Dordt College News

Dena Nicolai

June 24, 2014

Dena Nicolai (’06) spent four of the last nine years in the Middle East, volunteering as a teacher for refugees from African countries, working for a refugee agency run by the Egyptian Episcopal Church and for a communications company, reporting on Egyptian-run development projects for the church she attended in Cairo, and leading short-term trips for university students from the United States. She also worked with the Middle East Studies Program, first as a program assistant and then as program coordinator. In 2012, she received funding from Regent College to travel to Israel-Palestine to research organizations and individuals involved in peacebuilding and bridge building efforts there. In 2013, she represented Christian Courier on a media tour to Lebanon and Jordan, sponsored by World Renew and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The goal was to write about Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, and about relief efforts on their behalf.

How is what you’re doing today different from what you expected at graduation?

When I graduated from Dordt, I knew I wanted to return to the Middle East, where I had studied on the Middle East Studies Program (MESP). I applied for a one-year internship and two months later, I found myself back in Cairo to welcome 25 North American university students for a life-changing semester abroad. 

That year in Cairo and the three more years I would spend in the Middle East changed my direction. I hope to spend my entire life learning, but what I learned in those four years was transformative on every level. Being in the Middle East gave me such a sense of the history and stories of the people there that I realized I needed to better understand my own history, both as a Christian and as a Canadian of European heritage.

What have been the most significant influences in your life?

I’ve been privileged to have teachers and mentors of many kinds, starting with my grandfathers who, while continually testifying to God’s faithfulness, taught me to never stop asking questions and to never stop learning. 

Others have also encouraged and challenged me and asked difficult questions when necessary. Teachers and  fellow students have sharpened me “as iron sharpens iron,” as our MESP program director used to remind us, referring to Proverbs 27:17. This “iron” has included Middle Easterners and Dordt alumni who have spent time in the Middle East and have continued to help me think better and deeper about the views I hold. 

Without a doubt, Dordt was a significant influence. To arrive, at 18, at this place where you are constantly reminded, Soli Deo Gloria, and that every square inch is Christ’s, is a startling thing: you’re suddenly challenged to define how you interpret and interact with what’s around you. This challenge will be with me for the rest of my life.

The faith foundation Dordt gave me was crucial during my first encounter with the Middle East. Some of the students I studied with on MESP struggled with how to reconcile what they were seeing and hearing (about Islam, Christianity, politics, violence, nationalism) with their own faith, and while I was challenged as well, Dordt had given me tools with which to ask good questions and to process their (sometimes difficult) answers—and to be okay with some grey areas in the middle. While my time in the Middle East was a process of pruning away presuppositions—of realizing how much of my Christianity was a product of my culture and upbringing (and therefore how and why my Christianity looked so different from, for example, Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt), I never doubted God’s faithfulness to his people, whether Egyptian, Palestinian, American, Canadian, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or other.

What drew you to the Middle East?

I had wanted to study abroad, believing that being immersed in a new culture and encountering its peoples was the best way to learn about societies other than my own. I also believed then, as I do today, that if Christians are to follow Christ by bridging political and cultural divides, they need to humbly reach out beyond their own cultural and national borders. When I was a sophomore, a friend introduced me to two Dordt students who had recently returned from MESP, and their stories and convictions intrigued me. I found its focus on the intersections of history, religion, and politics particularly fascinating. 

How can we find ways to see beyond our own cultures and communities?

I don’t think we must leave our regular lives for months or years and travel elsewhere. Very few of our communities are as homogenous as we think they are and getting to know those who are different is often just a matter of looking within our own communities. This can be a leap of faith, because stepping outside these borders can be fearful and exhausting. But it is always worth it. 

Another way is to recover a sense of historical memory. As we spend time with the mistakes and triumphs and personal lives from our countries’ past, our faith traditions’ past, our cultures’ past, our perspectives begin to broaden. It’s funny and marvelous how going inward to learn more about where we come from often has the effect of drawing our gaze outward, giving us more empathy for others. Sometimes we fear empathy for “the other” because we think it means we’re accepting their convictions or somehow betraying our own. As our MESP program director used to say, “empathy and understanding does not equal agreement.” Studying our history grounds us, provides us with roots, and gives us a foundation to go out and interact with new people and ideas without losing where we came from.   

And finally, I would recommend that we don’t just read “about” others different from us but rather we try to understand them as they understand themselves. This means reading their fiction, reading their poetry, listening to their music, watching their movies, all the while trying to understand what they see as important and beautiful and troubling about their own cultures or groups. This also helps us understand how they might see us, which is another critical step in seeing past our own front door.

All of this sets the groundwork for conversation that challenges us, convicts us, and makes space for both parties to be transformed.

What lies ahead for you?

That is hard to answer! I am interested in teaching and I would love to be involved again in the kind of experiential learning I experienced in the Middle East. I am finishing my master's and discerning where it is that God might lead me. 

In the end, the Middle East has taught me many things, including staying open to unexpected twists and turns in the road. God has given me a lot of grace in this unexpected journey, and I’m thankful to know this grace is limitless, as I’m bound to need much more of it before long.

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