My father is Jewish, my mother is Methodist, and when I was in high school my family opened up our home over the summer to an Indonesian girl named Astrid. Astrid was about the same age as I was. Throughout her stay with my family and I, we all discovered how much we had in common. There was one difference, though. Astrid just so happened to be Muslim.
Once we found out Astrid was going to be staying with us, the company that was sponsoring her trip gave us a brief profile of who she was, including her religion. This was mainly to ensure we had food in the house that fit any dietary restrictions she might have. So, to prep for Astrid's stay we found a local market that sold halal meat. I remember my mother being surprised at how easy it was to find. Living in southern Virginia, we were nervous we wouldn’t find any. However, it looks like people have been living in the "bible belt" side by side with Muslims all along!
Astrid made this one of my favorite summers growing up. She and I clicked as soon as we met. We spent hours in my basement watching episodes of the O.C., we gossiped about boys and talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I was jealous with how brilliantly she had mapped out the path to her dream job of becoming a dentist. Those are three words I don't think many Americans would ever put together: woman, Muslim, dentist.
One of the things Astrid was initially looking forward to on her trip was being able to go shopping. She couldn’t believe that the family she’d be staying with lived near her favorite store, Hot Topic. We probably went to Hot Topic at least five times.
Though Astrid was our only houseguest, she came to America with a large group of boys and girls around her age. I remember noticing that Astrid was the only girl that didn't wear a hijab. I asked her why that was and she told me it was because to wear a hijab is to make a commitment to your god and your religion. She said that her mother always said that until she knew she wouldn't drink alcohol or break any other Islamic rules that she wouldn't have to wear one. What always struck me about that conversation was Astrid's mother was telling her that if she felt ready, only then would she need to wear a hijab. It’s a personal choice.
One day, Astrid invited me into her room to watch her pray. I was old enough to know things, like she had to be facing Mecca while she prayed, which was obviously my first question. How do you know exactly where to face when praying towards Mecca? She told me you just had to face in the general direction; God would know what you meant. To all you Christians, that sounds a lot like that faith thing you all preach about, right?
At one point I asked Astrid whether or not her parents were okay with their daughter staying at a house with different religious views than theirs. At first she was confused, sincerely not knowing what I was trying to ask. Once I explained, she told me all they cared about was that their daughter would be staying with good people. It didn’t matter to them that we weren’t Muslims. Listening to phone conversations between my parents and hers, you never heard people talking about ideologies...all you heard were two sets of parents talking about one girl who was on her first vacation by herself. Who just happened to be Muslim, because Muslims are also 16-year-old girls on vacation. Because Muslims are people. Just like you and me, Muslims are people. We are not banning Muslims we are banning people.
We all should be ashamed. We are banning people.
This piece was something that I initially wrote for my Facebook page. It warmed my heart how many people responded positively to it. But the real reward was having Astrid leave a comment on it the day after I posted. She and I have been “friends” on Facebook since that summer. At first we were pretty good about staying in touch but, as sometimes happens, we both became busy with becoming “adults”. At this point, it’s probably been at least five years since we had spoken. Part of the reason is because she rarely uses her Facebook (probably because she’s busy being way more productive than I am) so I didn’t even bother tagging her because I figured she would never see it. So, imagine my surprise waking up the next morning to this:
Elyse!!! Wow. Tearing up so much right now. I rarely use Facebook but I’m so glad the one time I opened it I have the chance to read this. I still remember the night we caught fireflies in the backyard, how your dad and uncle enthusiastically taught me about the history of the United States, munching on white chocolate cookies while watching the OC, and how can I forget all the trips to Hot Topic. You and your family had left nothing but wonderful memories for me. Thank you so much for this. Thank you <3
I also remember the night we spent catching fireflies in my backyard. There was so much laughter; she had never caught fireflies before. That night we were just two teenagers enjoying each other’s company. These are all memories I would never have acquired if I hadn’t grown up in a home that taught me to be open, loving, and respectful towards those of different religions and cultures. Spend less time being afraid of what you don’t understand and focus on learning from those that are different from you. Maybe you’ll gain a friendship like I gained with Astrid.
Muslims are people. We are not banning Muslims we are banning people.
© Elyse B. Thaler (1/30/17) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Astrid (left) and I before going go-kart racing
Middle Photo: Eating cannolis on the couch.
Bottom Photo: Trying not to cry while Astrid and I take one last photo before she leaves.
Photo Credits: Elyse Thaler
Elyse Thaler lives in Los Angeles.