An Encounter at the Airport

We have reached the end of this trip, and throughout our time in Sri Lanka, there was an experience that I had before arriving that I can’t help but
wonder about.

During our seven-hour layover in the airport in Doha, Qatar, my fellow cohort members and I did random things to entertain ourselves. In addition to
eating and finding something to do on our iPads to kill time, some got creative and conducted a small work out session and a couple others colored in
pictures on ripped out pages from coloring books. I looked farther down the seating area and noticed Michael talking to a foreigner. I decided to jump
in the conversation. The man that Michael was talking to looked our age, was dressed in western clothing – a polo, jeans, and sneakers – unlike many of
the people at the airport dressed in white robes and a red and white head scarf. There was a huge language barrier between us, so we had his laptop
and Michael’s iPad on Google translate to use if we really couldn’t get a message across.

His name was Munir, and he was 20 years old, born in Iraq, is currently studying dentistry in Russia, and will return to Iraq because his family needs
him, even though he does not want to go back to Iraq, since the conditions there are pretty harsh. Michael and I talked to him about America, and we
compared differences between Iraq and America. We tried to get to know him as well. One question we asked in particular, which seemed like a pretty
normal question to ask and comfortable to answer, made Munir uncomfortable. We asked him “What is your religion?” And he told us “I don’t have a
religion.” And laughed. I would have believed it, but I guess thought that we knew that he was lying. He then asked “What religion do you think I am?”
and Michael shrugged and said “I don’t know. Christian?” And Munir smiled and shook his head. He said “I don’t want to say out loud.” We shared
an awkward laugh, and he eventually told us that he was Muslim. But the way he said it was in a manner similar to someone in American coming out
to his friends as being a homosexual. It seemed to me that he was scared to tell us that he was a Muslim. I had a feeling that it was because he knew
we were American and that we would judge him negatively, since American media doesn’t portray Muslims in the most positive manner. We assured
him that it was okay for him to tell us and that we didn’t care what religion he was. We were just curious.

Throughout the rest of our conversation, there were many other seemingly normal questions Michael and I asked him, but again, he had said “I don’t
want to say out loud. There are people around.” And when he did answer some questions, he looked around to make sure there were no security
guards around, or anyone whom he could get in trouble with. When we had to go to our gate, Michael decided that the three of us should take a
picture, so he quickly snapped one on his phone and sent it to Munir on Facebook. Munir asked with a concerned tone, “Is this public or private?” I
imagined at this point that he wanted to be sure that it was private. Michael showed him on his phone that it was sent through a private message.

I have never met someone like this – someone who seems to not be allowed to say certain things out loud. Someone who seemed to be living in fear. He
looked so normal, and Michael and I were able to deal with the language barrier to learn about where he comes from, but what I learned more from
the way he acted than from the relatively few words what he managed to communicate to us. I don’t know much about how the Iraqi people are
treated, but I know that it is in a way that made Munir afraid to disclose some information to us, though I am sure that there was no harm in telling us
anything. We were students with a passion for learning, just curious about the kind of world Munir came from. We were not going to use anything he
told us in a destructive manner, and we definitely wouldn’t have treated or viewed him any differently. I could tell just from our conversation that he was
a good person, and I respected him.

I am writing about this experience almost two weeks later, and I remember so many small details of it because it has stuck with me throughout my
entire trip in Sri Lanka. I don’t know anything about the Iraqi culture, but I saw something so striking through this encounter with Munir that will stick
with me for a while. When you read a culture, you can read it through people just by the way they talk and act. You can see it in how they react to the
question you ask or the way you act in certain situations. I don’t know a lot, but it makes me wonder how many people could be living in fear like
Munir seemed to be.

-Kristine Mapili

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