Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Day of Remembrance, A Day of Resilience

So many of us Americans have heard descriptions of the morning of December 7, 1941 that quickly turned into one of the most terrible days in American history. The attack on Pearl Harbor nearly 72 years ago has shaped the world in more ways than we can imagine and cost millions of people around the world their lives. As Franklin Roosevelt befittingly stated, December 7 has become "a date which will live in infamy."

12 years ago today, another one of the most infamous events in American history took place. That day, September 11, 2001, has certainly affected each and every American in some way, shape, or form.

That day, 2 hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. One other plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Thousands of individuals lost their lives that day and in the days after 9/11. Even more lost family members and friends. Several cases of discrimination against Muslims, Middle Easterners, and South Asians took place in the week following 9/11. Airports shut down. American and global markets took significant hits. The very stability of America came into question.

However, in the coming weeks, months, and years, the United States of America took on its namesake: it became a truly united nation. Relief funds, blood drives, donations, and volunteer aid helped bring together our country and glue the broken pieces back together in the midst of a national tragedy. Stories of heroism and miracles made headlines. We picked ourselves up from the wreckage and went on with our lives. We were one nation, together mourning the losses of 9/11, together trying to get back on our feet, together trying to figure out how to fix whatever had just happened to our America.

Still, we had lots of work to do in the following years. The rubble at the sites of the World Trade Center and Pentagon had to be cleared, and the buildings had to be rebuilt. Thousands of families needed financial, emotional, and psychological aid after the loss of loved ones. Discrimination against people thought to be Muslims occurred in the years following 9/11: general discrimination against innocent Muslims, or against those who "apparently resembled Muslims"; stories of job discrimination and unfair airport searches due to people's appearances regardless of what faith they belonged to; protests against the building of mosques on Ground Zero and other areas. Considering that our nation is known for freedom and tolerance of all religions, it is a bit surprising and dismaying that people were discriminated against due to their association with a faith that the instigators of the tragedy claimed to represent; although a religion or set of beliefs may characterize an individual, he/she should certainly not be a representation of the entire religion or its followers. Moreover, although these types of discrimination occurred in isolated situations and have decreased in frequency in the past few years, many people in other parts of the world still view America as a country that dislikes Muslims. This perspective is a largely false stereotype that portrays America in a negative spotlight globally.

The new One World Trade Center is a sign of the physical and emotional rebuilding that America has accomplished in the last 12 years

That's where I come in. This April, I was awarded a scholarship by the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Abroad Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to study in Malaysia for one academic year. After researching Malaysia and talking to several people who know about the country, I began to become fascinated with Malaysia! I loved that while the majority of the country was Muslim, significant populations adhering to other religions existed and thrived within Malaysia. The variety of colorful festivals and languages interested me and made me want to learn more about them. After about a week of discussing my plans with my family, school, and friends, I decided to make Malaysia my home for a year. And so far, the journey has been an amazing and culturally enlightening one that has kept me learning while enjoying my life here.

YES Abroad began during the 2009-10 school year and sent high school American students to countries with significant Muslim populations. YES Abroad's goals mirror those of our sister program, YES (which brings students from 39 different countries with significant Muslim populations to the U.S.). YES was created in the aftermath of 9/11 in order to educate students about American culture, society, and values and give students a chance to educate Americans about their own countries and cultures. YES Abroad was created in order to give a similar opportunity for American students. YES Abroad students act as youth ambassadors of the U.S. and help create understanding and cooperation by forming lasting bonds in their host families and host communities. Both of these programs encourage building bonds in the host community and positively representing one's home country while learning more about the host country and host cultures.

This year, YES Abroad sent 65 students to 10 different countries around the world: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, Morocco, South Africa, Oman, and Malaysia. When thinking about exchange, most American students would not consider any of the countries listed above. Most students would choose England, France, or some other apparently "comfortable" nation. However, our program does student exchange for reasons that are not always typical of study abroad programs. All 65 of us are on this journey because we understand the importance of our program and its goals; we realize that a world that shares mutual cultural awareness and understanding is important, and we know that sharing our culture with others while learning about their country and cultures is an important step towards that type of world. As youth ambassadors, we are leaving everyone and everything we have known to travel to countries, in some cases continents, that we have never traveled to before. Many of us are missing school, graduation, college, family events and festivals, proms and cotillions, etc. that have been long-awaited occasions. We have decided to leave all of this behind for one year in order to make a difference in how people in countries abroad view the U.S. and how we ourselves view the world. But as we all have heard so many times and have quickly realized, this exchange has its innumerable and amazing benefits. We have already come to see that one year of our life is worth the amazing moments, knowledge, and experiences that we will give and receive from this exchange. As the saying goes, "exchange is not a year in a life; it's a life in a year."

All 65 of us, during our Pre-Departure Orientation in Washington D.C.

Applying for this program got me really excited about exploring Muslim culture in a different country. Learning about my semi-finalist and finalist status for the program got me even more enthusiastic about coming here. But actually being in the country and learning about the culture has been amazing. I've been able to share my American culture and values with so many of my host family members, friends, teachers, acquaintances, and everyone else I meet. And I've also been able to learn so much about Malay and Indian culture here! My host family has taught me so much about Malaysian Indian culture, and I've really realized that there are a lot of differences between Malaysian Indians, Indian Americans, and Indians in India. And I've been able to experience life in a Muslim household, as I spent 5 days in a Malay family's house and fasted for 4 days during Ramadan. Celebrating Hari Raya was truly an amazing experience, and I feel that I have gotten the chance to learn about a festival that I might have never been able to learn about otherwise.

My stay with the Malay host family also included some important questions and answers. Possibly being the first and only American some of the family members have and will ever meet, they asked me very delicate questions. Particularly, questions like: "Are there many Muslims in America? Do Americans dislike Muslims? How are Muslims treated in America?" Answering such questions was definitely the first time I've had to give responses that might stick with a person for the rest of his or her life. Taking it calmly and trying to be truthful is definitely the best idea. So I told them that while there were isolated cases of discrimination against Muslims in the past, in general, Americans do not dislike Muslims. Muslims are not treated badly; rather, they are endowed the same rights as every other ethnic and religious group in the U.S. A few cases of discrimination come up here and there every once in a while, but for the most part, the amount of discrimination against Muslims is relatively small compared to in previous times. And where I come from, we not only tolerate and respect other religions such as Islam; we also celebrate the diversity of beliefs that we as Americans are fortunate enough to live around every day.

The ability to get to explain my culture to these people was so enlightening for me, as it truly showed me the importance of spreading truth and getting rid of inaccurate stereotypes. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "we must be the change we wish to see in the world." In order to eliminate these stereotypes and create a more peaceful, more understanding world, we ourselves need to be understanding and truthful. I've really started to realize that it's up to us as Americans to eliminate others' false stereotypes of our people and our country. Because if we don't eliminate those prejudices and biases, then who will?

Remembering the events of this day 12 years ago is a key part to building upon the legacy of reforming cultural bonds our country has embarked upon post-9/11. Today is a day to remember, a day to mourn, but it's also a day of resilience to rebuild on, to bounce back on. 9/11 has made its impact felt upon the world and its people so far; now, we are the generation with the future in our hands, so it's up to us how the world comes together and feels the influence of 9/11 in the years to come.

The Tribute in Light Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2011, 10 years after 9/11

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