Masters Student Raphaelle Ayach on Starting an NGO, Making Films, and Working for the UN


Raphaelle Ayach is a current master’s student in the Anthropology & Education program at Teachers College. She has an extraordinary array of experiences that inform her studies.

We got the chance to hear about Raphaelle’s projects in a recent interview. Keeping reading to learn about her work!

You’re doing so many exciting things: leading an NGO, making films, interning at the UN, and getting your masters degree. How do you manage it all?

It has been a lot to juggle, but it’s been worth it. I’ve always been told that I ‘pack too many chickens in one truck’ but I just seem to get excited about too many things in life. Also, to be fair, the nonprofit I founded in Egypt has a wonderful Managing Director so, while I’m still involved from a strategic and bird’s eye perspective, I’m no longer involved in the day to day management and implementation.

Can you tell us about your NGO? What does the organization do? How did it get started?

Since 2012, Safarni designs and implements peace education programing that creates human connections meant to overcome prejudice and discrimination. Nowadays we use our programs for children who may see each other every day in the streets and think they are “different,” but who also just have never had a platform to meaningfully engage with each other. In Egypt , there is a big divide between Egyptians and people who migrate – particularly those from Sub-Saharan Africa who experience incredible amounts of discrimination and very little protection. They don’t attend Egyptian schools, they live in the same neighborhoods, but separate. We are currently partnering with the UN Organization for Migration, and Bassita to implement our programs in ‘fragile neighborhoods’ for increased social cohesion and inclusion.

At the time of the creation of Safarni, I was mourning the loss of a loved one who had experienced a lot of discrimination- so it was a way for me to process and leave something in his memory. At the time, I believed traveling was a great way to become accepting of difference, so I wanted to design a program that would allow low-income children the opportunity to get the benefits of traveling and creating meaningful cross-cultural connections without leaving their neighborhoods. So, I designed a simulated travel adventure program.

When it began, I thought it would just be me doing this crazy idea alone for a couple months, I was standing in a dirt street in an informal area of Cairo asking kids “do you want to discover Colombia?” and ushering them into our simulated plane inside, where Colombian people were waiting to share their culture. It was a bit crazy. But from 8 kids the program suddenly started snowballing, and soon more people wanted to volunteer than I knew what to do with, other nonprofits were requesting the program in their space, and the line of kids and parents waiting to get in for the program got so long, that we ended up having to turn children down and start creating a rotation system. In 2017 Safarni was a winner of the UNAOC & BMW Group Intercultural Innovation Award. We’re still small but we’re dedicated, and steadily growing. Over the years, the program evolved and became much more about connecting with inclusion and diversity of all forms, in our very own communities. It’s also worth noting that my time here at TC has already impacted the way I see Safarni growing in the future.

What films have you made? What inspired you to do them?

I’ve made two documentary films, Casa Margaritas (2015) and Andrew’s Adventures (2018). We just released Andrew’s Adventures online this week. It is a film about Andrew Siess, the youngest man to walk around the world- 30,000 KM at age 23!

Casa Margaritas is a portrait of a family of Colombian coffee pickers. That film is quite ethnographic, even though at the time I had no idea what that meant. I originally studied fiction filmmaking but then felt so strongly that real people are so beautiful, layered and complex, that if I were to work in fiction, I could never have the genius required to create a character with half of this rich complexity. This interest in people, their lives and stories, is what got me into multicultural education, it’s what created Safarni, what pushed me into making documentaries, and also what drew me to studying anthropology at TC.

What are you doing at the United Nations? How has working in a large organization compared to running your own projects?

I am doing a graduate internship at UNICEF, in a section that works on Climate, Environment, Resilience and Peacebuilding section. I’m especially focused on peacebuilding, which I am not only passionate about, but feels like I am building upon my previous work at Safarni. I think that having previous experience on the ground has enhanced my ability to understand the challenges to impact on the ground, in a way I could never have if I had just started working directly form an office within a larger organization. For this reason I highly recommend to all young students or graduates to focus on getting fieldwork first.

It’s very different from working at my own organization. I really enjoy (perhaps it’s the anthropologist in me) discovering the UN work culture. And especially, I am so happy to finally have a boss! I have been managing people for so many years, often feeling unsure and confused if I was doing ‘it’ right. I felt I really needed to be part of a team which I was not responsible for, and to understand the perspectives of employee. I know this is a big part of my learning. I am also lucky to be in an extremely fun team at UNICEF, I really lucked out with my bosses and colleagues!

My most exciting task so far have been organizing a dialogue between Security Council Member States and young peacebuilders at UN headquarters during the Women, Peace and Security week.

Why did you decide to study anthropology? How has anthropology helped with your other projects?

At Safarni, I was designing multicultural educational programs with anthropologists, so I was learning about the side of anthropology which, as Ruth Benedict said, makes world safe for human difference. This idea became the vision of Safarni – and for my work in general. But when working on the ground, it is fast paced and all about activities, implementation, and constant problem solving. I was getting burnt out and I needed space to reflect from a distance in order to improve my work. I knew that to continue in multicultural education I needed to learn from those who had come before me, and thought about a lot of these same questions before me.

I looked for a program that would combined my two interests: anthropology and education, and TC seemed like the perfect fit, as one of the few programs that merged these interests. Studying anthropology at TC has changed the way I approach our work at Safarni. I’m looking at our work through a much more critical and reflective lens. For example, I’m much more critical about the way we introduce the idea of cultural diversity with children, I’m much more conscientious about the ways we might be tokenizing cultures. The questions I am now asking myself in terms of educational objectives are completely different, for example instead of “how we can we get people from diverse cultures to connect?” it’s perhaps more, “how can we support a culture of authentic care?” The people closest to me say I’ve changed since studying at TC, that I notice social political implications in a way I didn’t as much before.

What have been your favorite classes and professors at Teachers College?

If I could recommend two “must take” classes, the first would be Nicholas Limerick’s class on ‘Language, Cultural Politics and Education’, which changed the way I look at how interactions are so influenced by invisible politics of power and bias. I also highly recommend Professor Hui Soo Chae’s ‘Curriculum Design’ class. He is an incredibly dedicated professor and approaches everything with a highly critical lens. It was also co-taught with Jackie Simmons who is just fantastic. I had to transcribe every time she talked, because it was so genius!

I made an effort to take classes in diverse fields, and audit as much as I could, such as with Grey Gundaker and Yolanda Sealy Ruiz (both incredible professors). For peace education and for running a non profit: Felisa Tibbitts’s ‘Peace and Human Rights Education’ as well as her M&E class were extremely helpful. Mary Mendenhall’s ‘Education in Emergencies’ is also essential if you want to work in that field.

I also learned a lot from Peter Coleman, not just in his ‘Fundamentals of Conflict Resolution’ class, but also from his workgroup which I was part of, and supporting with the Sustainable Peace Project. It is incredible work that I was so happy to have been part of for a short while. (I was able to get involved after taking his class, please note: take classes from Professors you want to work with!) I honestly wish I could have taken more classes, there are so many other incredible professors I want to learn from.

Do you have any advice for prospective students who share your interests?

I would encourage prospective students to really engage with the diversity of options available to you. A lot of my classes were not in Anthropology, and I learned a lot from being part of different circles and schools, for example I took an Applied Peacebuilding class at SIPA, which was not only interesting but connected me to a whole different group of students.

Whenever possible, ask to audit classes, and if there is something you are truly passionate about, do your research on which professors at Columbia (or not at Columbia- because you can take classes in other local universities too) are really shining in that domain. Also, get involved – ask your professors if you can help with their work, become part of student organizations. I am now an Executive Board Member of the Peace Education Network, along with Qiqi Mei and Nina Bamberg, and it’s a great way to explore connect and explore further with the TC community, on the topics we are most passionate about.

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