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The Student from Another Land

It’s curious, isn’t it, to remember a moment of silence in a college classroom nearly forty years later? To recall what took place during that silence, something of the words that were spoken next, and the young man who spoke them. He was an international student studying for a bachelor’s degree here in the Midwest, and he remains a ghostly presence in my mind. When his homeland is in the news, as it has been in many sad, even brutal circumstances over the years, I remember him.

Most of the students were garden-variety young Americans juggling textbooks and beer during their first semester of college. He was short and slender, with a young face but a receding hairline and the gravity of an older or more worldly person. He dressed more formally than his classmates and was cautious about talking about his homeland. There was little chance that anyone else in the room had travelled to that general part of the world, or even read much about it. We were interested, but also uneasy. Even young people who didn’t pay attention to the world news could tell that the United States sometimes threw its weight around out there. Asking about where he came from was not guaranteed to make Midwesterners feel good. But eventually we asked.

And he paused before he spoke. I remember a moment of silence when he looked around, seeming to assess the risks of telling a story his audience might not like, a story in which we would not necessarily be the ones wearing the white hats. Then he decided to proceed. He talked about two peoples, both entitled to live in peace and to work toward their own prosperity, but unable to resolve the profound conflicts between them. War or the threat of war was common there, with other nations like us often supplying money and weapons. Injustices suffered in that land were keenly felt—and still are all these years later. He said that he planned to fight for his people until they achieved a new life. He was studying so he could help rebuild their society, but he was willing, if necessary, to go to war.

I realized a few years ago that unless he had a change of heart or had been killed in battle, one way or another he would still be fighting. By now he would have spent something like forty years of his adult life in the cauldron of his homeland’s conflicts, with no end in sight. Counting his childhood, that would be his entire life, close to six decades.

Long ago I forgot his last name, so I can’t look him up on Google. Somewhere out there he must be soldiering on, with the struggle also having passed not just to his children but his grandchildren, and to the children and grandchildren of his enemies. It’s embarrassing to recall how little we knew about his people’s struggles for peace and dignity. For him, everything was at stake; for us, next to nothing.