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Benjamin Orbach

Benjamin Orbach

Boren Fellowships

Johns Hopkins University


International Relations

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. I had just finished an intensive summer Arabic language program at Middlebury College and, the semester before, wrote my master’s thesis on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. I applied for a Boren Fellowship to continue my Arabic studies and to research a trade program between Jordan and the United States, but my real purpose was to seek answers to the questions we were all confronted with at the time. I wanted to spend time with ordinary people in the Arab World, to speak with them about what concerned them most, and to understand the best way forward for U.S. policy.

I chose Jordan because of its strategic importance and the possibility it offered for cultural immersion. At the time, the second intifada was raging in Israel and Palestine and we were on the brink of war with Iraq. Policies and current events in these places and in Syria and Lebanon reverberate in Jordan in a unique way. While Jordan has changed a lot since the Iraq war and become much more cosmopolitan, at that time, there were not a lot of foreign students who lived there. I thought I would have a good chance to meet people and to form relationships in Arabic. To this day, the relationships that I built are still strong.

Beyond my formal program of study, the real reason my time overseas was successful was because of my approach to the experience. I had this conviction that the Boren Fellowship was my big chance at language and cultural immersion. I believed that I had a limited time to immerse myself and that I had to take advantage of every opportunity. So I studied at the university, but I also had language partners, a tutor, and institute classes at night. In addition to that, during program breaks I traveled the region and sought out opportunities to speak with people wherever I went. 

After my Boren Fellowship, I had a very positive experience working at the State Department for a few years at the Middle East Partnership Initiative, where I designed and managed democratic reform programming for the Middle East and North Africa. I have built off of that experience to become a development worker and writer. I was the West Bank and Gaza country director for Creative Associates International from 2007 to 2009, and I wrote my first book, Live from Jordan: Letters Home From My Journey Through the Middle East that was published in 2007. I’ve continued the work I started in Jordan as a Boren Fellow by founding and directing the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors initiative at Creative Learning, a DC-based NGO. America’s Unofficial Ambassadors is increasing the number of American citizens who volunteer in the Muslim World at the community level. 

Written: March 2012