It was spring of 2003. I was sitting the lobby of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland, around a table with a group of friends as one of our classmates told the story of why she had missed class for the last two weeks. There was a streak of grey right down the middle of her jet black hair that you couldn’t miss. The streak wasn’t there when we last saw her. And as she told her story, it all became clear.
“I didn’t know if they were dead or alive,” she explained. “The phone lines were cut off, emails have gone unanswered, television reports showed news that I couldn’t bring myself to watch.”
My friend was a 22 year old Iraqi citizen who had been sent to Scotland to get her master’s degree. She was the only person from Iraq in our program. Her country had just been invaded and devastated….by mine.
“I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep,” she continued. “The days felt like years. All I knew was that my family was together when the attacks began, but I didn’t know if my mother or father and siblings were alive or dead. Until finally today, the phone lines were reopened. They are all alive!”
The whole table exhaled together. In that moment, a very political, polarizing life-changing world event rocked my personal world.
Grad school was the first time in my life where I experienced what it was like to be in the minority. In a program of over 200 students, I was the only American, and, along with a girl from Canada, was the only representative from North America.
We ate the most amazing ethnic meals. We had the most fascinating conversations comparing life experiences. The solutions presented to problems varied as widely as the countries we all represented.
And when my Iraqi friend shared her story that day, I thought to myself, maybe we aren’t really all that different after all. Sure, we all have different experiences, there are things that we can and can’t empathize with, we have different stories to tell. But at the root, at the core of who we are, aren’t we all seeking the same thing?
As she shared her story of heartbreak, my heart broke for the despair and desperation that had paralyzed her for days. She wanted to know that her family was okay, just like me. She wanted peace, just like me. She had dreams and desires, just like me. She was seeking an education with career goals in mind, just like me. She was compassionate, and loving and concerned, just like me (most of the time!). She had a story to share and a contribution to make, just like me.
So while we represented countries and faiths at two extreme ends of a spectrum, we were there as two girls, friends, who were for each other and accepting of each other, who were not that different at all.
As we got up, I walked around the table to my friend. We stood there, in a hug, for just a moment. And while shots were fired and battles were being fought in her hometown by people from mine, we shared a hug.
Because love enables us to see that perhaps we aren’t all that different, after all.