Seeing the world in another light


Kat Sarafianos

I try my best not to make a fool out of myself, but sometimes I manage to do so despite my hardest efforts. This summer I attended the Harvard Secondary School program. It had a seven-week intensive schedule where high school and undergraduate students could take two semester Harvard courses taught by Harvard professors and receive college credit.
While I was there, I went to a dorm party with several of my classmates and found myself in a very awkward situation.
A good friend I met through the program, Maya, was from Palestine. We met at the party and started talking and soon a group of all our classmates formed. Since the group was so big, we all agreed to go around and say our names and where we were from.
When it got to Maya, I noticed she said she was from Jordan. Not thinking it was a big deal, I asked her whether she meant Palestine or not. She looked uncomfortable and was about to lean in and whisper something, but before she could, another classmate of ours, Jacob, said, “Don’t you mean the West Bank?”
I didn’t understand what was going on, so I replied, “No, I meant to say she’s from Palestine.” I thought everyone had just misspoken or misheard, but it didn’t really click until Jacob, my Israeli classmate, said “No, I mean the West Bank. Palestine isn’t a country.”
Never before have I wanted to smack myself so much than at that moment. It never even occurred to me that I would meet someone at the camp who had polar opposite views. Obviously I knew enough about world politics to know these views and ideas existed, but to meet someone my age, who was just a normal teenager to me, say my friend’s nationality was not only incorrect but non existent was eye-opening.
Whenever I hear or learn about problems in the global political climate, it has never really occurred to me to think about the actual people living there. When I think of the Israel and Palestine conflict, I always picture borders and maps, not the people who are living through that conflict.
After the party I felt so bad for Maya and so ashamed of myself. I had created a very awkward situation for her that I didn’t even think was a possibility, and I, someone who prides themselves on being “open minded and considerate of other cultures,” had just completely failed to realize the real life and social effects of a more than 50-year-conflict.
As I spent my time at Harvard, my interaction with international students helped me become much more aware.
The student ratio was about half international students and half domestic students. It was the first time I had ever been around so many people who were all from different countries, let alone live with them. Out of my six suitemates, two were from China studying abroad in New York and one was Turkish going to a boarding school in France. Another was Vietnamese and taking a gap year in Ventura California.
The two classes I took, “Intro to International Law” and a “Summer Seminar in Human Rights,” varied in not only nationalities, but ages. While many were International students, the major difference came in that half were undergraduate students. One of my classmates and frequent study partner, Penelope, was a 21-year-old Belgian criminal law student who was there to finish up some elective credits.
The different world perspectives of each student I met helped me put the conflicts I was learning about in my classes into perspective. When I learned about corrupt governments in my human rights seminar, I wasn’t thinking of pictures from a textbook but of my Turkish roommate who had been gassed by Turkish police at a protest against government corruption. When we learned about the involvement of governments in LGBTQ rights, I wasn’t thinking of an obscure article on CNN about pride parades, but my Brazilian classmate who had been pelted by eggs, raw meat and anything his very conservative neighbors could find when he kissed his boyfriend in public.
Now I don’t mean to say that with this broadening world view I think of smaller human rights issues in the United States or anywhere else as less important; rather, this experience has taught me to think of the people living in through these conflicts as people, not just a nameless face.
This empathy came from talking to other people who came from different places, spoke different languages and experienced life in an entirely different manner. I learned that our concept of what is normal and right is so subjective that it can be difficult to have hard conversations.
Part of the problem with today’s political rhetoric is that by first dismissing our enemies, we dehumanize them. And I don’t blame us.  
When Jacob and I spoke after that incident, I realized it wasn’t hard to talk to him, and that itself made me feel uneasy.
Jacob was someone with polar opposite beliefs. Had I not met him, I would have dismissed him as some soulless, faceless enemy of true freedom. But he wasn’t, Jacob was my friend.d
We walked to class together; we were in the same study group; we ate at the mess hall together.  
All the layers of his completely different life experiences shaped his beliefs in a way entirely different from my own.
And now as the the presidential campaigns in the United States come closer, and I watch both parties debate, I have to admit it was easier when I didn’t think of “them” as human.
Now as I look at presidential candidates, I can no longer disregard those I disagree with and their supporters as a generalized lump of evil. I’m now in the very uncomfortable position of having to view my political opponents of as complex human beings with individual histories and reasons for their beliefs – true or misguided, right or wrong.
Have you ever had a similar experience? Leave your comments and questions below.