Josie Ygnatowiz: Ibrahim Alumni 2017, UC Berkeley
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
As written by Sharon Jackson:
Driving down the highway, amidst a sea of other vehicles, is an artfully decorated Volkswagen van. It’s also the home of Josie Ygnatowiz, co-founder of the De-Otherize Dialogue Project and adventurous wanderer, whose dedication to fighting Islamophobia has driven her — literally — across the US and into the hearts and minds of the hundreds of people she meets.
Though Josie calls the US home, she is well aware that the US has shut its golden door multiple times since its founding. “How do we know,” says the common refrain, cycling its way through 200+ years of American history, “if we are letting in a terrorist or an innocent person? How do I know that the other is just like me?” It is fear of the unknown, Josie realized, that keeps families in war zones from finding the refuge once promised in the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
As the poignant quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. goes, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate, and they cannot communicate because they are separated.” After journeying through the Middle East with her Ibrahim cohort, Josie, and her friend Yazan Al Shakoohy, took it upon themselves to make the unknown known, and thus remove the fear. Josie and Yazan did not meet in person, for Yazan, who escaped civil war in Syria and currently resides in Iraq, has not yet been able to reach a truly safe haven despite applying to multiple scholarships, programs, and visas. Through their virtual encounters, Josie and Yazan were inspired to create this project. Though Yazan is currently not part of the project, Josie carries their idea forward, and has given up a sedentary lifestyle and taken their mission on the road.
It is Josie’s goal to create and sustain the virtual bridges that allow stories like Yazan’s, and the dozens of others Josie encountered on her Ibrahim journey, to reach the eyes and ears of Americans, so that fear turns into understanding, empathy, and activism. Across five states, in art galleries, coffee shops, parks, libraries, and other public places, with the help of a few laptops, access to wifi, and Josie’s van, the De-Otherize Project sets up “pop-up dialogue sessions” in which ordinary Americans become listeners and conversants, and ordinary Middle Easterners become storytellers.
From these conversations come the awareness, on the part of the Americans, of the real, on-the-ground effects of xenophobic policies such as the travel ban and the cap on Syrian refugees, and the desire to fight against these policies and stand in solidarity with their new friends. Through this project, Josie aims to open not just that famed golden door, but the door that separates the hearts and minds of ordinary people living across the world.