Overseas Volunteering Changes Life Goals for MD Muslimah

Community News
Most Muslim college graduates spend their time in college focusing solely on academics in hopes of attaining an attractive job offer. After graduation, its off to the daily grind. But Zainab Khurram isn’t your average graduate.

When the Howard County, Maryland resident and Towson University graduate volunteered abroad in Rabat, Morocco last September for three weeks on an education project, she had no idea that she would be walking away with memories to last her a life-time and with hopes for a dynamic future to come.

“It was undoubtedly the most incredible experience of my life and one that changed me in very positive ways,” said Khurram, who is in her early twenties. Now an auditor with Grant Thornton LLP, Zainab Khurram  has already racked up an impressive resume that includes overseas and local volunteer work, academia, and internships.

A volunteer since her middle school years, Zainab took an important role at the Islamic Society of Baltimore’s summer camp at the age of 14.

While in college, she helped plant trees at a state park and clean streams in the neighborhood, fed the homeless, and collected donations for the American Cancer Society.

She served as a mentor to the incoming transfer students within the accounting major at her university and was an active member in many organizations, even holding an office position for a business honor society known as Beta Alpha Psi. Other involvement included National Association of Black Accountants (which allows and encourages minority students to become members as well), and the Women’s Leadership Program at Towson University. 

“It gives me great satisfaction to give back to the world, especially to the Muslim community,” Zainab said. “My friends and family are well aware of my goals and aspirations and have been supportive of me throughout.”

As a strong advocate for human rights, women’s rights and children’s right to education, her role model has been the Queen Rania Abdullah of Jordan while growing up, and more recently, Malala Yousafzai. Queen Rania’s work improving the education system for children in Jordan and Malala Yousafzai's struggle for women's education are inspirations for Zainab.

Her dream of an international experience first came true when she decided to study abroad in the City of Knowledge, Panama with Leadership ExChange on an intensive 10 day program called “Women as Change Agents.” She was one of the only 16 girls from around the world to be selected to attend this program in March 2012.

The same month, she was one of 60 international female students to be selected to attend the annual 5-day women’s leadership conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, titled “Insight Dubai,” hosted by Dubai Women’s College.

“Studying abroad has been a dream of mine since before I even began college,” she confessed. “I’m intrigued with different cultures, religions, and languages. The two programs gave me the opportunity to work alongside accomplished female students who were also interested in the same global issues as myself. It was inspiring and opened my eyes.”

“As second-generation Muslims in the West, born to immigrant parents, I see most people being pushed toward a pre-selected path by their parents, often one they do not excel at or don’t feel particularly motivated towards,” Zainab explained. “I was very fortunate to have the support of my family to pursue these opportunities, and I want to encourage others to follow their passion, to break from the norm and seek out truly rewarding careers, careers that focus less on personal monetary success and more on economic stability within their community.”

Zainab states that Panama was a much more appealing location than Dubai, since she is interested in community development and Dubai has already got it all.

“Panama is a perfect combination of USA and Pakistan, very industrially advanced around the main cities, however completely rural and underdeveloped in many other regions, whereas Dubai is a first-world nation and is comparable to the United States in every way. Even the issues concerning both nations were very different. Dubai, being as developed as it is, still suffers from matters such as human trafficking, and in Panama the average issues concerned the lower-middle class families, helping them develop, take an active role in the growth of the economy and gain access to proper education,” said Zainab.

On the topic of women's education, the young activist said that change begins at home.

“We are the women who are fortunate enough to have received adequate education and training to assist others in need. Educated women of the world need to find the passion within, educate their families, friends, children, and husbands on these issues … the more women, especially Muslim women, are willing to educate those around us, the more likely that people will be aware of our situations and needs,” said Zainab.

Next up for Zainab was a volunteer program in Rabat, Morocco. She took three weeks in September of 2012 to take part in UBELONG’s Immersion Program. According to the UBELONG website she proved to be a “remarkable volunteer.”

“I’ve always wanted to go to Morocco and through UBELONG I was able to do three of the things I love best -- volunteer, travel, and explore another culture,” she said.

In Morocco, Zainab lived with a host family, sharing a home and meals with a lower-middle class family from the old medina in Rabat, while she taught English & Math at an NGO in Sale (Rabat’s twin city) with fellow volunteers, both local and foreign like herself. She had a daily routine of waking up early, taking a taxi from Rabat to Sale, teaching the kids for the first 3 hours of the day, exploring the area during lunch hours (2-3 hours), resuming teaching for 3 hours more in the late afternoon and then returning home to her host family to enjoy time with them and eating dinner, sometimes as late as 9 or 10 pm.

She had an incredible time teaching the kids. “I learned as much from my students as I taught them, if not more. We had this remarkable cross-cultural connection that strengthened my relationship with each and every one of them,” Zainab recalled.

She picked Morocco as her first international volunteering destination because she was fascinated by the rich history and culture of North Africa and the Arab world, and wanted to go to a Muslim country. Morocco had both a centuries-old history and a culture that is so intertwined with the other regions of the world, that it makes this country the true singular melting pot in North Africa. She feels that often people overlook this part of the world when it comes to international volunteer and community/economic development programs because of its reputation to be either a tourist spot or dangerous territory.

“Women and girls are underrepresented in most parts of the world, especially in developing countries such as Morocco. I wanted to get a first-hand perspective on the level of gender equality in Northern Africa and the Arab world. Also, the overall literacy rate for girls in Morocco is still at a disappointing 30%, and I wanted to contribute positively to that statistic and make a difference,” she said.

Her experience in Morocco has been one of the “most humbling ones”. There were a few culture shocks she had to experience, such as eating from the same plate with the host family, sharing a glass to drink from, the no shower theory on a daily basis (biweekly or triweekly visits to the local hammam instead), and having to share a cab with complete strangers. Regardless, the people and culture of Morocco won her heart and changed her communication strategy.

“The main thing I learned is how simple yet happy people in Morocco are,” she explains. “It’s a third world country and many families are very poor. But people in Morocco live much simpler lives; they find happiness being close to their loved ones. People were always so sincere, nice and welcoming in Morocco. My host family lacked materially, but they were content with all of life’s blessings, appreciating and cherishing family over all else. Even though they lived a very modest life and didn’t have much, we could still just sit for hours and enjoy each other’s company. It was so rewarding. Everyone I encountered in Morocco was so helpful. In other countries a lonely girl can be taken advantage of. In Morocco, people went out of their way to help me. It has humbled me deeply, changed my direction in life, and has inspired me in ways I never thought it would. It has made me have renewed hope for humanity, and helped me realize there is nothing in life that is more important than your loved ones. Money doesn’t buy happiness, and neither does power. What does promise eternal happiness is having the love, respect and importance from others.”

Her stay compelled her to get closer to Islam and made her change many goals in life. It made her question her short-term professional plans, which used to include working at a company that is a top provider of financial services, becoming a CPA and attaining an MBA, now have expanded to include more goals for her future.

“Now, I see myself doing nothing but working in international affairs and global economic development. As long as I can remember, I’ve had a long-lived dream of building a school(s) for girls in a remote area of my country of origin, but that was a dream for my latter years in life. However, I feel myself constantly being pulled to the development sector, almost as if I’ve found my calling – to help others, promote peace and equality, and change lives.”

Moreover, she plans to use her knowledge she gained from her collegiate career to help set up her own non-profit and help other non-profit/non-governmental organizations that have failed due to wrong management approaches. She plans to get more involved in her community while excelling at her current job.

But Zainab’s principal resolution of this year is to be a better human being and to be a better Muslim, and this is a goal she thinks that every Muslim should have. She believes that everyone should be open-minded and willing to learn, and never stop the learning process. She also encourages everyone to make an effort to be closer to their deen, spread proper knowledge, and to keep good relations with each other.

Currently, she is focusing on her career in accounting, but she does plan to travel this year again, most likely for leadership or service-learning purposes.

“I was very nervous beforehand, but now I’m confident in traveling alone and living with an unknown family, even when there is the cultural diaspora involved.”

Addressing her youth peers still in school, she says stepping out of your comfort zone could change your life.

“Yes, it is a bit intimidating, but the moment you will step out of your shell, you will quickly learn that there is a world out there just for you, waiting to be discovered. Don’t give up on the first sign of trouble but rather push yourselves to go out there and explore the unexplored, learn the unlearned, and help the needy. I want everyone to challenge themselves on levels they never did before and only then they will be able to see the world for what it is: beautiful and inspiring,” she said.