I had a window seat, and the water stretched up to meet us. Aqueous blue and sunlight dominated my view as our plane arced slowly down. At five I was convinced that we would fall into the Mediterranean and vanish beneath the waves. At five I knew enough to know that planes were always in the news falling out of the sky it seemed. Our plane was not falling out of the sky. It was landing safely, smoothly even, in Tunis, Tunisia. After that flashbulb memory of landing, I have little blurs here and there for the rest of the trip. Meeting a seemingly never-ending cast of people who I was assured were my family. I remember cousins everywhere, and young men who looked very much like my father all fighting in their way to change their nation into something better. My uncles. I remember a tiny woman with a powerful, razor-sharp, mind and wit. My grandmother. And above all, I remember realizing that my world was much, much larger than I knew.
Before that trip in 1998, I knew the world existed, our family was perpetually tethered to it through NPR, and PBS and my father told us stories of growing up someplace far away, but that all fell decidedly outside the little Missouri world in which I lived. So, I knew that the world was out there and that more often than not something bad was happening in it. However, it was not until we stepped off that plane into a wall of North African light and heat that it all really connected. These places on the other side of the world were not that far away, and these people were very real. I can point to that trip as the point at which I started to care about the larger world in a salient way. But what does a five-year-old do about it? Maybe some more industrious little one would have found something brilliant to do, but all I did was worry for years and live life.
It’s funny how everyday events can so fully engross you that high-level abstract problems cannot register. Life went on for twenty years. We bought a beautiful, lush tract of land and built a lovely home on it, my parents got divorced, we lost the land, I went to college, and worked a lot. I followed world events—and world events impacted me—and tried to keep up with my family in Tunisia. I cared, and I engaged with the world where I could, or where I thought I could, but the day to day always took center stage until I made a change.
The second time I stepped off a plan in Tunis I was twenty-five years old. I made a change. I chose to step outside my routine and study for a semester abroad. In the twenty years since the first time, I could make the trip Tunisia, the world, and my family had changed a lot. Suddenly all those cousins are bright, brilliant adults. My uncles are established family men with beautiful homes and important jobs. And my grandmother is older, she is in her late nineties now, but no less sharp or—frankly—intimidating. I spent my three months getting to know these vital, passionate people who are my family, studying the history, politics, and the realities of the Mediterranean region.
At the end of this brief window of time, I was inspired. Two things became clear. First, I cannot leave the problems of the world to someone else. I owe it to my family in Tunisia, and America, but more than that I owe it to myself. Secondly, I needed to find a way to make that conviction into action. This is where the Scoville Fellowship comes into the story. After graduating in May of 2018, I set about trying to find work that would make the world a safer place. It turns out central Missouri is very good for a lot of things but work in peacebuilding isn’t one of them. It took more than a year of searching but my work paid off. I found the Scoville Fellowship, and it gave me a way into the D.C. world of changemakers.
To weave and then stretch a metaphor; the world is a little bit like that airplane from when I was five. It is complicated, it moves fast, and there is a whole team of people doing their best to keep it from landing in the Mediterranean. Though in this case playing the part of the Mediterranean is any number of world tragedies, wars, and humanity ending calamities. Peacebuilders, non-proliferation and security experts, climate change champions, and advocates of myriad stripes make up that team fighting to keep the world clear of the waves. In a tangible way, the Scoville Fellowship was my ticket into that team.
As a Scoville Fellow, I have had the chance to meet some of the leading voices in those fields, and work with some truly singular individuals. I have attended meetings of peacebuilders from around the world and had the chance to play a part in the workings of an organization that is a key force for positive change. I have seen advocacy in action and learned how much impact a small number of truly motivated people can have for good. Above all the fellowship opened the way for me to gain knowledge and learn skills that will make me a more effective member of the team keeping us in the air. If people keep striving, people like me and anyone else who sees the need and makes the change, then someday we will be able to land this world of ours safely in a proverbial Mediterranean paradise. Maybe my grandmother will be there.
Maher Akremi is a Fall 2019 Scoville Fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding.