Ryan Marinelli: Learning From Exposure

Ryan Marinelli recounts how his travels and studies abroad widened his perspective on issues such as community, bigotry, social justice, peace, and belonging. He is an intern for MALA for Spring 2017.

Some of the most my most important memories regard my experiences aboard. I have spent the last year in Japan and have traveled the world.  In Japan, I attended an international university in Tokyo. As such, I met quite a few Muslims. The thing that was interesting about the Muslim community was that, it was an actual community. People throw around that term fairly lightly, but it carried some significance in Japan.  I befriended the son of a Libyan diplomat and peered into this tight-knit group. For instance, I remember one time my friend had gotten fairly sick.  He had developed appendicitis and had to get his appendix removed. He had planned to go to Europe and was more upset about missing Italian pizza than his appendix. During his recovery, I kept visiting him in the hospital. I would try and help him with the nursing staff: he didn’t speak any Japanese. Every time I would visit him though, there would be people there with him, or people would come while I was visiting. But if two or more people visited, the visits tended to be conducted in Arabic.  I do not know Arabic which made visits more like a guessing game for me.  Someone would say something, and then someone would laugh, and then I would guess what happened. The thing that is important to note here is that just so many people visited him. There were people from the Libyan Embassy and Muslim students from school that visited. So many people visited, it was like clockwork. He told me though, I was the only non-Muslim to visit him. He explained to me, that everyone was connected throughout this community. So when something bad happens to one person, the whole community gets together to help out.

During my time in Japan, I also interned at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Tokyo.  This idea of a community and family was still rather present. The madam ambassador would refer to the interns as her children; it was rather endearing.  One of the more interesting aspects of interning at the embassy was the culture shock at first. My first month there was the month of Ramadan.  The significance being that everyone was fasting during the day.  To accommodate for this, the interns ate lunch outside of the office and avoided bringing coffee. By seeing the commitment people had in respecting Ramadan, I gained more respect for Muslims and Islam overall.  There were also events that had a similar effect.  In the spring, there is a celebration for students that had graduated from Japanese universities. People all too often associate Afghanistan with violence, but the event was rather hopeful. I was tasked to help serve food to the students that were visiting. But, I had the opportunity to speak to them afterward and to listen to their presentations regarding their thesis work.  Each of the presentations was concerning how to solve a problem in Afghanistan and really painted a picture of how to improve their country. This is pretty inspirational and made me hopeful for the future. Along with the students, the deputy minister of women’s affairs was also visiting.  By listening to her address, it was interesting to see how Islam and feminism are intertwined.  The whole event was just insightful. Most of my experience at the embassy though was research based. I studied the refugee crisis in Germany which sparked my interest to visit Germany this past summer.

During my visit to Germany, I saw the reality of what I studied. I traveled from Frankfurt and made a large circle around the country.  When I first arrived, the political climate was palpable. I ran into a protest run by Pegida: they are group fighting the “Islamification” of Europe. They had a sign that had a sign to the effect “Refugees Keep Out.” They had a loud speaker and were preaching that Germany was being tainted by Islam, and the principles of the country were being undermined through the influence of the refugees.  However, people did not seem to be receptive to their message. Most people just kept walking by the people protesting and ignored them. But, I was still concerned with their presence. I think that it demonstrates the Islamophobia which is present in the west.
Later in the trip, I went to visit a refugee housing complex. It was south of Munich and was directly next to a train station in the countryside. The house itself was a large blue structure that appeared to be retrofitted to house a large number of people. The day I visited, it was a gloomy and raining which added a somewhat melancholic effect.  When I first went to the housing area, I walked up this secondary structure which was built along a hillside.  All the people I encountered were just sitting complacently. It was as if they had no sense of agency. The fact it was raining, and they were getting wet was of no consequence to them. When I looked around the main structure, the lights were not on, and I had the impression that the people were just waiting. There was an anxiousness there, but there was no outlet for the emotion.  It was as if they were all waiting for something to change, but everything was just to remain stagnant. By seeing these people, it was easy to see that they were simply isolated. By being far from homes, being judged for their identities, and being contained by being forced to stay in the middle of no-where, the mental state of these people is understandable.

One of the last stops was Bremen, but it was also one of the most significant.  During my stay in Bremen, I was with a group of people returning to a hotel from a night on the town.  When we were going back, we heard a person calling for the police.  It was a man which had been robbed. He appeared to be a refugee. He was in a poor mental state and was crying something about Afghanistan. He then wailed, that he was going to kill himself. He walked around crying for a while and then made a dash into a busy street. One of my friends held on to him and signaled to an oncoming truck to come to a stop, narrowly avoiding them. The police came a few minutes after and were able to provide the assistance needed.  This incident really drove the point home of what an environment can do to a person and helped to motivate me to try and combat Islamophobia.

At first, I was exposed to a really positive image of Muslims. I saw the community people had and the hope that the youth shared. They wanted their religion to be inclusive, and they just wanted to improve the world. However, I also the saw a darker side of Islam. A side viewed through a lens of bigotry which has motivated me to get involved.

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