I heard about last Friday’s attack at the hotel in Burkina Faso from my sister. She texted to ask about my husband, who travels all the time — often to countries where the color of his skin could easily make him a terrorist’s target. “Is he safe?” she asked. It’s a question I ask myself every time he travels.
On his most recent trip to Northern Nigeria — the heart of Boko Haram territory — I worried that he might be victimized. Instead of being taken hostage, he came back with amazing photos of himself surrounded by community elders wearing long robes and local leaders in colorful scarves, who welcomed him warmly and praised the work his organization was doing. He interacted with them in the local language, Hausa, which he learned years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Every time there is an overseas attack in the news I don’t have to wonder why international nonprofit organizations keep sending staff and volunteers to work in developing nations. My husband’s and my own experience make me understand how important it is to share medical advances, expertise, and knowledge. The extremists who commit these violent acts do not represent the people, religion or places they come from.
I was also a Peace Corps volunteer and have lived, worked and traveled in developing countries. My Peace Corps service was a long time ago a different international climate. Back in the 1980’s I never felt that I was in danger. In the 1990’s I lived through a coup d’état and an outbreak of Ebola, but I never felt the fear that more recent attacks want to promote. Last summer I traveled to Southeast Asia with a group of educators, and felt a warm welcome from people whose language I did not speak. I met with fellow teachers and visited schools. They made us friendship bracelets and we donated books to their library. In 2014, I traveled to Central America with a church group to work on a school. Instead of being harassed, we shared in a powerful community-building project that was part spiritual and part practical. I gained a deeper understanding of their families and culture, and they of mine. It is through the act of meeting people, sharing stories, and performing public service together that we break down the walls between us.
Now that American aid workers, missionaries and volunteers have actually been targeted, I can no longer naively believe that there’s a sort of immunity for doing good deeds. But the risks of sending Ameritans overseas can often seem exaggerated in the wake of unexpected violence. Don’t we have an obligation to continue our support of people in faraway places who live with this threat of violence every day?
My husband is traveling to Kenya next week. I know that there is always a risk of danger, but I have to trust that he will be safe.