Junior, College of Business and Honors College
Azeem Ahmed is a junior in the College of Business and Honors College, majoring in economics and finance major with aspirations to attend medical school. When he's not in class or studying, Ahmed keeps busy as a student worker in the provost's office, vice president of the Honors Congress, undergraduate research assistant for College of Liberal Arts Dean Anna Gramberg, operations director for the Campus Kitchens Project, and secretary for the Committee of 19. After receiving an OUR CLA, or Opportunities in Undergraduate Research in the College of Liberal Arts, fellowship award, Ahmed spent the summer in Cairo, Egypt, on an internship with the United Nations' World Food Programme, or WFP.
1. People say that you've been concerned about ending food poverty since you were young. Where did that passion come from and why is it still so important to you?
When I was 5 years old, my parents took me to visit a refugee family displaced by the war in Kosovo. I'll never forget the sight of their kids trying to give us whatever little bit they had – three bananas, some milk and candy. From then on, instead of gifts for our birthdays, my brother and I asked friends to bring canned goods for the local food bank. As the years passed, our parents encouraged us to get involved locally. By age 11, we were both active volunteers at the Food Bank of East Alabama. It gave us the opportunity to work side by side with people in our own community who go hungry every day. Globally, hunger impacts one billion people per year and is the No. 1 health risk – killing more than HIV/AIDs, TB and malaria combined. Yet, there is enough food to feed every man, woman and child in the world. There's no justification for hunger. Fighting it isn't just a feel-good thing; it's a matter of morality, of sustainability, of national security, of faith and of peace. I'm convinced that this is a problem we can solve in our lifetime, and I'm not going to stop until it is.
2. Why did you want this particular internship with the United Nations?
I wanted an internship that would give me the opportunity to actually work in the field to develop and implement a way to fight hunger on a national level. As much as I enjoy reading books to children or handing out meals, those types of activities don't actually tackle any large social, developmental or physical challenges facing the hungry poor - here or abroad. My job as WFP's intern in Egypt was to find a way to fortify the country's rice supply with Vitamin A, Vitamin B and Zinc. Working with a WFP nutrition specialist and a local rice expert, I was able to convince and certify enough mills to fortify more than 220,000 tons of rice - enough to feed nearly 15 million people on Egypt's national ration card program, roughly 18 percent of the country's total population. Having also studied Arabic for a number of years, working in Egypt gave me chance to drastically improve my language skills. As a political junkie, working with the U.N. gave me real-time information on political, economic and humanitarian developments across the Middle East. The OUR CLA research grant I received also helped me to conduct my undergraduate research on Egypt's developing democracy. Living just five minutes from Cairo's famous Tahrir Square let me catch all the major action during my summer stay, including dozens of interviews, thousands of photos and one heck of an experience.
3. How will the experience help you in your future goals?
I'm hoping to pursue a career in public health and this program provided me a practical hands-on experience that few 19 year olds ever get. I worked side by side with top U.N. and government officials as well as local non-governmental organizations, school teachers, mill owners and food experts. It was both humbling and empowering to be a key team player in such an innovative, nationwide nutritional enhancement program. I also got a behind-the-scenes view of food airlifts, refugee camps and school feeding programs. Even on a daily basis, every aspect of my time abroad was an amazing learning experience. Living alone in a foreign country was enough of a challenge, not to mention commuting three to five hours to the rice mills in the Nile Delta each day, work weeks averaging 70 hours, blistering heat, food poisoning and so many other things. There's no substitute for experience, and it doesn't get much better than this.
4. What was it like to be in a foreign land during a revolution?
Amazing! I can't think of a more exciting time to be in the Middle East than right now! When most people think of Egypt's revolution, they immediately think of violence, brutal police crackdowns and censored internet. However, that was rarely the case. On a day to day basis, Cairo was extremely safe with most of the "chaos" limited to the few ongoing rallies and protests in Tahrir Square, aka "Freedom Square." But when the major protests started up, they drew crowds in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes over a million, and that's when things got fun! I'll never forget standing amongst the crowd looking up at the CNN and MSNBC crews filming from rooftops and realizing that I was literally standing right in the middle of a national revolution. There's nothing like the pure, raw experience of seeing history be made right in front of your eyes - no pundits or commentators, no ads or replays. Just life.
5. The chaos was an unexpected part of your time abroad, but if there was one life lesson you learned from it, what would it be?
The chaos wasn't entirely unexpected, in fact, I braced for a lot more. It wasn't until nearly a month after I arrived that I actually saw a police officer, yet, crime rates in Cairo were at an all-time low. Across the city, neighborhoods formed their own security patrols, recycling teams and cleaning campaigns. Even in the midst of chaos, there was order. In frustration, there was hope. In uncertainty, there was camaraderie. Egyptians stood side by side, old and young, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, liberal and conservative. Every one of their rallies and protests, their demands and speeches, was a testament to the defiant, passionate resilience of the human spirit.
To read more about Ahmed's experience in Egypt, visit his blog at www.noseofthesphinx.com.