Dordt College News

Dordt student spends semester in Egypt

March 3, 2005

Sara Gerritsma thought she had it all figured out, with all her beliefs and opinions tucked into black and white boxes, stacked in nice orderly rows.

Then she spent a semester in the Middle East.

Simply stated, a semester abroad in another culture has widened her pigeonholed view of the world. Pyramid

“I’ve learned that faith and politics and conflict and life itself are never as black and white as we delude ourselves into believing,” says Sara, a political studies major with an emphasis in international relations at Dordt College. “I went to Egypt expecting to learn about Islam, eager to compare it to Christianity and show how incorrect it was.” Though she still holds faith in Christ as an absolute, a first hand look at other cultures and beliefs has added nuances to her understanding of others, and enhanced her spiritual walk.

“There are things about the Muslim culture and faith we can learn from, like their disciplined prayer lives, their attempts to constantly remember God, their incredibly generous hospitality and their joy in living simple lives,” says Gerritsma. She was particularly impressed with how during Ramadan the entire culture changes to observe holy month.

The Middle East Studies Program (MESP) Gerritsma participated in is based in Cairo, Egypt, the largest city in the Middle East, lying at the center of all routes between the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. Four courses during the semester teach Arabic language, Islam, the people and cultures of the Middle East and the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Outside of the classroom, personal conversations and interactions in the crowded city help students understand and relate to the complex Middle Eastern world.

Gerritsma said she had the opportunity to visit with Palestinian refugees, Syrian Orthodox priests, Israelis at their embassy in Cairo, a Lebanese parliamentarian, and even with Hizballah (members of an Iranian terror group). For most of their stay they were housed in apartments, but for one week in Cairo they lived with host families. Gerritsma said as a health precaution they always drank bottled water, and cleaned fresh fruits and vegetables by soaking them in vinegar and water.

She was pleasantly surprised by their attitudes toward Americans: she found most liked American people, and were merely antagonistic toward our government and the administration. Gerritsma felt that just as in our country, people develop opinions and biases based on two things: what news sources tell them, and what they don’t.

The majority of the semester was spent in Cairo, where Gerritsma lived in an apartment with other students participating in the CCCU (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) program. Sara said she always felt safe there, as every American group is assigned a tourist security guard, armed with an AK 47 (though it wasn’t uncommon to find their guard sleeping at his post!).

While there, the group had the opportunity to see several pyramids, the only survivors of the “seven wonders of the world.” They also toured Roman ruins, were invited to an Egyptian wedding, walked or rode camels to the top of Mount Sinai, and snorkeled in the Red Sea. The group then had the opportunity to spend a week in Turkey, Syria, and going as far as Lebanon.

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