In 2001 I was living in Europe, knee-deep in my first immersion into the reality of people who were so desperate to escape violence and oppression that they would risk life and limb, crossing mountains and seas in search of hope.
Working as an English teacher in a day center frequented mostly by young men from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, I had the privilege and incredible challenge of trying to facilitate language learning with a revolving-door of changing faces. Most of my refugee students slept in parks or abandoned buildings at night while looking for food to survive and trying to figure out how to register for residence permits with the government during daytime hours
In September 2001, the world changed in ways we didn’t see coming. As much as the memory of those days is fixed in my mind, another unforgettable moment occurred a few weeks later when the United States began air strikes on Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks.
The day after the bombs started falling I nervously entered the overcrowded room of eager faces for my regularly scheduled English class. I am sure my nerves were visible to everyone in the room as I tried to carry on as normal, but there was nothing normal about a young American woman standing in a room full of predominantly Afghan men while bombs from her country fell upon theirs.
I honestly didn’t know whether I agreed or didn’t agree with the military action my country was taking, but I did know that there would be casualties and collateral damage, as there always are in war, and those who suffered would likely include the loved ones of at least some of my students. I grieved for my country and for those who died in the horrific attacks in the United States, and I grieved for my students – for the unimaginable losses they had already endured and for the suffering that was increasing in their country at that very moment.
With great trepidation I named the proverbial elephant in all of our minds. Asking some more advanced students to translate for me, I told them I was deeply concerned about any additional suffering that would be caused by this new layer of fighting in their homeland. After only a brief moment, one of the advanced English speakers stood to say, “Teacher, we know you are not your country any more than we are ours. We are people first, and we are so thankful you are here with us.” Others stood in agreement, offering kind words of reassurance that our friendships could go beyond and even be strengthened by our shared experience of grief.
I was deeply moved by the hospitality I received that day. I had moved overseas to serve those displaced by war, but I found myself being helped and welcomed by those whom many would have assumed to be my enemies. I will never forget the lesson I learned in that classroom, that our nationality and our very real conflicts and fears do not have to override our common desire to know and be known, to serve and learn, and to look for a way forward together.