I used to be afraid of flying.
It’s probably a byproduct of being ten years old when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.
I was in fifth grade, about to line up to go to the cafeteria for lunch. My teacher, who had been down the hall, came back into our homeroom—the science lab—looking wild. At first I thought she was angry (maybe we were being so loud she could hear us down the hall?), but as soon as she began to speak, I could hear her fear.
“The Twin Towers have been bombed,” she said.
We looked around at each other, confused, and many of us (including me) asked, “What are the Twin Towers?”
At recess, after lunch, several students were panicking: We’re under attack! We’re all gonna die! What if Pittsburgh gets attacked? Pittsburgh has tall buildings!
When we went back inside and didn’t settle down, our teacher scolded us: “I told you because I thought you’d handle it like adults. I wouldn’t have told you if I’d known you’d panic like this.”
But how does a group of ten-year-olds handle a terrorist attack—a concept I’d learn later that day watching Tom Brokaw—like an adult? How does an adult handle a terrorist attack like an adult?
I don’t remember crying or feeling particularly scared, but it was the first time in my life I didn’t feel 100% safe. And that was new to me: a ten year old girl in a small city in West Virginia, attending an incredibly white, private Catholic school, whose idea of a large city was Pittsburgh and whose experience with diversity consisted of a couple kids in my class who didn’t come from Catholic families and a handful of Indian doctors who lived in my neighborhood—the “rich” neighborhood.
But even at 10, I knew that something had happened that would change the course of history.
In the summer of 2007, my family traveled to Italy. It was my first plane experience in my memory. In the days leading up to our trip, my mother continually pacified her fear of flying, saying, “well, if anything happens, at least we’ll all be together when we die.”
A few nights before, I was hanging out at Sheetz when a friend of mine, upon learning that I would be traveling to Italy soon, joked, “I hope your plane goes down.”
Ha. Ha. Ha.
A few hours before my flight, I caught lunch with my best friend. Before she left, she hugged me more tightly than she’d ever hugged me before.
Why was everyone afraid I was going to die? Why was I afraid I was going to die?
When we arrived in Rome and had our passports stamped, the first thing I noticed was the heavily armed guards walking the perimeters. In my memory, they are wearing light brown and carrying long rifles. Guards like these weren’t in the American airports—or maybe they just hid themselves better. But I don’t recall them making me feel safe. The guns didn’t look safe. They looked like death.
The threat wasn’t planes. It was people.
When I was an undergraduate, I worked as a tutor in the Writing Center. While the vast majority of students at WVU are native English speakers, about half of the students who come to the Writing Center are non-native English speakers. My interaction with those students was my first real experience speaking with people who are truly different from me. Most of these students spoke at least two languages and were incredibly well traveled. They were on planes every month, it seemed, and I marveled at how fearless they were, speaking of travel with nothing but delight. Not one student I asked was afraid of flying.
During my tenure as a tutor and as an English Composition instructor in grad school and afterward, most of my international students were from the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. I worked with students from Iran, Syria, Iraq, the Philippines, France, Colombia, Brazil, Sweden, Kenya, Laos, Australia, and South Korea, among other countries. And as I helped them improve their written English, they helped me improve my knowledge of the world. They taught me words in Arabic, shared verses from the Quran, showed me pictures of Mecca. They told me stories about their cultures and different faiths. They brought me back candy and trinkets from their countries. They told me about their experiences studying and traveling around the world, to all these places I never even thought of visiting.
I don’t miss teaching and tutoring at the moment, but I do miss the students. I miss them because they offered me seemingly so much more than I offered them. They helped me realize my fear of flying was unfounded, and they made me believe that the world was healing from some awful disease inflicted in my youth.
I want to believe that now.
I live in a sanctuary county. I also work in a sanctuary county. I hear different languages every day. My next door neighbors are immigrants, along with a couple other families on my floor and several more families in my building. Perhaps they’re documented. Perhaps they’re not. My apartment complex represents dozens of countries. I don’t know any refugees, but maybe they’re here right next to me, or above me, or below me, or across the street from me. I wish I knew them so I could talk to them and listen to their stories, help them with their English if they need it. I wish I knew them so I could love them fiercely. I wish I knew them so I could believe, again, that the world is healing.
Did you know that the chance of dying in a plane crash is roughly one in 11 million? It’s ridiculously safer to fly than it is to drive. I look forward to my flights now. They take me to new places, and I love exploring the world and meeting new people. Now, I’m afraid not to fly.
And did you know that the chance of being killed by a refugee terrorist is roughly one in 3.6 billion? That’s billion with a b. I know these are two very different things, but at first glance, it looks like there’s a way better chance of dying in a plane crash than there is of being killed by a refugee. I like my odds in both.
Like my old fear of flying, perhaps there was a time in my life when I was afraid of people who were different from me—a time in my ignorant youth. But that time is over, and has been over for a while now. I don’t have the patience to be fearful when innocent lives are at risk. I used to be afraid of being wrong about this, but now the stakes are far too high to not risk the chance of being right. And that chance of being right is very, very high.
The Bible teaches us that perfect love casts out fear. I’m ready to be fearless.