He has an olive skin, jet black hair and speaks the same language as the people who carried out the 9/11 attacks. He is Muslim and his wife wears a scarf that covers all but her face. He is from a country that most Americans view as an enemy and he now lives in the US.
When he was young, he received an advanced degree and looked forward to a successful career. He got married and started a family. And then one day, everything started to change. War had broken out across his homeland.
There were massive bombings that destroyed his country’s infrastructure. In some cases, even schools and hospitals were not spared. Then the violence reached the streets. Soldiers and militia would often be fighting on either side of a city block, with his family trapped in between. Lying on the floor, heads covered, praying for it to stop.
As the war progressed, he found work at the military base nearby. There were thousands of foreign soldiers. One day, he met one from America that soon became his friend. He even invited him to a traditional Arabic meal with his family.
Years went by and things got worse, not better, especially for his son with special needs. The city he grew up in was becoming unrecognizable, both literally and figuratively. Division, mistrust, and fear seemed to rule the once peaceful land. But most importantly, his son needed medical treatment that simply wasn’t available.
The once seemingly random encounter with the American soldier had turned into a six year friendship, mostly over email. With his friend’s encouragement and support he and his family moved to the US. It was at the airport, on his first day in America, that I met him.
Our friendship grew quickly. And even though I was raised in a small town in the Midwest and he grew up in a city in the Middle East, we have a ton in common. We both like to talk about our children, our jobs, international politics and religion. We like to tell jokes, laugh, and play dominoes. We share a love for Jesus and believe ‘God is great’ (in Arabic – ‘Allahu Akbar’). Sometimes we meet and just talk about how tough life can be. How the world seems like a crazy mess. Sometimes we just need to encourage each other through the valleys of life.
Other times we discuss ways we can work together in changing the world around us. We have talked about starting an after school program for young people. We have collaborated on a medical project overseas to help children with special needs. We ask each other, what can we do to better love our neighbors?
I’ve learned a lot from our friendship. I have discovered some new recipes (I love to cook). I have developed a deeper understanding of Middle-Eastern politics and how they are so different than what we find in the US. I have experienced the genuine, and unmatched, Arab hospitality. I have even learned how to make better coffee.
My friend has had a profoundly positive impact on my life.
But some people see him very differently than I do. They use words like enemy or even terrorist. They look at him through the lens of our media which foster an environment of fear. Some people, decent people, are caught up in the illusion that he is someone other than a typical, yet remarkable, soon-to-be-American.
How about you?