I am an activist, a student of politics, a feminist, and a law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. I recently graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Politics from Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York.
My particular area of study is the Middle East and North Africa. I have lived in Amman, Jordan and Nablus, Palestine. I have traveled in the West Bank part of Palestine, including Jerusalem, and around Jordan, as well. I have spent many months living with my family on a farm outside of Tripoli, Libya.
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Department of Education Meeting: 5/9/2013
Only a few hours after arriving in Washington, DC, I sat with about 20 fellow organizers at a Thai restaurant. Engaging conversation spread over 2 long tables and the only reminder of the pressing issue that had brought students from 11 states together was a napkin being passed around to each person. One by one we wrote our initials and a dollar amount. The light hearted mood was interrupted once the napkin had made its way around and the figure totaled. $602,000. The announcement of our group’s collective student debt infected the room with sober reality.
Our group had gathered in Washington DC to meet with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to ask him to cut the Department of Education’s contract with Sallie Mae as a step in unweaving the corporate knots he has tangled our higher education system into. It was time he answers to those of us who shoulder the debt that is a direct result of his decisions while serving as Secretary of Education in the Obama administration. When we introduced ourselves in the meeting we announced our debt along with our names. The figures on the napkin came to life as each of us claimed those numbers out loud and as many of us shared the personal narrative behind the red ink that stains our future; evidence of a failed higher education system. When I said my number I saw Secretary Duncan’s eyebrows rise. I had reciting my number several times the night before in preparation for this meeting. I had frantically cried my number to my mother every time a new semester started and a new loan had to be taken out. The number I had placed on the napkin, the number I included in my introduction, had become so ingrained in my daily stress, that I had forgotten the shocking effect it could have, even on the Secretary of Education.
I began my undergraduate degree the same year Secretary Duncan took office. In his 5 year tenure student debt has surpassed one trillion dollars without any serious change in policy to help students avoid taking out unmanageable loans in pursuit of an education. Also in that time, Duncan has continued to privatize the federal loan process and now the Department of Education spends over $1 billion dollars a year contracting private companies to service federal loans. The largest contract is with Sallie Mae. Instead of using funds to bail out students, Duncan chooses to pay high profits to those aggressively, unethically, and often illegally, collecting on the debts that are destroying students’ futures.
In those same 5 years, while pursuing an undergraduate degree and now a law degree, I have become buried under $145,000 of student debt.
Our meeting with Secretary Duncan included several successes. We brought the concern that the current criteria used to evaluate servicing companies rewards the companies for pushing students into default and does not encourage them to enroll qualifying students into programs such as the Income Based Repayment Plan. As a result of financially incentivizing Sallie Mae for collecting on students in default, the company works towards student failure, instead of helping students succeed in paying off their debt. Duncan welcomed the feedback on the criteria and agreed to consult with us in determining the criteria used to evaluate future contracts. He requested that we communicate further with him on specific suggestions for revisions of the criteria.
Additionally, we demanded that the Department of Education institute a policy that stops funding organizations that have violated the law. We particularly mentioned the Cesar Chavez DC charter school, of which Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord sits on the board. The Cesar Chaves School has recently violated the collective bargaining rights of workers when it illegally fired teachers who were trying to unionize. Duncan showed great concern and stated that he didn’t want the Department of Education funding projects that violated the law.
Our main and clearest demand still goes unmet. Duncan would not yet agree to cut the contract between the Department of Education and Sallie Mae. While he did agree to encourage Albert Lord to meet with us and he encouraged us to go to the shareholder meeting, this is not enough. Duncan heard through testimony at the meeting how Albert Lord treats students who come to Sallie Mae. Past actions have included riot police and K9 units. Instead of speaking with students, Albert Lord has sent the police after them and had them arrested. I will be at that shareholder meeting and so will most of the students who spoke with Secretary Duncan. On May 30th, we will stand alongside hundreds of other student who are dedicated to fighting for our right to higher education even in the face of getting arrested and large amounts of security wielding batons and shields. The pressing question is: how many students will have to be pulled off in handcuffs before Secretary Duncan will be ready to stand up for students and cut the contract with Sallie Mae?
Recently, I have been working alongside students from across the Denver area to create a state-wide student union called the Colorado Student Power Alliance, which works on cross campus campaigns to improve higher education in our state. Most recently we have been focusing on the issue of student debt.
One year ago, national student debt passed 1 trillion dollars. And while my generation is feeling that burden, I, myself, have a binder filled with 4 years of private and public loans from 4 years of undergraduate, at a fabulous, yet nauseatingly expensive, private college. I am not alone. 2/3 of students graduating university are leaving with student debt, the average amount owed is above $25,000. And while many are quick to assert that being in student debt is my fault, blaming the individual simply ignores that higher education has become a way of reinforcing class divides by inhibiting working and middle class from earning degrees without putting themselves at the mercy of large corporations who own the debt that it is becoming virtually impossible for us to pay off. Many students graduating are either under employed or unemployed after graduation illustrating that our degrees are not worth the amounts we are being charged.
After 9 hours in a Van with other members of the Colorado Student Power Alliance, we arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah to protest at the Wells Fargo Shareholder meeting. We joined members of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) who, through their fight against home foreclosures in California, had sent Wells Fargo on the run. Past protests had convinced John Stumpf to break a 16 year tradition and move the meeting from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. So, while ACCE pursued the fleeing stage-coach and horse from the west, we flanked from the east. We were there to make sure that unlike any scene from the Music Man, The Wells Fargo Wagon arrived in its destination, not to the joy of the town, but to vivid reminders of its violent foreclosure and debt policies.
Four of us dressed in business attire with proxies in hand walked toward the Grand America Hotel. We were going inside. It didn’t feel like only four of us were going in to that meeting. In efforts to calm my nerves, I thought back to each student who had shared their debt story with me. Those who had written their five and often six figure debt numbers on our debt wall. I recalled the graduates who feared garnishments and unemployment and getting up to 7 calls a day from collectors. I also recalled the 50 letters that student groups around the nation were delivering to Wells Fargo branches in their communities, and I thought of the Macalester students, who within the same hours were beginning a sit-in in their administration building to force their President to kick Wells Fargo off their campus. We were only four, but we were there to speak as part of a generation of youth enslaved by unbearable debt. A generation that is mobilizing in our communities and on our campuses to fight back.
As the second largest private profiteer from student debt, the key to the debt shackles on thousands of my peers was possessed by the multimillionaire corporate banker who stood behind the podium in the front of the shareholder meeting.
During the meeting, after hearing close to a dozen concerned shareholders bring critiques of racial discrimination, unjust housing foreclosures, and John Stumpfs obscene salary- all of which were quickly dismissed by an unphased Stumpf who cast off the concerns with rhetorically empty sound bites of corporate policy- we began our action.
When the first member of ACCE stood up, John Stumpf tried to quiet her down. There would be a question and answer period later, he insisted. During the previous comment period John Stumpf had ignored all the hands raised by women and people of color in the room and had only called on white men. He had, additionally, cut off the comment period at only four people. We knew that voicing our concerns in a forum provided by Stumpf himself was neither optimal nor possible. We were done raising our hands to be heard. We would not ask his permission to resist. One after another we began standing up to John Stumpf and demanded that he hear our concerns. After two women went, it was my turn.
“You are stealing our future!” I did yell at the highest paid banker in the nation. I was surprised, myself, by the power in my voice. John Stumpf’s head jolted away from the person who spoke previously and shot in my direction. For about the next 15 seconds the floor was mine. I told John Stumpf that Wells Fargo was participating in the destruction of higher education, condemning our generation to a lifetime of debt, and that we demand a process for loan modification. As I was escorted out of the room, I heard a fellow COSPA member’s voice ring out continuing our message to Stumpf, who had temporarily given up trying to silence the voices he ignores on a daily bases. He was silent now. For the time being, he had lost control of the meeting.
Moments after I was led out the doors, members of our team still in the meeting began chanting “Racist Lending is a crime, John Stumpf should be doing time!” They, too, were escorted out, and we were all reunited by the security guards who were anxious to get us all the way out of the building. We complied and headed slowly to the doors but continued our chant. The words echoed off of the marble walls, crystal chandeliers, and back into the shareholder meeting, where an exposed John Stumpf was trying to regain control of the meeting.
The opportunity to see a corporate giant shake- be it by silencing John Stumpf at his own shareholder meeting or the dropping of shutters and locking of doors as a march arrives at another bank branch- is a direct reminder of the power we have. Wells Fargo knows that they cannot hide. That they cannot run. And that, while they can escort us out of meetings, they cannot stop a student movement set to expose and end their violent lending practices.
*This post is password protected because I think it can be easily misread to reinforce the barbaric/terrorist depiction of Arabs and Libyans that often stems from US hatred and ignorance. This understanding, would of course, be an incorrect interpretation of my message. I chose to reserve it for people I trust know me and my politics well enough to recognize this. I do not believe that the USA culture is any less (and most likely more) violent than what I have witnessed here. This should be understood only as my reflections from my family trip and my frustrations with the violent culture left in the dust of the revolution.*
You are with Gaddafi or with the revolutionaries? She had a plastic machine gun pressed to my face and a gang of 3 year-olds equally armed behind her.
“No, I am with her.” I pointed to my aunt. Let her deal with them, I think. Wrong answer. The ticking of the machine gun, child rebels screams, and the swinging of a plastic police baton was all that could be heard for the next several minutes. Swept up in an experiment with child militarization, I never once gave the desired answer. I was repeatedly given two options. Most times I had a dozen imaginary bullets piercing my skull before my allegiance could be gauged by the overzealous gunkids. My cousin, who left high school to fight in the real rebel army, watched enthralled by his younger cousins. Was that pride in his eyes? Did their play bring back painful memories he’d tucked deep in his manly façade. The teenage boy I had known 3 years ago had discarded his schoolbooks and childhood for a gun. I barely recognized the adult who lay on the cushion now.
We were at the end of our 2 hour journey east.
“See the buildings that were bombed? NATO.” My uncle directed our attention back and forth across Tarablus (Tripoli) Street, the main street in the town of Misurata, a town 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of Tripoli.
After the rebels seized Benghazi, Gaddafi officials had proposed dividing the nation in half granting the east sovereignty, a proposition they hoped would halt the rebels’ progression west. Misurata became a glitch in that plan when it emerged as a rebel strong hold in the western half of the nation early in the war.
“They fought here for almost 6 months, but the revolutionaries couldn’t get past Gaddafi’s troops. Then NATO bombed Gaddafi forces, allowing the rebels to move on to Tripoli”
The front of every sand colored, three-story building was splattered with bullet holes. Most windows were shattered. The street lamps bent over succumb to gun fire, and the palm trees were now tall columns, their leafy tops blown away. Every few blocks was the remains of a structure cut in half by a no-fly-zone enforcing NATO. Graffiti on tanks read “free Libya” but their eerie presence along the side of the road, abandoned with bullet holes, is a constant reminder of a recent violent revolution that maintains a grasp on the minds of the “free” Libyans.
“That is where his snipers hid, on the top of that insurance building.” My Uncle relayed the battle stories of the surrounding infrastructure as told to him by his wife’s family, Misurata natives.
Trips to Misurata have become a hajj of nationalism. Tripolitans, never having ventured east before the war, enter the bullet ridden city in packed cars with their families to celebrate the victory over Gaddafi’s forces which enabled the rebels to progress on to Tripoli. After moving beyond Misrata the rebels secured the capital and through which the country, a victory that everyone recognizes would have been impossible without NATO involvement. My own mind tackled the need of NATO intervention, a bittersweet savior the need for which had been implanted decades before the knight on a white steed entrance.
“And finally here, the museum.”
The destination for our envoy was a make shift trophy shelf of items seized from the Gaddafi compound, weaponry taken from his soldiers, and other war souvenirs. Out front the massive metal eagle that had once watched over the Gaddafi home in Tripoli stood defiled by spray paint and surrounded by tanks and bombs, all too large to fit into the small freestanding building. Gaddafi’s picture decorated the entrance mat. Visitors embraced the opportunity to trample his face as they entered, most pausing for additional stomps. Several of the children were particularly enthralled, staying for several minutes jumping passionately up and down. I hesitated, and gently walked across, unsure how I felt about participating in this celebration of death. Had my privileged US life left me unable to relate to my family who find unquestionable joy and beauty in the death of this, despite all his terrible acts, human? Was I disrespecting my family by avoiding the face as I walked in?
While most museums disguise their promotion and perpetuation of imperial legacies by presenting captured cultural artifacts of far off cultures and neutralizing wars through sterile scientific presentation, this museum did not hide behind a faux objective lens. Through my discussions with people here, I find that most are so devoted to upholding the infallible depiction of the rebel army that they couldn’t fathom another form of depicting the recently passed war.
Pictures of the rebels and civilians who lost their lives in Misurata lined the walls. Child art projects from during the revolution simultaneously celebrate the new Libya and cartooned the now deceased leader, who had been hiding in exile at the time of their creation.
Images of blood splattering from amputated limbs served as the prosecuting evidence for the adjacent walls lined with passport pictures of those, both Libyan and not, who had betrayed the rebel cause in the city. A wanted list of vengeance hunting those who’s condemning choice was to fight for the status quo.
The enthusiastic curator, points to different objects. He lifts a cardboard cover to expose a picture of a young soldier in street clothes; he lay sprawled on the street, having taken a bullet to the head, large portions of his mind exploded on the pavement. My grandmother, brought to tears, sat in a chair near the entrance for the rest of our visit simultaneously crying and praying. As her sobs and holy whispers were the background sound for the remainder of my visit to this museum, I found comfort in her response and emotion, for it was the only one visibly displayed by my family with which I could relate.
“This is the best museum ever!” One cousin proclaimed. He didn’t see the nauseous look on my face before he bounced away, his attention now shifting to another missile. “Look”
I simultaneously fought down my lunch and back my tears. Like most USians, I have a fairly high tolerance for gore that has been built up from years of intoxicating violent images in almost every movie or show I had watched. Additionally, my father had never hid the brutal realities of the Arab world, and had often shown his small children videos and photos of Israeli and Gaddafi violence. I was able to glaze over most of the bloody pictures, but my families interactions with the exhibit pushed my emotions over the edge. I could accept the bloody truth of the war, but not the truth of its impression on my family members. The fight for freedom had released another reality, that war stops the hearts of the losers and taints the hearts of the victors.
In the corner, a large screen TV rolled videos of the fighting. The curator had the remote in his hand and was anxiously queing up the video of Gaddafi’s death. My uncle gathered the younger members of the family to watch. My three-year old cousin, who had shot me repeatedly with a fake handgun the night before, squirmed behind her mother, using her mother’s leg as a shield from the gruesome images flashing on the screen. I had seen it many times before. Arab news channels had played it proclaiming Gaddafi’s death. US channels had played it under the guise of news, but with the subtext of Libyan barbarity, and was received as porn for the curious westerner, hungry for images of a revolting east.
The newscasters back in the US had been unable to sympathize with the population that had spent their entire life watching their family members murdered by the colonel bleeding at their feet. The soldiers now enacted their revenge in kicks and pistol whips. I had distracted myself from the video in the past with critiques of the broadcasting and how emphasizing and demonizing the violence used against Gaddafi ignored the systemic violence, the barbarism, in drone attacks and occupations their own nation participated in. The newscasters in the west had always reported the death of Gaddafi with a strong implied conclusion that Libyans were irrational and violent, and therefore inferior in their behaviors. In the museum, my family watched, unrepentant, at the leaders final moments.
“He was a terrible man” they had told me each time I raised an objection. “He deserved to die”. Yes, I understand for the rebels to succeed, Gaddafi would have had to die, but must this death be celebrated instead of mourned as a necessary evil of war? If we cannot extend our morality to Gaddafi himself, then at least to his soldiers who were either socialized to support the fallen leader or so economically limited they sought a soldiers pay. Do their mangled bodies deserve to be broadcast as the inevitable justice for those who opposed the revolution? Could the nationwide mourning not include all the victims in its prayers? Or was there only faith enough for the rebel victims whose faces lined the walls inside of the museum.
In coping with the war, the dominant narrative in Libya has clinched relentlessly to an understanding of the war biblically entrenched in good and evil. The rebels cannot be comprehended outside of angelic perfection. As often done in war, the rebels and citizens of Libya had diluted the brutal reality of death and war by dehumanizing those at the other end of their 17 year-old soldier’s gun. Those dressed in green, often from the neighboring town, were repeatedly described as not Libyan and not Muslim through the duration of the war. The same justification echoes now. They weren’t like us and they wanted to kill us. Do they seek to convince me, or themselves?
My hope for Libya is contingent on destroying the boundaries between the good and bad in the narrative of the revolution and post revolution politics. In order to move on from war and into creating a new state, Libyans must accept the limitations of all new leadership and their own potential for corruption. Accepting the imperfections of the military, and thus the fallibility of the rebels’ side of the conflict, would open up the opportunity to understand that Gaddafi forces were composed of humans, their neighbors and family, capable of logic, emotion, and even good. Rehumanizing the ‘enemy’ is the emotional cost of rediscovering our own humanity, that is the nuances and contradictions that make us less than perfect. They must recognize the rebel faults from during the revolution, including the massacre of surrendering or captured opposition, lynching of non-Libyans suspected of fighting with Gaddafi, and other impulsive actions unjustifiable even in the midst of war. Perhaps even recognize that all aspects of Gaddafi’s existence were not dripping in Satanism. It is, of course, recognizing the complexities of the individual that allow us to understand the corrupting abilities of power and the power of the structures that lead some people to act beyond our own rationalization and comprehension.
Without accepting and acknowledging the humanity of all the characters in the current war narrative and the resulting government, a humanity that includes a susceptibility to corruption and vengeance, Libyans will leave the most powerful agencies in the nation vulnerable to unregulated abuse, flourishing within a false belief in Libyan Rebel exceptionalism. The people must be cognizant of their leader’s capability to behave against their will, against their morals, to keep history from repeating itself. After all, Gaddafi’s 42 year presidency started with a revolution.
Breaking down the binary framing will allow for another crucial realization: The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Third party influence, even if accepted should be heavily scrutinized. People here are already wary of US involvement and NATO’s role in the revolution. But the USA will exploit hesitancy. A stronger stance is necessary if the nation is to maintain any of its sovereignty in a mostly US dominated international scene.
These hopes live in the little part of me that believes, or needs to believe, in any agency for Libyans and Libya. Are the only roads to nationhood strictly routed like the guiding rails at a slaughterhouse by impeding capitalism, lust for oil, and other factors, dictating a determined, unknown but likely unfavorable, outcome?
It has been months and I have not posted anything. This, I promise, is soon to end.
I have written about 5 half-posts that become out of date before they are ever posted. I knew that once I was no longer travelling I would fail to keep this updated.
So then, the good news: I will be travelling this entire summer!
I plan to spend the entire summer in the Arab world. I have decided to take an internship in Gaza and then will spend the remainder of the summer with family in Libya, both will hopefully de-numbify me and get me writing again. Then I will return to Colorado to attend law school at, most likely, University of Denver.
Until then, here are some pics from Ithaca and Colorado.
Also, short list of blog topics that I may or may not, but should, write about.
- Snowboarding Accident/ US Health Care is immoral
- Dancing revelations
- SJP and Occupy AIPAC
- Making Bazeen
- Tamim/ Helping Deliver a baby.
Upon further reflection I realized that I was not in the right place to go to Gaza this summer and also couldn’t justify the trip as anything more than a humanitarian ego-trip or a resume boost. I decided that I needed a stronger reason for myself before I took that trip. I am, however, going to Libya.
Also, University of Denver it is!
Today the Ithaca college school newspaper, the Ithacan, posted an article about my decision to travel to and teach in Palestine on the front page of its accent section. Here is the online edition if you are interested! 🙂
Few documents have so consumed my mind than my personal statement for law school. I spent hours writing, rewriting, editing, scratching drafts, returning to writing, editing, ignoring the writing departments critique, arguing semantics, and investing more of my energy, mind, and heart than the admissions councils will ever know. Thought I would share the finished product with y’all. Here it is!
My name is Sara. Or maybe it is سارة? Perhaps the answer depends entirely on which of my parents you ask, which passport you consult. To my father, I am the latter. To him, my name is pronounced with the first ‘a’ as in ‘tall’, a strong roll on the ‘r’. I am Libyan. I am Muslim. I am Arab. My mother would give you another story. She sees me as Sara, the liberal college student raised in suburbia Colorado who is strong willed, “and just a little too much like her father at times.” The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Throughout my undergraduate studies I have spent significant time analyzing myself in attempt to understand what it means to be an Arab, and more specifically an Arab-American, in the post 9-11 United States. In studying law and politics, I have constantly been faced with challenges that force me to redefine and analyze my identities. My encounters have helped ground me as a person and make me a determined and self aware law student.
I have had the privilege of spending several months in three different Arab nations; Libya, Jordan, and Palestine. While I was studying in Jordan I travelled across the border to Palestine three times. Each time, I had many confrontations which often sparked internal conflictions.
“What is your father’s name?”
I had arrived at the border between Jordan and the Palestinian West Bank. My interrogator was an Israeli soldier, two years younger than myself. Most of the young soldiers stationed at the border were women completing their state-mandated military service. Her green uniform evoked the power of one of the strongest militaries in the world which was contradicted by her delicate appearance. Underneath her carefully curled hair and behind the intricately applied makeup, her eyes scanned me, eagerly awaiting my answer.
My father always says his name with pride. A traditional Libyan name, it means “Pride of the religion”, and true to this, I have never seen him shy away from his Arab-Libyan heritage or his Islamic roots. As I stood facing the soldier, I tried to declare his name, and through it my Arab heritage, with the same pride my father showed.
“What is his father’s name?” She followed up her initial inquiry.
My grandfather shares his name with millions of Muslims around the world. I knew, upon stating his name, that she would have deduced two crucial elements of my heritage. Arab and Muslim.
“Mohammed” She asked me to sit on a near bench and disappeared with my passport.
Her questions only regarded my paternal lineage. Arab and Muslim, alone could not explain my internal struggle to comprehend who I was, what I was. Crossing the border into Palestine was my next step to internalizing a more complete identity than the one that her interrogation had reduced to two words. The direct answers she received created an incomplete portrayal of my internal being. The culture that came with my US passport, which currently sat in the border patrol’s possession awaiting an entrance stamp, included a deep pride in my individuality. I felt the need to elaborate for her. I wanted to volunteer additional elements that made me much more complex.
I would spend the next 5 hours waiting, and digesting the interaction that had taken place.
The politics of the border I was crossing, literally, had been the intent of my visit. Entwined with my Arab heritage had come an early introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Consumed by its intricacies and implications, I have always devoured new perspectives and information regarding the conflict with an insatiable hunger. While the border I was crossing and the lands I was entering have been a consistent focus of international law over the last 50 years, it has also been its greatest failure. Through my unique cultural lens I have recognized the need for passionate engaged individuals within the realm of international law. I have a definite investment in its improvement and success, as many of the places I hold dear, Libya and Palestine specifically, are at the mercy of organs such as the United Nations.
When asked the question by the guard I realized that I had arrived at another, more familiar, border. The hazy spectrum between the culture clashes of my ethnic makeup. The Identity labels with which we brand certain individuals are human made constructions meant to divide and categorize. In the Arab world I am an Ijanib (foreigner) and in the US I will always be Arab, yet the hyphenated line between Arab and American is a socially constructed fiction like the identities it separates and like the line that divides Jordan from Palestine. I am incapable of existing exclusively within either. I can no more isolate a single portion of my identity, than you can break the continuity of the land between the two nations with a man made border.
After hours of waiting, I was permitted to cross through and continue my journey; however I have never really left the border. As I passed beyond the literal border I was stopped at I was confronted with my own border; the line that I had drawn between the Arab and the American me. It is that border that I can never truly leave. My travels within the Arab world have allowed me to become more comfortable in my own indefinition. In addition to expanding my understanding of the dimension and complication of one of the most pivotal and debated conflicts in modern international law, I grew as an individual and had the opportunity to confront my own internal conflictions.