Friday, April 28, 2017

Study trip to Malaysia: in-depth discussions with finance leaders to enhance our understanding of Islamic Finance

Students at SAIS spent spring break in various ways. Some traveled, some returned home to their families, and others took a trip to Kuala Lumpur. Below, Mathew Kostman, a first year MA student in the European and Eurasian Studies program at SAIS Europe, tells us about his trip to the Malaysian capital along with other SAIS students.

The trip embodies SAIS's multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary nature bringing to Asia students in the Middle East and the European and Eurasian Studies programs.

If someone told me earlier this year that I would spend my spring break learning about Islamic Finance from industry leaders in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I would have not believed them because Southeast Asia and Islamic Finance were never areas of consideration of academic study for me. As a U.S. student spending his first extended period of time in Europe, my focus was set on Eastern Europe. However, when the European and Eurasian Studies (EES) program announced a department-wide lottery to spend a week in Kuala Lumpur, I took my chance, and, thanks to the EES, the Middle East Studies (MES) department, and Starr Foundation, I had the incredible opportunity to spend a week in a country I never thought I’d be in, studying a topic I didn't know anything about.

This trip was possible thanks to a fellowship grant by the Starr Foundation centered on giving the opportunity to students outside of Asian Studies disciplines to have meaningful contact with the region, offering students the opportunity in both the European and Eurasian as well as the Middle East Studies programs at SAIS to travel to the region.

Meeting at the Islamic Financial Services Board

To prepare for the trip, my eleven travel companions, from the Bologna and Washington campuses, and I, researched the basics of Islamic Finance and put together a collective syllabus to familiarize with the topic before our meetings in Kuala Lumpur. After a guest lecture by Professor Camille Pecastaing, Senior Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Program, and numerous virtual conferences with the student group at the DC campus, we gained a good understanding of Islamic Finance, its history, the current trends, how its principles are implemented currently and the plans for the future.  It was great to have the opportunity to learn about the inner-workings and future plans of Islamic Finance directly from the source.

Thanks to the coordination of Ms. Kathryn Knowles, Associate Director of European and Eurasian Studies, and the help of one of our hosts Mr. Daud Vicary from the International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance, we met remarkable individuals at different institutions who were true experts and practitioners of Islamic Finance in Malaysia. Our discussions with people from the Malaysian Securities Commission, Malaysian National Bank, and the Islamic Financial Services Board were particularly enlightening. We found ourselves having in-depth policy and technical discussions with high-ranking leaders in Malaysian finance, enhancing our understanding of a topic many of us had only heard about a few months ago.

Our meeting with Members of Parliament gave us a better understanding of the current political situation in the Country and some of the issues they are dealing with. Malaysia has an incredibly multi-ethnic population with large Chinese and Indian communities that add a fascinating element to the Country’s history, culture, and politics. We got to see this up close when we attended a discussion conducted by a group of Malaysian college students about race, ethnicity, and the conflicts they raise. Befriending these students and hearing their stories and experiences was incredible and gave us a window into their lives and cultures.

My classmates tasting their first durian fruit
In our down time we got a taste of the culinary diversity Malaysia enjoys. We searched the city for the best local and authentic foods, discovering wonderful Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Korean food. Some of us tried the durian fruit, a staple of Malaysia.

This trip also allowed us to get to know our fellow classmates across the Atlantic Ocean. Studying, exploring, and attending meetings with the students in the EES and MES programs was a great way to get to know them, and I am looking forward to my time on the SAIS DC campus.

It was the best way to spend my spring break. I traveled to a new country on a continent I had never been to before, I learned about a fascinating topic I didn't know anything about, and I got to experience the culture (and cuisine) of Malaysia while getting to know my fellow SAIS classmates.

Matthew Kostman
MA Student
SAIS Europe 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Insight From the Frontlines: Understanding the Refugee Crisis in the European Context

The Global Security and Conflict Management Club this spring has organized two  migration Study Treks - one to Athens/Lesvos, Greece (March 19th to March 24th) and the second to Lampedusa, Italy (April 30th to May 3rd). These student led initiatives allow SAISERS to further compliment their studies by combining theory with practice. SAIS Europe First Year MA International Relations Concentrator Diane Bernabei, shared her experiences travelling to Greece below.

It is not uncommon to hear from fellow SAISers how they spent their spring breaks, jetting off to Africa to conduct some field research, to the Middle East to work on their thesis or any of a number of impressive multilateral organizations to interview for a summer job.  This past March, sixteen SAISers were able to say they traveled to what the real world considers a relatively typical spring break destination, Greece.  But we did not go for any typical vacation-related reason. The Global Security and Conflict Management Club (GSCM) traveled to Greece to conduct an in depth study on how local Greek authorities and multilateral and non-governmental organizations collaborate to manage the burgeoning refugee crisis.

The trip started in Athens where we met with directors of a large health and human services facility, Solidarity Now. This NGO has largely been accredited for leading the successful transition in Greece’s NGO community from providing aid to Greeks suffering from the economic crises to launching initiatives meant to aid a more diverse group of both Greeks and refugee asylum seekers.  Meeting with the organization exposed the difficulties in transitioning aid to new target demographics caused by the political situation in Greece, an important topic the group discussed in further detail in an afternoon roundtable discussion with the European Commission’s Representative to Greece and the Vice Mayor of Athens.  Our time in Athens also included several meetings with NGO leaders, such as the Greek  Director of Doctors Without Borders, and academics, including the Director of the Institute of International Relations.

Students tour Solidarity
resource center in Athens
Meeting with academics and policy makers provided one perspective on the current migration crisis facing Europe. Asking direct questions to the people managing the crisis on the ground provided another important viewpoint.   For this reason, our group decided to spend more than half of the trip dedicated to  fieldwork, visiting refugee camps and meeting with refugees to discuss their experiences in migrating to Europe.  

Students discuss migration issues
with local Athenian NGO
Visiting the Eleonas refugee camp, the largest refugee camp for families in Athens, housing over 2,000 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and various parts of North Africa and the Middle East, provided us with the opportunity to meet with field coordinators from the International Rescue Committee, the International Organization for Migration and METAdrasi. These organizations provided important insight on how different organizations coordinate their efforts and funding to manage a large number of refugees in small compact camps.

SAISERS meet former Greek Foreign Minister
After two full days in Athens, the group headed to the Greek island of Lesvos to conduct research on the frontlines of the refugee crisis. In 2015 alone, more than one million asylum seekers crossed the dangerous six-mile stretch of the Mediterranean Sea that lies between Greece and Turkey to make it to this Island. While on Lesvos, we met with the UNHCR and The Red Cross to discuss their strategies in organizing a response to the crises. We also met with Lighthouse Relief, an agency that coordinates on-the-shore first responder emergency aid and transportation logistics for the newly arrived migrants.

SAISers met with Hellenic Coast Guard
to discuss refugee rescue challenges
We also met with representatives from the Hellenic Coast Guard to better understand the challenges associated with responding efficiently to rapidly changing influxes of refugees demanding emergency assistance as they cross the rough waters.  Because of the recent economic crises, the Greek government cannot afford to provide extra assistance to the coast guard. As such,  the Hellenic Coast Guard finds itself in a strenuous situation  between not being able to expand its resources while facing increasingly demanding surges of refugee influxes.

Students meet with Karatapei Refugee Camp
representatives and refugees
Our time in Lesvos culminated in a final meeting with US based NGO Samaritan’s Purse, where we were able to learn more about the professional lives of volunteer workers and gain more insight into NGO strategies that assist refugees and asylum seekers adjust to a new life in Greece.

In just four days we toured three  refugee camps, two health and human service centers, one coast guard vessel, met with 17 different agencies, two municipalities, the European Parliament, and various segments of the Greek Government. 

We discussed pertinent issues and asked hard questions to leaders from the NGO communities, members the diplomatic circuit managing the crises from a political standpoint, and to first responders on the shores, who save lives every day.  We were exposed to several viewpoints of the refugee crises and learned something new from each component.

Our research culminated in a final report documenting our experience in Greece, detailing our perspective on the successes and failures entrenched in mitigating such a crises and diagnosing various areas were we see room for improvement.   Our itinerary definitely did not include any of the normal stops visitors make in Greece, but each day mirrors a typical  day in the life of an ordinary SAISer.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Learning Outside the Classroom: Visit to "The City of Peace and Justice"

Students in the International Law concentration–ILaw in SAIS jargon – quickly realized one does not visit The Hague because of its weather. But sideways rain and constant wind couldn’t dampen the spirits of the SAIS Europe students who went from international organization to tribunal to NGO, seeking to better understand the functions of those working in the “City of Peace and Justice”.

First stop was Eurojust, an EU organization overseeing the cooperation between Member State judicial systems. A perfect antidote to those who claim that the EU is too unwieldy, Eurojust representative explained the process for dividing of cases between multiple countries involved, cooperation with non-EU partners, and the top three priorities—people smuggling, cyber warfare and terrorism. Crime, the refrain was, doesn’t stop at national borders.

Visit to the ICC

As ever with SAIS student, there was play mixed with our work. Thanks to a group member born and raised in The Hague, we got the inside scoop on the city, taking plenty of time to wander by the beautiful Parliaments old city and sample the local fare, and took a brief trip to Delft to try a Pakistan-Dutch fusion dinner and admire the famous waterways.

Visits to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) were the most hands-on of the two days, the former proceeded by a briefing from Amady Ba, a prominent Senegalese judge and Chief of International Cooperation. Sitting just meters away from the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) warlord Dominic Ongwen and five perpetrators of atrocities during the Bosnian war was both a chilling reminder of the need for international arbitration in the world’s largest-scale conflicts, as well as the reassurance that perpetrators can successfully be held accountable, albeit decades after the crimes have been committed.

At the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Rounding out the trip were visits to the non-profit Hague Institute for the Internationalization of Law (HiiL), International Development Law Organization, and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Talking with program coordinators from each gave us students a good idea of just how many professional intersections exist with international law, in the form of judicial capacity-building, development, and multilateral reform movements.

Although brief, the study trip to The Hague was an informative one, covering ideas and projects from land rights programs in Burundi all the way to judicial advising in Kenya. It now remains to be seen how those SAIS students who imagine a future in international law chose to carve out a niche within the professional world into we gained such rich insight.

Emily Ashby
SAIS Europe 2017