Doaa Baumi of Egypt and Elena Dini of Italy may be from very different backgrounds, but sharing an apartment on Hartford Seminary’s campus has already broken down any walls that might have existed between them. According to them, navigating the streets of Hartford and doing laundry together play almost as big a role as their academic studies as students in the International Peacemaking Program.
“We’re really called to stay here in the community,” Elena said. “It’s very rare to have this in an academic setting.”
First, some background on Doaa. She’s a graduate of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where she studied the theology and philosophy of Islam. After her undergraduate program, she received a scholarship from the U.S. Embassy and had a chance to work with American scholars for two years.
She followed up that experience with a Fulbright Scholarship, which sent her to Chicago Divinity School in 2010 for a master’s degree.
“When I went there, the revolution in Egypt had just started,” she said. “It was a hard time for me [to be away from family], but also interesting.”
While in the U.S., Doaa attended the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Va., and met Hartford Seminary’s Prof. Mahmoud Ayoub, who encouraged her to apply for the International Peacemaking Program.
In 2012, Doaa returned to Egypt and taught for a year, but came back to the U.S. after receiving the IPP scholarship. Though she still misses her family, she said, her second stint in the U.S. is proving to be even more rewarding than the first one.
Chicago, she says, was a very academic atmosphere. At Hartford Seminary, “it’s easy for me to see people practicing their religion.” Living side by side and attending classes with people of different faiths has gotten her interested in sharing her experiences with young people in Egypt.
“I’m interested in doing interfaith dialogue,” she says. “I would love to apply the experience we have here.”
Now to Elena, who is a Roman Catholic from Rome. A student of languages and communication, she discovered a fascination with Islamic studies during her undergraduate years and traveled to Paris to study Islam with a Muslim professor.
“I could really see how God was acting in his life,” she said.
She followed up that experience with an internship at the United Nations in Rome and then went to Damascus on a Foreign Affairs scholarship. Later, she got a Master’s Degree at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and another Master’s Degree in international journalism back in Rome. She then worked for a news website that focused on Muslim communities.
“I was really committed to the idea of trying to give an Italian audience a different idea” about the Muslim faith and its adherents, she said. After the website closed down, Elena spent two months in Jerusalem, and then found a position in the office in charge of pilgrimages in the Vicariate of Rome.
“I’m really interested in the idea of helping people find out the meaning of the Holy Land,” she said.
Elena, who also spent time at Princeton University for a seminar on Islam and religious freedom, heard about the IPP scholarship after meeting Prof. Yehezkel Landau at the Cambridge Interfaith Summer School.
“When I discovered that I was coming here, it was like a dream,” she said. “We’re really making the most of our time here.”
Both Elena and Doaa said they were thrilled to find themselves learning side by side with people of other faiths, taught by professors skilled in interfaith approaches.
“It’s not just about other religions, but about our own religion,” Doaa said, echoing almost perfectly Hartford Seminary’s motto, “Exploring differences, deepening faith.”
Hartford Seminary began the International Peacemaking Program (IPP) in 2004, recognizing the need for skilled peacemakers in many countries with which the Seminary has connections, as well as the unique leadership training that could be provided here. The program, which is supported by donors, provides a full one-year scholarship for students who are selected to participate.
The IPP is for Christians, Muslims or Jews who live in overseas areas where there is interreligious conflict. Students in the International Peacemaking Program spend an academic year studying interfaith dialogue and leadership skills that also includes an emphasis on public engagement and public speaking skills. In addition to their formal studies, students are embedded in a local faith community where they experience American religious culture firsthand.