Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Long Way There……

November 14-18 was international Education Week and Amaechi Abuah member of the U.S. Embassy Education USA Center wrote this article in celebration of the week.

I remember dozing lightly as the bus rolled across lush green hills and past glassy clear lakes. It was Day 4 of the International Physics Olympiads and all around me some of the brightest brains from across the planet were settling into various states of boredom-induced slumber. On a screen in front of the bus, some television scientist had been discovering the Higg’s Boson… again… and again … and again… for the past three hours. We were headed from the city of Zurich to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva to witness the magnificence of the Large Hadron Collider first-hand. It was a five hour drive, and we still had a long way to go.

I’d nearly succumbed to the air of drowsiness that hung over the passenger cabin when the sound of conversation pulled through the collective snore of the bus and found its way into my range of hearing.

“… any plans after school?”, a voice asked

“I will probably go to the university and study medicine after I graduate”, a far-eastern accent responded.


“Yes. As a science student, there are few other things I could study if I hope to find work in Pakistan.”

“What is it like going to school in Pakistan?”

“It is hard … “

The exchange continued as I listened. The house he lived in was small, the Pakistani boy said, with hardly any electricity and very little running water. His parents were not rich, but what little they had, they spent on their children’s education. Going to school had been tough, as he and his siblings often found themselves picking through the charred remains of firebombed streets on the way to class, and often they would have to stay home for weeks on end, for fear of the violence outside. He talked about reading for the Olympiads in an atmosphere where you never knew where the next round of gunshots was coming from, and of how getting a Pakistani delegation to the Olympiads had in itself posed a challenge, as the dates for the preliminary selection exams were always changing; security concerns, the boy explained, nobody was ever completely sure when it was safe to go outside.

The boy’s narration sounded like something straight out of Newsweek or Time. I had heard people talk about the hardships in Pakistan on CNN and Fox News, but never before in the first person, and certainly never from the bus seat right behind mine.

Joseph Stalin once said that when one man dies, it’s a tragedy, but when a hundred men die, that’s a statistic. Human beings have a nasty habit of rationalizing mass-suffering. We just can’t comprehend atrocities on such a grand scale, so in our minds we turn them into things we can understand like percentages and figures. When we catch sight of a particularly nasty headline, we unknowingly turn the madness into something distant and remote, as though there aren’t real people dodging stray bullets and picking through rubble on their way to school every day. It’s easy to forget sometimes that what we see as a number on a newspaper page is a human being somewhere, trying to stay alive or take care of his family, or like the Pakistani boy who sat behind me that day, get an education.

Once the bus finally arrived at CERN, I hurriedly disentangled myself from my seatbelt, but upon turning around, I found only two empty seats. The boy, and whoever he had been talking to, had disembarked. I didn’t see his face, and I don’t know his name. I only heard his story. And now, I’m telling you.

This International Education Week, I’m taking the time to think about all the brave young people from hostile and often violent war-torn nations who rose above their circumstances to pursue an education abroad. And, maybe more importantly, I’m thinking of the ones who couldn’t. I invite you to do the same. And as we congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come in promoting the values of diversity and inclusion across national borders, we must also remind ourselves that, as a species, we still have a long, long way to go.

Amaechi Abuah
EducationUSA Member 2016/2107

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