel invigorated and motivated to make change however small it may be,” she notes.
Others find the opportunity to work abroad extremely beneficial to their careers. After spending two years working as a consultant in Boston, Atlanta native Tahira Dosani surprised many of her friends and colleagues by moving to Kabul, Afghanistan for two years as a Corporate Strategy Senior Manager for Roshan – Afghanistan's largest mobile telephone operator. “The role has a broader scope than I would get at this point in my career in the West… [and] the experience of working in a developing economy is invaluable,” Tahira explains. She admits that it can be “challenging to work so far from family and friends and in an environment filled with tension.” Still, Tahira feels that this experience enabled her to pursue her interests in private sector strategy while building upon her operational qualifications.
The expansion of one's horizons to distant places can also provide a better sense of where one fits in the world. For Aliya Shivji of Richmond, BC, the decision to move to Uganda was an easy one. Her family had established an organic export business there, and she was keen on studying development. It was a perfect opportunity to acquire business knowledge within an international context. What she did not count on was one year turning into three. “The best part has been that I've been able to piece together my identity in a very specific way,” Aliya notes. “I now feel attached to this place where my parents were born; Uganda is not just some far off place anymore.”
Samira Thomas echoes similar sentiments about her recent travels to Central Asia for training teachers in Early Childhood Education. “One of the most incredible experiences was when I first arrived in Tajikistan,” she recalls, “I was going to live with a Tajik family that I had not met before, and I had yet to learn Tajik, so I knew communication would be challenging. I felt alone in a completely foreign country. But all my fears dissolved when I walked into their home and felt the warmth of their welcome. I realised that despite all of our cultural differences, we were united through our faith. Issues that I once saw as challenges became opportunities.”
More than 40 years ago, the famous Canadian author, Marshall McLuhan, observed that mass media was shrinking time and space with respect to human communication, allowing people to connect globally. Since then, the notion of a "global village" has continued to gain widespread popularity, while educational and professional opportunities in distant lands are becoming more accessible. Increasingly, students and professionals are using these opportunities to grow personally and many are beginning their own love affairs with the once far-away regions across the world.