In a small and decidedly unpretentious dining area at Somerville High School outside Boston, about 40 teachers raise a din of conversation so loud that it’s hard to be heard. Teachers have a lot to say to each other, but this is no ordinary gathering. More than half are from Middle Eastern and Northern African countries, and they’ve never met their counterparts at Somerville High.
The speed with which these teachers sail past any barriers of culture or heavily accented English to talk about what works in the classroom makes Ray Matsumiya ’96 smile as he strolls around the room. He is the executive director of the University of the Middle East Project (UME), and the visit to Somerville High is part of a month–long program in the United States for the 25 participants from eight countries.
After lunch he ushers the group toward a bus waiting outside and briefly disappears to find a straggler in danger of wandering off in the high school’s warren of long hallways. Back at a converted armory building on Highland Avenue that is home to UME and other nonprofits, he finds the front door locked and acknowledges that sometimes it can be challenging to manage logistics. Yet he seems unfazed by this hiccup. He believes he is “living the idea of diversity,” and that inspiration seems to keep him constantly moving forward.
In UME’s suite on the second floor, one participant muses on how deeply the group has bonded in their two weeks together. After hours, the teachers have shopped and eaten together, sung with each other, and danced to national music they plucked from YouTube.
“When we leave,” she says, “tears will gush.”
Matsumiya sends an intern scurrying to help bring in fresh Starbucks coffee, which the group is eagerly awaiting. He was once an intern at UME and stayed, in part, because he finds the atmosphere of the program embodies the multiculturalism that was so stimulating for him at Wesleyan. A Japanese American who has managed to pick up a fair amount of Arabic on his travels abroad, he exudes the same spirit.
Matsumiya was casting around for work and spending a lot of time playing chess in Harvard Square when he discovered UME. The approach taken by the program appealed to him, namely, “to empower people who believe in education.”
To illustrate this notion, he describes Samira, a teacher from Tiznit, Morocco. Painfully shy and from a conservative culture, Samira attended the UME program in 2006 and learned how to work with others by building consensus. Back in Tiznit, she spearheaded an effort to establish stronger ties between her school and the community. Now she’s been elected to the city council.
That’s exactly what Matsumiya hopes will happen: that participants will use newfound skills not only to improve the pedagogical environment in their schools, but also to become leaders in their communities. Since its inception in 1997, UME has graduated 250 participants from its Teacher Education Institute and another 350 from other programs. Some of them now hold influential positions with ministries of education or other government agencies. As UME’s network has grown, so has its influence and attention from the media. A New York Times story noted that the program shows how “the common bonds between teachers transcend even the bitterest rivalries between their governments.”
One reminder of those rivalries is that Matsumiya prefers that individual participants and their home countries not be named because public identification has caused problems. But his office decorations suggest the geographical reach of the program: a tea set from Morocco, cushions from the Khan el Khalili market in Egypt (he haggled for an hour and later learned he’d paid twice as much as an Egyptian would), a large photo of Jerusalem, and an Algerian banner with the Zay, a symbol of Kabil culture.
At Somerville High Matsumiya had issued a blanket invitation for local teachers to join UME’s latest project: traveling to Tiznit in November to establish it and Somerville as sister cities. Although Tiznit was founded in 1881 as a buffer against European incursions from the Atlantic coast, today this small city of 60,000 inhabitants is well known for silver jewelry. Lately, indigenous Moroccan and international artists have settled on hills surrounding the city. The presence of this densely populated artistic community led UME to believe that a sister city relationship would be productive, and the mayor of Somerville is scheduled to make the November trip.
As they sip coffee and eat cookies, the program participants pull out digital cameras to get shots of their new friends, standing arm–in–arm. Everyone wants to include Matsumiya. Some are discussing the places they’ve visited with the enthusiasm of any first–time tourist in a new locale.
Asked about her favorite outing, one participant replies that she set out on her own for a whale–watching trip. She was rewarded with the sight of a mother whale and her calf breaching the water. Her eyes light up at the memory. “We don’t have whales in the Mediterranean,” she says.