Welcome to the first installment of our month-long “Women Making History” blog series!
In honor of today, International Women’s Day, I interviewed Sarah Bender, a remarkable 22-year-old who, in October, left her life in America to work for the Peace Corps, and has since been teaching, learning, giving, receiving, and growing in Jordan.
When Sarah Bender applied to the Peace Corps last year, she had her heart set on going to Africa. In college, she’d spent a month in Tanzania and a summer in Uganda, and she’d fallen in love with the African culture’s slower pace of life – with the sense of living freely and roughing it. “I wanted to go somewhere with palm trees and mangoes,” she says. “That is what I was looking for when I applied to the Peace Corps, and not at all what I got.”
What did she get? Sarah received a placement teaching special education classes in Jordan. Was this a disappointment? Hardly, though she admits it took her longer than she thought it would to accept the invitation.
“‘Jordan! You can’t go to Jordan!’ people would say. That freaked me out a bit,” she says. But Sarah, who lives for “the freshness and excitement of new things,” and finds challenges to be “invigorating and motivating,” decided that was exactly where she needed to be. “I feel like I was meant to come here, that this is what I am supposed to be doing,” she says. “Nothing else. And, there are palm trees here. So I still have palm trees.”
But living in Jordan has meant facing whole new set of challenges – challenges very different from the ones she was accustomed to while living in Africa. Sarah describes the difference in terms of “physical comfort” versus “social comfort.”
In Africa, some volunteers spend months in mud huts without electricity or running water. “Here, I have electricity, I have internet, I have a water heater,” she says. Yet “it’s more of a challenge for me to negotiate the social pressures that come with living [in Jordan].”
In addition to her daily special ed class, Sarah has taken on the project of teaching aerobics to local women. She was floored when she first saw the room that made up the women-only gym where she will teach her class. A fellow Peace Corps member introduced Sarah to the two Jordanian women who opened the gymnasium.
“[Discovering this gym and these women] just blew my mind,” Sarah says. “This is not aligned with the culture at all. Jordanian men play football; they can go outside and get exercise, but in the villages, the women’s exercise is housework, and then the rest of the time they spend hanging out and relaxing, since they are tired from all the housework they’ve been doing.”
Sarah says she is inspired by Jordanian women. “When I read things or hear these awful, shocking things about women in developing countries, it makes me hurt inside, because I am trying so hard to do the opposite – to tell people about the really awesome things that women are doing here, like these two women who started the gym where I’m teaching aerobics. And sure, someone has to tell us about the 10-year-olds who are married, or the women who got acid poured on their faces because they were trying to go to school. But I’d rather talk about the good things, because the good outweighs bad. I don’t want to try to hide the bad, but it’s important to remember the good things, too.”
Why does Sarah think talking about the “good things” is so important? Because otherwise, she says, Western society’s negative stereotypes of Middle Eastern cultures will persist.
“People in America don’t want to go to the Middle East,” she says. “They are scared of coming here. But I am here, and I am safe. I love it here. This is a culture that is still intact from a long time ago, with deep rooted traditions, and it is a beautiful culture. I think it is a shame that people don’t talk about the positive aspects of this culture, of these people’s lives.”
When I asked Sarah if she had any advice she could share with you, our readers, she said this: “Be open to finding out what your passion is. Stop worrying about what other people want you to be, or what you feel pressured to be. Find what makes you tick, then pursue it. Be true to yourself. “