November 16, 2010

3 Months in JC & D.o.R

It has been three months since I have been here in Juniata College and it feels like ages. I miss my family and my baby sisters the most as I have never left them for this long and I am sure they need me which makes it harder, but knowing that they are growing up thinking they could travel and depend on themselves one day and build up their path in life with the best mediums they can get their hands on to get to see their journey through, makes me accept the difficulties and keep up with its hardship.

As much as terrified I was to fail to meet my personal goals here, I was ever more terrified to disappoint my family, especially my aunt. Being in a place like Huntingdon, Pennsylvania is not much of the diverse experience I expected to get but being amongst the students of Juniata College, the Oller Center for Peace and International Programs for International Students and getting to taste of the American experience while I am here is worth it. It is not all pretty as It sounds, not to me to begin with as I am a very meticulous person as I came to understand and it seems to be harder for me than for my friends, or so I think.

I do not feel I am fitting in mainly because I am not into things that most students are into especially here in Huntingdon as I spend ALL of my free time volunteering back home. Coming here and having a lot of opportunities to volunteer, I still believe that there is not exactly what I can give all my efforts to achieve as I need always to understand the foundation of the program and what it aims for to investigate if it is something I can make a difference with. I do that a lot back home and I work intensively on developing my own projects when I cannot find those that fit my ambition as I mainly focus on female, youth and children empowerment. Nonetheless, I accidentally walked into the wrong class on my first week of classes which I attended for the whole class time that day, stupidly enough. I discovered my mistake later on and regretted as the professor offered to take students whom will be chosen randomly to the Huntingdon S.C.I. that is located close by campus to attend an event entitled “Day of Responsibility”. I was so excited as I knew I would be very much into such an event and convinced myself asking the professor on means to get to go on that day even though I am not a student of his class anymore which he agreed to very generously. Being so blown away to be part of this privileging experience and experiencing it, I came back with a whole aspect on activism in Huntingdon that I never thought I would land on and so I have started three small ideas which are under process and I am determined on fulfilling before I leave here. What I learned from the people in the correctional facility has humbled me ever more to the things I have been going through everyday back home. Their main message was to show the people outside especially youth in my age that the stereotypical idea of a criminal is not always what the movies portrays as there are those who acknowledge their mistakes and seek to work with the victimized families to re-establish a bridge of forgiveness and embitter themselves for their own good as well as the society’s. (I include the paper I wrote and sent to professor Welliver expressing the feelings I came out with that day.)

The last month has been the hardest, I am so used to having a hard life and the one I have here is too stable in the sense that I am too scared of going back home. I am not as destroyable, naïve, and isolated as everyone perceives me to be most of the time, nor am I happy simply because I have a smile on most of my days, I simply discrete and only those who approach will know me. I do not normally take unreasonable initiatives, not out of fear but out of absent mindedness in Juniata College. I have engaged in conversations with many American students but came with one conclusion, American youth can be easily absorbed in the trends and forget the more important aspects of life; being gifted the way that many are here, they do not recognize their ability to change the world, or maybe they do not see the need to. What scares me the most, even more than the fact that great talents are focused in one directions, is that the accessible freedoms given to the American citizens takes away their childish eagerness to discover what else is there in the world. Maybe this is my goal here having seen this as a problem, but I am having a hard time articulating myself as clearly as I want as I am used to be careful in my country because I an underage female who is illegally active in the political spectrum regardless of government, family and society. Thus, my next steps are to first feel less threatened to speak my mind, submit the drafts of my three ideas for those who might be of interest and access to support the ideas and then establish a civic realm for me to find what I lost form my culture.

I miss my country; the everyday struggles to assert myself as a female, my Eids and family gatherings, the food, the loaded schedule of work as well as my disputes with all those who oppose my belief system, ideology and goals in life, including family. What I do not miss is having to be responsible and reserved the whole time. I appreciate my time whole great here and understand that it is reshaping my perspective bit by bit every passing moment, nevertheless, what frightens me the most, the clashes I have to undergo in the first few months readjusting to my life in my country and the impact my career plan will have on my family as I intend to pursue my higher education in a year or so from my graduation in the United States.

Day of Responsibility
Wednesday /October 6th, 2010

In an initiative to establish a community of acceptance to the inmates of S.C.I. Huntingdon correctional facility, a society called the Pennsylvania Lifers’ Association (PLA), which consists of inmates with life sentences, started holding the annual day of responsibility for the past few years. The program has developed many challenges within the Pennsylvania community, and more specifically, within the prison community as the idea or repent for a criminal is hardly conceived in the minds of the American people today. Nonetheless, the project, from what I have seen and read about, has come a long way and attracted a lot of inmates seeking to rectify the damage that has been done in a moment of ill judgment and devote themselves to the communities they come from for another chance and a new start after they are released, that is for those who are not part of the PLA.
The main purpose of our visit was to interact with the people there and come with an understanding of what an inmate’s life is like and what really do some of them hope to achieve in their lives. At the same time, it was kind of a challenge to look beyond the stereotype image of a prisoner that movies and media advertise and have some sort of a taste of reality or at least of it here in Huntingdon. The program consisted of several talks directed to the inmates given by the prison directors, lifers’, crime victims and advocates of victims, Dr. Daniel Welliver as a sociologist and a representative from the SouthWest Nu-Stop Inc.. Then we were divided into discussion groups where we read two pledges of responsibility, one for the inmates and another for the visitors, through which we established the similarities between the inmates and us as members of the outside community and also explored the aspects of change that each side pursues and what principles are of importance to everyone in the context of self-development and communal support.

I am privileged to have been part of this experience as I was able to meet people, who I strongly and personally believe, have higher ambitions that the everyday American young Americans I have for my time in the states. They have showed interest in changing themselves not for the people who are suffering because of their crimes, or because of the judgmental mentalities they are controlled by ever since their mistake, nor for the society but for themselves. I believe this is the greatest evaluator of achievement and to see people with almost no hope, completely without freedom for their time there, capable of transforming what they misunderstand into something they can feed their minds and souls from. They seek something to stand on, build it, read books to elevate their experience and ideology and by the end of the day become the best of human beings they could possibly imagine with hope that they can live a better life.

Unfortunately, life is not that cereal; people in Huntingdon and some other areas of Pennsylvania are not as supportive of such experiences as you would imagine them to be. Despite the fact that some are able to overlook these criminals’ past life but the greater majority would condemn them and reemphasize the fact that they remain criminals rather than people who are trying to rebuild something that, at least in the cases I got to hear about, was the only choice in their one-time-decision moment that changed their lives forever.

Something I was extremely impressed with was the PLA. These people have not only taken the time to overlook their misery, grow optimistic, educate themselves, search for the right mediums of change in their situations, accept one another, deliberate and disagree, and come to form the Pennsylvania Lifers’ Association for those who at one point of their lives were them. Their main focus is to show the young new inmates that this is not the time to lose hope, continue their rebellions in some cases, blame others for their mistakes and conclude that misery is their life-sentence.

To lend hope to others when there is none left for you is the greatest lesson in morality if you ask me. Seeing people with great virtue and moral respect for the value of another stranger’s life is the most honorable lesson I have learned so far ever since being here in the United States and it is not available anywhere else where I have been in the Huntingdon community.