“You came here as citizens because you believed that you had a mission and you were going to do it. I hope you’ll keep that for the rest of your lives.” -President Clinton
“There are some people discouraged about the future of this country and I strongly suggest they meet some of the Presidential Leadership Scholars. What seems like a dim future will seem like a bright future.” — President George W. Bush
Sitting in the George W. Bush Presidential Center on June 27th, surrounded by the most accomplished, giving people the US has to offer, I was embarrassed to hear these words from the two presidents before me.
A year ago, I was one of the many Americans who had opted out, discouraged by the increasingly hostile discourse and a feeling that what it meant to be “really American” was a tightening circle that did not include me.
Make no mistake, I am not new to politics or conflict. Since I could vote at 18, I have proudly exercised that privilege, worked on campaigns, participated in marches, led dialogues,and organized voter registration drives. I worked for the U.S. government for eight years with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) .
I am also a child and scholar of conflict; I was born into the Cold War on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Once the USSR fell, I lived through the civil war in the newly formed nation of Tajikistan as an ethnic Pamiri minority. In the face of hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced, and mass food and electricity shortages, my family was welcomed into the US as part of the “green card lottery”. My academic and professional career has been dedicated to conflict analysis and resolution, from George Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis Resolution to working on the complex conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Ukraine.
I have witnessed the most heinous of human actions and conditions and in every single instance, the beauty of humanity has shown through as a sapling on the floor of a charred forest.
How could I not handle the discourse in the U.S.?
Because it was raw, fresh, and deeply personal.
In the early morning of November 9, 2016, I called my dad, a man who had believed in democracy and fought for it under Soviet rule, a man who marched along the treacherous Pamir Highway in the deathly mountain winter to ask for a fair and equal election. He heard my voice, soft and sad, and in his chipper voice told me: “You have been through worse; make yourself pancakes and go to work”.
I took his advice, but I have been struggling to understand if there is a place for me as a young, Muslim, immigrant woman in America. I had not questioned it before because my family and I had been welcomed with open arms in Washington DC, East Lansing, MI, and Atlanta, GA. I am not proud to say it now, but the solution for me was to only talk to others who believed what I believed. The daughter of a long time CNN journalist, I stopped reading or watching the news. If there was no place for me, I reasoned, why should I engage?
Through the gentle, consistent encouragement of PLS alum Maia Comeau, I applied to the Presidential Leadership Scholars program. I was nervous to opt in but I was also tired of the divisiveness that had only grown over the last two years.
During the first module in Washington D.C. in February, I got the initial push I needed with the first of many conversations with my fellow Scholar Jill Floyd, at once the personification of a sunrise and a warrior. We talked about our own experiences as women of color in creating spaces for others. We talked about the mental toll it takes to be the only woman at the table. We talked about the privilege of being able to opt out and tune the world out. Even while war drove my family to the US, we had a choice while the African-American experience was not out of choice and there is no option to opt out or to “return home”.
Talking to Jill as well as a serendipitous dinner for six gave me drive. The answer to exhaustion over my own struggles became clear: set them aside and rededicate myself as an ally, to lend voice and action to other people struggling against inequality. I made a promise to myself and my fellow scholars during this first module:
I want to listen without judging, I want to understand without trying to fix.
The goal is not agreement, the goal is difficult conversations.
From February to June, my fellow Scholars and the amazing program leadership team, have nurtured and taken root in my heart and psyche the belief that America is for everyone and that the amplifying forces of our diversity of thought, background, and passion continue to mark the success of this beautiful democratic experiment called America. Where I work at the Aga Khan Foundation, His Highness the Aga Khan calls it pluralism: an ethic of respect for diversity. The Global Centre for Pluralism, started by His Highness, stresses that “diversity is a fact, pluralism is a choice”.
I understand that when something is a choice, it requires effort, it requires passion, it requires dedication. If like me your internal fire is diminishing, look around you at the hard-working people who live the ethics of America and let them fuel your flames for a nation bettered by our diversity. Opt in, America is waiting.