By Maria Morava, Global Citizen Year Alumna, College of the Atlantic
“I think Islam hates us,”
I listened as the French dubbing followed, one step behind –
“We have to get to the bottom of it. … There is an unbelievable hatred of us.”
Then-candidate Donald Trump spoke like we weren’t listening. We — my Senegalese host father, host mother, myself, my 2-year-old host sister — were sitting on our living room floor around a bowl of rice and fish. He spoke like Senegal wasn’t listening. My host father pushed away the bowl and sat back in resignation.
I had been on my bridge year in Senegal for seven months when I heard the presidential then-candidate endorse this xenophobic rhetoric. I remember being horrified at this statement alone; little did I know that after returning to the U.S. in April of 2016, I would watch this man actively gaslight my country and become president for it. There would be much more fear-mongering regarding the “other” — walls and bans and talk of “radical Islamic terrorism.” There would also be history-making marches, tireless protests and postcards in the mailboxes of latent representatives.
I wrote the postcards and I protested. It didn’t feel like enough. My mind kept spinning around my time in Senegal.
Because when the 45th talks about Muslims, he talks about Senegal. He talks about my host family, my friends at school, and my language tutor. He talks about my host father whose prayers would echo through our empty house in the evenings; so beautiful and demanding that when they were over, I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. He talks about my Muslim neighbor who gave me a porridge she made me especially for Lent. He talks about the deceased in the cemetery of Fadiouth, where Muslims lie in graves next to Christian neighbors. He talks about my friends, young Americans just like me, who yearn to worship something peaceful, something we believe to be bigger than ourselves.
If Trump had taken a year abroad like mine, he would have different ideas about what we should actually fear. He’d also realize that there is no “other,” there is only “we.” I don’t believe it a stretch to suggest that if Trump had taken a year abroad to discover this, he may have different ideas about what we should be fearful of.
It is more important now than ever before for young people to travel. In the midst of this national xenophobia, it may seem paradoxical, but the most patriotic thing we can do is leave. Of course, there are things to do at home: We can share our grievances on Facebook, we can write the postcards, we can protest. But what is a postcard compared to a story? What is a number compared to a face?
And so I want to speak to all of you combing through your college acceptance letters: Don’t you feel compelled to understand what Donald Trump doesn’t? If there is any part of you that believes that empathy is a practice and not a skill, that it is something always to be improved upon, then I would encourage you to think about a bridge year.
Step off the assembly line of grades and self-promotion for a year, just a year, and actively respond to our political environment. Do this and I guarantee that you will learn the cornerstone of empathy: that life is life is life. You will be torn apart by the struggles of others that so closely resemble your own; you will rejoice in the familiar triumphs of your neighbors. You will see “we” instead of “them” – and you will begin a lifelong journey helping others see it too.
We have the opportunity to participate in a movement with Global Citizen Year — one that is undoing the previous stigmas that “gap years” are only for the wealthy, that “gap years” discourage students from attending college. No longer are we perpetuating the myth that students who travel before college are falling into a gap. Instead, we are acknowledging our potential to bridge high school and college with meaningful global experience. We are the Americans and young global citizens who will build bridges, in story and in action, to a more empathetic world.
I still keep in touch with my host community in Senegal. Sometimes, we talk about Trump, how simple-minded and scary his actions are. More often though, we talk about our shared lives. We talk about how my baby sister’s words are growing into sentences, and how it’s good that I’m getting an education. We talk about the marrow of our shared condition, and we ponder the differences manifested in our environments. We grow, little by little, ndank ndank, alongside each other from across an ocean. Donald Trump has little domain over our conversations — he is conquered, again and again, by we.
Originally from North Carolina, Maria Morava completed her Global Citizen Year in Senegal in 2016. She is currently a freshman at College of the Atlantic majoring in Human Ecology. She enjoys exploring the connections between her varied interests, particularly in women’s rights, international relations and storytelling.