When traveling to India to provide training to a medical school, I was introduced to another instructor from Syria. He was a Muslim man, young, bright, nice looking as well as a high ranking and respected member of our international training team. I smiled and acknowledged him, but immediately the ruthless events of 9/11 came to my mind.
On July 11, 2001, my husband and I delivered our first born son to WestPoint, the country’s premier military academy. This was just before 9/11. It is difficult when a child leaves the nest, but when they near to terrorist activity, claimed by a Muslim group, the word Muslim took on new meaning. Muslim now equaled Terrorist. To add to the insult already on my mind, 343 brother firefighters, as well as paramedics and police officers, marched to their death as the towers fell. My thoughts ran wild with not hate, but anger, resistance and I questioned my own safety? Honestly, maybe some hate was mixed in too.
I’ve always considered myself to be an upstanding citizen. I own a home, run a business and I am entrepreneur ─ the backbone of America. My roots run deep in America straight down to the heart of Texas. I also have a deep seeded need to save lives and rescue people.
While teaching for two weeks in India, the international training team decided that when the weekend came, we would make a trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. When purchasing my ticket there were a handful of instructors going. Once my flight was purchased, there were only two of us going, myself and the Muslim man. I panicked, telling the director of our team, who had backed out at the last minute “I can’t travel overnight with a Muslim man, alone! Come with us, please!”
The director knowing my history said, “Sherrie you’re a firefighter-paramedic, you can do anything! You do it every day!”
Hmmm… he’s using flattery. He is right - I believe I can do almost anything.
Psychiatrist, William Glasser says, “We are either highly self-flattering or living in pure fantasy.”
Self-flattery keeps showing up in my life. Dang it!
The director said, “I know this guy. He is a great guy. You will be fine.”
My cordial hypocrisy caused me to roll my eyes and think of the Sally Fields movie, “Not without My Daughter.” It’s a story about a Muslim husband who plans a visit with his American family to his homeland in Tehran, Iran. Once the Muslim had his family in Iran he said to his wife, “You’re in my country now. You’re my wife. You do as I say. We are not leaving Iran.” The American mother protested and was beaten and abused. Finally, after more than a year of suffering holy hell, she manages to sneak her daughter back to America.
The movie terrified my sisters, my mother and me. I can still hear my mother’s voice clearly, “Never marry a Muslim! Don’t trust them!” Even though I was married with my own children by this time, I agreed, shaking my head in that childlike way we all do when looking up to your parents.
The director pressed me, “This might be the last time you have a chance to see the Taj Mahal.”
Mulling this over, I shook off my old beliefs and confidently followed through with my plans to travel overnight with a Muslim man.
Have I made a big mistake? What if something bad happens? Shut up Sherrie!
Firefighter-paramedics learn through stressful events to have a Teflon way of being. Whatever the fear, we face it head on, determined just like those firefighters on 9/11 – never letting the fear stick to you. We are trained to face our fear with calm determination.
The Muslim man and I met up at the hotel and took a taxi to the airport. The Muslim man smiled at me and seemed pleasant enough, but I looked into his eyes and wondered if there was an evil side to him. My gut said, “This guy is not a problem”. My old beliefs told me otherwise. During the flight, I closed my eyes and continued to argue inside my head.
Am I losing my edge? Can I not see evil when it is sitting right in front of me? Shut up Sherrie!
We arrived in New Delhi, hired a car and driver to Agra and being exhausted, I promptly fell asleep in the back of the car and allowed the Muslim man to supervise our late night ride. See - a calm determination means you can sleep in the back of a car with two foreign men driving you somewhere on the other side of the world.
There is that self-flattery thing again! Dang it!
Knock, knock, knock, caused me to awaken in a stupor. The Muslim man said, “Sherrie, we have a small problem.”
“What’s the problem?” I said this while wiping the sleep from my eyes.
“We are at the hotel in Agra, but there is only one room.”
Good grief! How will I explain this to my husband and mother?
Sleepily, I got out the car and walked inside the shabby hotel thinking this was not the kind of hotel I intended on staying in the first place. A new level of fear rose in my throat as the lobby was filled with a lot of men lingering about, appearing to be doing nothing but, staring inquisitively at us.
The Muslim man said, “We have stopped at several hotels and none had any rooms.”
This is the last room in Agra? Impossible!
Entering the bedroom I was to share with this Muslim man I found a king sized bed. Reality slapped me and I started to turn and leave, but something stopped me. Being out in the hotel wasn’t safe either.
Me, alone with the Muslim man, or out there with a group of men? Well, I will only have to fight off one if I stay in here. The possibilities are endless. Shut up Sherrie!
Reaching for the bed covering, I pulled back the sheets and found exactly what I hoped for, two twin beds that had been pushed together. I tugged the beds apart. The Muslim man looked on curiously. Once I pushed the beds several feet apart, I declared the room a fire station. After all, we were both rescuers.
“You sleep there. I sleep here,” I said pointing with more confidence than I really felt. The Muslim man smiled and agreed, but I wasn’t about to pull out a slinky "nighty", oh no. Just like in the fire station, I slept in my clothes.
I hugged my pillow wondering if this guy was really the gentleman he appeared to be. My highly self-flattering conversation was in full play as to think he was even remotely interested in me, as I was a good 15 years his senior. I had no idea what to expect other than my old belief systems. These belief systems were running in the back of my mind and were based on a movie, my mother’s words and the events of 9/11.
Suddenly, I thought about how I was glad to be with a man tonight. Being alone in this situation would not be ideal. He’s better than a girlfriend I suppose and we are in the same brotherhood of rescuers. My thoughts shifted to the men hovering in the lobby of the hotel. I felt my heart skip a beat.
Suddenly, I turned on the light, arose from the bed, picked up a chair and placed it in front of the door. I figure it would give me added time needed to fight off the unknown from the lobby. The Muslim man looked at me curiously but said nothing. I returned to bed and turned off the light again.
Suddenly, the Muslim man flicked on the light, arose from his bed, picked up a large marble table and placed it in front of the door.
Is he frightened too? This means I’m not alone with my fear?
Somehow I felt vindicated for my tiny little fear.
Just shut up Sherrie!
The lights went off and we both fell asleep.
I awoke to the most God awful noise, like a low-level growl. It was an automatic response at the fire station to take my pillow and slap a snoring firefighter, so this Muslim was no exception.
“What’s wrong,” he belted out at me in the dark!
“You’re snoring like a bear,” I said as the light flicked on.
Oh! I’m sorry, he said as he rolled over adjusting his pillow.
I smiled, thinking I cannot believe I just walloped a Muslim man alone in the dark. I would have had to unload a lot of furniture for a swift get-a-away, had he gotten upset by my sneak attack.
Did I really just do that? Am I a hiccup waiting to happen? Remember your mother’s words after watching that movie? Don’t trust Muslims? Shut the heck up Sherrie!
Having slept in the car and at the hotel, I was up first. I choose to let the Muslim man sleep a little longer. Just like the fire station, I gathered all my belongings, entered the bathroom and secured the door. I considered moving the porcelain toilet like I had the chair last night. Since that would not work, I showered, dressed and vacated in seconds, like I was going on an emergency run.
As the Muslim man showered in the bathroom, I stood in front of the mirror in the bedroom putting on my makeup, feeling excited about the visit to the Taj Mahal. Then I heard a bell outside the window. I reached for the window and realized it opened easily, never having been locked by me (the fearless firefighter) or the frightened Muslim man.
Oops! There it is again. Shut up Sherrie!
Behind the hotel was a huge pile of trash the size of a football field with cows, wearing bells mulling about. Cows are considered sacred by Hindus in India. The appearance is everyone thinks they are sacred as they walk anywhere totally uncontrolled or unrestrained.
The Muslim man walked out of the bathroom and I told him about the unlocked window. “That chair and that table did us no good. They would have entered via this unlocked window,” I said smartly.
As we unpacked the furniture stacked in front of the door, we both realized we had missed the huge steel lock that pushed up from the top of the door.
“Yes, we would have been standing back-to-back fighting them off,” he said laughing.
We visited the Taj Mahal and shopped. When I picked out a small gift and prepared to pay, the Muslim man put his hand at my back (like a man on the dance floor) and gently moved me out of the way.
“No that is too high a price.” He said to the merchant. He took control like an incident commander at a fire scene. He asserted himself smoothly and respectfully. He was nothing like my brother firefighters playfully pulling at my pigtails, had I really worn them. I found him intriguing, respectful and confident and easy to follow. I realized that he cared for me as a friend and that did not match with my old belief systems and fear. It was in this moment, in my mind, the Muslim man became known as Firas – a name and not a religion.
Firas stood by me when I was afraid in a foreign country. He and I became a team when concerned about our safety. He represented strength when I really needed a man in my life. He saved me more than money. Firas’ actions began a transformation in my heart and soul. This transformation began to chip away at my old belief systems.
It occurred to me that in the beginning of my trip I was inflicted with paradigm blindness. Paradigm blindness is when we jump to conclusions and assume the worst in situations mostly involving others. Paradigm blindness is what people had back in the 70’s when I became the first female fighter. “You can’t do the job! You don’t belong! Go home and make some babies,” were just a few of the phrases I encountered. However, I still retired from firefighting and paramedicine two months short of 35-years.
What I experienced toward the end of the trip was a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift is when one gives up on belief systems for new ones. I began to think about Firas in new ways. I realized he bleeds just like me. He is a rescuer just like me. He has a family just like me.
Firas came to visit my husband and me at our home in Dallas, Texas. A few years later he returned to show off his new bride. She was very beautiful and we connected and acted like old friends. You could tell he cherished her and this was so different from my experience of how Muslim men treat women, which was learned from Hollywood movies.
Hmmm… Muslim is nothing like I thought. God, I am so sorry.
Fast forward seven years and Firas and I attended a conference as we both teach emergency cardiac care. He shared with me that recently he and his wife had lost a child.
He hurts like me too?
We wrapped our visit with a hug. I felt loved and respected by Firas. Because of this experience, "Muslim" does not equal "Terrorist" to me anymore. Muslim equals unique, different and amazing human beings. Extremist now equals terrorist and we got a few of them over here in the good ole USA. Timothy McVeigh is one that comes to mind.
Michelle Goldberg, reports “The most common American Terrorist Is a White Man with a Grudge.” This may very well be true.
Muslims believe in God, but their God is called Allah. Muslims believe that God revealed in holy books or scriptures to a number of His messengers. These include the Scrolls (given to Abraham), the Torah (given to Moses), the Psalms (given to David), the Gospels (given to Jesus), and the Quran (given to Muhammad). Some believe Jesus is the Messiah, but others believe he was a prophet.
So, The Quran isn’t the only bible for Muslims? Hmmm…
In a current leadership class, one of my team members is Muslim. His name is Yasir. Yasir has a funny side just like firefighters. After telling the class his name, he smiled impishly and said just remember to say it like this, “Yes sir.” He winked adding, “We will get along just fine.”
Curious, I asked Yasir if I could question him about his faith. He agreed, giving me most of the answers I was expecting. I could not ask the question I wanted most answered at first, but finally, I asked about women. How are they treated, do you love your wife, do you respect her?
“We hold our wives above our head,” was the response.
Hmmm… That’s interesting.
Having made countless emergency runs on women in America, there were plenty of husbands that did not hold their wives “above their head” or in any kind of regard. Domestic violence breaks your heart when treating a woman who had her face pulverized by her husband. I wanted to pound a few of these husbands myself, but I held back on those desires, as this is not consistent with how firefighter-paramedics are trained to behave.
To those who would say, if you like Muslims you don’t love America. That is so far from the truth.
Yes, I love America. I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I go to church, I wear red, white and blue on July 4th, I exercise my American right and vote, but I too have lacked love to the point of being ashamed, while privately holding myself as superior.
It takes guts to examine one’s self and one’s motives. It takes a step of faith to turn our fears into new possibilities. Possibilities can become miracles if you are bold enough to look for them on the inside.
It seems we have been found pointing at the chip in the Muslims eye because of 9/11 when we got us one Texas-sized two-by-four sticking out of our own eye ─ not loving people.
Don’t get me wrong, I remember 9/11. Firefighter-paramedics get the impact of 9/11, but we are trained to treat all people fairly, lovingly, and kindly no matter who they are, or what they have done to lose their integrity with society. We even take care of the suspect who just shot our brother, the police officer.
Transforming my thoughts about 9/11 from hate-to-love has been challenging, but the real lesson that came out of 9/11 wasn’t to hate Muslim’s or terrorist for that matter. The real lesson revealed was the sacrifice of love, shown by those firefighters, police officer, and other public servants ─ just like Jesus did for you and me.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. - John 15:13 NIV
The most important job we have to do on this earth is love people. Chunk it up to our highest calling. That means everyone − even those we feel are not deserving of our love.
Will God excuse our pent up hatred leaked out with small doses of cordial hypocrisy when participating in negative comments about Muslims posted on FaceBook? I don’t think God will tolerate lack of love from me. He has called us to be made new: to change.
“If you don’t like change, you will like irrelevance even less!” ─ General Shinseki
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you, your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26 NIV
It pains me to see my friends and family members acting unkindly with language that is anti-Muslim. Be anti-terrorist, I am anti-terrorist, but love people. The litmus test for being Christian says:
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” ─ John 13:35 NIV
Oh God, I am so sorry! I haven’t always lived up to your calling.
Love is a wonderful thing. It opens doors of friendship. It shifts old ways of being into new ones. It builds teams. It expands our horizons and our thinking to a new level of leadership. How can we lead others to Christ if we first do not love? How can we call ourselves Christians and post hateful things, about anyone, on FaceBook, Twitter or Instagram? When we make others wrong, we get to be right ─ an ugly right.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.─ Romans 12:9 NIV
Fears can be good as they protect us in some situations. Fears can also stop us from living full and amazing lives. When our fears are due to old belief systems and lack love, they create the potential for punishment. Punishment; for ourselves as we miss out on being loving and related with people and, for others when we play God by passing out our judgment.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.1 John 4:18 ESV
When you walk in love you won’t be the same person who walked in. I am no longer the same. I learned this lesson from amazing firefighter-paramedics and over the years from my precious Muslim friends (Firas and Yasir). Everyone needs a Firas and Yasir friend in life.
God help me to stand in love.
"Though nobody can go back and make a new beginning… Anyone can start over and make a new ending.” – Chico Xavier
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