In the early days of summer, shortly after receiving the life-changing news of my acceptance to Yale, I also received an invitation to participate in FOCUS, a pre-orientation program that occurs a week before classes begin. The excitement I felt in those early days — the excitement I still feel as a new student walking through campus — was very similar to the excitement I felt when I first joined the military. As an immigrant, my military service was the way I chose to claim and to earn, not just my citizenship, but the right to call myself an American.
I decided to participate in the FOCUS pre-orientation program because I wanted to learn about New Haven, Yale and the community these two entities share. When I arrived at the program, the curious and intelligent eyes of my fellow students followed me everywhere. Our discussions ranged from art to urban studies, to the economic relationship between New Haven and Yale, to the impact our actions as students have in the community. After a few days of intense discussions, my group and I met at our site CitySeed, a nonprofit dedicated toward increasing local access to healthy food through farmers’ markets and early-stage entrepreneur food incubators. During our briefing, the directors shared their newest program, Sanctuary Kitchen — a partnership between immigrants and refugee chefs who cook foods from their home countries, sharing their stories in the process.
In that moment, I felt as if I had been struck by lightning. Upon hearing that most refugees working with Sanctuary Kitchen were from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, a singular thought began to race through my mind: I had once been a soldier in Afghanistan, and worked with a few villages near our base. What if my presence alone was a threat to the refugees? What if I was a reminder of the circumstances they had escaped? I became acutely aware of my existence in this space in a way I had never been before. All of a sudden, the metal bracelet I wear around my right wrist as a reminder of the two brothers I lost in combat felt like a billboard, announcing my presence.
In that moment, I removed the mental uniform that marks me as a soldier, reclaiming my identity as an immigrant. As I listened to these refugees’ stories, I was reminded of the struggles my family faced when we first arrived to this country and the challenges we had to overcome to pursue the American dream. I saw myself in these refugees and understood their journey — we had more things in common than either one of us imagined.
Over the course of the following days, the roles I had previously experienced reversed. In Afghanistan, we were in charge, moving through spaces with purpose and mission. We showed Afghans how to soldier their troops, how to carry themselves. In this New Haven kitchen, I became the student. I spent my days learning how to chop vegetables and package hummus, how to prepare a meal with ingredients I had never seen before. The internal struggle I experienced during this reversal emerged from a fear of being seen as unwelcome in this space. This fear was quelled almost instantaneously. These refugees, mostly women, were all too happy to share their lives with us, their old family stories and their future goals.
Life is never neat, and neither was this experience. While in the peaceful trance of chopping vegetables amidst the kitchen chatter, my best friend messaged me that he had been attacked by rocket fire in Afghanistan, an attack that had taken two American casualties in the early morning light. In that instant, I froze, experiencing both ends of the spectrum of feeling. I had to make peace with the fact that my best friend was experiencing one of the most traumatic events of his life while I was experiencing the healing touch of shared a meal with refugees from that very same country. I had to wrestle with accepting that both experiences were real and valid.
This same concept is the truth of our existence — that in occupying various spaces, many of us can lack self-awareness. So here is the challenge: if a veteran of the Afghanistan war can share a meal with a refugee and find a moment of peace and healing, so should all of us — regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum. I invite you, as the election cycle comes into full swing, to reach out and share a meal with someone who differs from you, helping bring our nation that much closer to standing together again — if only here at Yale.
cristian trenco is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .