Eight hands of different sizes reach toward the large dish, scooping portions of richly-spiced cardamom rice and goat meat. It is an intimate moment, squeezed into a circle with seven others, sitting on a small mat on the floor with our legs folded.
In between mouthfuls, the men, adorned in white gowns and neatly tucked turbans, make multiple jokes and chuckle with laughter. I can only see the women’s eyes through their niqab, but can hear them giggling at the situation too. The children in the circle are so surprised by a foreigner sitting among them that they completely forget to eat, their eyes staring up at me the whole meal. In a circle of complete strangers, it is incredibly humbling to be welcomed as a part of a Yemeni family.
I experienced this kindness every day during my time in Yemen. When walking into a restaurant, a full table would invite me to join them. Families would open their doors to share coffee and conversation. Time and time again, I witnessed the same generosity, kindness, and inclusiveness from complete strangers who wanted to know why I had come to visit their country during such an uncertain time.
Recently, the world has taken a drastic shift in its response to emerging conflict, war, and disruption in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Opinions are becoming increasingly divided and our natural human responses of compassion and understanding are becoming overridden by fear.
This fear has led to growing political discussions in North America, Europe and Australia of restrictions, bans, building walls, and deportation — topics which inevitably hinder an individual’s freedom to be who they want to be, or who they are. Yet the very reason these movements have spread is because the faraway places in question are unknown to most of us. When people speak openly and definitively about race, culture, and religion in countries they have not seen, it’s all too easy to neglect to understand a person’s circumstance or misunderstand their overall desire to make a life in a place that is safe and secure.
In the last five years I have traveled through Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and several other countries of questionable security in Africa and the Middle East, and this particular topic is close to my heart for that reason. I have met incredible people and made friends in each of these countries, and, lately, I have spent a lot of time wondering how the world can turn a blind eye in their greatest time of need.
It has become personal because these places are no longer ‘unknown’ to me. I could never fear parts of the world where my only memories are of a generosity, warmth, and hospitality quite unlike anything I’ve experienced elsewhere.
I arrived at a bus shelter late one night in Khartoum, Sudan, and the bus driver walked me to a nearby guesthouse to ensure I felt safe. When two cars bombs went off at dusk near my hotel in Sana’a, Yemen, the manager escorted me to a safe place in the kitchen, where we shared tea and told stories to take our minds off what was happening outside. When I crossed the border from Somalia to Djibouti without a visa or any knowledge of the French language, the customs officers shrugged their shoulders, smiled, and gave me an entry stamp for free. I went to restaurants in Ethiopia, where waiters would often join me so I didn’t have to eat alone. Just last month, I lived in a nomadic camp in central Mali, just a few kilometres south of a conflict zone, and yet, felt safer with my host family than almost anywhere else in the world. I took comfort in their hospitality.
In each of these countries, people approached me with the same inquisitive questions I had for them — questions about my home, my family, my career, and my future. These conversations are the very reason I love to travel. Over time, I’ve learned that this exchange is what brings us closer as humans. Sharing insight and having the chance to tell and hear the stories of our countries, our cultures, and our lives allows us to develop empathy for someone born in a completely different part of the world.
When I started to travel at the age of 19, I was blown away by how diverse cultures and people were around the world. My mind constantly focused on the little details that set us apart from one another. Yet, the more I traveled, the more I saw that we were in fact, very similar.
I watched mothers brush dirt off their children’s uniforms and fathers teaching their sons how to repair bicycles. I watched elderly men bantering about politics in small cafes and teenagers sneaking out late to party, even in countries where alcohol was strictly prohibited. I watched kids bolt from their classrooms the second school finished to play cricket and argue over their favorite Premier League players. Whether in Bangladesh, South Africa, Mongolia, or the UAE, in each country I have traveled, I have seen a resemblance to the life I live, even if just for a moment. Our social, political, economic, and environmental situations differ, but our lives, experiences, choices, and values are very much the same.
Developing this cultural understanding helps drive empathy and compassion as human beings. Had I not traveled to these countries, I too may have feared the unknown.
Would I fit in? Would people welcome me? Would I feel strange when comparing my circumstance to theirs? I know the answers to each of these questions — yes, yes, no — simply because my feet have touched the same soil. I’ve had the conversations and seen the comparisons. This understanding is the very reason I think of the war in Yemen so frequently, having lost touch with many friends there and knowing that no one deserves what they are going through. It is the reason I email back and forth with a young man whose family showed me great kindness in Ethiopia, in the hope of repaying that kindness in my own country in the future. It is the reason my heart sinks when reading the “World” section of any media outlet, as I know at least one country I have visited will be experiencing corruption, conflict, famine, or some form of injustice.
For me, these places are no longer simply reduced to geopolitical conflicts, but instead bring to mind the people and memories from my time there. It is this reason I see the immense strengths of immigration and diversity in countries that are lucky enough to have no war, conflict, or opressing political regimes.
Just a few weeks ago, my application for the visa waiver program in the US was denied because I had set foot in these countries without a ‘reasonable excuse’ to do so. As a Commonwealth passport holder, it came as a shock. Yet I couldn’t help but think how much harder this process, albeit impossible, would be if I had actually been born in one of these countries.
The beauty of travel is that it unites us as humans. We stop fearing the unknown when we experience other parts of the world. We stop looking at the differences in culture, language, religion, race, sexuality, or gender as negatives, and instead have positive interactions and experiences with people who are, at their core, just like us.