Yasmine El Baggari: Bon Voyaj

Posted on January 24, 2015

Yasmine El Baggari is connecting cultures through shared experience.

Yasmine El Baggari, a native of Morocco, is passionate about connecting people and bridging cultures to encourage a more peaceful caring world. She launched Voyaj, an online platform that matches host families with travelers, worldwide, to provide people with meaningful experiences and open hearts and minds. For the past four years, Yasmine’s reach has included working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, research at Harvard University and the US State Department as a Young Moroccan Ambassador. She has presented her research at the following conferences: Middle East Studies Association, National Organization for Women, and the African Studies Association. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Jadaliyya, Fair Observer, Inc. Magazine, The Economist, and The Huffington Post. Yasmine has received awards from the African Studies Association, Hampshire College’s $60K Award for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, The Entrepreneurial Spirit Award, the Sander Thoenes Research Award, and two Ingenuity Awards. Yasmine is a StartingBloc Fellow, a One Young World Ambassador, and from Global Shapers Rabat Hub.

Let me ask you: how can we progress, as humans, if we don’t understand the value of helping other people from different walks of life?

At the start of each year, I sit down and I stare at a blank page for a couple of minutes before energetically scribbling a list of goals — from personal and academic, to social and professional. One goal might be to gain inner peace and seek a richer, more satisfying life. Another might be to cultivate my leadership spirit while creating a successful social enterprise. Others can be as simple as being more open-minded.

The more years I write, the more I am convinced that identity and values are the sources of the passion in my life. I am a free Arab, African, Moroccan, and Muslim woman and have had the power to choose the direction of my own life in any way I pictured it. Even before that delightful Friday morning when I left home at 17 years old, the dream I had to travel the world was starting to take shape. I wanted to experience other cultures with all my senses. I wanted to travel to twenty countries by the time I was 21. I wanted to visit all fifty states by the time I graduated from university, and I wanted to go on an Atlantic Ocean journey in a cargo boat. It was up to me to work hard and persevere to make the dreams in my imagination become reality.

My dream today is for other people to experience this world with all their senses, if that’s what they wish for. If I have found a way to travel the world, why can’t they?

I’ve travelled to different places and the candid conversations I’ve had with mothers, fathers, sisters, and grandparents have changed who I am. My mentor, Barbara Capozzi, is a woman who is very special to me. Every time we drink tea by the Niagara Falls, I hear in her words the positive impact she’s had on people. It never fails to get me excited and fired up. Her commitment to communicate her experiences to people so they are able to see their full potential, and her ability to make anyone trust her, has helped me become the person I am today. I am open-minded, motivated, and driven to have a social impact, and I am inspired to travel the world, largely because of her.

So I have started Voyaj, an online platform that matches people, worldwide, to provide them with meaningful experiences — opening hearts and minds. I have based Voyaj on the life-changing experiences I have had through my own travels, and I want to bring those opportunities to others all across the world. I actually have this long list in the front of my travelling journal I’m writing right now, and I’m checking places off left and right everywhere I go!

I was in America last week, now I’m in Dublin, next I’ll be in Africa, and in a few months I’ll be off to the Middle East. That kind of experience should be available to everyone. That is what Voyaj is all about. People are uniquely capable of such rapid exploration and development of relationships. Through my journey with Voyaj, I have come to believe this special capability of people can be an accelerator for peace building, social enterprise and technology-powered entrepreneurship.

While I have been gradually building Voyaj from concept to reality, I’ve come to notice how lucky I have been. It was around my third year of college that I realised how much Hampshire College has given me, and part of the motivation for Voyaj was that for the first time I saw how I could give back even more.

From early on, I realised it did not matter how I reached my dreams, as long as I knew I could positively contribute to society. I have been raised with the notion that those who have received benefits need to give back. I look back to when I was given a life-changing opportunity to study in the United States, which then allowed me to travel to 34 states and interact with Americans who opened their hearts and homes to me. Being a guest in different homes has given me the biggest dose of wanderlust imaginable. I now feel so much closer to the rest of the world. The more people I meet, the more places I want to explore. Now I just want to go everywhere.

The process has not been without its pitfalls. I’ve had a peek at the human condition, and seen how vulnerable I can be, how shaky my construction of myself is, how big the world is, and how hard it is for me, sometimes, to sail through it. 2014 has seen horrors and wars happening everywhere. With discrimination against Muslims, and oppression against women, the world is becoming too dark for my taste. I have had to persevere through many challenges this year, but the horrors have only reaffirmed my goals. This is my way of doing something about these issues; creating a platform for people to connect, be exposed to the rest of the world, and to simply get educated about other cultures and people. I am firmly convinced that connecting forward-looking people with broad thinkers and doers across different regions of the world through Voyaj can help make the world a better place.

This year has been my time away to get rejuvenated, experience new things, and come back with new perspectives. I know I made the right decision by taking a year off from school to build my company, and I think I will be all the more engaged and excited about school when I return. The best use of my time now is to bring my own distinct passion to others. I want to help people gain a vivid appreciation of life, coupled with positive emotions and the ability to positively look at things. Sometimes, it really is all about perspective!

Off the back of this whirlwind year, I feel as if I am able to fly away and aim for the moon, if not more. In retrospect, the moon itself does not seem too far, and who knows? Maybe one day, I will expand Voyaj into space. As I travel and connect with people from around the world, I make sure I breathe. I take a deep breath and sit firmly wherever I am. It is proving to be an exhilarating, inspiring, and connective experience thus far. I feel more and more fortunate for the different communities I explore. It is such a comforting feeling knowing that so many of the humans I meet share common ideals.

As I travel, I conduct interviews with promising business leaders, entrepreneurs, and policy makers to explore socioeconomic synergies. The international, multi-generational discussion of solutions to today’s global problems urged me to participate in a range of activities to learn as much as I can. I am not alone in my pursuit of a better world. I am surrounded by inspiring individuals, which has helped me identify possibilities for partnerships and collaborations across countries for my work. As I write for different magazines, filmmakers join me on my adventures, and I talk to locals about their daily lives and cultures, and identify Voyaj hosts and ambassadors. I want to depict stories, capture moments and write about this journey of self-discovery for as long as I live.

I recognise beauty in the art of communication. As a firm believer of the importance of connections, I am convinced that it is exactly how we will be able to instill understanding and acceptance, and break down cultural barriers. I aspire to explore hospitality at a deeper level, and look to embrace differences wherever life takes me.

A friend once said to me: “I can imagine a world that is just that — a world, not scattered countries divided by language, but a world united. I can imagine a world where culture isn’t just something we read about in books but someone with a name who sits there in front of us breathing, smiling, talking, and sharing. We already live in a world where we can connect with people from all around the globe in a matter of seconds, I think it’s time we actually sat down and met.”

For now, all I can do is feel my heartbeat under my hand and let myself just sit for a moment and listen to my breath, to find the connection with the place around me at this moment in time. Who knows where I will be next, and how far this journey will take me.

Yasmine El Baggari has studied at Hampshire College.

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