• Brenda Hershey

Humanizing The "Other"

Updated: May 5, 2021

Here I am.

In a land where the vast green fields stretch as far as the eye can see, meeting the horizon. A place where a rooster is my alarm clock, and it’s not uncommon to have to stop the car for herds of sheep or cows to cross the road. Doors are left unlocked in the night amid trusted neighbors, and people’s generosity and hospitality is incomprehensible if not experienced firsthand – literally giving the shirts off their backs if they have a slight inclination you may need it.

There is a buzz to this place: a community understanding of an unwritten language rooted in collective experiences. You can feel it in the ebb and flow of traffic, the songs of birds singing when you wake in the morning, and the warm embrace of people, even strangers, when you enter a shop or home. In this place, life is simpler, the veggies are brighter and the people live for family.

You may think I’m describing the Midwest or maybe even Darke County itself.

But instead of corn and beans, these fields are full of wheat and barley.

Instead of cowboy boots and Levi jeans, people are wearing the latest Middle Eastern trends and traditional Kurdish clothing.

Instead of Walmart and Aldi, they’re shopping at small shops bearing no names and at the bazaar in the city center.

Instead of church bells, the air vibrates with the call to prayer from the local mosques.

In fact, I’m in Iraqi Kurdistan up north near the Turkish border. I’ve been here since January doing humanitarian work – first, managing the medical clinic in a refugee camp (when the pandemic was underway and in full swing) and now working on a project assisting Syrian refugees to start small businesses and take part in vocational trainings. Being an expert in nothing but my own experience, I will share some of this perspective with you here.

Whether you’re in Iraq or Ohio, people just want to live with self-dignity. It’s as simple as that. They want to provide for their families and have the freedom to shape their futures and live their lives in peace. They want to be free from persecution and have access to basic services like water, electricity and quality education. They want to be seen, to be heard, and to feel that they matter. It’s not so much to ask in our day and age, in my opinion.

In both places, the communities are misunderstood by people of other countries and cultures because of how they’ve been portrayed in the news, by politicians or based on a history that they are inextricably tied to. This goes both ways: the image you may have of Iraqis and their culture is reflective of the image they may have of you, a small town American. Could someone across the world really understand you or your situation? Your lifestyle? Your struggles? Of course not; not fully, at least. But that’s what we typically find ourselves doing to others: judging them based on what we’ve been told yet lacking any real connection to or understanding of this person or group.

I’m currently living in Duhok, a city wedged between two mountain ranges that makes for amazing landscape views. Despite the community being rather homogenous – mainly Muslim Kurds with minorities like Christians and Yazidis – and it being considered one of the most conservative cities in the Kurdistan region, I have been welcomed with open arms as a female, a foreigner and an American. In fact, people are usually very curious. They’re curious about my experiences, about life in America and our general perceptions of their culture and religion. I have never once felt unsafe here in Kurdistan. On the contrary, I am still being told “Welcome” on a regular basis almost a year after my arrival.

The takeaway? Our commonalities far exceed our differences, and the vast majority of people just want to live peacefully. This basic human nature can be assumed, based on my experiences traveling the world, working with marginalized populations, and having conversations with people who think differently than myself. As well, tending to our sense of curiosity goes a long way. Ask questions. Be open to other ways of thinking. Learn things firsthand. Grow.

I vividly remember as a kid, sitting in the passenger’s seat of our Ford Explorer with my Dad behind the wheel. Driving through Ansonia, we slowed at a stop sign. Making eye contact with the man in an approaching car, my Dad smiled and gave a little wave. The man returned the gesture with a wide smile and a head nod.

“Do you know that man?” I asked.

“No, but I don’t need to know him to show some kindness. When you’re friendly, others are almost always friendly back… You just have to be the first one to smile,” he replied.

I am proud of these characteristics of my upbringing; to have roots in such fertile soil.

However, unless we can relate to the ‘other’ - people of other nationalities, ethnicities and religions - unless we can somehow see ourselves in them and empathize; we will never bridge that gap. The world is a big place, but we’re more connected than we’ve ever been. By opening up and embracing the differences that separate us, we can truly begin to appreciate the diversity that makes the world so interesting, and even more so, we can more deeply understand ourselves and align with our own core values.

I harness the lessons learned in my childhood - lessons learned in Darke County, Ohio - and use them to continue working to become a better person and make a positive impact in the world. To represent the America that I care so deeply for. To represent the values of the small-town community I was raised in. To actually treat others with the respect I expect from them; shifting this concept from theory to a daily practice. And to be open to other cultures and ways of living, in order to continue enhancing my own approach to life.

When you open yourself up to these possibilities, you may come to understand that, to someone else, every single one of us is most definitely an “other.”

Kindness transcends cultures. Be the one to smile first.

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