As many of you know, I have just returned from my third trip volunteering in refugee camps in Greece.
During my first two volunteering stints in March and December of last year, it was always bitterly cold. Each day, I would bundle up in many layers to stay warm while working in the camps. With my multiple jackets, boots, gloves, scarf, and hat, my face ended up being the only part of my body exposed to the refugees during those trips.
This trip, the weather was different. It was, as we say in Boston, “wicked haht.” When I was buzzing around the camps this time around, I was stoked to be doing so in a short sleeve shirt and under the warm sun.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a 54-year-old fit lesbian with a grey Mohawk who only owns and wears black clothing. My body is completely ‘tatted’ up, with one arm being a full sleeve of ink and the other speckled with other tattoos. Given the warm weather, my tats were fully exposed and seen by the camp residents.
I was unaware that my presence would cause such a stir amongst the Muslim population of residents — ranging from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia. Men, women and children literally stopped in their tracks and looked at me as if I were a Martian who had just walked off a spaceship. They had never seen anyone like me in their lifetime. Here’s the beautiful thing though — after their initial reaction of being startled, they always smiled at me. Every single person without exception, young and old alike, greeted me with a wide, beaming smile. Their smiles were ignited naturally even though many Muslims believe tattooing is a sin because it involves changing the creation of Allah (God). Depending on which camp I was in, and the language they spoke, each and every one immediately offered me a greeting of “Marhaban” or “Salaam.” On numerous occasions I was asked “man or woman?” by children because it can be difficult to tell with my short hair. When I responded “woman,” their smiles grew even wider. A couple of times the teenagers asking the question would then flex their bicep and say “strong.”
It struck me that regardless of how different I was from them, their visceral reaction was a warm smile.
After a few hours of this, something dawned on me. What would happen if I brought a Muslim woman covered in traditional Muslim clothing and wearing a hijab to a place in middle middle America where there is little diversity and people had never seen anyone like her? I don’t think she would have received the same warm smile that had been extended to me by the refugees. My guess is many people would have reacted to her with fear and in many cases with hostility, ridicule and bullying. I don’t say this because I am judging or stereotyping, but because I have received the same reaction when I have traveled to these same places where I too did not look like the locals. And for the people who want to point to Muslim terrorists as an excuse to justify their negative reaction, I would like to remind them that based on statistics, they are more likely to be on the receiving end of violence in America from a white Christian male than from a Muslim. Moreover, America has let in 1.5 million Middle Eastern refugees since 9/11 and not a single one has committed an act of terrorism.
How is it that sight can be so blind for some people? How is it the group of people who have had to flee their country due to terrorism and violence don’t fear me, yet so many Americans who have never experienced any terrorism or violence fear them? What does that say about the refugees and what does that say about so many Americans?
It’s arrestingly ironic to me that the group of people who are feared and unfairly judged are the ones who radiate the attributes we need to bring peace on earth. They are the beacons for humanity and we should all follow their lead.