On a recent Friday night, I sat in a big purple chair in my Chapel Hill home with my dog at my feet, listening to panicked voices on the radio recount horrific, terrorist attacks on a city I love, attacks that had played out just hours before.
I spent a year in Paris, and I’ve walked the streets where lives were lost. The terrorists struck not far from a friend’s apartment; one of the 129 dead was someone close to her.
Rewind to this summer, to another experience of friends in challenging circumstances. Every night for two weeks in July, I was jolted awake at 3 in the morning as my friends climbed down from their bunks, swinging flashlights and whispering as they left our cabin. Despite what it might have looked like, the girls were not sneaking out to engage in illicit behavior; they were going to breakfast before the sun rose. It was the month of Ramadan, and I was at Global Youth Village, a summer camp in the Virginia mountains.
At GYV, I took classes on conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, and art. My camp-mates came from India, South America, Native American reservations, the Caribbean, Hungary, Japan, Russia and Vietnam. Fully half of the campers – 26 in all – were from Yemen. These friends changed the way I see the world, and my place in it.
Before GYV, I had never heard much about Yemen, so it came as a shock to find out that a raging civil war had been taking place there since March and that the Yemeni campers, exchange students in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, could not return home to their loved ones after a year in the U.S. because of the war. They were stateless. Somehow, I had gone to school every day that year, and I had never once heard of the conflict which had become the epicenter and the heartbreak of their lives.
Every person believes what they live to be the truth. I go to school, I have my classes, I come home and do homework, on the weekends I go out with friends. That is my reality.
I have always assumed that everyone’s life is similar to mine, and why wouldn’t I? I am the center of my universe, after all. I have never been instructed to examine the lives of others or to try to understand the complexities and deep divides alive in the world. And then I had the opportunity to view the world through the eyes of my Yemeni friends. Doing so forced me to acknowledge the absoluteness of my oblivion.
I resolved to keep learning in order to combat my ignorance. I began listening to National Public Radio and reading newspapers. I enrolled in an Arabic class at Durham Tech. I feel I owe it to my Yemeni friends to stay up to date on the civil war in their country so that I can understand what they are going through.
My Yemeni friends are still stranded here in the U.S., their future uncertain. My Parisian friends face painful weeks trying to understand the cruelty around them. I am grateful to be aware of their difficult plights.
It took a personal experience to make me realize how much I need to pay attention to the world outside of myself. GYV showed me that my life is not the only life. I realized that education – true education – goes so much deeper than what I learn in school each day, and that each of us needs to be aware of our place on this planet in order to change it for the better.
The events in Paris underscored the need for empathy and understanding. I hope that young people in our community – all of us – can pay careful attention and can help ease the heartbreak and strife that plague so much of our world.
Carrie Young is a junior at Cedar Ridge High School.