My First Muslim Friends
As part of FOR’s #GiveRefugeesRest campaign, we are recruiting writers to share their personal stories in connection with Muslims and/or refugees and to give voice to the necessity for the United States of America to be accepting of all people. The following is a heartwarming op-ed from H. Patricia Hynes:
I am looking at 2 small cream-colored pillows nestled into corners of our living room chairs. They are embossed with arabesque designs on their borders; and silver filigree sparkles at the pillow’s edges. For more than 25 years these pillows have poignantly recalled a Muslim student, Ali, whom I taught at MIT. He was older than other students, being the chief of police in Karachi, Pakistan on a yearlong fellowship. My strongest memories of Ali are his quiet, solid respect when we spoke, in startling contrast to my expectations of a chief of police. But I was his professor, and as I found with future Muslim students, they hold their teachers with a regard rarely found in U.S. students. Our conversations after morning class finished quickly when it was time for prayer: he prayed multiple times daily, with other Muslims at MIT on a prayer rug in a room designated for them. With regard and something akin to humility, he bowed and presented me the gift of these pillows at semester’s end.
Yared was a public health officer for his town in rural Ethiopia who came the Boston University School of Public Health in the late 1990s for a masters degree in public health. I specialized there in Urban Environmental Health and Environmental Justice in low-income communities of color, working on issues of healthy public housing, lead poisoning, and community gardening. He spoke little in class, yet listened with pensive intensity, extrapolating - I would discern in time – all that he learned about urban poverty, food deserts in inner cities, poor housing conditions in U.S. cities to water safety, pesticide use, sanitation, and malaria threats that he faced in his work at home. I will always remember the image of this quietly dignified man when he entered my office at the end of semester to thank me for what he had learned: he put his hands together in a prayer-like posture and bowed slightly, a timeless gesture and gift of respect (as I have learned from Tai Chi). In our last conversation, he recounted charmingly that he had learned that American couples spend a weekend alone from time to time, leaving their children with friends or family. And thus, he planned to meet his wife in the capital city Addis Ababa on his first weekend home, while relatives would care for their children.
Rana, a doctoral student from Lebanon, energized our Department of Environmental Health with her passion for learning. With iron-willed insistence, she overcame every obstacle put in her way to gain entry into the department’s doctoral program, among which was taking science course pre-requisites. Throughout her 5 years at Boston University, I watched her weave her unique, non-traditional interests – merging social and economic dimensions of community health – with environmental health science. Rana observed Ramadan with discipline and nary a complaint of hunger, in contrast to Catholic students I had known in college who sought exemptions from fasting during Lent, myself included. I will always treasure the conversation we had in the quiet of my office when she told me that there was a Sufi – a contemplative, a mystic – within me.
These students were my first Muslim friends. What good fortune.
Pat Hynes, a retired Professor of Environmental Health from Boston University, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.