Celebrating International Women’s Day with Sarah Bender!

Peace Corps volunteer Sarah Bender with her host brother, Ali.

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.”

A photograph of Ar Ramtha, a city in northwest Jordan.

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.”

Sarah's Arabic class. When Sarah first came to Jordan, the only Arabic words she knew how to say were, "Hello," and "The little girl runs." Though most of her conversations still involve a lot of "charading," Sarah has recently started to have completely fluent interactions.

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].”

Sarah teaches a special education class five days a week. Here, her students are busy at work on creating leaf stamp artwork.

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's long sleeve shirts drying on a clothesline.

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.”

The Jordanian flag at sunset

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. “

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  1. morgan 03/08/2010 at 9:06 pm #

    very interesting

  2. Yo Mama 03/08/2010 at 9:40 pm #

    Yaya, Sarah Bender! God bless you in your new adventure!

  3. Elena 03/08/2010 at 9:52 pm #

    What a great piece! 🙂 My dad’s from Jordan, so this was of particular interest. I’ve never been, and he’s never shown an interest in going back, so I soak up any tidbits on life in Jordan I can find!

  4. Ashly 03/09/2010 at 12:18 am #

    As someone who has spent their whole life around children with special needs, you are doing a great thing Sarah. Keep us posted!

  5. Vicki Slayter 03/09/2010 at 9:38 am #

    Sarah, what a lovely young woman you are, your parents must be very proud. How lucky to find your passion in life at a young age. God bless and keep up the great work.

  6. Natalie B. (ModCloth) 03/09/2010 at 10:05 am #

    What an amazing woman! Sarah sounds like such a positive, proactive person, and her ability to make lemonade out of lemons is incredibly inspiring. Sarah – you’re a great role model for women and men alike!

  7. Corinna 03/09/2010 at 10:47 am #

    I love this new feature! the plight of women internationally is something to focus on… and celebrate when there are positive changes; I truly believe that freeing the women can free a country.

  8. Aire (ModCloth) 03/09/2010 at 12:59 pm #

    A friend of mine was in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Africa. I think it is such an amazing thing. I still get teary eyed thinking about how much they sacrifice to help other people they’ve never even met. Bravo.

  9. bookmarking demon 03/12/2010 at 1:29 pm #

    How lucky to find your passion in life at a young age. God bless and keep up the great work.

  10. EmilyKennedy 03/18/2010 at 1:58 pm #

    That’s really wonderful. I have so much admiration for people who join the Peace Corps, and for people who work with special needs kids. It’s really cool to hear a first-hand account. And it’s great to be reminded that it’s better to live with an open loving heart than to live in fear.

  11. antalya homes 03/22/2010 at 5:34 am #

    you are doing a great thing Sarah. Keep us posted!

  12. amer dardour 05/29/2010 at 8:05 am #

    thank you very much Sarah .. you are welcome always in our Ramtha city .

    best regards

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