My first memories of doing intercultural and interfaith work are those of a four-year old attending pre-kindergarten in an all French Catholic school in Alexandria, Egypt. Even though my family is Muslim, I attended Saturday mass with the Christians. I would go home and share with my Mom. She tried to explain to me that I am a Muslim and should not be going to mass. I remember clearly telling her that I sing to God on Saturday during mass and pray to Him at home as a Muslim.
Later on, my family moved to Texas where my identities became even more complicated as I settled into American culture. In my adult years. I completed my undergraduate degree in Chemistry only to realize that this was not for me. While finding my career path, I worked for the Saudi Government for several years before pursuing my MBA in Human Resources.
While in Corporate America I held many leadership roles in Human Resources, Diversity, Organizational Effectiveness and Training and Development but also had a growing need to build bridges of understanding between the American Muslim community and all Americans. To satisfy this hunger, I founded a non-profit organization focusing on speaking about Islam and Muslims. This was before September 11th , 2011 while holding a full time corporate job.
My interest in and love for bridging cultures and helping people be successful in different cultures became my full time work about six years ago as an intercultural consultant. This ongoing intercultural work is a journey of learning everyday but I find that my faith plays an important part in the work I do. Three points about how my faith impacts my work are :
I believe this verse captures the essence of the work of interculturalists. - the high regard for diversity even amongst people who are from the same culture. To illustrate how we might get to know people who may be different from us, I offer a couple of examples. In my non-profit work, I have built strong relationships with Jewish communities and organizations including the creation of a Muslim Jewish Baking Group to facilitate mutual understanding. I also have a strong relationship with the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta where I sit on the board of Kids4Peace. I believe that if all human beings took a step to know “the other” (on a professional or personal level), we would contribute to the creation of a better world for future generations.
Through my work, I always strive to hold up this ethical value. While doing that, I find it fascinating that the things one considers normal in one culture, others find exceptional, eccentric or confusing. An example is when I work with diverse expatriates moving to the Arab world, I show them a picture of the ablution stations found in bathrooms for Muslims to perform their physical cleansing before they engage in their five daily prayers. Many times the male expats have told me that they have used these stations as urinals. Although embarrassed , they thanked me for enlightening them. One can just imagine what the reaction of Arabs would be if they saw a person using the place reserved for ritual cleansing as a urinal.
The child who once navigated between two cultures of faith now builds relationships between diverse groups in various communities. Above are three ethical standards from my faith that have helped me achieve growth and satisfaction in my intercultural work. They have also enabled me to help others achieve their professional and personal goals. Although I have phrased these ethics and values within my particular Muslim faith, they are universal and can be adapted by all interculturalists to move from theory to professional practice in their work.
Soumaya Khalifa is president of Khalifa Consulting (www.khalifaconsulting.com). Khalifa Consulting provides cultural expertise on the Arab and Muslim cultures. She is adjunct faculty at Emory University where she teaches classes on Human Resources Certification, Management and Arab Culture. Her work has been featured in many publications including the New York Times and her life story was part of a book “50 Green Card Stories” which was published in early 2012. She is a US State Department speaker. She can be reached at Soumaya@khalifaconsulting.com.
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