Alex Riviere, ‘17 PF Economics, addressed the Paterno Fellows graduating class and guests with this speech at the ceremony on May 6 on the Pattee Mall. (View photos of the ceremony and reception.)
One of my favorite aspects of the Paterno Fellows Program is it makes students engage in, what I like to call, active academia. It forces us to get outside of the ivory tower and, ultimately, outside of our comfort zones. With the support and encouragement of the Paterno Fellows Program, I was able to do just that when I studied abroad in Morocco.
While there, I was able to study the politics, history and sociology of Morocco while general elections were happening. I lived with a host family and was able to get a glimpse of their perspective on the U.S. I traveled all over Morocco, met all types of people and rode, what had to be, the most stubborn camel in the whole Sahara Desert.
But my most formative experience came while walking through Rabat one Sunday morning after church and seeing a Syrian refugee family sitting on the sidewalk. Reading about the situation and watching the news about the Syrian crisis has always impacted me, but seeing the consequences of the situation up close really affected me. Immediately, my mind became overwhelmed with emotion and questions both about this family and about the greater situation in Syria. I was so overwhelmed I felt I just had to do something, so I reached into my pocket and dropped some money in the bowl in front of them and kept walking.
About two minutes later, I was about to cross the street and I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there was a homeless man standing there with a child on his shoulder. He started speaking quickly in Arabic. At the time, I could not even understand slow Arabic and the only phrases I could make out were that his son was sick, something about money and that he was thanking me. I assumed he was asking for money, and at that moment I had nothing left to give. I actually pulled out my wallet to show him that I had no money.
At that point, I didn’t have any patience left. I felt as though I had already done my good deed for the day. I started to cross the street and just before I got away, he grabbed my hand, pulled out a few notes he had already written, and put one in my hand. I grabbed it without even looking at him and crossed the street. I will never forget the image I saw as I looked back at him. I felt the look from his piercing green eyes was going through me. He looked so sad and dejected, almost as if I had stolen something from them.
After I got back to my host family’s apartment, I had my host brother translate the note and it said, pretty much, “We are Syrian refugees, we are now homeless, please help us.” At that moment, I realized the man with the child was the father of the Syrian family I had given money to and he was just trying to thank me. My stomach dropped realizing I had not even given this man the time of day, let alone the respect and attention he deserved.
I had forgotten the more human side of the issue and in fact, infringed upon his human dignity. Looking back, I had stolen something: his faith in my humanity and respect for him.
I never saw this Syrian family again but I think about them often. I think the mistake I made is symbolic of the mistakes we make in the way we analyze or just talk about the greater political crisis. We use words like “collateral damage” to describe perishing of innocent civilians and, even worse, under-report those deaths. I was listening to a former ambassador speak about the situation in Syria and when asked his opinion on whether allowing a few thousand refugees into the U.S. was a good idea, he responded by saying that it’s a drop in the bucket, that it wouldn’t make a difference, and it wouldn’t change the world.
At the time, I said nothing, as I was still picking my jaw up off of the floor. But if I could respond to him now, I would say, “Mr. Ambassador, you are correct. Accepting one thousand refugees will not make a dent in the four million people that are displaced right now, it will not solve the problem and it will not change the world. But, it will change their world, their reality and their circumstance. And in fact, you are not changing just one world, you are changing a thousand worlds.” That is the lesson I took from this. At the center of these intractable issues are individual human beings whose dignity should be prioritized before all else.
Looking back, I feel comfortable speaking for many of us, but it is in these moments where we are outside of our comfort zones, that we learn the most: while studying abroad, doing an internship, conducting research or leading an organization. We have the Paterno Fellows program to thank for that because they not only gave us the tools by pushing us academically, but also the opportunities to analyze and immerse ourselves in these complex situations.
That is why I think a lot of us will find ourselves doing important work that will affect a lot of people deeply. I am not being dramatic when I say I am certain that in the future, I will have to address some of the graduates in front of you as Mister or Madame Ambassador, Mister or Madame Secretary, or maybe even Mister or Madame President. If and when that is the case, I will use those titles proudly and confidently because I know that, because of the Paterno Fellows Program, your beliefs have been tested, and you have developed a solid foundation upon which an exquisite leader can grow.
With that being said, I would just remind you one more time, that as you find yourselves in these roles and are making decisions that will impact the lives of thousands of people, remember the dignity of the individual and remember the lessons you learned when you were most uncomfortable, because I am convinced those are the most important.