December 2015: with my bags already packed, flight tickets bought and hotels reserved, I watched the news channels broadcast clips of Donald Trump calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US.
The anticipation that I’d been feeling for my family vacation to the US began to fade, in its a place a sickening mix of dread and fear. How would we get through the trip in one piece?
Yet, despite the climate of hostility that I thought was awaiting me, I found myself, instead, astonished by the sheer kindness and warmth of complete strangers whom I met during my travels to the US. This is my story.
In the aftermath of the tragedic San Bernardino attack, Islamophobic attacks were on the rise. I had friends in the US who had taken off their hijabs for fear of being attacked, and who feared for their safety every time they went out. There I was, about to embark on a week-long trip through America. What had I gotten myself into?
At almost every leg of the journey, though, random strangers and passersby went out of their way just to welcome me to America.
I was left with a heart bursting with gratitude (and a little embarrassment!) I hadn’t done anything to deserve such kindness. But as a Muslim, there was so much to learn from these selfless strangers who practiced such unconditional love.
After a gruelling 24 hours of non-stop travelling, we found ourselves in the heart of New York City. Times Square, with its vibrant neon billboards, crowds that bustled day and night, and kaleidoscopic colours, greeted us with open arms.
As we walked around, an elderly African-American woman walked up to me, grinning from ear to ear, and said hello to me with so much conviction and friendliness that I wondered if she’d mistaken me for someone else.
Credit: Times Square, New York City on Facebook
But all she wanted to know was where I was from. Through her missing teeth, she took my hand and said, “You are very welcome here in America. Have a good time!”
I was so astonished, I couldn’t think of anything to say besides a simple “thank you” before she disappeared into the crowd, leaving me sorely wishing I could have said something more substantial to her.
The next day, walking through Wall Street, I found myself standing right in front of the Trump Building, staring at the golden letters on the facade with a mixture of emotions at the bottom of my stomach.
Right next to the the building, someone was handing out anti-Trump flyers to passersby, and we were enthusiastically greeted with a warm handshake and another “Welcome to America!”
We made it a point to pay a visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, where the names of people who’d perished on 9/11 have been engraved into black marble.
I hadn’t realized that that there were quite a few Muslim men and women who had also perished on the day of the heinous attack.
The sound of flowing water combined with the heaviness of the black marble itself created a solemn environment designed to facilitate contemplation and silence amongst visitors.
At the Lincoln memorial in Washington, as we walked back to the bus, a young African-American lady marched up to me, her expression stern and her steps purposeful. I didn’t quite know what to expect.
“I saw your hijab, and I just wanted to tell you that it’s beautiful. Are you Muslim?”
“Oh! Thank you, yes I am.”
“It’s nice to meet you, and you’re very welcome to America.”
She’d touched mine and my mother’s hearts so deeply without even really saying much–kindness and warmth can really break down the strongest of walls.
I don’t wish to paint a utopian, rose-tinted portrait of the world. You can never really control how people treat you, even if you treat them kindly yourself. The fear that had gripped me before I boarded my flight wasn’t entirely unjustified–as you’ll see in this open letter to Muslims who are afraid to travel.
But I’ve come to realize over the years that travel is itself a powerful reminder of the basic humanity that ties each and every one of us inhabiting this world.
Credit: Vorrei Vivere A New York on Facebook
Regardless of how huge or intimidating the cultural differences can be throughout all the different countries I’ve been to, the common thread that unites it all is the kindness I’ve been blessed to receive and then pass on, to the best of my ability.
We met a middle-aged African-American lady in Boston who came up to us just to tell us that she was also a Muslim before proceeding to buy us dinner from her own pocket just because she was so happy to meet Muslims from a different country.
Credit: SpringHill Suites by Marriott on Facebook
Perhaps the greatest test of faith for a Muslim when travelling is in truly opening our eyes to the world around us, to see not only how to receive as much as possible but also to give as much as possible.
Don’t take it from me alone, though: there are so many more reasons why a Muslim should travel, according to Islam.
But to this day, even though the kind strangers I’ve encountered during my travels probably didn’t realize how much of an impact they made on me, one of my favourite things about travelling is in its ability to truly realize the spirit of togetherness and community that goes beyond cultural, racial, national and religious barriers. In the end, peace and love always triumphs.
No matter which part of the world one travels to, there’s always something you can learn from the locals.
“Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” – The Hunger Games