Travelers: the undercover peacebuilding agents

Our Greek hostess could instantly tell our origin was Pakistani and not Indian.

By Seher Ashfaq Asghar, SEW-EGAP Executive Member, International Wing, France

Business manager, aspiring world traveler, thrill-seeker, savvy shopaholic, junk food junkie, sports fanatic, mom of two.

Anyone who knows me knows I am quite keen on visiting new places and meeting different people. And, while I have always made an effort to travel as much as I can and did as much I could; it was only about a year and a half ago when my husband’s expat assignment made me quit my part-time management job in Texas and make the cross-Atlantic move to become a full-time, stay at home, traveler mom, and really satiate my travel appetite. Sure, travelling to another country is fun and exciting, but I never realized how much of a learning experience it has been until recently. What I have learned about countries I visit and what people possibly have learned about who I am and where I come from. And that when you cross bridges you actually build more bridges. Aldous Huxley could not have said it any better when he said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

This brings me back to my move to France and the nervousness that preceded. Granted that much of that nervousness stemmed from the thought of being multi-lingual and still having zero ability to understand or speak the language of the country I was about to move to. But it also had a lot to do with my preconceived notion about the French people. I am pretty sure I am not the only one who thought French people have a beautiful country full of charm, but they are rude, lazy, do not speak any English, and they all dress like fashion-models, right? And, while there can be and is some truth to these stereotypes, it does not take long to realize there is so much more to French people than a few days in Paris will ever show you. The chances of running into an idiot in France are just as high as in any other country, and it is also not uncommon at all to come across people who’ll go out of their way to help you despite your atrocious French. The power of politeness is universal and remarkable. Because essentially, people all across the world will be nice if you are nice to them.

During my stay here in France I have met, had conversations, and made friends with more well-travelled people than I ever have. Europe’s central location does give its populaces the added advantage and opportunity to travel to different countries more easily than people in other continents. It helps when you can get in a car and cross three countries in the same time it takes for someone in Texas to just get out of Texas, you know. But there is something more than geographical proximity behind this general sense of awareness and openness to different cultures and people that I have observed amongst many Europeans. And, it is not a mere coincidence that they come across as more well-informed. In the year and a half I have been in France, I have come across more people who not only know where Pakistan is, they’ve asked me where in Pakistan I am from because they have been there, or better yet shown desire to go back just so they could have chapli kebabs in Peshawar again than I ever did in the decade and a half I’ve called US my home. It is only natural that when you have first-hand experience that is what you tend to rely more on and not just what you read in a book or hear on a news channel. Because at the end of the day you could read all the books in the world, but you would only know what someone else wants you to know.

I now perceive each of my travels as not only something I enjoy, but as an opportunity to create more cognizance and be more aware, to mend more fences, and build more bridges because the world needs it now more than ever. It is a chance to listen to more stories and tell more people where I am coming from as a Pakistani-American Muslim woman of today. So, get your undercover agent ID that we all call passport, and travel to a new place like you are on a mission. I promise, the more you’ll travel, the more you’ll know. And, the more you’ll know, the more you’ll recognize and empathize.



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