Habitat Build Offers Chance for Cultural Exchange

March 31, 2007
David Snyder

A unique group of volunteers came together in the community of Ghor As Safi, Jordan during the week of March 24-April 2 to build two homes through Habitat for Humanity Jordan. Comprised of 24 women — only the second all-female build in the Middle East for Habitat for Humanity — the group consisted of 12 women from Harvard University (including nine Kennedy School students) and 12 from Dar Al-Hekma College in Saudi Arabia.

While the primary goal of the build was to assist Habitat beneficiaries in Ghor As Safi, one of the poorest communities in Jordan, the build was also structured as a cultural exchange between women of the US and Saudi Arabia. Initiated through the office of Ambassador Karen Hughes, the US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, who had visited Dar Al-Hekma College in 2005, the joint build was hailed as the Hekma-Harvard Women’s Build. The exchange provided a unique opportunity to bring students from each school together for the common purpose of building a home through Habitat for Humanity.

"The desired goals for this project are to highlight for the US, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the commitment to community service and intercultural cooperation of our youth,” said Brooke McConnell, associate director of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard and a group leader for the Harvard students. “We had an incredible level of preparation with all four partners of the program to ensure that we met this goal. I would say that we have successfully exceeded this goal and truly created a
powerful model to be used again in the future.”

During their ten days in Jordan, the women traveled to several areas of cultural interest and shared organized exchanges with Jordanian political figures and non-profit agencies working in Jordan. Through the Habitat for Humanity experience, they not only helped to build homes, but they used their common experience as a means of better understanding one another.

“The cultural gap is much smaller than I’d imagined,” said Maura Sullivan (MPA2, ’09), one of nine Kennedy School students involved in the build. “When you take religious and cultural differences aside, a woman is a woman. I think it’s really important to realize that.”

Sawsan Majali, Vice Dean of Student Affairs at Dar Al Hekma and a leader of the Saudi group, said exchanges like this one are extremely valuable.

“We need to be more creative and innovative on how we learn about other cultures, we need to emphasize what things are common among us and work from their on better understanding of each other. We need to work on finding ways to bring the world together not tearing it apart….I believe that people will leave with an open mind, and a willingness to listen," she said.

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Maura Sullivan image

Maura Sullivan (MPA2, ’09) was one of nine Kennedy School students to travel to Jordan to build homes through Habitat for Humanity.