As the site director of Jiran (“neighbor” in Arabic) in New Britain, an organization that focuses refugee resettlement issues in the United States, Emily Goldman ’09 has spent the past several years crisscrossing the globe. She’s traveled to Nicaragua, Senegal, Mali, Argentina, Paraguay, Egypt, and Jordan - dancing, researching, and breaking down cultural barriers. Her’s is an unconventional story, a circuitous path, exhibiting a deep engagement with and an investigation of the world around her, sometimes while wearing stilts. If there’s a grand plan in her peripatetic life, it’s that she’s doing good work and having fun while doing it.
Entering the KO Communications office, Goldman takes note of the wall hanging that provides the backdrop for the photo accompanying this article. Without missing a beat she states, “That’s Egyptian. It’s a classic design.” Clearly, she’s a young woman who knows her cultural markers. She apologized for running a few minutes late due to an early morning meeting, and she’s headed to Providence right after we chat. Although she conveys a relaxed, easy nature, she’s always going.
Looking through the photos of her adventures, you’re struck with a prevailing motif of a self-possessed individual who embraces every experience open to her. Whether she’s sailing down the Nile in a small boat, drumming with friends in a small African village, milking a cow while wearing a boldly-designed African batik sarong, or warmly hugging the locals, she revels in each moment. I asked Goldman about how she crosses these geographic, cultural and linguistic divides with ease, especially as a young woman traveling in difficult cultural and sometimes, male-centric terrain. “What I was fortunate to learn early on is that people want to help you if you're taking a risk on them,” she said. “I also have disproportionate trust in the goodness of other people, and a sense of humor goes a long way.”
While a student at KO she discovered theater and competitive Latin ballroom dancing as alternatives to athletics. Although she adored the dance form, she sometimes had difficulty finding a male partner, a clear disadvantage when performing a tango, so she branched into other forms of dance. Taking a gap year before entering Brown University, Goldman traveled to Senegal and other countries to study West African dance, an art that serves as a form of not only aesthetic expression but of cultural communication. “In Senegal, every public gathering contains drumming and dance,” she said. “It’s so striking. There’s not this idea that you can’t dance. Dance is being used for public health issues or at someone’s wedding to share a narrative. It’s so woven into the societal fabric, and the arts are used to raise awareness in a fun, organic and cultural way.”
Back at Brown, where Goldman majored in Development and Middle East studies, the dance instructor and community organizer, Michelle Bach-Coulibaly introduced her to Malian dance. Bach-Coulibaly’s troupe New Works/New World Traditions is committed to using dance and the arts to address social justice issues in the U.S. and Mali. Inspired by her work and by her belief in the power of the arts to build community and civic engagement, Goldman and a fellow Brown student started an organization, Hip Hop 4, that provided afterschool arts-based programming on nonviolence, nutrition and other topics to underserved inner-city youths through dance. While the program offered kids a positive and enriching experience after school, it also provided leadership opportunities for the Hip-Hop teachers who became role models, a win for everyone.
Goldman explained that, while a student at KO, she always heard the faculty talk to the students about the responsibility to use their “privilege,” but she said she had little understanding of that beyond the idea that “life was unfair and I was lucky.” While in college she was inspired by a straight-talking friend who said to her, “You carry your privilege like a heavy chain. Use it for the people who don’t have it.” Compelled by this insight, Goldman began to understand that she could use her education and savvy as “steel pliers that cut through the wires and red tape” to help those in need. Although many of the “vulnerable” individuals Goldman worked with were, in many cases, stronger and more capable than she was, they lacked the tools and knowledge that she had gained at KO: strong written and verbal communication and critical thinking skills. With these tools, Goldman was granted access to funding that was denied to others. “You can pry your way into meetings. You can pry open doors that would have been shut. You can make a difference,” she said.
In 2013 she received a Middlebury Mellon Research Grant to extend her studies at the C.V. Starr Middlebury School Abroad in Egypt to conduct research on how Hip-Hop music was used as a political statement during the Egyptian revolution. While there, she cultivated a growing understanding of the role of women in a culture characterized by a traditional societal structure with many women working inside the home. Without any judgment, Goldman explains that, while the U.S. equates women’s power with employment and financial success, the Middle Eastern society does not. “My host mother in Alexandria was one of the strongest women I’ve seen, running six businesses,” Goldman said. “In the Middle East, there’s much more emphasis on social ties that trumps professional goals. That’s something that we do in the U.S. - this internal ranking of other people. In the Middle East, the questions are: Are you married? Do you have kids? These questions are based on the values we make as communities,” she said.
For the past four years, Emily has been living and working in Jordan. She has worked in humanitarian aid for the UN and the International Rescue Committee, and for other social justice organizations. She was also the co-manager of Studio 8 Amman, an arts NGO for at-risk youth, which led her to teach dance and theater in Syrian refugee camps, and cultural centers across Jordan. That’s where the stilts come in. In one photo, Goldman comfortably walks through Amman on four-foot stilts as quizzical onlookers snap photos. For the past year and a half, Goldman has also served as the Resident Coordinator for Middlebury College's School in Jordan.
When I asked if she had a defining moment, Goldman says that it was more of an “American moment” - an experience that has shaped her approach to her work with her non-profit Jiran. She describes waiting in an emergency room in New Haven last summer and witnessing the bureaucratic struggle that many refugees experience as they fill out paperwork and try to understand and navigate the channels to help their transition to the States, despite the number of resources that New Haven provides them. “This is a particular time right now in the U.S. where people see a paralysis at the federal level, which motivates individuals to get involved on a local level,” she said. “This is a great space to function in how to make our communities better. That’s where a lot of work can be done. I want to contribute to my own community, help develop skills and social ties.”
Because Middlebury College was interested in expanding their Arabic language program and developing engaged learners, Goldman proposed to the college a pilot initiative, Jiran, which integrates newly-arrived immigrants and refugees with the greater community, and improves the Arabic language skills of U.S. based students. Middlebury fronts a portion of the cost, and Goldman is tasked to raise the rest with the goal of expanding the program across the country.
This is no mere top-down approach. Through this program, Jiran connects and pairs Arabic-studying students with recently arrived families so they can benefit one another. Since many immigrants lose their identity when they resettle in another country, Jiran seeks to reestablish who they are as individuals by recognizing their skill sets and talents, developing personal relationships, and creating meaning in people’s lives. “This is not a program just to help someone in need,” Goldman said. “You can learn, too. There's a lot of opportunity for exchange and to create more room for bidirectional instruction.”
“The premise of what we’re trying to build is focused on the fact that many of these immigrants have a ton to teach us. Unfortunately, we’ve distilled these immigrants and refugees into categories with rigid definitions. A refugee is not an identity; it’s a situation. When I tell someone that a recent immigrant has written three books, they’re shocked.”
Although the magnitude of the refugee issue may seem enormous, Goldman remains positive and clearly embraces the Mideastern tenets of charity and hospitality. She hopes that Jiran becomes a robust organization that taps into people’s innate curiosity about one another while reinventing and expanding the current view of refugee status. “All of us lead nuanced, layered and complex lives,” she said. “The more we can see people for who they are, the better will be our understanding of the world.”