When I was telling people that I was preparing for my Peace Corps in the Kyrgyz Republic, I faced a common response – where is that? (Blank stares were also common.) Admittedly, when I received my invitation to serve in Kyrgyzstan in December, I had to look up exactly where it existed on the globe. Even Secretary Kerry got confused. (So did Sam Seaborn.)
I found myself explaining – Central Asia, near northern China, on the border with Kazakhstan, or due north of Afghanistan. Even then, I think, it didn’t always sink in. The same is true for most volunteers here. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, we all have ended up somewhere we least expected. I assumed that I would continuously have to explain where I was to others.
That was less than a week ago.
Then, on Monday, a series of explosions rocked the 26th mile of the Boston Marathon. Already an emotional wreck from saying goodbye to my family only minutes before, I cried on the floor of Mitchell International Airport while watching clipped responses to the bombings on CNN. I was outraged and exhausted and heart-broken.
The Boston Marathon is about the height of a human’s physical potential – what we can achieve as individuals when we are determined, dedicated, and courageous human beings. It was difficult for me to understand how to contrast with the crude and inhuman acts of violence. Bravery versus cowardice. Marathon runners were achieving their dream of joining the ranks of hundreds who had run Boston’s streets before them, and the day that they are achieving that dream, their memory will forever be of pain and fear and chaos.
I left for Kyrgyzstan trying to squeeze in updates between trainings and plane rides, not entirely sure what was going on in Boston. Then the news broke late last night here (ten hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time) that there was a connection between those responsible and my new home.
Now, I worry that when I explain where I now live, that I will be answered with, “Oh – where the Boston Bombers were from.” And from some of the awful things – not only about the Kyrgyz Republic and people of Central Asia, but also Muslims – I am seeing posted on Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet in general on these suspects, I think those worries might be confirmed fears. Even President Obama commented on the response of vitriol and fear, urging Americans to remember that our diversity and individual contributions to our communities is what defines American character. While the connections between the suspects and Kyrgyzstan is tenuous at best, the Kyrgyz I have met already fear that that is what Americans think they are – suspect.
Let me tell you this instead: terrorism belongs to no nation. It belongs to no religion. It is an act of violent cowardice.
While I have only lived in Kyrgyzstan for a few days, I know that the Kyrgyz are a warm and welcoming people, and that terrorism is as hated here as it is anywhere in the world. I have been lucky enough to live in a few Islamic communities over the past few years, and there is as equal hatred of violence as any other religion, and more Muslims have been killed by acts of terror than anyone. Terrorism is a senseless and cowardly act. I beg you not to rush to judgement about an entire group of people based on the actions of someone who once lived there.
Like the outpouring of compassion for the city of Boston from around the world – selflessly racing past the finish line to give blood, the heroism of first responders running toward the blasts, and the people who opened their homes to house people delayed and displaced by the chaos – I am about to experience the compassion of a Kyrgyz family opening their home to me. I start my home-stay for Pre-Service Training tomorrow, and my host family will care for me, teach me about their culture and traditions, and help me to learn the language so I can be an effective community volunteer.
Part of the reason I joined the Peace Corps was because I believed it represents the best of American character – compassion, innovation, and the idea that we can improve the world for generations to come. But it also gives me the opportunity to build real relationships between my home country and my country of service. I can represent America to the Kyrgyz, but I also am responsible for representing the Kyrgyz Republic to my American community. It is more important than ever for organizations like the Peace Corps to be at work, focusing on building a mutual understanding of the world, encouraging friendship and dialogue, and inspiring peace.
So I hope that instead of thinking of the bombs in Boston when you think about Kyrgyzstan, you can read about what I and other volunteers are working on here. That you can learn about the long and tumultuous history of the Kyrgyz people and their aspirations for their future. That we can focus on rebuilding Boston together, and reinvest in the strength of our first responders, our education system, and our communities. That we will not let an act of terror define us or what it means to be American of Kyrgyz or Muslim or Christian or human, and that we will continue to celebrate each other and all that is good in the world.
My heart goes out to Boston and every one affected by the attacks of the past week. Remember, there is good in the world.
Love from Bishkek.