When I got the New York Times notification on my phone that a gunman had open fired on a Las Vegas concert, killing 58 people, my first thought was "I hope he's not Muslim." This topic is sensitive and controversial, and I immediately felt guilty for having thought that. But there is some truth to my gut reaction. I of course feel nothing but the utmost sorrow for the loss of the victims, no matter the race of the shooter. But in the eyes of the nation, another shooting by an Islamic terrorist would have continued to perpetrate the Islamophobia that is rampant across the country.
Nisha's post in July inspired to think about a similar trip I took 5 years ago. For many high school students, traveling to a third-world country to help local communities has almost become a cliche for college applications, as terrible as that may sound. But rereading the article I wrote for the Philadelphia Magazine back in 2012 have allowed me to remember what it was truly like to immerse yourself in a completely different culture, one that lacks electricity, basic plumbing, or stable government, but embraces and values family, education, and resilience. Five years ago, I was so excited about what I had learned from this trip, and my excitement has been reignited fondly in reminiscing. Not only was I able to help one small community build a school, but I also continue to look at my own life with perspective. Though now a cliche, I hope that many others have the privilege of going on such trips, even if it helps just one community and changes one perspective. I have included an excerpt from my article below:
Two years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Las Anonas, a village in central El Salvador. Not only was I able to help build latrines in this small community, but also gained a new perspective that has shaped my view of the world to this very day. As I reflect on my trip, I remember both the difficulty of the manual labor and the beauty of hard work and resilience in a war-torn community. Please find below an excerpt from my article, published in Motivos:
"Armed with a brand new shovel, a red bandana and a water bottle, I trudge to the worksite in Las Anonas, a village in central El Salvador. I am a volunteer on a service trip to help build latrines in this tiny community in the middle of miles of sugarcane fields. The honest truth is that I know nothing about latrines. I have never done manual labor, and I am already hot and sweaty in the early morning sun. Men, women, and children have all come to help our team visiting from Philadelphia. Being the unskilled worker that I am, I offer to carry the heavy stone bricks at the construction site. Instead, the local mason teaches me in rapid-fire Spanish how to lay mortar evenly on the latrine’s foundation. My Spanish is weak and I end up copying Jesús, the little boy who is expertly filling the joints between bricks next to me. Despite the gloves, my nails are crusted with mud and my back aches from crouching all day. After a long day of work, I am exhausted, dirty, and hungry.
...That evening, I meet Maura. Her eyes stare off into the distant sugar cane fields as she tells me about her three children who were kidnapped during the El Salvadoran Civil War. Maura’s voice is dry and cracked; I feel a lump in my throat as I listen to her heart-wrenching story....On the way, to work the next day, I see little children dressed in clean, neat uniforms headed to school. After, I play an intense game of soccer with the village girls while the boys watch. At the community center, I play with kids, hand out gifts of colored pencils and toys, and listen to a lengthy speech by the mayor of the Tecoluca municipality. I learn that the sugar cane fields in Las Anonas were planted by large corporations and have replaced native crops. In a couple of years, the fields will be burned down and the soil will become unusable. But the local people take us away from their troubles to a fiesta, where there is music and laughter and joy.
When I came to El Salvador, I thought I would see a broken and wounded people, a country traumatized by a bloody civil war and overrun by gangs. Instead I saw people working hard to rebuild their lives and their community. I had gone to Las Anonas to help build latrines for a less fortunate village. However, the strength and determination of the El Salvadoran people taught me the meaning of hope, courage, and faith. When I stepped off of the plane in Philadelphia, I realized I had received more than I had given."
-Nisha Arya, IYC President
I am inspired that Carrie Lam has just been elected to lead Hong Kong. Many are discussing her accomplishments and her role under her predecessor. But the fact that she is the first woman to be elected to this position has largely escaped notice, in a stark contrast to Hillary Clinton's campaign last year. Perhaps it is because Hong Kong is well-known for its meritocracy, and Lam's rise through the ranks for many years. It might also be because of China's involvement in elections, and though Lam was trailing the front-runner, she was elected due to Hong Kong's version of an electoral college (influenced by China). Many also discuss her policies, which tend toward Chinese nationalism, even though she advocated for policy a few years ago that would have reduced Beijing's influence over Hong Kong's executive elections. In short, her campaign and election has largely been covered as if she were a man, without any regard for the fact that she is a woman. For some reason, we in the United States are unable to treat our candidates similarly, and it is about time for a change.
-Sofia Lorenzo, Member
IYC in partnership with Christian Metropolitan Council organized a poetry workshop in honor of MLK day on Saturday, Jan 14th at the Biomedical Library of the University of Pennsylvania. The workshop was sponsored by the Director of the Library, Barbara Cavanaugh. Approximately 25 middle school and high school students from Bala Cynwyd Middle School, Quba Institute of Islamic Studies, and Lower Merion High School attended the event. The workshop was led by Dr. Gregory Laynor, poet and librarian at the Penn Veterinary Hospital Library and ad hoc faculty of Poetry at Temple University. The theme of the workshop was “Dreams and Aspirations” in honor of Martin Luther King Day.
When the tide began to turn in favor of Trump, my friends and I frantically messaged each other in disbelief. It was difficult to watch the results of each state come in, confirming the inevitable. I felt horrified that half of America did not think xenophobia, misogyny, and sheer racism were deal breakers. In the days following the election, the result has been far more than just distressing. Trump's election poses a safety issue for many of my friends, who identify as women and LGBTQ. On Twitter, I have seen many women rushing to get IUDs before new legislation regarding birth control is enacted. If we want to survive Trump’s presidency, we must work collectively across communities to advocate for the rights of LGBTQIA+ folks, women, immigrants, people with disabilities, POC and undocumented folks.
This year, on April 27th, I had the opportunity to join the 11th annual Philadelphia Walk for Peace and Reconciliation, as a representative of the Intercultural Youth Council.
Honestly, when I first arrived at the Al Aqsa Islamic Society that morning, I was unsure what to expect. As a new member of IYC, this was the first event that I had attended. I assumed that there would be a subtly diverse group of people, gathering to talk about peace and acceptance, and walking for the cause. Much of this was true – but the broad diversity, the energy and excitement towards advocacy, and the proud march through North Philadelphia are what surprised me.
The event began at the Center, where information about the day, as well as insight into this year’s focus, “Side-by-Side on Sacred Ground: Celebrating Transformations”, was shared. This was my first time ever entering a place if Islamic worship. I had been to many cathedrals, churches, synagogues, and even Buddhist centers. Putting on a head covering and taking off my shoes were more significant actions then just becoming suitable to enter the mosque, it seemed to me that they, for any non-Muslims who chose to participate, were an act of acceptance. As the group hastily became organized, and proceeded, I found that this acceptance became a theme throughout the day.
As we paraded through the streets, the large group certainly earned many looks of confusion, but again I was surprised, by the reaction of the community to our banners and presence. Despite our precautionary police escort, there was an overwhelming welcome reaction. Many people honked in support, cheered from the sidewalks, or simply smiled at our efforts. Getting to lead the procession for a good amount of the walk, and proudly carrying the banner, helped me to see the importance of what we were doing. I was able to realize that, as a member of the IYC, and of the youth movement for peace, it is important for me to help with these efforts, that adults had organized, but soon would be our turn to lead.
The next destination was a neighborhood church, which led prayer songs in their courtyard. The amazing part of this was, as people of all religions were enjoying Christian hymns, that the entire group was able to relax, and feel safe on the sacred ground of another religion.
Finally, we arrived at the church that was our final stop. The building seemed run-down outside, yet inside there was a beautiful church. This sacred ground seemed to be falling apart from the outside, but was strong on the inside, and able to house our group of different religions. Inside, a Jewish choir greeted us, and many presentations were then given, including speeches from the leaders of the walk. Following that, the stage was given to participants, and I was able to experience how diverse and talented the group truly was. There was a Jewish prayer sung, a Sikh hymn that was accompanied by drums, the pastor of the church who spoke about peace, and a Muslim prayer, which gathered all of its followers at the front of the room for a traditional prayer. IYC’s own Divya Arya also performed, presenting a description of the organization’s goals, and singing a Hindu prayer.
All of these presentations were, to me, the most impressive part of the day. I loved seeing all these different types of worship, all in the same room. Despite all the worldwide conflict that stems from religious differences, the entire day, and especially the prayers at the end, were coexistence that was nothing but peaceful.
-Isabella Dumitrescu, IYC Representative
Up until I turned twelve years old, I lived and attended school in a community where the vast majority of people did not share the same religious beliefs as I did. There was only one synagogue within a reasonable traveling distance from my house, and it was not the right denomination for my family, but we became members anyway. I am a Conservative Jew, and I represented one of about four other Jewish kids within my entire grade at a public institution. Contrary to popular assumption, I was not bullied or isolated because of my Judaism. However, there were times when it was difficult to relate with others because I do not go to Church nor do I celebrate Christmas.
During middle school, I made the switch to a private school on the Main Line. This area has proven to be a very sharp contrast from where I grew up. Here resides a terrific Jewish population, which I quickly became a part of. I was able to identify with others and participate in religious ceremonies, such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, with my friends. These new experiences both expanded my sense of community and opened up doors for new friendships.
In hindsight, having lived in several different communities as part of both a majority and a minority has shaped me into an insightful person. Although I feel warm and comfortable when surrounded by people who share common characteristics with me, I feel just as unique and strong amongst a community where I am slightly unlike the larger number. I definitely value my religion as a part of me, but I have grown to adapt to either type of situation.
-Laurel Yaros, School Coordinator
Love marriages around the world are simple. Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. They get married. In India, there are a few more steps: Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Boy's family has to love girl. Girl's family has to love boy. Boy's family has to love girl's family. Girl's family has to love boy's family.
A movie based on Chetan Bhagat's novel named 2 States made headlines the day it was released in India. Since then, Indians have actually started accepting that for a harmonious relationship, cultural differences must be eliminated. Apart from this, watching the movie with a little more concentration, I strongly found it related to the actual Indian culture. Cultural differences between people of different states have served as huge barriers socially and politically in India. 'Respecting your elders' is one of the many lessons taught from the books of ancient Indian culture. Whilst watching 2 States, you come to a point when you feel that rebellion against parents or simply running away from home could've been a better option for Krish and Ananya, the protagonists of the story who belong to two completely opposite cultural backgrounds. This movie brings out their true Indian upbringing as they faced the challenge ahead, accepting each other's cultures with utmost grace. Most importantly, they make their respective orthodox families realise how cultural differences don't matter if you're pure at heart and have love for the other.
Touching the feet of the elderly in India is not just to show you care, it gives you strength, knowledge and intellect to fight against all odds and that is the reason it is an age old tradition which gave Krish and Ananya what they desired and deserved.
-Faguni Manchanda, Jaspal Kaur Public School, New Delhi, India