I briefly worked with a man who had fled from Egypt with his family to escape the threat of decapitation from religious extremists. He had witnessed the violent murders of his friends and neighbors, and finally decided to seek refuge somewhere safe. In his home country, his college degree afforded him a respectable job (I cannot recall his degree or what his position was.) When he came here, employers turned him away. They told him his work experience and degree did not hold value here. He left everything he had ever known to sweep the floors of a hotel frequented by wealthy businessmen in America, in order to protect his family from religious persecution. I worked with this man for several weeks before he told me his story.
And I doubt he would have told me his story had I not made a comment about the anti-Muslim protests that were on the news above the bar at the time. We were both watching, and I shook my head and said something along the lines of “Isn’t it horrible?” He immediately upbraided me, protesting that Muslims had chased him out of his home, and that they deserved to be, not only protested, but killed. When I suggested that perhaps not all Muslims are to blame, that really only a very small group of people commit these acts of violence, he pointed his finger at me and vehemently told me I was wrong. He was shaking with anger.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I apologized profusely for offending him. I told him I had no idea what he had gone through, that I could never truly understand. He told me I was lucky, and that I was “just a little girl,” and that I didn’t understand the world, and I agreed with him. It’s true. I’m young, naïve, and I truly live in the lap of luxury as a white woman in America. Hell, I’m pursuing writing as a career path. I get to have a career path.
I went home and cried, and felt horribly like the pathetic little girl that he told me I was. I felt like I had been reprimanded, and I became angry. But I was also horrified and heart-broken by his story, and, at the same time, frustrated and confused that he could be so hateful towards an entire group of people, when he and his family had been the target of a similar kind of hate for so long. I kept wondering how he could refuse to see that, and only grew more frustrated when I realized that the only reason I was even in a position to criticize him for his resentment was because I am so lucky. I have never experienced the kind of fear that that man has.
And fear breeds hate. When I learned the death toll in Paris after the attacks last night, I felt my chest get tight. My heart ached for the victims and their loved ones, and I felt afraid. I could picture the attackers’ hate so clearly, because I had seen it in that man at my old job. I saw his pointed finger shaking in my face, the veins bulging in his neck. I saw the pain and fear swimming in his eyes. Because behind all of that passionate hate, he was afraid.
In all honesty, I had tried to forget that man, his story, and his rage. I felt embarrassed whenever I recalled the memory because he had made me feel so small, much smaller than I had ever wished to admit that I am. We are so comfortable in this country, and all other predominantly white countries in Europe, for that matter. When one of our own is attacked, we feel threatened. Our lives feel threatened, our comfort feels threatened, and our power feels threatened. We acknowledge these attacks and ignore the others that happen every other day in the Middle East because we are afraid to admit how small we are, how lucky we are. We reach out to France with open arms now, in their time of need, but we choose to turn our backs on the rest of the world every single day. It’s easier to hate, and to place blame on the Muslim community. It’s easier to ignore the larger picture, especially from where we’re standing.
I realize all of this, and yet, I feel so powerless. What am I supposed to do with my opinion, as a twenty-three-year-old waitress? What could I have said to that man, in that moment, to lessen his burden? Maybe it’s naive of me to even think there was anything I could do. I knew he was wrong, and I wanted to hate him for treating me like an unruly child, but instead I felt sad, and helpless. The world grew suddenly much larger. The idealistic vision I had of myself as a liberal, open-minded, educated herald of reason shattered, and I’m still trying to figure it out.
My heart aches for Paris, but it aches harder for a world so large and full of nuance. There are hateful Christians, and there are hateful Muslims. But there are also compassionate Christians, and peaceful Muslims, and every other variance of human being on the spectrum. To single out one group of people for the acts of a handful of others is not only narrow-sighted and downright wrong, but it’s also confining. To recognize the plight of some and ignore the circumstances of others stems from the same lack of insight. The majority of people I know understand this, but It scares me that so many don’t. You will never grow if you do not broaden your world view.
The only thing I can think of is to further my education, to learn as much as I can, and read as much as I can, so that I can be as empathetic as possible. I want to hear people’s stories, really hear them, and maybe even try to help others understand. I hope that man finds comfort here. After all he had been through, he still had not given up. Before that day, he had been asking me questions about the local community college. I only realized later that he had already received his education, and was so determined that he was willing to do it over, in a foreign country. I can only aspire to be so driven.