On the day after the election, Meriem’s natural family was concerned about her safety. She reassured them that the “riots” and “protests” they were seeing on news broadcasts were not the same as they are familiar with in the Middle East. She told them she was confused but safe, and that she would be ok.
I reassured Meriem that her perception was correct. I told her that as Americans we feel free to make a “great big noisy fuss.” It’s part of who we are and part of the freedom of speech that Americans have. I explained to her that, generally speaking, once we are “heard,” we calm down and begin to work together. Our system of government and culture are set up to accommodate that and—as dysfunctional as it may appear from the outside looking in — it works for us.
Observing and witnessing these events have filled Meriem with bravery to share with friends at school that she is Muslim. Previously, she had kept this hidden because of the negative rhetoric she had heard as a new kid at school; she had been warned by friends to avoid a particular group of students and took the warnings seriously.
We talked about this on Wednesday too, and we decided that the time had come for her to address the situation directly. We planned that when she went back to school on Thursday, if she heard something negative, she should calmly say, “Excuse me, but when you say something like this, you need to understand you are talking about me. I am Muslim. My family is Muslim. And it is not ok for you to talk about me or my family or friends in this way.”
We agreed that she could help her classmates by sharing that she is part of the “others” that they might refer to, to put a human face to a misunderstood category. I reminded her that this is one of the goals of international student exchange: to help extinguish false ideas that are so easily assigned to faceless groups of unknown people.
It is easy to de-humanize people without a face. It is something altogether different to hold on to rhetoric and false assumptions when that faceless group suddenly becomes a friend and classmate—when Meriem stands in front of you.
After watching election coverage, listening to speeches from President Obama and other politicians, and talking about it together, we redirected our focus to working on her speech. She had procrastinated with this work, but the day’s events left her feeling empowered and ready to add some significant examples and quotes.
I helped Meriem with research, and we collected comments from Hillary Clinton, George H.W. Bush and one of my former host fathers—all politically diverse people, yet united in believing in the value of building relationships with people from other countries. Each quote was a variation on the theme that international exchanges wear away cultures of fear and misunderstanding and build bridges to help work towards world peace.
Meriem practiced her delivery with my husband and me with unparalleled passion. I think it helped that we had spent the day listening to American leadership speaking to citizens in an effort to help us find a way to make sense of a confusing situation filled with diverse values, ideas and policy in conflict.
On Thursday, Meriem delivered the speech for her class and said the teacher, using an app for students to vote if the speech persuaded them or not, revealed that all of her classmates voted that they had been successfully persuaded by Meriem’s speech!
I am realizing today that our work with AYA is even more meaningful now than ever. I am feeling the weight of this heavy responsibility in being an integral part of helping people build bridges, empowering voices when needed, and guiding people to listening first and talking second. What a privilege and an honor!