Lately I have been wishing that all the people in US who (think they) fear & hate people who practice Islam could meet my former graduate students. Five young women came to study over the course of my years at my previous institution – from Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria, Sudan. Three of these women covered their heads, and two did not. Four were in the US for a short time, on student visas, and one was an immigrant, transplanted and thriving in the upper midwest. They were the funniest, quirkiest, most thoughtful, intellectually stubborn young people – who also happen to be Muslim – you could want to meet.
They were also really smart, taking classes and reading theory in a language that was not their first one, sometimes not their second. Three of them produced topnotch disquisitions for me, the most outspoken atheist on faculty, and two wrote them with other colleagues, some of them Christian.
They shared teaching ideas with their peers, came to department potlucks, stopped by my office to crack jokes, argued about ideas in class. Except for the quicker senses of humor they somehow all brought from their diverse cultures, they were much like our graduate students from the United States. They did not hate our freedom or anything about us except maybe the cold weather some days; there was no hate in them. In many ways, they expressed love more openly than us cynical Americans ever do. They exuded love for people, for learning, for the planet.
Getting to know them, learning about the literature they read, watching them teach, reading their scholarship – was a gift. After spending only one academic year in a foreign place, teaching and doing research in my native language even though I am trying to learn Kiswahili, I know a tiny bit about how difficult it can be to leave family behind, enter a new educational system, and try to thrive there. It’s humbling to think they took that chance leaving for 3 to 5 years, even knowing that some people in the US would fear them. During the parts of this year abroad when my partner was not with me because he has work too, their bravery kept me committed to my work here. I wish everyone afraid of Muslims could share a few hours with my former students. They would no longer be afraid but curious. Maybe they would even be honored, as I am.