A Home Away From Home: Bita Jalalian ’25 reflects on her experience interning in Tunisia as an Iranian-American

Dec. 19, 2023

Story was originally published in the 2023 edition of Princeton University’s international magazine, Princeton International.

Bita Jalalian in Tunisia

As the last academic year came to a close at Princeton University, I was enveloped by a sense of homesickness. Although I was raised in Georgia, this homesickness stemmed from a deep part of my identity beyond the United States. I am Persian-American, and my yearning extended to Iran—a home that I had once visited regularly but now felt untouchable. For nearly five decades, Iran has been plagued by corruption, human rights violations and freedom of speech suppression. When protests erupted after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, travel to Iran became even riskier and left my family and me feeling severed from our home when it needed us most. Surprisingly, during this difficult time, my summer internship in Tunisia through the International Internship Program (IIP) helped heal these wounds.

I interned at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an intergovernmental organization with locations in 20 counties that works to reform and enhance democratic institutions across the globe. As a public and international affairs major hoping to obtain a certificate in French, working for International IDEA in Tunisia, a largely French speaking country, was a dream opportunity for me.

Upon arriving in Tunisia, I was reminded of Iran almost instantly. The streets were filled with large roundabouts with medinas (outdoor markets) in nearly every city. The food evoked memories of home with warm tea and sugary baklavas at every restaurant. Even the people reminded me of Iranians, with their humble generosity and gracious invitations into their homes. During my eight weeks there, I attended a wedding dressed in traditional Tunisian clothing and learned traditional Arabic dances. Tunisia is a majority Muslim country, and the more conservative style of dressing and adhans, or calls to prayer, played over public speakers five times a day also recalled memories of Iran.

Significantly, however, I held onto one stark distinction: I rarely felt discomfort as a woman in a tank top or a skirt in Tunisia. I was not attacked for showing my hair in public nor was I arrested or jailed. In this sense, Tunisia felt like a liberated Iran— an Iran where women have vastly more freedom, an Iran my family and I have dreamed of.

Bita Jalalian ’25, third from right, standing, with the International IDEA Tunisia office team.

Bita Jalalian ’25, third from right, standing, with the International IDEA Tunisia office team.

When I first began my work with International IDEA, I immediately felt valued and welcomed. The head of the Tunisia office, Khameyel Fenniche, made my presence known to all workers and allowed me to participate in all office meetings. As a result, I met Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary-general of International IDEA, and Zaid Al-Ali, the senior adviser in constitution building in the Arab region for International IDEA. After I worked with Khameyel on translations of International IDEA memos from French to English, Zaid invited me onto the Yemen team where I studied that country’s conflict and conducted research on topics such as including peace guarantors, religion in peace agreements and security governance in Yemen. This research was later used in a series of meetings Zaid conducted with leaders of Yemen’s political parties and other key activists in attempts to reach peace. As a former refugee from Iraq, Zaid facilitated these deliberations by foregrounding humanity, and as a student of law, diplomacy and international affairs, I was inspired by his work and learned a lot from him in a short period of time. My time on his team enhanced my research abilities and deepened my understanding of the principles underlying constitution building and diplomacy.

My IIP concluded on a note that felt like the completion of a full circle. During the last week of my internship, Khameyel approached me with a project related to Iran. International IDEA hoped to create a new initiative aimed at spreading democracy within the country, and, knowing of my interest and passion for the topic, Khameyel entrusted me with leading this pursuit. I was tasked with creating a concept note for a new dialogue peace initiative in Iran—a 10-page document aiming to persuade global organizations such as the United Nations and European Union to back the project. Feeling more inspired than ever, I worked on the new Iran initiative, a project that stands as the most meaningful work of my life. I researched and described internal divisions and conflict in Iran and detailed a distinct solution through International IDEA’s dialogue initiative, noting its plans to promote constructive engagement and national reconciliation in the country. This opportunity helped me learn to derive and describe outcomes, outline project proposals and develop a theory of change in a clear, concise and persuasive manner. Notably, it enabled me to think like a policymaker, visualizing solutions to Iran’s national crisis while also contributing to a democratic world.

While in Tunisia, I had the opportunity to see what a representative Iran would look like, and, at last, I had a hands-on opportunity to fight for just that. Thus, I left this journey with a rekindled hope for a more democratic Iran and an unwavering sense of a newfound home away from home.