In May, flying home from Kenya, I switched airports in a predominately Muslim region of the world. Before deplaning I pulled my scarf out of my hand luggage and wrapped it around my blonde head of hair.
I love the Middle East. It's stunning to fly over, the people are beautiful -- inside and out, the culture is rich in history and design, and their loyalty to family is fierce and timeless. I don't agree with every part of their culture nor would I feel comfortable traveling to certain regions in this area, but ultimately I see these people as my neighbors who I respect and often, adore.
I trudged through the airport, transferred terminals, bought a snack, and waited in the gated area to board my plane. People starred, as they always do when I fly abroad. My fair skin and bright eyes are an anomaly in these regions and I respect that. I know they mean no harm. I understand that they are not there for me. Not to take me, not to judge me, and certainly not to see me.
You see, as Americans we're bred up to perceive the world around us through the eyes of the news and the papers and the only time we hear of these beautiful, incredible places is when something goes boom or bang or missing altogether. The truth about a large majority of humanity is that there is an overwhelming resemblance in the humanness that connects us.
Make no mistake, there is nothing beautiful or incredible about a warn torn region but there is something beautiful and incredible about resilience and these areas -- these people, civilians just like us who have wars in their backyard so that we don't have them in ours, they are everything beautiful and incredible about human resilience.
I boarded my seventeen hour flight to San Fransisco forty minutes later in the dead of night and found myself seated next to two beautiful Iranian sisters, 8 and 10 years old. Even though we were flying to America, I was one of the only Americans on the plane. The eight-year-old stared. I stared back. I've never seen such a beautiful child. Her big brown eyes against her perfect tan skin perfectly outlined by her headscarf was almost too much perfect. Peaking out from the scarf was the beginning of a a french braid that thread through her stunning dark hair.
The sisters were on their way to visit their aunt in California. They spoke very broken english and I was elated to sign and stutter my way through my first ever conversation with native Iranians. They thought I was the weirdest. I am the weirdest. I asked them about everything from school to family to weather to cars. Again, our lives paralleling in uncanny ways. After half an hour the little one turned and asked, "Will America hate me?"
An eight-year-old. Asking me if my country will hate her. I want to say "no, of course not," but the image that half of our country paints in the media and through their actions tells a very different narrative than the one I want her to see of my country.
"Will America hate her," I think to myself, staring back into the brown, expectant eyes of somebody else's baby. Will her head scarf be "too muslim"? Will her features be "too middle eastern"? Will she excitedly rattle something in Farsi to her big sister only to be stared at by a pedestrian for sounding too much like the terrorists they've been trained to fear?
I can't respond so I reverse the question, "why would America hate you?" She pauses, thinking to translate through to the english she knows, "Because America hates my country. America thinks we are killers."
My bones hurt then and they hurt now -- illustrating the words of a little girl who has been bred up to fear my country, who fears hers.
"No honey, America knows you're not a killer. America will not hate you."
45 minutes later she fell asleep in my lap, her feet stretching all the way to her sister's seat. Her headscarf fell and I adjusted it over her braid. I saw so much of my baby sister in her sleeping face. Someone so much like my future daughter, someone so much like all the daughters before her and all the daughters to come. Someone so much like me.
I don't know if what I told her is true. I don't know if she experienced racism and xenophobia throughout her stay and wondered, "why did that American girl Iie to me on the plane?" I don't know. I don't know if I want to know. All I do know for sure is that every time America opens its mouth, the world is watching. Every time we speak to our allies, our neighbors, and our brothers and sisters in humanity, they are listening.
It's been nearly five months since my exchange with the Iranian sisters and I think about them daily. I have their unique (to me) names written on a note in my phone and I pray over their lives often. I pray over their war torn country, their beautiful family, and more than anything -- over their hearts.
I am so, so tired of those on my social media that lead a "Christian" life filling their news feeds with nothing but hate for Muslims, refugees, and minorities this election. If you are not standing with them -- if you are complacent -- you are standing against them.
I fully understand the critical state of the Middle East. I fully understand the critical need to address and combat terrorism. I fully understand that somewhere in those sweet girl's lineage could be a person who wants to hurt me and destroy my country. None of these things matter.
These girls will grow up one of two ways -- angry and hurt by America for being cruel to them for their differences or in love with America for embracing their differences like the melting pot its supposed to be.
If you want a weapon for change, love people. It won't solve the world's problem but it will create an unshakeable movement of change. When it comes to children, when it comes to building generations, and when it comes to humanity -- it really is that simple.