December 16, 2014, two days before I was due to leave campus for winter break, I stood in a room surrounded by fellow Swatties, gathered in a collection for the Peshawar school attacks that had taken place that same day. Militants had entered an army-run school in the Northern region of Pakistan and killed 141 people, 132 of whom were children. Until that point, I had not fully registered the reality of the tragedy unfolding in my own country. Perhaps I never would have, had I not been present at the collection. Although I had wanted nothing more than to be back in Karachi upon hearing the news, that night I began to realize how much my home away from home truly offered me. In short, the feeling was new — different, weird and wonderful. I felt it when someone I had never before spoken to saw that I was crying and put her arm around me. I felt it when I, never a fan of speaking in large crowds, was comfortable enough to raise my voice and share how I was feeling in the moment, as is the tradition in Quaker collection. And I felt it when I looked around and saw students from a multitude of backgrounds present, the majority of whom had no connection to Pakistan, in an amazing display of support and solidarity.
The most important realization for me that day was that my personal experience and interpretation of this incident would have been vastly different back home. This is not at all to say that such terrible atrocities are a regular occurrence in Pakistan, but militant violence on a smaller scale is not uncommon. It may sound awful, but for many of us at home, our sensitivity and reactions to such violence have steadily attenuated to the point of near-numbness. Constant exposure seems to breed indifference, whether or not that indifference is justifiable. What I found at the Swarthmore collection, however, was the polar opposite of indifference; it was a compassionate response that was incredibly heartening, humbling and comforting.
September 17, 2015: Once again, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion while taking part in a collection, this one for the Global Refugee Crisis. The only real difference this time was that now I was the one without any connection to the issue at hand. Yet I found myself feeling all the same things I had felt nearly a year ago. What really struck me was how readily those present came forward with their stories, poignant and emotionally charged, and how together we were able to create an environment in which they felt safe doing so. I realized that not being directly connected to or affected by a crisis does not make it any less relevant to my own life. We all have a stake in what goes on in our world — we all have a role to play.
I was, and continue to be, blown away by the power of the support network we readily extend to one another when we’re not too wrapped up in our own lives. The community at Swarthmore is one that is capable of reaching out to its members and listening without judgment; it is capable of asking and being asked difficult questions. Granted, this is not the side we see often enough, but it exists, and when reached out to, it reciprocates. It certainly took me by surprise, but it has made me value the time I spend here that much more. Even in an environment as socially conscious as ours, it’s easy to get caught up. Gatherings like these serve as a reminder to care and reestablish the link between our world here and the real world outside it. Although they may only represent a small form of recognition, they are the first step to larger action and fit in with Swarthmore’s overall dedication to social justice.
I have found that I tend to slip into living my life within two different bubbles, depending on where I am. There is the Swarthmore bubble, disconnected from the outside world. And there is the Karachi bubble, desensitized to the world within its immediate surroundings. They burst rom time to time, as they did on the two above occasions and then are quickly formed again. I am trying to burst these bubbles permanently, to step out of them and stay out. It feels impossible sometimes, but it’s moments like the collections that remind me it can be done. I believe that we all have a duty to listen to the stories of others, to engage with them, to share them. I believe that it is our obligation to question, challenge and oppose the injustices we see around us, and that it is society’s obligation to respond. I don’t consider myself to be an idealist and I know that, as it currently stands, our combined voices are still not loud enough. Even so, I refuse to accept that we, as Swatties, possessing the kind of educational capital we do, have no power to alter the unfortunate circumstances prevailing in so many parts of the world. Everything starts out small; perhaps recognizing this is the first step. It is only once we collectively channel the heightened awareness with which Swarthmore equips us that we can begin to be more active participants in larger conversations and efforts for change.