Tools for Discovery: Hallah Ghanem

Prior to pursuing an internship at the National Defense University, Hallah Ghanem assisted the Field Day Lab with logistics and purchasing. Her travels and experiences since her departure from WID are a fascinating embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea. Currently a senior in Geography, with a human geography concentration, she is living in Washington, D.C.  She reminisces about what she valued as a member of our team and shares with us an interview she did with her home department in MadGeogNews.

Hallah Ghanem
Hallah Ghanem

“Five months ago I sat on the Memorial Union Terrace enjoying my last pitcher with the Field Day Lab. Though my relationships with my co-workers there are lasting, it was a sad moment to know that my time with them at the lab was over. I wasn’t as cool as the programers who got to make the fun games or in the art direction making everything look great–I just sent a lot of emails and made a lot of spreadsheets–but I really felt like I was a part of something great. All of my co-workers were driven by creativity and ingenuity and taught me how I can bring that into my discipline of Geography. My co-workers at the lab inspired me to be strategically creative and to think outside the box–like they do in their work everyday. Without their inspiration and support, I would not be where I am today.”

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.

There were over forty nationalities in the Camp alone, with over sixty spoken languages.

-Hallah Ghanem

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 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 occurred the week after I left. The BBC covered the incident.

Hallah Ghanem in DC
Ghanem with diplomats from Jordan and Palestine in Washington, DC.

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.

For an unabridged version of Hallah’s interview, go to MadGeogNews.