Last Saturday I came face to face with Osama and realized that
traditional American education teaches us very little about the
rest of the world.
Instead of watching CNN or attending a memorial service for
America’s most famous terrorist attack, I spent my second Saturday
in Montreal doing what most college students do best – kicking back
The usual beer and buddies routine remains the same, but little
conservative Colorado can’t touch the huge variety of viewpoints
found here because of Canada’s less stringent immigration laws.
While sipping Labatt and making small talk, I met a computer
engineering graduate who had been in Monteal for the past three
years. Though he first introduced himself as Alex, after a bit of
conversation he smiled slightly and told me his real
name-Jihad-then introduced me to another Syrian friend of his,
Though I didn’t mean to, I must have flinched slightly upon
hearing their names because Jihad immediately asked me what
Americans think when they hear these words.
Honestly, I didn’t know how to respond. Having never been asked
such a direct question about such a taboo subject that was
obviously quite personal to these guys, I was pretty afraid of
saying the wrong thing.
I told him that I couldn’t speak for all Americans, but that I
never knew Jihad ever meant anything other than holy war and that
I’d never heard of anyone named Osama that wasn’t bin Laden.
Jihad said that my reaction was fairly common and his main
reason for using a nickname.
Osama, who had been Canada about three weeks, was considering
legally changing his name because he was having such a hard time
getting a student visa and work papers.
Though I consider myself socially aware and try to do my part to
combat injustice, in that moment I realized how clueless I really
was. I had no idea what it was like to be one of the thousands of
Arabs in North America who have to deal with racism every single
As our conversation continued, the guys told me that many people
have misconceptions about the Middle East. They said that thanks to
our media, many Americans tend to use the terms Arab and Muslim
interchangeably when they should not.
Arab nations are dictatorships in which most citizens practice
Islam, but not all Arabs are Muslim. Also, the religion of Islam
stretches far beyond the Middle East. In fact, the Asian island
nation of Indonesia boasts the world’s
largest Muslim population.
Though I knew that names like Mohammad, Moustafah and Ahmed are
common among Arabs, I did not know that these names had meaning
Osama means lion and Jihad simply refers to a struggle.
Apparently, Jihad can be experienced over anything from homework to
childbirth to war.
We passed around a hookah of mint flavored tobbacco and I sat
back enjoying the cool Canadaian breeze and thanking my lucky stars
for the awesome opportunity that I was given to become more
culturally competent and more
complete as a person.
I had the good fortune to meet friends who helped me open my
eyes a bit wider and I encourage others to seek out similar
relationships. Education and empathy for our fellow humans are what
enable us to stand up and see the truth behind today’s fear-driven
Alicia Leonardi is a senior studying journalism and social work.
Her columns will run every other week in the Collegian. She is will
be studying abroad in Canada this fall.