It would be easy to say that living and traveling in the Middle East taught me what poverty is or what war is. And, from a certain point of view, it would be true. It was in Egypt that I saw real, crushing poverty for the first time. It was in Beirut that I saw entire blocks desiccated by shelling, and it was in Jerusalem that I saw a city inundated by a military presence, coping with a daily string of casualties on all sides. However, if that was all I came away with, I would be doing the people and the region a horrible disservice. There were also wedding parties that filled the streets with people and music and laughter, beautifully rebuilt districts next to monuments of staggering antiquity, and hundreds of people moved to tears by the presence of the Western Wall or the Dome of the Rock or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
I spent most of my years abroad studying in Cairo, and it was Cairo that left the greatest impression of all. A lot of people have written a lot of things about Cairo. Usually, they emphasize the bustle, the activity, the sheer energy the place exudes. My own accounts are hardly different. Here's what I wrote late one night in my apartment on the outskirts of Giza: "It should be jarring to have a Chili's and an Applebee's in a city where ten thousand mosques sound the call to prayer five times a day and where ancient monuments tower just out of sight. But it's not. Instead, it just contributes to a sense of place stronger and more moving than any I've felt in cities more beautiful, but less distinct." It was this contrast of old and the new, Western and Eastern, that really captured me. I went to Egypt with little idea of what to expect; in the wake of September 11, the Middle East was relevant and exciting. By the time I left a year later, I was in love. I read voraciously about the region's politics and culture and history. I devoted myself to Arabic, signing up for a class on Islamic texts. In short, I learned that not only did I want to work with the Middle East, but also that I had become intertwined with it.
At around the same time, I began to develop an interest in international rights law, particularly as it relates to humanitarian crises and refugee flows. As an intern at the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, I researched the problems pertaining to refugee women, wrote recommendations concerning Temporary Protected Status designations, evaluated programs aimed to assist displaced children, and participated in conference calls with public health personnel in the field in Iraq. This experience built my awareness both of the character and magnitude of these crises and of the policy remedies that are often applied. At the American University in Cairo the next spring, I took a graduate-level seminar on international refugee law that taught me about the legal aspects of humanitarian crises, and also the ways in which the law can be used not only to sanction but [also] to assist. After I returned, I volunteered at a non-profit organization that assists low-income clients with immigration proceedings, and this gave me a view of, it could be said, the other end of the process: what happens to migrants who have reached their destinations. These intellectual and professional experiences have solidified my commitment to studying international human rights law. Harvard's vast array of courses and programs that focus on international human rights and public-interest law topics make it an ideal place to pursue my interests and continue on the path that I started on when I took my first Arabic class, when I started at the State Department, and when I got off the plane at Cairo International Airport.