Befriending Islam

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An Iftar is the time during Ramadan when the sun sets and Muslim’s break their fast. Although I’ neither Muslim nor was I fasting, I was invited to an Iftar dinner this week with a Turkish family.

As I drove my Persian friend to our dinner destination, she expressed her concerns for finding a job. A newly graduated computer engineer, she had just finished her Master’s and the grueling process of defending a thesis. Now, the job hunt was on.

“This is my dilemma,” she said as we drove through the city, watching the sun sink behind the clouds.

“My dream was to find a good job in computer engineering, maybe somewhere in California. But if I stay in the US, I will not be able to go back to Iran and visit my family. You know, because of the policies and stuff.”

I nodded to show I was listening, even though my eyes were fixed on the road, riddled with potholes giving my little Honda a beating.

She went on, “There are also jobs in Canada. Then I could visit my parents in Iran more easily. But if I go to Canada, returning to America would be difficult, and there are so many things I want to do here.”

Before we set out, my friend sat enviously looking at my photos from Niagara Falls. I casually scrolled through the pictures from my vacation and showed her the view from the American side.

“Julia, for you this is nothing but it is my dream to see Niagra Falls,” she said with a chuckle.

“BAM!” I hit another pothole, rattling my body as I tried to hold the steering wheel tightly. My fiend lived in the city center and the Turkish family we were going to see was a  35 minute drive north.

“Have you ever been in this kind of situation?” she asked, referring to her job search. I thought about my own search for employment. The way I wiped tables at a café for four months after I finished school. And the phone call that changed my status from “recent college grad” to “young professional.” But of course for my friend, being  international, things were different. She was crunched for time with a visa that would soon expire. She was fighting language barriers, cultural barriers and the competition of a thousand other computer engineers.

Her situation reminded me of my summer grad school project. I am researching how HR teams could better recruit international talent. Although my project focuses on the HR perspective, it was eye-opening to hear the international person’s dilemma and the rising desperation in her voice.

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At last we arrived and the sun had set. I pulled up my hair into a neat bun and followed my friend into the apartment of the Turkish family. The hostess wore a blue hijab and a long black skirt. Her face was all kindness as she hugged me and pressed her cheek to my right, then my left, and my right again. I awkwardly followed this greeting, feeling a bit stupid at my own discomfort. Then, I slipped into a chair at the table beside my friend and observed the other guests.

Across from me sat a Turkish couple who were guests as well. The husband was a middle aged man with a broad smile. The wife was petite and timid, raising her eyes with her nose kept down, and smiling at me as we made introductions. I stumbled through their names and turned to my left to meet the host. He was younger with a dark complexion and fierce black eyes. He smiled and told me his name, to which I politely nodded with no comprehension.  Then a two year old boy, with curly black hair, charted across the living room and up into the man’s lap, eyeing me curiously and whispering something in Turkish.

We ate and talked for a while before they began to speak Turkish. The other guests had a little boy as well. He squirmed in his father’s lap, dousing his mouth with sour cream and pastry. The father asked us to excuse himself and the other man to go and pray. They got up promptly and went into the next room, leaving the women to discuss education, work, and visa problems. One of the women explained that she had plead asylum and was able to secure a visa. But, despite her PhD in civil engineering she was still searching for employment with no luck.

When the men returned we cleaned the table and retired to the living room for tea and dessert. As the hours passed I began to feel increasingly tired and I realized it was nearly eleven. But because they had slept for most of the day, no one was tired, not even the little boys who played on the floor, the little one knocking his mother’s tea all over the couch, only to return giggling with an ice pack pressed to his face. My friend asked the group for advice about finding a job. Some thought that Canada would be a good decision. But everyone agreed whatever opportunity came her way she should take.

And the discussion went on late into the night. My eyes began to close and my stomach to grow warm from all the food. The hostess sat beside me and asked about my parents. She was also from a family of ten. I don’t know if it was her hijab but I felt like I was talking to the Virgin Mary. Was it her long black skirt, her blue scarf, her pale skin and dark eyes, the high cheek bones and the long dark lashes? I also wondered at how someone who covered most of her body could be so beautiful. It was her smile, her animated face, and the way she pronounced words with such fortitude. It brought me to that part of the world where I’ve never been and I felt privileged to experience this Middle Eastern culture.  I watched and listened with a quiet admiration, wondering what it must be like to grow up Muslim.

“We both come from Abrahamic religions,” she explained. “Abraham’s children bred Christianity and Judaism. Later on, Islam started. And so we have the same roots.” I never really thought I could find camaraderie with a Muslim, but we felt like friends, and her hijab didn’t seem to perplex me so much.

The hostess packed us food to go and we finally left around half past midnight. My friend climbed up into my sunroof as we sped off and told me to turn the music up loud. As the wind hit her face she laughed and captured the moment to share with her friends.

“My friends in Iran are so curious about America. They will wonder what has become of me when I share this,” she said with a smile.

I laughed at her silliness, and considered why this all felt so new. I thought about my earliest recollection of Islam, and yes it was during 9/11. I recall sitting in front of the TV every night as my parent’s watched the latest news in Baghdad. Islam was terrorism, brutal killings, roadside explosions, and suicide bombers. I’d never seen Muslims as kind and generous, nor had I considered the fact that we shared a religious background, not until now.

 

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Death, A Daily Reality

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Weddings, babies, and graduation ceremonies are what I thought would fill the duration of my post-college years. But, instead I find myself attending the funeral of one of my best friends and then hearing about the sudden death of several other young people in my community. Life is weird.

For some I suppose this is a daily reality. Those in war-torn countries, people in crime infested neighborhoods. Maybe I was just spared this type of grief in my growing up years. In former days, death was the stuff of news articles, statistics, and maybe a distant relative or an old church member. Now, death proceeds from the mouth of a friend still in shock, it arrives in a church announcement, a phone call in the night.

Yesterday at church, I stood on stage with the worship team. Looking out into the congregation I saw so many grieving faces. A church elder got up and shared about the 20-year-old murder victim who was closely connected to members of our church. My heart sank as I shuffled the pages on my music stand before we started the next song.

Death is horrible. Now that I’ve experienced it I don’t retract in fear like I once did. Instead of being afraid of death I’m just disheartened by it. What is there to fear when you’ve already lost a very close friend? I feel united with my friends who are grieving. I look into their dimmed eyes and say, “I too lost a best friend.”

Not fearful however I can’t help but ask myself, who is next? What person in my life will be the next to go? Where will I be when I hear the earth-shattering news that yet another person has left this earth? Maybe it will be me. I rise in the morning and wonder if today is my last, and I go to bed at night thinking I may awake in a place called eternity. At a grief seminar last week I realized it’s good to come to terms with death, to ponder your own death. Just because you want to die doesn’t mean you’re suicidal.

I know this post is a little scattered but to make sense of death is very difficult. Once the griever, now I feel called to be the comforter. How do you comfort a grieving friend? What do you say to a father who has just lost his son, or a sister who has lost her only brother?

I am comforted by one thing only. The Lord is here. The Lord is with you. Most of the time there are no words or deeds to mend a grieving heart. But the simple act of being with someone can make the grieving process a great deal better.

Afraid to live Afraid to die

Fear: noun; a distressed emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, or pain.

I suppose fear is a result of death, and that of sin. As expected, these days I am depleted by the fear of death more than ever before. I use to think about death in a good way. It was my ultimate outcome, a sign of a job well done, the end of the race.

Now it scares me.

I fear losing another close friend. I fear dying when my time comes. How will it feel to leave my body, this vessel I call home, and to experience a state of bodilessness.

My fear extends beyond death. I’m now afraid to live. Afraid of making memories without him. Afraid of doing things we used to do together. Afraid of growing older than him, for he was always a year ahead of me. Afraid of stepping into new chapters of life and not being able to tell him about them. And most of all, afraid of forgetting things we did together.

When someone dies, memories are all that remain. Photographs hardly do them justice. But what of when I forget the sound of his voice, the way he walked, the expressions he made?

I was at first comforted by the thought of seeing him again; heaven seemed all the more near. But as one morning without Johnny in this world becomes a few dozen, I search in vain for that comfort?

I remember a famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” 

Last week I didn’t want to beBut with each new morning in this sad chapter of life I realize that Someone wants me to be. And as long as I am here, ’till the day I get to see Johnny again, I will carry out the tasks my Father has asked of me.

As I start a new week I pray these words from the Psalms, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”

New Year’s Eve in a Congolese Church

 

I spent New Year’s eve in a Congolese church, singing about God’s faithfulness and dancing to the beat of the African drum, alongside a people with whom I share a history.

My father is Rwandan, born in the neighboring country Burundi, but he grew up in Congo, a country once known as Zaire. While he lived in Africa, Congo Kinshasa was home to my father and though he was not Congolese, he spoke Lingala, Swahili, and French.

Image result for map of congo and rwanda

 

Lingala is what I heard the night of New Year’s eve from a host of African Christians praising God in their own tongue and in their own form of worship, through dance and song. I danced too, awkwardly I suppose, but freely and without hesitation. I listened to the French songs and sang to the best of my limited French ability. They also sang songs in Swahili jumping and waving their hands, so I mimicked the phrases and thought about this language my Grandparents spoke, two African individuals of my own bloodline whom I never really got to know.

The service was wonderfully long and continued through the night until the  New Year came. “You are from Ethiopia?” the Pastor asked, putting me on the spot in front of the whole congregation. “No” I replied naturally. “Well, they say the most beautiful women come from Ethiopia. You must have some African heritage in you.” I didn’t know whether I should be offended or flattered, nor did I know quite how to respond.

People ask me if I am Ethiopian all the time, especially if they are from India, East Africa, or sometimes the Middle East. “I am from America, but my father is from Africa,” I explained later when the women approached me and asked again. They said no more, but accepted me as a sister, a cousin, a daughter. And I felt as if I was part of some special club using the origin of my Father as a token of membership.

For some reason, though I’m not sure why, I am drawn to African people, mostly from Sub-Saharan  Africa. Maybe because I seek an identity, or maybe because I am biracial and constantly searching for a people group to call my own. But most of the time I think it’s because they always accept my big curly hair. 🙂

Happy New Year.  Bonne Année.

Befriending Americans

pexels-photo-largeDear College Students of 2K16

                                           Befriend your international classmates

It was a rainy day last week when I rushed into the shelter of our crowded Student Union. With a thirty minute gap for lunch and an exam following thereafter I had just come for a quick bite and a chance to dry off. Or so I thought.

Always self-conscious of my hair’s response to a cool drizzle, I quickly scanned the room for an empty spot. #selfconscious

I found a sophomore from Japan sitting alone sipping a warm beverage–probably a creamy late because our school coffee is not the greatest. She smiled as I approached her so I took the liberty of setting down my bag and engaging in small talk. When I learned she was not meeting anyone or leaving anytime soon, I left to order my food and returned to share some fries and carrots with her.

Food has a way of breaking the awkwardness of intentional conversation. #foodie

I asked how she was doing, inquired about her sister, who is studying abroad, and sliced my grilled chicken into bite-sized pieces. As she responded I took notice of the excitement in her face that we were talking. After sometime when there was a lull in the conversation and I found more interest in finishing my lemonade than engaging in conversation she turned from her computer and said,

“Julia, how do you think international students can make friends with Americans?”

I hesitated before answering because I needed to asses her inquiry. She was a bright student from Japan with a solid group of friends, a Major she enjoyed, and a comfortable English speaking ability. She had even previously said, “Do you notice that my English is improving a lot?” Then why was she asking me something she could most definitely figure out on her own?

The answer, I already knew for I have many international friends and most of them experience the same thing when it comes to befriending American students.

I told her it was important to first understand American culture and how it differs from her own. And after we’d talked some more she asked yet another difficult question.

“Julia, how did you make friends with international students in your dormitory?”

This question was difficult because as a senior I don’t really spend enough time with the girls I live with. #guilty

But then again I do spend every waking moment applying for jobs and submitting articles.

I stared blankly for a while reaching back into the pockets of my memory to recall my sophomore year, the leadership positions I held on campus,  the influence I had simply by being readily available to anyone no matter their age, race, national orientation, or gender.

So I told her about being a minority and how minorities notice one another and are sometimes drawn to each other. As I talked I began to realize that my skin color determines who I befriend and who will seek me out, before I do.

What I observed in talking with this girl from Japan is something I feel a lot of international students struggled with on University campuses in the United States. While in some cultures, newfound friends are friends for life, in American culture life-long friendships develop over a lifetime, and acquaintances are more commonly found in the moment.

So, my challenge is to get to know your international classmates not only because they are a long ways away from home but also because their country allowed them to come and our country allowed them to be received in hopes to better understand each other and bring peace.

To overcome cultural tensions and misunderstandings, is it not crucial to perceive the significance of differences? For is it not the differences that cause two cultures, societies or nations to collide?

#foodforthought