My heart is heavy with the direction that our country seems to be taking especially due to the recent executive order coming from President Trump. For the two years before coming to Vanderbilt, I lived with my family in Dusseldorf, Germany for my father’s job. While I was living in Germany, I had many opportunities which I know were special. My family and I took the chance to explore many places and meet many different people. Places that we probably wouldn’t have been able to visit had we not been living so close. I want to take this opportunity to share a few of the experiences I had.
Our first vacation was to Turkey. We spent time in Istanbul and Fethiye, on the Mediterranean Coast. We met the kindest people in Turkey. They told us about their history and natural bounty, and we talked to them about their lives. They loved their country so much, but they were wary of power being too centralized and controlling. The people we met did not share our religion, but we shared important values like love for family and a concern for the safety, well-being and future of our countries.
That December we traveled to Israel, an incredible and enlightening trip. While there, we were also able to travel in the West Bank. We met people who loved their neighbors and the history they shared. We met people who wanted to see their children get a strong education so that they could provide for their future families. We met people who took their children to school with students from the other side of the wall that divides Jerusalem in the hope that their children could achieve something their parents couldn’t. We didn’t share the faith of many of the people we met. We did, however, share a hope in future generations and the peace they could bring.
We went to Egypt in the spring of that year. Egypt is filled with such rich and remarkable history. It is impossible not to be in awe of what humanity can accomplish when you are standing in front of the Pyramids of Giza or in the middle of the Temple of Luxor. While there, we met people who were busy working so that they could put their children through school. We met people who were trying to preserve the history that people from all over the world traveled to admire and learn more about. We met mothers who loved their children and were trying to protect them from the dangers that were their reality.
We went to Morocco the following December. That was probably my favorite trip of all. And not because the food was incredible or the desert was spectacular—though without a doubt, it was. It was my favorite trip because the people we met there were so loving and considerate and kind. We asked questions about their country’s history and people answered excitedly and passionately. We spent four days with a man who was born as a Saharan nomad and taught us about a life that is far different than anyone in my family could even imagine. We sang songs in Arabic with Moroccan shepherds, playing their traditional drums, chanting after them in the desert on a chilly Christmas Eve and enjoying the company of people from a culture very different than ours. The transcendence of that situation taking place on Christmas Eve was really remarkable sitting under the stars on that crystal clear night and singing together around a campfire was a small band of people comprised of Muslim Arab shepherds with their heads wrapped in turbans and my Christian family. It was amazing and gave me a tiny glimpse of what peace might feel like. We talked to people who sent their children to a different country and went for months without seeing them just so that their children could have a hopeful future. These people did not share our faith, but they shared a love for humanity and a respect for others beliefs and history.
Another one of the great privileges I had was the opportunity to greet a train of refugees as they came into Düsseldorf, hoping that they were nearing the end of an arduous, punishing escape from their home in Syria, awaiting the next step in their search for a new, safe home. I colored pictures and played with a little girl while her mother was deliberating about where she should take her family next. She was looking at a map trying to figure out where the best opportunities would be. I was happy to help her and allow her to change the diaper of her four-month old baby without worrying about the safety of her three year old. I couldn’t imagine how overwhelmed she must have felt at that moment. But whatever the deluge of emotion she was feeling, it couldn’t compare to the fear she felt in her home country. I know that she was not happy about leaving her homeland, but it was the only option she had where she could be confident about the safety of her tiny daughters. Her future wasn’t going to be easy, but she hoped that it would at least be safe.
I know that the countries I visited are not in the group of seven countries whose citizens were recently banned by President Trump from entering the United States, but I can imagine a situation in which they could be added to the list. I am certain that the woman and her two daughters whom I met in the train station in Düsseldorf on their way from Syria would not be allowed to enter the United States under President Trump’s executive order. That breaks my heart. I do not know what happened to my homeland, America, the country I love and thought I knew. The country whose Statue of Liberty bears a plaque which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I’m not sure when America went from being the land of opportunity to being the land of privilege for the few who happened to be born on this dirt. It doesn’t matter if I missed the change, or if I was just awakened to an America that I am no longer idealizing. I am doing my part by sharing stories about the people I have met who were not people to fear but people to learn from and respect.
I ask that you would do your part in fighting to help restore America to its place as a world leader that shows by example how a society can flourish by creating an environment of opportunity and safety for all the people in the world. Let’s once again share the historic values of the incredible country that is the United States of America with people who desperately need it.
Kathryn Ufford is a first-year in the School of Engineering. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.