I met Joseph in the middle of a protest under thewatchful eyes of snipers; it was purely a chance meeting. I probably would havewalked past him in the street. Today, I am thankful I spent a day in hispresence.
I attended the National Student Leadership Conference inWashington, D.C. that summer expecting to learn how to negotiate, organize andplan. I was nervous about leaving my comfort zone to mingle with strangers fromall over the United States and other countries, but nothing could have preparedme for Joseph and his life story.
On the fourth day, we took a trip to theWhite House. Because of September 11, we couldn't go in, but just standing infront of the white symbol of freedom was awe-inspiring. I soon became engulfed inthe police force and protest groups. Never having witnessed a protest, I watched,listened and learned about my fellow Americans' problems. The protests rangedfrom fighting for higher wages for janitors and establishing freedom in Liberiato the ever-controversial war on terrorism. Listening to one of the protestersblame the president and Americans for the deaths of hundreds of innocent peoplein the Middle East made me uncomfortable. I began wondering if we really werehelping anyone in the Middle East. Should we stop trying to police the rest ofthe world? Is war the answer to peace? That is when I met Joseph.
Helooked restless, so I went over to talk to him, hoping to take his mind off themadness. After introductions, I realized I had underestimated this task. He wasfrom the Middle East; I was from the U.S. and our countries were at war. We werestanding in the middle of a protest on terrorism in the nation's capital. Afteran awkward silence, I turned to leave. But Joseph called me back and we sattogether on a bench in the park. Surrounded by friendly squirrels, watched bysnipers and overhearing the endless chants for peace, we finallyspoke.
Joseph told me about his life growing up. He spoke about owningguns like most Americans speak about owning cars, and about having to be carefulof one's surroundings. He talked about coming home and learning an uncle, cousinor friend had died in the crossfire of a stray bullet, about having to flee hishome and watching his grandmother cry for those lost or those who still had tolive in the war zone.
Suddenly, the war was no longer just endless newsreports on TV. They were no longer faceless strangers who died for country andreligion; they were Joseph and his family. I realized I had been naive to think Iunderstood the problem and was emotionally detached enough not to understand thatevery news report was about the struggle to live in the Middle East. We askedeach other how people could hate each other, why religion needs to be defendedand defined by a death toll, and why the world's leaders can't solve theproblems. Joseph told me he would never wish upon anyone the life his family hadto face, and that any help in the Middle East is worth the risk. Maybe war is notthe answer, or maybe it's the last resort.
As our group boarded buses forthe Holocaust Museum, we said our good-byes. He told me he had never opened up toanyone like he had to me. I had helped him deal with the struggle between wantingto scream at the protesters (since they didn't understand war) and at the sametime wanting to defend his countrymen. He thanked me for caring enough to listenwithout judging him, his religion or his country.
Joseph told me I gavehim hope that if two strangers (in the strongest sense of the word) could listenand respect each other's differences, then maybe our countries will also findpeace.
The Holocaust Museum took on an added dimension that day. It didn'tonly represent what happened during World War II, but also what hatred anddiscrimination could accomplish. It demonstrated that even today prejudice ringslouder than the communication of those hopeful for peace.
As we left themuseum, I saw Jo-seph standing by the door. He walked over to me with pain andhopelessness reflected in his eyes. "Why do we have to destroy eachother?" he asked.
"I have no idea. I don't think anyonedoes," I answered simply and honestly.
I returned home from theNational Student Leadership Conference a changed person. I learned aboutorganization, negotiation and personality characteristics, the foundation ofbecoming a leader. But most important, I learned that being a leader meansdealing with emotional problems and trying to make sense of what seemsunrealistic. Now I watch the news through different eyes. I look at the faces ofterrified children, hopeless mothers and determined fathers searching forJo-seph. I know I won't find him in the rubble after a bombing or driving a carbomb into an army camp because he escaped that insanity. I will never have tocomprehend or experience that type of lifestyle.
I still don't have theanswer to Jo-seph's questions: Why do humans try to destroy other civilizations?Why do we create weapons of mass destruction? Why are we prejudiced against thoseof different faiths, cultures and backgrounds? I may never find the answers, butI hope someone does, and soon, before we destroy each other in our quest to saveone another.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.