Hannah Johnsrud (Project on Middle East Democracy)

When I tell people I work at the Project on Middle East Democracy, I usually get one of two responses: “Oh, that’s very interesting, what’s going on in that area of the world?” or “Ha! That’s an awful lot of work you have on your hands.” Although I recognize the rather shallow nature of the kind of small talk that happens at networking sessions and metro stations, somehow these responses to my work leave something lacking. I should be used to it by now, because I get similar reactions when I tell people I’m a Middle Eastern Studies major (several extraordinarily uncomfortable interactions on planes come to mind.) Often, however, I find myself flustered and frustrated as I try to put to words my passion.

Perhaps my frustration arises from my own uncertainty. At the moment, these questions rattle around in my head as I consider what the effect of this summer will be and attempt to see some vague, foggy path towards a future. I know I want to do something with the Middle East, but I don’t seem to have a tangible response to these casual interrogations.

What’s going on in the Middle East? Why does ISIS exist? What’s the solution to the conflict? Truthfully, although I learn more every day, I don’t have the answers to these questions. I don’t understand all or even part of the Middle East, and I don’t think I ever will.

Isn’t working on the Middle East depressing? Is democracy in the Middle East even possible? On days like these, when violence and injustice seem to be rocking our world, I can’t help but feel a little at a loss. I seem to have found a passion for a region that is interminably conflicted and misunderstood. And in the face of all of this pain, I begin to lose track of why I do what I do, where the meaning in all of this lies.

And then I remember sitting on the metro with my boss on our way back from a hearing, celebrating a small victory with a Hill staffer willing to support our work. I remember the words (verbatim) of a timeline I wrote in a letter sent by Congress members to Secretary of State John Kerry. I remember a room full of human rights defenders and policy makers discussing the situation in Bahrain and making an advocacy plan. I remember perhaps off-color laughter with my coworkers as we attempt to remain sane in this crazy work for a more democratic world. I remember a thousand gains I make a day in understanding the world around me, tiny mysteries and nuances teased out and untangled. I remember the simple joy of learning, and I embrace the knowledge that though I cannot remedy all the worlds’ problems, I can do something small to help.

And suddenly, it seems that even if I don’t have all the answers, I can respond to those innocent small talk questions with a sense of my deep passion and belief, strengthened by my everyday work at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

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