It was a hot summer night in Vienna, Austria. We were seated outside of a traditional Viennese restaurant, taking in the views of the bustling city.
With weeks of travel under my belt, I had become accustomed to the familiarity of sharing meals with just one other person, often in silence out of pure exhaustion from endless hours on our feet.
My friend and I had just spent a day of relentless setbacks. We were exhausted, broke, hot. [Insert adjective that conveys complaining attitudes] Needless to say, a relaxing, familiar dinner was very much “deserved.” So we thought.
I knew this dinner would be far from familiar just by the simple fact that our usual party of two had grown to three. A few hours earlier in our hostel, we met a man who was from Baghdad, Iraq, and joined us for dinner. Upon sitting down, the three of us discussed why we were in Vienna, what we were studying, and the weather. Think Day 1 Formal Recruitment conversation.
Moments after this trivial exchange of words, our new friend, Suhaib, asked us what it was like to experience September 11th and how we grew up during the Iraq War. I could honestly say, through all of my travels, I’ve never been asked such thought-provoking questions, especially from someone whom I met just a few hours prior.
After I sunk into my metal seat feeling a flush across my face, I came to the embarrassing realization that I couldn’t completely explain what happened aside from what I knew about my own country. I recalled that fateful September day with an extraordinary lucidity for a mere fourth grader. But even though I remember feeling so much sadness as the towers crumbled to pieces, I was removed from much of the experience being a nine year old from Florida. Much of my knowledge of the event came from my parents and television news sources.
Now, I would say I’m fairly knowledgeable of the consequences we’ve faced as a nation due to the war, which ensued following the tragedy. Despite this, I would never categorize my childhood and teenage years as “growing up” through the Iraq War. With no warzones even remotely close to my neighborhood and no military involvement in my immediate family, I was never faced with the harsh realities and hardships that come along with war. The Iraq War was an abstract concept to me. Not once did I put myself in the shoes of a fellow nine-year old living in Baghdad during those years.
After this rather sad explanation, Suhaib looked at me in somewhat disbelief. He went into detail about his childhood. There were days where he wouldn’t go to school, out of fear of not returning home alive. With such nonchalance, he described his neighborhood as a constant warzone, sounds of gunshots and bombs still ringing in his ears. As a nightly routine, soldiers from both countries would raid his home. Out of great appreciation for the American soldiers, his family would often play guitar for them to offer a little piece of home, even though the more time the Americans spent in their home, the more danger the Iraqi soldiers could bring to his family.
This is how he grew up. This is how his family lived for years on end.
Later in life, Suhaib moved to Budapest, Hungary and has traveled all over the world, most recently to London and back to Iraq to visit family. Despite growing up in such daunting conditions, Suhaib considers himself a lucky man. His astounding gratefulness for our country really made me evaluate what I value in my life. If Suhaib, a man of such happiness and understanding, can call himself a lucky man, then why am I complaining over the heat, being “broke”, and not having WiFi.
That one conversation in Vienna has forever changed my outlook on life. I have endless reasons to be appreciative to live in the United States of America- my supportive, loving family, my incredibly grounded friends, my health, my freedom. The list can go on and on. I have very little legitimacy to complain, and the trivial annoyances that seem to consume my daily conversations suddenly seemed irrelevant.
So during the dinner that I originally felt was so well deserved, I made a promise to never take anything for granted and definitely never feel entitled, especially to things that many people across the world believe are luxuries.
I’m looking forward to meeting Suhaib somewhere in the world one day and continuing our conversations, but for now, I will continue his conversation for him and hopefully open another person’s eyes the way he has for me.