Shireen Zaineb, Division 2, 12th grade

My worst experiences and my best experiences have fused so fervently together that I am no longer able to tell them apart. The instances during which my entire soul ran cold inside my body are the same situations in which I grew the most as a human being. My empathy became more acute, my awareness of the world sharpened, my confidence in my strength was amplified. These moments in time fueled my passion to keep others from feeling the way I had. In destroying me, they created me. In demeaning me, they uplifted me. In silencing me, they gave me a voice.

2006. Beirut. Lebanon. 
The buzz of the TV bled into our living room. Excited reporters relayed what had happened: the airport had been bombed and war had broken out. Due to travel restrictions, countless tourists were stuck in the country, part of a war that was not their own. I had been there two days ago, begging my parents to let us stay longer. Our days there melted blissfully into each other and I was the happiest I had ever been. However, they rejected my request, making a decision that would save our lives. Now, our only connection to the events was through the footage of Beirut in flames. Everything looked unfamiliarly familiar. Why were we sitting comfortably in our Saudi Arabian home while others lost their lives, their happiness, their families? 
It could have been us. 
We watched in shock. 
We watched in silence.

2006. Damascus. Syria.
Every day, I went to Shia mosques with my family. The walls glowed, the carpets were more like works of art than pieces of fabric slave to our steps. These mosques have now been destroyed, reduced to raw concrete protruding from the ground like thorns.
We used to walk around at 5am, as the rising sun painted our surroundings with gold. 
The citizens’ smiles were contagious. 
Nobody was afraid. 
Syria is now foreign to me. Little is recognizable. A thick smoke continuously drapes itself over its cities. Loss of life is nothing new–it is simply routine, part of a hellish and interminable schedule. 
What if we had stayed?
It could have been us. 

2010. Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia.
At the time, four years was the longest I’d lived in one place. Now, we were leaving again, moving back to the U.S. Tensions between sects were rising, and the oppression of women had become excruciatingly obvious to me. It was against the law for me to ride my bike outside. It was against the law for my mother to drive. It was against the law for us to travel without my father. Soon after our departure, authorities began prosecuting members of my religious sect. This was the year I began to send bitter petitions to those in power. Sometimes I’d receive a reply, an empty promise. Most of the time, nothing. But I kept going. I had to do something. We’d escaped again, but I wished we hadn’t. I could’ve helped. I could’ve been in the streets protesting. Now, I was ten thousand miles away, writing scrappy petitions and donating to relief efforts.
Why wasn’t it us?
It could have been. 

2015. Wisconsin. U.S.A.

My father sat on the ground staring solemnly into nothing as I sobbed into his arms. The Pakistani Taliban had murdered two of my uncles for praying in our village’s mosque. The same mosque my grandfather had helped build, the same mosque we had recently stayed near, was unidentifiable now– simply another piece of rubble to add to the collection. Another set of bodies to be thrown into the ground and forgotten by the masses. 

It could have been us.
But it wasn’t. Again.
It was them. Again. 

Nothing describes humanity better than rubble. We build ourselves up, then we take an axe to our own. We wrench out their souls. We tear down their work. We allow their blood to seep into what were once architectural paintings– now nothing but rubble. Seeing such beautiful places and humans robbed of their very souls awoke a deep desire inside of me to help others, one that I will work my entire life to satisfy, no matter what the cost. We’ve been going through these motions since the beginning of history, accepting that the cycle of hatred and violence is simply inevitable. We tell ourselves that there’s no use in trying. 

And that is the worst decision one can make,
Because silence during oppression
Is the loudest 
silence of all.
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