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11 Years Later - How Living in a Primarily Muslim Country Has Changed My Views of the World


Everyone in the older generation can say that they clearly remember where they were, what they were doing and who they were with when JFK was assassinated, when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, and when the Berlin wall came down. But as for the younger generation, my generation, we do not have any of those memories. To many of us, JFK is just an airport, Neil Armstrong is confused with the bicyclist, and the Berlin wall is no more than a piece of history we file away in the back of our minds, left to settle with other dates that we mindlessly spit out onto paper when exam time arrives, no thought to the impact it had on our world.

But we have our own memories. Events that shape our world. On September 11, 2001, I was 4 years old. Parts of that morning are startlingly memorable for me, spots of clarity in a pre-schooler’s world of sandboxes, play-dates, and stuffed animals. That day started as so many others had before it. I was sitting in our blue recliner in my pajamas, watching the Today Show. My mom had gone to do something or other upstairs, leaving me to watch the morning news report. I remember seeing flames on the TV screen, my New York City on fire. At 4 years old, the 5 boroughs were no stranger to me, my father working in Manhattan and various friends and family scattered around the rest of the island.

“Mama!” I yelled up the staircase, “Mommy, come quick!” Her footsteps followed with little haste. 4 year-old me was notorious for making an empty sippy-cup seem like the end of the world. She walked towards me, and stopped dead in her tracks.

“Hannah, honey, what are you watching? Did you change the channel and find a scary movie?” Although her voice was soothing, there was a tone to it that told me she was trying to tell herself that the horrific scene on the screen before us was only a movie, just Hollywood’s special effects  showcased in the latest film. Her eyes took in the headlines, the raw footage, the camera’s shakiness as the city she once called home filled with smoke. She sank slowly into the chair beside me, as she took in the scene. “Your father…” she whispered, “His office building... Right there…”

And that’s when the panic set in.         

2001 was in that disconnected time when cell phones were rare and exotic, much like a tropical bird or Venezuelan restaurant. After seeing the scenes on the TV that she’ll never be able to unsee, my mom perched herself at the kitchen table. She wrapped the curly phone cord around her fingers and dialed. Again and again. At first, busy signals. Then nothing. The plane crash had knocked out power in my father’s office building, the building directly next to the World Trade Center. My mom tried to stay calm for me, but also for herself. Despite her attempts, her smiles and reassuring words were all transparent and I could tell that this morning would not be like all the others, no morning spent watching Sesame Street, no walking down the street to get pizza and go to the park. After a good hour of unanswered calls, my mom told me to get dressed. Like every other Tuesday, we were going to Bible Study.

At the church, the elder ladies smothered my mom with hugs and promises that things would be okay. Though their children were long past grown, motherly instincts have a way of sticking around and surfacing when people need them most. In times of tragedy, we turn to routine, cling to the things that remind us that life was once normal. In that room, filled with blue-haired ladies and Bibles, I remember thinking that maybe things would be okay. Maybe. A word filled with hope, but also some fear and always uncertainty.

After Bible study, my mother and I returned to our tiny condo. We tried to act natural, drinking cocoa and watching the news, but the house seemed missing something, father’s things serving as a reminder of all the unanswered questions and unknowns. The phone finally rang. I don’t know what my dad said or discussed in that call. The only thing was that he was safe. It’s strange how things work out sometimes. The day my dad had jury duty, all the windows in his office were blown apart; such a bothersome thing may just have saved his life. Others have these stories too, these miracles. My friend Tom’s dad called in sick that day, the day where everyone else in his fire department died. So many have these stories, but so many don’t.

In the days that passed, life went on. The tv was always tuned to NBC, the latest story of bravery, or of tragedy, or of unrequited human cruelty streaming across the bottom of the screen. In those days, our country united. We were the United States of America; we were one people, one eye weeping for all the victims of 9-11, one jumbled nation trying to pick itself on the ground and decide how and if to rebuild.

At 4 years old, my number one asked question was, “Why?” It was as easy for me to ask “Why did they blow up New York?” as it was to ask why the sky was blue. At 4 years old, I’m not sure if my parents knew how to put it. They tried to put it into words I would understand, bad men doing bad things, but at 4 years old, I struggled to still find the why.

TV reports and documentaries and newspapers and magazines about that day fall into a blur in my head.  Pictures of bearded men in turbans and the word “Muslim” stuck out to me. This Muslim thing was foreign to me then, a mysterious religion where women hid their hair and prayed a lot and didn’t eat bacon. I connected these pictures, these people with bad. With fear. At 4 years old, I was more than content to package up 9-11 as an entire religion that was against our country. I associated hijab with hate, and Muslim with murder. Those answers were simple, and I held on to them as life gravitated towards a new normal.

It is easy to say that our worlds were flipped upside down that day. My dad’s office building was inaccessible for months and our living room became his new office for a while. Thousands mourned their loved ones; sisters, brothers, friends. Relationships grew stronger as people learned to accept and move on. But some didn’t move on; some couldn’t. As the death toll rose, so did our fear. And with fear comes blame. In times of tragedy, it is so easy to place the fault on an unrealistic target. Thousands of American Muslims suddenly became the enemy. They were viewed as less than human, considered evil for actions they had no part in. As the years past, I’d like to say that my views changed entirely, but a part of me still hung onto those childhood conclusions. Just as some harbor a fear of the dark from their earliest years, I held onto a belief that being Muslim was a bad thing for many years. There were so many like me, not just adolescents remembering a day in their childhood, but adults too. There still are. Headlines reflect this. Arguments over proposed mosques near Ground Zero, murder of innocent Muslims, people being unnecessarily searched in airports because of their hijab or beards. For a nation that prides itself on being the land of the free and the home of the brave, it seems as if freedom applies only to those that we can accept as normal, and fear sets in around those who aren’t. It’s been said a million times before, but does “We the People” mean all the people? Growing up in a primarily Caucasian suburb, sometimes “We the People” seems to mean “We the White Christians.”  

In April 2012, my world flipped upside down again. I won 3 full scholarships to study abroad in countries all over the world. Suddenly, Venezuela, Germany, and Malaysia became possible future homes. I’ve always wanted to study abroad, but deciding where to go was incredibly difficult. Germany promised bratwurst and Oktoberfest, Venezuela was an invitation for tamales and tango, and Malaysia? Malaysia was the one country I never thought I’d end up in. I never expected to get that scholarship and especially not to that country. Wikipedia searches introduced me to a land that is known for its unique blend of culture, a land rich with history and heat. A land where Islam is the official religion, though others can practice their own religion freely. I’m half proud to say that my view on Muslims has changed as I’ve reached my teen years. But only half, because at the back of my mind there was still that lingering what if, that part of my childhood that stuck in my brain. Nevertheless, I chose Malaysia. I knew it would be different, really different. And the differences would teach me more than a book, or a movie, or even a vacation there ever could. So 35 hours of orientations, 4 conference calls, one Department of State visit, and 3 long flights later, there I was in Malaysia. Actually, here I am.

I’ve been in Malaysia for a little over 2 months now, and I have 9 months left here. I attend a local high school and live with a Malaysian family. The culture shock I experienced here was crazy. Everything here is louder, more colorful and so alive. Walk down the street and you can see a mosque, Hindu temple, Buddhist temple, and church all within a couple blocks of each other. Malaysia is a country where different races exist together in peace, where being of a different ethnicity doesn’t determine your friends or dreams. I hear the call to prayer forming a harmony with the Buddhist chants, mixing with the smell of Hindu incense, forming a sort of magic in the humid air. Each day here is a learning experience, and my favorite teachers are my host family.

My host family consists of some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I have a host mother and father, a younger and older sister, and a younger brother. We live in a decent-sized house; have three cats and a pet monkey. Both of my host parents work a lot and are very dedicated to their jobs. My host family is Muslim.

I wasn’t sure how to feel when I got that news. Part of me was nervous that my very American views and ways would be seen as immodest, immoral or even wrong, but another part of me was filled with excitement at the chance to learn about a life that I would’ve never experience had I remained in the US this year.

The first few days with this family were surprisingly free of the typical glaring awkwardness that exchange students feel in a new family. Being with a new family is not only forming relationships with new people; it is also having to adapt to a new routine. It is a different shower, kitchen, bedroom, it’s not being able to sleep because you can’t figure out how to turn on the air conditioning, it’s staying up until your host parents come home because not only is the TV in a different language,  but there doesn’t seem to be a power button anywhere on the screen or remote. It’s putting 100% faith in complete strangers that they will care for you, accept you, and deal with the times where homesickness hits and it hurts so bad you can’t move.

They hug me and tell me everything’s okay as if I’m they’re daughter. As if we were natural family. They opened their hearts to me and I love what I have found. Just because they’re Muslim doesn’t make them automatically one hundred percent different than me. I’ve learned a lot. Not only about what being Muslim means to my family, but what being in a Muslim family means to me.

I’ve shared so many unique experiences with them. I fasted 5 days for Ramadhan, which made me appreciate the consequent holiday of Eid-Al Fitri (known as Hari Raya in Malaysia) so much more. I’ve seen my family pray and although I haven’t been in a mosque yet, I plan on going to one. I’ve worn the hijab and have been told I look Bosnian when doing so. But I’ve also learned how we’re the same. About how much they remind me of my own family. I’ve been to the movies, gone to the mall, been swimming, eaten pizza, KFC, and McDonald’s (all halal!), attended school, had sleepovers, shared clothes, sung karaoke, danced and watched all sorts of TV shows with my host family. In school, I talk to Muslim girls about which band member they think is the cutest or which Olympic swimmer looks the best shirtless.

My point here, is that besides religion, what is the difference between Muslims and everyone else in the world? Why did we foot the blame on them when most of them have never thought even for a second about hurting another person, let alone bringing our entire country to its knees? Maybe they were an easy target. A lot of people, myself included before my time abroad, have little to no exposure to Muslim culture. They see a woman wearing the headscarf, but they don’t see the personal choice she is making to honor and respect her God. They see people fasting from dawn until dusk, but have no idea what that’s like. They don’t know the dry feeling of not drinking for 12 hours, or the hunger pains, but above that they don’t realize that these feelings let people experience what those who lack experience on a daily basis.

This lack of exposure leads to misunderstandings, ignorance and a false sense of insecurity. People’s hearts may beat faster when they see a man in a turban at their boarding gate. What people’s hearts fail to see is the man that may be a brother or a father. Perhaps he too just finished drinking overpriced airport coffee and just wants to have a smooth flight. More than likely, he is just as uncomfortable with being stared at as a person is staring at him. He is a human being like the rest of us, 46 chromosomes, 2 eyes, one mouth and one heart. Imagining someone looking at my host father like that makes me feel ill. How could they possibly judge and decide this wonderful man is to be feared based on his religion? Do we judge Christians for praying or singing hymns? For wearing cross necklaces or hanging rosary beads in their cars? Probably not. So why are we so quick to challenge or fear something, simply because it’s different?

When people ask me if Americans hate Muslims, I’m never sure what to say. The textbook is of course not, we accept them for who they are. The real answer is that some Americans do. Harbored feelings of anger and resentment have turned some away from a people and religion that deserve no such blame to carry. With all the shootings and violence in media, I’m sure some of the perpetrators must have been religious. Yet there are no headlines about the ways of Christianity being questioned, or the entire Protestant community being called out for what one of their members has done. A religion may define a person, but it is wrong for one to define an entire religion.

Finding a place to belong in this family has changed my perspective beyond compare. It’s erased the childhood fears and replaced them with an appreciation for a religion and way of life that is different than the one I practice. It’s amazing how 2 months have changed my outlook on so much and there isn’t a part of me that wishes more Americans could learn what I have, could experience these events that are shaping me to be an improved version of myself. The opportunity I have been given is one that has broken down walls in my head, and helped me find a set of people that I wholeheartedly care about. Despite our differences in religions, appearance, apparel and beliefs, we are a family. A second family that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

The scholarship I’m on is the Kennedy-Lugar YES Abroad scholarship. It was created after 9-11 to send students from countries with a significant Muslim population to live in the US for up to one year. Funded by the State Department (your taxes at work), the YES Program sent 850 students to the US this year. When the program was first starting, many students asked why not send Americans abroad? In 2009, their questions were recognized, the first class of 35 YES Abroad students spent years or semesters in countries all around the world. I am a member of the third YES Abroad class. This year 53 of us went to 9 different countries for one year. Morocco, Oman, Malaysia, Thailand, Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, Ghana, Turkey and Indonesia. These are not the countries of a typical high school exchange, but then again we are not your typical exchange students. Our applications included essays, pictures, academic information and an In-Person Selection Event in Denver. We are all in our respective countries because we strongly believe in the mission of YES, to increase cultural awareness and sharing through youth ambassadors. We are giving up our year for the future. Many of us are missing prom, sweet sixteens, weddings, graduations in order to be where we are. We’ve flown halfway around the world, leaving a familiar life, family and friends behind in order to change the way we see the world and the way the world sees the United States. As teenagers, we believe in an America that understands and appreciates its different religions and races.

Writing this was the first time I’ve come face to face with the stereotypes I didn’t realize I was making when I was younger. I am forever grateful to my natural family, to the State Department, and to my host family for supporting me in this year. Exchange is often referred to as a catalyst for change in someone’s character and opinions, and that has proven absolutely true. It’s hard to measure the effectiveness of programs like this in statistics, but sitting here writing this next to my Muslim family, I am at home; I am happy. And that shows more than any percentage or pie chart could ever say.

The 11th anniversary of 9-11 is today. 9-11 will be an event that will forever define our generation, but it is up to us how so. We can be considered the age group that hates Muslims, or we can be the group that learned to love in the midst of tragedy.

With love from Hannah