Having Muslim friends removed my fear

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One Globe Kids focuses on cross-group friendship because it’s the most powerful way to move beyond prejudice. Researchers describe the mechanisms through which this occurs as building affective bonds, self-disclosure, trust, anxiety and empathy.

I describe them a little differently.

I feel emotionally connected to my friends because we share things about ourselves, which makes me trust them, rely on them, and want to care for them.

Friendship expands how we see ourselves and the groups and bubbles to which we belong.

Friendship can change our instincts.

Waking up in Yemen

In my early 20s I moved to Sana’a, Yemen, to study Arabic. My first morning there, waking up alone in a house that had a mufraj instead of a couch, in a city 2,250 meters above sea level where the air was thin and dry and prayer calls echoed across the roofs, well, that felt seriously unfamiliar.

When I opened the front gate for the first time, it seemed like all I could see was sand. Sand blowing across the street, sand-colored walls and buildings everywhere I looked. The only thing that wasn’t sand-colored was a woman wearing a full black abaya and niqab, holding hands with a young girl, walking down the sidewalk.

Making new friends

It felt so terribly foreign to me. And that was scary.  But over time I found a job, and a life in Yemen. My colleagues and some of my closest friends were Yemeni, Somali, Sudanese and Ethiopian. Most were Muslim. Instead of keeping us apart, the differences between us made our relationships especially interesting.  We had to accept our differences and often explain them clearly so the other would understand our behavior.

For example, Yaseerah accepted that I would speak to a male friend on the street if we ran into him while shopping.  I accepted that she would keep walking and wait for me a few shops further.  She believed it was improper to be seen speaking with non-related male; I believed it would be rude not to to speak with a friend I wanted to speak with just because he was male.  This didn’t stop us from being friends.  It did teach each of us that not everyone believes or acts the same way and that’s OK.

Expanding my world

Through friendships with Aziz, Yasserah, Khadidja, Najla and Hussein, my understanding of the world and all of us who share it expanded.

After two years in Yemen, I moved to Washington, DC, to start a Masters degree at Johns Hopkins University where I knew no one. I took a temporary job in the administration office and there I met Murat.

Murat, also a new student, had just arrived from Turkey and was a conservative Muslim. I felt immediate relief. I had never met someone from Turkey. I wasn’t Muslim. But I had really good Muslim friends. That felt familiar to me, like part of my bubble.

My bubble had grown

My white, Christian, democrat bubble had grown.  The fear I had experienced was gone, replaced by personal experience.  Social psychologists call this the generalizing effect.  The trust and empathy that had developed with my Muslim friends in Yemen had encouraged me to think positively of Muslims I didn’t yet know.

Murat was my first and one of my best friends at SAIS.

We don’t have to live in fear.  Our instincts can change, but we have to be brave and make them do it.

Photo: Yaseerah and I went to a special photo store to take this picture together in 2000.  She has a beautiful, friendly and open smile, but I’m not posting it out of respect for her.  Miss you, Yaseerah.

Stay Globe Smart, Anne Glick

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About Anne

Anne is a writer, photographer and mom to three young boys (one of whom still goes to school in colorful African shorts although he now lives in The Netherlands). She loves to travel and founded One Globe Kids to introduce her own children to the world one friend at a time.