Maggie came to the interview armed with statistics and brimming with fears. Bnyad arrived eager to share his experience as an asylum-seeking refugee. She grasped her rosary. He had his prayer beads. They made small talk while being photographed. And then he invited her to continue the conversation.
Sometimes a cup of coffee changes everything.
In September 2017, Pope Francis introduced the Share the Journey Campaign by asking the faithful to embrace the experience of migrants and refugees. “Listen to their stories,” the Holy Father urged, “Know of their experiences.” Through dialogue with people who often seem invisible to us, he explained, our hearts will be moved to take action.
Inspired by Pope Francis’s invitation, earlier this year CRS interviewed dozens of refugees and citizens born in the United States as part of project called Be Unafraid. We wondered if talking about our fears could unite us rather than divide us, and so we asked our interviewees to share their fears, their hopes and their stories. We also encouraged self-reflection and dialogue, as people posed together for photographs.
In the most obvious of ways, Maggie and Bnyad couldn’t have been more different. A recent transplant to Nashville from Traverse City, Michigan, Maggie, 19, had dropped out of college and was working as a secretary. She says she arrived at the Be Unafraid event prepared to argue. “I studied for it,” she admits. “I’ve always loved politics, so I spent my time memorizing statistics, and just trying to find facts to win and prove why it would be bad to let refugees in.”
During the interview, Maggie shared her fears about mass immigration to the United States by Muslims, convinced that violence would follow in the way she believed it had in some European countries. It was only when the interviewer asked her to think about the phrase “love thy neighbor” and what it might meant to her, that Maggie later said she felt conflicted:
“In my head, I was like, ‘Well, it’s morally wrong not to allow human beings into a country when they’re being hurt,’” she explains. “But I was so concerned about extremists entering the country that I thought the solution was don’t let anyone in because then the extremists can’t get in.
“So instead of solving the problem, I was ignoring it.”
Bnyad, 21, a community organizer with college aspirations, came to Be Unafraid as a seasoned teller of his story. He had shared with many audiences that his father was an Iraqi translator working for the U.S. government and that the family weathered close brushes with violence, came under threat from ISIS, and eventually received a Special Immigrant Visa to the U.S. They were on a layover in Cairo waiting for their flight to Nashville in January 2017 when the president of the United States enacted the travel ban, and they were unable to proceed. With the help of the Tennessee Immigrant Refugee Rights Coalition and a boost from the media, Bnyad and his family were able to fly to Nashville, where they were greeted at the airport by, as Bnyad describes it, “about 300 people—lovely, amazing Nashvillians … who chanted: “Welcome home, welcome home.”
“They brought signs and welcomed us in our native language and English,” he recalls. “That was some of the highest moments in our lives.”
Maggie and Bnyad first met at the Be Unafraid photo shoot in May 2018 when they were urged by photographer Jeremy Cowart to collaborate on how they would pose together for photographs. When they struck upon the idea of each holding the other’s string of holy beads, Bnyad asked Maggie if she knew what his prayer beads symbolized. She did, she told him, because she had once considered converting to Islam. He was so touched that he was almost brought to tears, he recalled later, and decided he was interested in taking the conversation further. So he asked her to meet for coffee a few days later, not knowing the depths of their differences.
Each ended up having apprehensions about getting together. Maggie was worried Bnyad would try to convert her to Islam and was determined she would instead convert him to Catholicism. When Bnyad looked at Maggie’s Facebook page before their meeting and found she was an avid supporter of the current administration and its immigration policies, he worried that he had made a mistake.
But when they met for coffee, religion was the last, brief thing they talked about—after subjects like school and work and being new to Nashville. And maybe getting together again.
At their second meeting, Bnyad told Maggie the story of his family’s flight, and she wept. That night, she Googled the correct pronunciation of his name because, as she recalls: “We were going to hang out again, and I realized I did not know how to pronounce this boy’s name. I could not say his name.” But her Google search also brought up the unexpected—multiple news stories about Bnyad and his family. Maggie realized that she had seen these stories before and had dismissed them as “liberal propaganda. But after seeing that video of him and his family, I was horrified,” she says, “because I literally pushed for this ban [on immigrants] and fought for it in my town, and then I saw the consequences of that from a person I knew and had grown to care about.”
Maggie and Bnyad continued to talk over the next several months. She met his family and convinced her own that he was not a terrorist nor was he the stereotype they were picturing. As she got to know Bnyad through each conversation, Maggie found herself questioning some of her previously held beliefs. “I guess I pictured all Muslims as extremists,” she explains. “Before, I saw these people as statistics, not human beings, and I almost feel like when you are having conversations with people face to face, you’re not anonymous anymore. It makes everything real and brings humanness and emotion into it.”
Maggie underwent an unexpected and profound change of heart. She decided to leave Nashville mid-summer to move back home to Michigan to enroll in Northwestern Community College at Grand Valley and re-ignite her education. She had been praying for vocational direction and now she had found it: She wanted to study law so she could help migrants and refugees. “I had no meaning or direction in my life [before the experience in Nashville],” says Maggie. “Honestly, I feel it was a gift from God to help me with what to do with my life and how to help people.”
Bnyad finds Maggie’s conversion both courageous and inspirational. He points out that face-to-face contact and sharing is crucial in facilitating understanding of another person’s position and that those opportunities don’t happen often enough. When individuals meet in person, reflects Bnyad, “there is human dignity attached to it and you treat everybody with respect because nobody really wants to have an adverse or uncomfortable reaction. It’s a combination of those things, but mainly just the human interaction of speaking with someone else [that makes a difference].”
Bnyad and Maggie have continued their friendship long distance (and will have the chance to talk about their relationship in person at several Share the Journey events this fall). Their story may seem unusual—but it doesn’t have to be. As Scripture tells us, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’”( Galatians 5:14).
When we share our stories, we can turn the tide on fear. Listen. Speak. Be unafraid.