By Meg Allen
Photos by Ann Blake and Jennifer Siew
In the photograph Jennifer Siew holds, a small child with dark curls gazes up at a young man in a gray, university sweatshirt. He is more than twice the little girl’s height and she scrunches her face into a smile as she tilts her head back to look up at him. The sun is in her hair and on their hands, shining through the barbed wire behind them.
The moment was one of Siew’s favorites— an artifact of a day she spent in the Egyptian settlement Manshiyat Naser. In her time at Drexel, the international area studies major has discovered a passion for documenting moments like these, moments that illuminate the kindness she feels unites us as human beings. A self-taught photographer, she uses her camera to capture the people she meets in her international travels, hoping that their stories will challenge her family and friends’ global perceptions.
Born in New York to first-generation Caribbean immigrants, Siew was raised in California, a state she characterizes as one people don’t talk about leaving. During her senior year of high school, she served as the student representative to the State Board of Education. Her interest in local politics piqued her interest in national news; national news gradually yielded to international news and, specifically, to stories of human rights. Unlike her peers, Siew didn’t apply to college in California. Instead, a meeting with Kate Hughes, the advisor for Drexel’s international area studies major, persuaded Siew to move back to the East Coast and matriculate to Drexel. A veritable Jill-of-all-trades, she was attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of the major and the myriad opportunities for study abroad.
International travel had been in Siew’s plans for years; at the age of 10, she took two years of Japanese-language study with the hopes of eventually visiting the country. She continued briefly with the language during her freshman year but decided it wouldn’t allow her to fully explore a future in human rights. As she searched for a new language to take her into the fray, the Arab Spring took hold of the Arab world and Siew realized her next step. She commenced her study of Arabic at the same time that she began an even more difficult task—convincing her parents to sanction study abroad in the Middle East. Although she says it took a bit of convincing, Siew commends her parents for striking a balance between concern and support.
“They always voice their objections,” she notes, “but they truly want me to do whatever I want—to pursue a career that I love wholeheartedly.”
With her parents’ blessing, she put her 10-week Arabic course to the test, traveling to Jordan and then on to Cairo. In Cairo, Siew first discovered the overwhelming hospitality she has since found to be a prevailing trait among Arabic people. Disoriented at a non-violent protest and unable to navigate their way out of a crowd, Siew and her friends were escorted out by five anonymous Egyptians who linked arms around them and led them out of the square. The experience, and others like it, led Siew to look past the faceless crowds and instead, she says, to see and try to understand the people.
It was this moment that also led her to pick up her camera: “I wanted to show the people back home how great the people I met were, [and] how wrong some of their perceptions of the Middle East were.”
And of course, she wanted to reassure her parents as well.
During her travels, Siew says she talks with her parents every day, an unlikely and often-begrudged pastime for someone her age, she admits, but one that she has come to love. The “hours and hours” she spends describing her adventures—part duty and part celebration— not only ease her parents’ fears, but also renew her own compassion for the people of the Middle East.
Siew’s love for capturing stories led her to Palestine in the spring of 2013 to work as a reporter and photographer for the Palestinian News Network. While there, she covered a number of nonviolent protests with a filmmaker who did not speak English, but did learn to say, “I will keep you safe,” to set Siew at ease.
Motivated by her experiences, Siew left with a vivid vision for her future: to return to Palestine one day and establish a joint microfinance and community health center to aid the people she has grown to love— and to document it all with her camera in hopes of combatting what she sees as a “plethora of misinformation circulating in the international community.”
Siew credits her international area studies professors with first inviting her to think critically about traditional forms of foreign and humanitarian aid and says they turned her on to the prospect of microfinance as an innovative method to encourage “economic growth, job creation and economic independence.” She has since parlayed these interests into a research position in the Opening Doors Program at Drexel’s School of Public Health. She and her advisor, Dennis Gallagher, PhD, are conducting a feasibility study to determine the need and potential for creating a community health center at a local high school in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Like microfinance, Siew believes community health centers empower the patients who visit them by increasing their overall health and subsequently providing them with the autonomy to better pursue their goals. Because these centers are uniquely designed to suit the communities they serve, they establish a rapport that is sometimes missing with larger institutions, says Siew.
This winter, Siew plans to return to Palestine before traveling on to Brazil, where she’ll remain for most of the year. While there, she’ll be studying Portuguese, as well as what she considers to be Brazil’s relative success with microfinance and community health centers. Siew expects the experience will guide her plans to establish a combined center in Palestine.
While she doesn’t expect everyone to want to follow the same path she’s on, Siew does believe passionately that every individual has a responsibility to make some part of the world better, whether on a global or local scale.
“There is no cookie cutter way,” she clarifies. “Even for one small community, one nation, or a region—there’s no cookie cutter way to go and help people.”
But the first step, she says, is as small as holding someone’s hand: listening and learning about the experiences of others. “I think when people are truly, fully informed, that is when they feel a personal commitment to do meaningful work.”