Finding the Courage to Connect

Syrian refugees in Turkey in October 2015. Photo by Shutterstock/Orlok.

Faculty, staff, students and alumni bravely shared stories of resilience, uncertainty, compassion and empathy at the TEDxDePaulUniversity Conference. This year’s theme, “Courage to Connect,” inspired personal talks on a wide range of subjects. The excerpts below offer a glimpse into the heartfelt and heartrending experiences of a current student and a recent alumna.

School of Music graduate student Mariela Shaker fled Syria with little more than her violin.

“It was an unforgettable experience witnessing the University of Aleppo explosion in January 2013 where 82 people were killed; several of them were friends of mine. I had just graduated from the University of Aleppo with a major in business administration. I was also a full-time violin teacher at the Arabic Institute of Music in Aleppo. I was at the university collecting my diploma, and I [don’t] know how I survived on that day. I can still hear the sound of the ambulance and the screams of moms in my ears. Later that day, I remember walking to the music institute to teach, not knowing if I would make it back home in the evening as mortars were falling everywhere randomly. My students and I would regularly hide under the table when we heard the airstrike and the missiles hitting a close neighborhood. Every day, we risked our lives by being there.

Aleppo used to be a very beautiful and peaceful city, filled with culture and history. It is one of the oldest cities in the world. But after more than five years of war, I can no longer recognize my home. A part of me still believes this is all just a dream. I’m finding it difficult to accept that my country is now in ruins.

All my life I have had a great passion for violin. I would risk my life to keep the music alive in Aleppo. It was my only way to express my pain and sorrow at what was happening around me, and I still believe that we can create beauty through pain. But that day when I went to collect my diploma was the day I realized that I needed to leave inevitably. Death didn’t scare me, but losing my life and watching my dreams fading away did.

In the following weeks, I was running under bombs and rockets falling to internet cafes due to the lack of electricity and power in my home. I was determined to send my applications to different music programs at universities all over the world. After six months of tireless work, I was beyond happy to receive an email from Monmouth College in Illinois, offering me a full tuition scholarship. But [even] with such a huge scholarship, it did not cover room and board, which was going to be a great burden because of the huge difference in currency between the U.S. and Syria. In addition, my parents had lost their jobs in the war and they couldn’t support me even with $1, so I searched for answers online hoping for a miracle to happen.

During my search, I found an organization that was helping Syrian refugees and students. I went to their website, and I started to learn about their donors [by] searching each name. One of them was a very kind man from Saudi Arabia, who ran something called the AlThuraya Foundation. I contacted him asking for help and explained my story. He explained that he only sponsored Arab students who wanted to study abroad in the field of science. But he was very impressed with the violin videos I shared with him from my previous concerts. Something in the music must have touched him. He was a Muslim, I am a Christian [and] he only supported students pursuing science. But music has no boundaries. In a departure from his usual plan, he decided to support me for the first year. He touched me so much with his kindness and he made me believe more in our humanity as he believed in me without even knowing me in person. Music speaks.”

Learn more about Mariela Shaker. >>

DePaul University/Jeff Carrion

Nelly Mueller (CMN ’16) learned to confront her privilege with the help of her Ethiopian siblings. At the end of her talk, she offered these strategies to resist complacency and fight injustice.

“How do we careen ourselves and our peers out of complacency? Especially those of us who are so resistant to understanding? There’s really no one-size-fits-all answer, but here are five things I’ve found that make me more aware and active in resisting injustice.

First: Listen. Amazing things happen when you just shut up. Listen by educating yourself, listen by educating others and stop offering your underprivileged peers apologies or your guilt; just listen to them. There’s learning to be done just by being quiet.

Second: Speak up but not over. If you’re standing in a room full of people who are part of marginalized communities, they should be the ones speaking and you should be the one supporting, listening. Thoughts like, ‘I hear you, I stand with you, I’m ready to get to work’ are much more valuable than you realize. You should want to join in their chorus, but you shouldn’t be the soloist.

Third: Humanize but don’t trivialize. Let’s guide our privileged peers into understanding that the opinions they have on immigration, Black Lives Matter, gay marriage and any number of other issues of inequality are opinions on human lives. Whatever you say should be focused on the fact that we’re talking about human beings. Stop asking, ‘What would you do if the victim was your mother? Or your sister or brother?’ Let’s encourage our peers to exercise empathy regardless of their relation to the person being affected. Instead, ask, ‘Why should we allow this to happen to another person?’

What I love most about [a picture that recently went viral] is the man holding a sign that simply says ’empathy,’ rather than offering a sign that says, ‘What if your mother or sister was an immigrant?’ Instead, empathy. Immigrants are people. Humanize, but don’t trivialize.

Fourth: Strive for results but don’t expect them. We often expect to walk away from every conversation having completely changed another person’s world, and we should strive for that, but the conversation should be more about reaching an understanding and establishing the potential for more conversations like this. Likely the person we’re talking with will not end up at the next Black Lives Matter protest, but if they can understand why we’re going to be there, that’s a step in the right direction.

Finally, start with what you know. I know my skills set begins and ends with writing, so I started a journal. I wrote in different styles about my own thoughts on social injustices and kept a record of valuable thoughts other people had shared with me. I found this made it easier to start a conversation with people who felt differently than me, because it felt like I had had the conversation before.

All this is to say, I’m still scared. I’m still a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis-gendered, Christian person who attempts to confront my own complacency and then look for ways to careen myself out of it. I fail every day. I catch myself being a passive bystander, but then I push myself to take an active role in a conversation, a situation or an experience that allows me to courageously connect. This includes connecting with people who aren’t on my team: people who are resistant to understanding, who spout hate, who are actively trying to stay ignorant. I talk about my time as an resident advisor, my time at The Second City and I talk about my family—about Brekti, Zerihun, Mekdelawit and, as of three years ago, my niece Fortuna. The four people that make me want to wake up every day and say to myself and to all of you here today, I’m done being complacent. Let’s get to work.”

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