We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
Exhausted and jet-lagged, I waited in line to speak to the customs officer at JFK airport as the last stop before I could finally go home after 6 weeks abroad. When my turn finally arose, the customs officer looked over my papers, looked up at me and bluntly said, “Why go so far?” After getting off a 10 hour flight and being in transit for about 2 days, I was a bit confused by the question, so I told him that I was interning at a center for autism. The officer then told me that I should try to find opportunities closer to home next time and that there were plenty of autistic children here in the US that I should be helping instead, before returning my passport and sending me on my way. Flabbergasted and astounded, his words, at first, angered me. But as I talked to more and more people about my experiences, the main theme seemed to be, “Why?”
On my return, I wanted to tell everyone about the wonderful people I had met, the things I had learned, and what this beautiful place was. During my time in Tajikistan, I learned not only about the world around me, but about myself as well. I gained a better understanding for autism and the everyday struggles that those affected by it face. I discovered the inner workings of different NGOs and how they work to help the community around them, not only through my work at IRODA, but also through the work my fellow volunteers did in their respective placements. For the first time in my life, I constructed a website for an organization and I taught someone else how to do the same. I saw the struggle to find donors and how tricky it is to draft letters asking for donations, recognition, or aid. With such a formidable language barrier between me and the country, my respect for those who have come to the US and learned our language soared because I saw first-hand how difficult it was. I learned that I can succeed on my own, despite not knowing the language or being in a foreign country. But still the fact remains that everyone asks “Why Tajikistan?”, “Why a Muslim country?”, “Why so far away?”. No longer exhausted and jet-lagged, I can finally give an answer.
I could say we live in a global society today, but the answer is much more than just that. I went to a Muslim country because the majority of people we interact with have a certain stereotype in mind when they hear the word Muslim or Islam. During my time abroad, I learned that their religion, though a major part of their lives, is not the main event in everything they do. Many people state that wearing a head scarf or a hijab (which are not all one and the same) is a form of oppression, but I saw it as something different. The women choose whether or not to wear it and it is a form of expression or a form of modesty to them rather than an expression of religion.
I will miss all the people I worked with incredibly. Despite not speaking the same language, they showed that they cared in many ways. From noticing that I didn’t like tomatoes in my lunch, to expressing their enthusiasm when I wore Tajik clothing, they made every effort to make us feel welcome. Humanity is universal and it would do us well to remember that when we see the media portray the Muslim world in a negative light.