Monday, April 13, 2015

Important People I Would Not Know Without YES, Day 5: Jamirah Ahmed

When Lydia, Emily, Ann Elise, Jeneni and I landed in Washington DC in June 2013, we were varying degrees of ecstatic. I was flattered to be chosen for YES. I was full of questions about Ghana. Fortunately, we had the lovely Jamirah to help us understand what to expect and how to handle Ghana.

I don’t think I realized how much I appreciated Jamirah until we were reunited in Ghana. For me, the experience of landing was stressful. I had just finished the longest plane ride of my life, and entered the noisiest place I’d ever seen. Someone tried to carry my luggage for me, and I was so exhausted and shell-shocked I almost let him. I felt like I was in a haze, wandering through a dream. Trouble was, we were in the middle of a busy airport, where you need to be on your toes. When we finally arrived at the AFS bus, Jamirah was there to greet us. My heart soared to see a familiar face in a strange land. I felt safe amid my bizarre surroundings.

In Kumasi, Jamirah was always there for us. We went through some bumps as we adjusted to our surroundings, and Jamirah was willing to help us process them. On perhaps the lowest moment of my year, when Morgan Lide passed away, Jamirah calmed me down and enabled me to continue with a good attitude. 

Jamirah and other YES alumni play a special role in the life of YES Abroad students. They understand the transitions we go through because they have lived it themselves. I was able to visit Ghana again in 2014 (see: When I returned, my visit with Jamirah was one of the highlights. She connected me with Ghanaian students interested in my project. I learned how much she does for exchange students, and I am impressed by her hard work.

One thing that strikes me about Jamirah is her sense of humor. During my year in Ghana, she could make me laugh at anything. To live in Ghana, you must have the ability to laugh. Also, Jamirah puts incredible energy into her interactions with people. I find that inspiring. 

I am so glad to know Jamirah.  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Important People I Would Not Know Without YES, Day 4: Emily Simpson

Emily Simpson is tall, wild, and unforgettable. She leaves a distinct impression on people wherever she goes. These days, she doesn’t seem to stick around one place for too long. She’s always looking for a new adventure.

We are strong personalities, Emily and I. Both of us in one room makes sparks fly.  In Ghana, we spent time together every few months, but we lived far apart. We had distinct experiences on our exchange, partly because we sought out different kinds of opportunities than each other. However, spending a year in the same country equipped us to understand each other on a deep level.

When I came back from Ghana, I was a wreck. There were days I would think I had dreamed my entire experience, that the people I had known and loved were ciphers. If I couldn’t see or touch them, I felt they didn’t exist.

I started college and put on a brave face. Sometimes, during those first few months, I was pretending to be happy. My white-brick hallway didn’t really compare to my house in Atwima Boko. The fast paced schedule of a student wasn’t entirely compatible with the new easygoing “Ghana Man Time” I’d picked up. I felt like I had already accomplished my greatest life-dream, and that the way forward was all downhill.

Then, Emily waltzed back into my life, challenging me to re-center myself. We drove up to a Buddhist shrine in the mountains near Fort Collins. She saw right through my “brave face.” “Sarah,” she said, “Your body may be here, but your mind is still in Ghana.” Emily riled me up on that visit, and in a way, I was relieved to see her go back to Laramie.

A few months later, I had a trip planned to Snowy Range, a ski place near Emily’s hometown. The night before I left, Emily called me. I invited her along. We skied together all day, talking out our good and bad experiences. That was a turning point in our friendship, at least in my opinion. I trusted her on a new level, I saw she understood me, and I felt we would enjoy spending more time together.

After that day skiing, Emily and I spent the best times together yet. She came to Fort Collins to visit several times over the next month. In those visits, we sledded, hung out with my college friends, and frequented the Ally Cat Cafe. She went off to India, then to a job in New York, and she visited again on her way home. (That time we camped at Horsetooth...after the campground closed.) We still talk about Ghana, sometimes, but our friendship has broadened to many other topics.

Emily and I still make a room spark. Every time I look at her, I know the people I met that year continue to live, breathe, and grow. It is not our time in Ghana that I love Emily for, it is the way we keep going now. I don’t believe her call that night was a coincidence.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Important People I Would Not Have Known Without YES, Day 3: Lydia Larson

We were in a hotel. It was beautiful, but not much different than your average hotel in America. It wasn’t even in Denver. It was DIA, Colorado, which is its own place if you ask me. I was in a hotel in my home state with 89 high school students across the country. These weren’t just any high school students, though. They were like me. Students who cared about global issues and craved adventure. Students who weren’t afraid of going somewhere completely off most Americans’ radar.

Even for our similarities, I didn’t exactly blend in at the YES Abroad IPSE (fancy terms for interview and sleepover). I enjoy social interaction, but I can get lost in crowds. When I saw Miss Lydia Larson, I knew we would be able to connect. Lydia and I talked for at least four hours about anything and everything. We found we had more in common than our desire to go abroad. We were both from small towns (though Lydia lives much further from a city than me), we both valued our education, and we somehow…fit. During our first conversation we were never scrambling for “something to talk about.” We were enjoying each other’s company and viewpoints.

Little did I know that that conversation would be the first of hundreds. Yes, hundreds. Lydia and I were sent to Kumasi, Ghana together in the fall of 2012. After every day, we would call each other and process our experiences. Lydia and I saw each other at our best and at our worst. Before Ghana, I never really let people see me at my worst.

There will be a few of these blog posts that will leave me, the writer, at a loss for words. This is one of them. I can’t really express the kind of bond you form with someone when you, together, leave everything you know.

Lydia and I didn’t always see eye to eye, that is true. But friendships where you always see eye to eye are fake in some sense. My friendship with Lydia is real. We navigated Kumasi’s tro-tro system together. We celebrated Eid-al-hada for the first time (see the picture). We traveled cross-country. We played a sour game of pool on New Year’s Eve of 2013. We went on a running adventure where we burst into someone’s house (He didn’t care. In fact, he asked us if we wanted to borrow some chairs while we sat on his roof.) We laid the groundwork for what is now Enliven Mama together. (Lydia was the professional eye in the room. Had the website been left to my designs…let’s just say there would have been hidden jokes and nerdy cultural references.) After sharing a room several times on trips, we decided we should never be roommates and always be friends. Lydia was the first and remains the only person to notice the bizarre way I sleep – on my stomach, with my hand up at the pillow. (Yes, I sleep in that position every night.)

That is not even a sixteenth of what Lydia and I shared. Lydia and I…we grew up together. Not in the way that we knew each other all our childhood. We became adults together. We arrived in Ghana two American teenagers with a lot in common. We left Ghana two brave women, marked by our experiences. Ironically, I think we have less in common now than we did then. We have grown in diverse, beautiful directions.

I don’t have a sister by blood. My female friends are lucky because they become my sisters.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Important People I Would Not Have Known Without YES, Day 2: Fiona Racheal

I met Fiona, a YES student from Kenya, after school in one day in 2011. Her host father and my mother taught science together at Poudre High School. From the start, I could tell Fiona was a kind-hearted, love filled young woman. She always went out of her way to make me smile. We spent many good times together during her year in Colorado. Here are a few that stand out to me:

1)      Fiona’s first snow – It was just a dusting, just a tiny bit of snow. But we ran outside together, touching the snow, making little snowballs…only problem was neither of us had gloves. Our hands burned with cold for an hour afterwards
2)      Fiona coming to watch me in the Music Man – I always love it when my friends come watch me perform.
YES Abroad - It was Fiona who first told me about YES Abroad. I knew about YES (the inbound version), but one day I found myself talking to Fiona about how much I love exchange students, and how I wished I could be one. She pulled out a YES Abroad flyer from her bag. From the moment I saw the flyer, I knew the program was for me. Fiona watched me go through the process of applying, and cheered when I was awarded the scholarship to Ghana.
3)      Invisible Children – I remember when Invisible Children came to Poudre and gave us presentation. I know there have been concerns about this organization, but I remember the people I have met through it and maintain respect for them. Watching the presentation and meeting the people was a different when Fiona was with me, because she understood the area well. She helped me see that Africans of different nations often empathize with each other deeply.  
4)      Our faux Sadie Hawkins – Fiona, her host sister, and I made plans to go to the Sadie Hawkins Dance at Poudre together. Turned out we were three of about twenty with those plans. They cancelled the dance. Oh, well, we dressed up fancy and went to eat at The Beach House, a wonderful restaurant that has since closed down.
5)      Prom – Fiona and I stuck together like glue during senior prom. Oh yeah, I had a date. In our picture, we’re standing on either side of him with our hands on his shoulders. We danced in a sort of three person circle all night.
6)      The FCMOD show – Before the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery opened, we had a party there. It was for volunteers, their friends, and high school bands. I was honored to see many of my friends come, including Fiona. That’s where we are in the picture.
7)   Saying good-bye the day before I left for DC – My mom was not happy about me driving across town before I’d packed, but I had to do it. I had to say goodbye to my friend. I insisted, because I hoped my friends on exchange would do the same for me.

Kenya is far away. However, after my many experiences over the past four years, the world doesn't feel quite so big. I have no doubt that I will make my way to Kenya one day, and when I do, I will be thrilled to see Fiona. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Important People I Would Not Have Known Without YES, Day 1: Zahra Yousofi

When I saw Zahra sitting in the Poudre High School library over four years ago, something inside me was compelled to speak to her. I didn’t know, at that time, but I was seeing someone who would change my life. Zahra Yousofi was one of the members of YES Afghanistan 2010-2011, the last YES group from Afghanistan. I was a high school student unsatisfied with the day to day conversations of most of my peers.

Zahra and I, we talked. We talked about love, life, Afghanistan, God, women’s rights, and so many other things. We roamed Bellvue, Colorado, just west of my hometown, Laporte, admiring the beauty of the place. We really only hung out for a few months, lamenting, as exchange students often do, that we hadn’t connected earlier. But after going home to Afghanistan for the summer and spending a semester at boarding school in New Jersey, Zahra came to Colorado to visit. Inspired by her, I was on the application journey for YES Abroad. Ever since then, I’ve know that the end of an exchange does not mark the end of a friendship. Exchange is the catalyst for life-long friendships. After returning from Ghana, my American friends grew distant, in a way. I always knew I could call Zahra if I needed her.

Zahra and I have always laughed about the diversity of our backgrounds (one the one hand) and the alignment of our interests (on the other). Even our names are similar (people with certain accents call us both Sah-ra). We are both sophomores in college now in different parts of the United States. After not talking for a year, we decided to Skype two weeks ago. As I asked Zahra about her summer plans, she described her desire to start a women’s project in Afghanistan focused on trade education. She mentioned that if she could, she would buy sewing machines for the women. Zahra knew she had to do something for Afghan women, because she had made a promise. I froze, shivering a little. Not a week before, I’d written this blog post about my NGO in Ghana, Enliven Mama Africa: (The post describes my commitment to trade education for women in Ghana, and the promise that fueled it. Zahra had not seen any of my work related to Enliven Mama Africa.)

It seems that our different experiences over the past few years are driving Zahra and me in the same direction. If it were not for YES—

We might still be dreaming. Instead, we are working, with each other’s encouragement and blessing. I have a friend loves me and who is not afraid to challenge me.