My instincts told me to run, but my body ignored them. I remained glued to the posh furniture that lined the hallway. Dining with Mr. Richard Olson, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, was bound to be harrowing for any 15-year-old looking to make a lasting impression. I took comfort in the fact that I was not alone. The rest of my community service group looked as bewildered as I did. The tension in the room was palpable.
We were all ordinary children who had been given the opportunity to make a difference through community service. Our group, The US-Pak Youth Council, let younger Pakistanis like us take the lead. We had mapped out areas of concern we felt were most important to our local communities. We had visited every nursing home in our city. We had celebrated every International Day on the United Nations calendar. We had touched lives.
As the group’s secretary, I knew we were doing something right — and sure enough, our group’s work got the attention of Ambassador Olson. Still, nervousness crept into my mind. I was haunted by one horrifying possibility. What if I said something completely, utterly stupid at the table?
I nervously locked eyes with my group members. I saw a friend of mine recklessly fidget with her napkin; the eldest boy in our group was viciously biting his lip. All of us knew that this gathering was for sophisticated, charming people. Worried expressions were plastered on our faces. What if, when voicing our concerns about our organization, we came across as harsh?
Then I looked across the room and my eyes landed on a boy of about 16. He sat there, undaunted. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing, and he wore a calm smile, showing just how unfettered he was by this situation. I had never seen him before, and wondered where he was from. His face exuded a warmth that made him seem familiar, even if I was sure that he was a stranger. I watched as he confidently picked up a fork and dug into his entree.
The boy went by the name Sarem.
He began to initiate conversation with Ambassador Olson. What began as a series of remarks about the weather turned into a conversation that delved into the boy’s origins. I was shocked to discover that Sarem, who was in another division of our community service group, was from an isolated village in northern Pakistan. His father was a street sweeper, and Sarem collected trash. The closest thing he once had to literacy was reading the newspaper shreddings he found in garbage bins.
I listened in amazement as he spun his tale about how he educated himself. He waited outside one of his local public schools, befriended its students, and studied with them on a daily basis.
What started out as a small bunch of children gathered beneath a shed developed into an abundance of teachers and students, united in their mission to assist one another. Sarem used this opportunity to his advantage, and went on to help others pursue education. When asked about how the story of his quest for education managed to gain momentum, Sarem disclosed that he gained access to a computer and ran a blog about his mission. After a radio station in New York broadcast his story, he made contact with a number of global NGOs, through which he advocates for educating the underprivileged.
Here I was, considering myself disadvantaged because of trivial matters, such as my lack of confidence. This boy, who started from nothing, had defied the very concept of the accident of birth. He realized that things often considered beyond our control — our race and location — can factor in as strengths. He took charge of his destiny and paved the way to the life he wanted. More importantly, he strove to attain the life he believed he deserved.
As humans, we often have the tendency to feel small. Our opportunities can feel limited because we were born into a specific social context, which we didn’t choose.
But Sarem, a mere boy who went from cleaning slums to conversing with a diplomat at a dinner table, shattered this convention. A few minutes later, feeling inspired by his story, I emulated his confidence and spoke my heart at the dinner table, transforming an awkward social situation into a memory I look back upon fondly. The ambassador and I engaged in intense conversations about the situation in Pakistan, and even brainstormed suggestions for making our youth council better. I learned that people, even important people, weren’t intimidating. I left with a great sense of achievement. I realized that I, too, can break through social barriers to pursue my passions.
Luck works in mysterious ways. I never imagined myself sitting next to someone who had the ability to bring about such massive change; Sarem, in my eyes, was just as inspirational and worthy of respect as Ambassador Olson. His perseverance brought him out of the darkness. A fleeting moment changed my outlook.
Our destinies are in our own hands.
A boy seeking education found it despite his financial situation. He turned himself into the young man he dreamed of becoming. I realized that I, too, could mold myself into the girl I wished to be. All because I chose to sit in a chair and face what could have been a potentially awkward dinner party.
Noorjehan Asim is in the 12th grade at Lahore Grammar School in Defence, Pakistan. Her hobbies include debating and reading. She is particularly interested in anything related to film, music, and literature, especially Greek mythology.
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