Traveling to unusual places can produce the most rewarding experiences, says Chelsea Boorman, who wants to counter violent extremism and terrorism.
Name: Chelsea Boorman
Birth place: Miami, Florida
Occupation: Graduate student at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies
Languages: English, French, Italian, Greek
Currently reading: “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James, a novel set in the 1970s that takes place between Jamaica and the United States, weaving narratives of violence, history and espionage. James recently won the Man Booker Prize for this book.
Q: What is your most memorable international experience?
One of my most memorable international experiences occurred last March in Tripoli, Lebanon. I traveled to Lebanon with a few graduate students to study the region’s politics, security and culture.
We arrived via public bus from Beirut and were dropped off in the middle of a traffic circle, punctuated by the presence of a large Shahada flag. I immediately began thinking that it was not a good idea.
We soon made our way to an NGO on Syria Street, the dividing line between two neighborhoods in perpetual conflict — Jabal Mohsen and Bab el Tebbaneh. Our discussion with the NGO shed light on the progress made toward relieving tension between the two neighborhoods, though it also highlighted the immense challenges to be overcome.
Afterward, one of the program participants in the organization’s educational program offered to walk us through the area. Without thinking too much, we agreed.
We walked around the Alawite community of Jabal Mohsen without much trouble. The differences in tension were noticeable as soon as we crossed the street into Bab el Tebbaneh, which has long been controlled by Sunni militias and more recently by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate.
The presence of Lebanese army patrols made it slightly safer for us to walk around. Regardless, we did not stay long.
The experience was memorable because I had the opportunity to speak with people living in Tripoli and witness developments occurring in the region rather than relying on media reports. Taking the risk to travel to places outside of the norm can produce some of the most rewarding experiences.
Q: How did you become interested in international affairs?
I was exposed to foreign cultures from a young age and have long been interested in understanding how different countries and societies interact.
When I was three years old, my family moved to a small town in the south of France, where I became fluent in French and realized the value of communicating in different languages. As a child growing up in Miami with a Jamaican father, my friends were often Cuban or from the Caribbean.
When I moved to Chicago in high school, I discovered a multitude of ethnic enclaves — Greek, Polish, Mexican — and developed an interest in wanting to travel and learn about these places from locals.
This interest translated specifically to international affairs and politics as an undergraduate student studying abroad in Athens. By attending political protests, talking with university students about the economic crisis and visiting immigrant communities, I discovered how interconnected our world has become.
My time in Athens was particularly influential in inspiring me to take my love for foreign cultures into a political direction.
Q: What international issue is of greatest interest to you today? Why?
At the moment, I’m interested in countering violent extremism and terrorism. I’m drawn to this issue because of its increasingly complexity and global span, with both non-state actors and countries such as Russia, China and Iran becoming involved, especially with regard to Islamic State.
I’m enrolled in two classes this semester that touch on these issues: “The War with al Qaeda” and “Anthropology for Strategists.” Analyzing al Qaeda’s strategy, structure and perspectives together with the role of regional affiliates, as well as instability in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, demonstrates the value of understanding terrorist narratives and ideology in making policy recommendations.
As someone with a background in cultural anthropology from my undergraduate studies, I find this a fascinating and timely topic to study.