Opening Words from Sun. January 3 by Jessica Saigh

I am half Jewish and half Catholic, and I have spent my entire life surrounded by people with different nationalities and religions. I remember I met my first Muslim friend in seventh grade. I was her first friend here even though she didn’t speak a word of English. I’m not sure, but I suspect I taught her her first words.

In college, I lived in a big co-operative house with Americans and foreigners. I became friends with a Syrian and Egyptian. One spring, they asked me to do the Ramadan fast with them. I readily agreed, so that I could better understand their culture. I cherish that month of fasting and breaking fasts with them.

As an ESL teacher, I quickly built an almost instant rapport with my Saudi students despite being part Jewish. I’ve always suspected it’s because I look like their sisters and cousins. They never seemed upset after learning of my heritage. I love teaching all foreigners, but I’ve always privately tutored Arabic speakers who often have trouble navigating our Western language and educational system.

After the initial shock of 9/11, I worried for the Muslims visiting or living in this country. I feared for their safety, but I also feared they would be the victims of fear and unfair and irrational prejudice. The internet allows misinformation and rumors to spread faster than rumors in middle school.

I cannot be blamed for Timothy McVee or Jessie James, who both came from my home states. Nor can Muslims be blamed for radicalized, angry people. It doesn’t solve the problem. I’ve always believed language learning, international travel, and becoming friends with internationals could help build a way to peace. Understanding and accepting other people is the best way to fight disengagement and hate which can lead to violence.

Here is what I know about Muslims. They are a warm and loving people. They welcome you into their homes and always offer tea and food. Everyone is welcome. They are a high context culture, which means relationships with family and friends are essential to a good life. They love story telling, singing together, laughing, and sharing meals together. They also like camping and making barbeques. As students, they sometimes they have trouble completing homework because they can never turn friends or visitors away. They are loyal and always happy to help others. They are generous and imminently kind. They are terribly worried about the conditions in the Middle East, especially in Syria.

After the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, my Muslim students were shocked and saddened. They were also worried that all the goodwill they were spreading would be useless because of the actions of a very few. They know that terrorism affects us all, and they want it to stop every bit as much as we do. It does not represent the Muslim people, their culture and their hearts.

I will never stop being friends to Muslims and people from any Arab country. I am not afraid of having them in this country or in the seat next to me on the bus or concert hall.