To the Muslim woman I sat next to on the plane today

Rose Hamid, a flight attendant for US Airways, has spoken about the negative reaction she gets when wearing her hijab at work. Photo courtesy of Worldhum.com.

Rose Hamid, a flight attendant for US Airways, has spoken about the negative reaction she gets when wearing her hijab at work. Photo courtesy of Worldhum.com.

Social workers seek social justice for all and have long worked to end racism and discrimination. Yet they are still human.

National Association of Social  Workers member Pamela Lowell, MSW, LICSW, who has a private practice in Barrington, RI, and is also an author, was traveling home from Florida on December 6.

The recent terrorists attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. were on her mind. Then a woman wearing a hijab sat next to her on the plane.

Lowell wanted to share her reaction:

I was walking down the aisle towards my seat, and I realized that you were probably the same age as me, middle-aged, dressed in your white burka and black dress.

And, I confess that, even as a life-long social worker, even as a Democrat, an anti-gun, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, white, liberal, who works at an almost all black social service agency (located beneath a mosque!) I felt a sudden trace of fear—mostly because, we were on a plane for goodness’ sake, and after numerous attempts to try to greet you, to smile, you just stared in front of you, blankly, refusing to meet my gaze!

And as I stuffed my carry-on bag under the seat in front of me, I noticed you tapping on your cell phone, quite a lot of tapping, and I tried to glance at you again (because after all, we were to be sitting next to each another for almost three hours) but you wouldn’t turn my way.

It’s not an excuse but many of us feel uneasy now, because of Paris, because of California, because, mostly, we fear what we do not know, and mostly because we, all of us, instinctively fear those who aren’t of our “tribe.”

That unnerved me, if I’m truly honest. All that cell-phone tapping. And why wouldn’t you look at me, I was thinking, unless you had something to hide?

Social worker, NASW member and author Pamela Lowell. Learn  more about her at www.pamelalowell.com.

Social worker, NASW member and author Pamela Lowell. Learn more about her at www.pamelalowell.com.

Anyway, I became engrossed in my book as we were taking off, and then oddly, I felt my seat move, and your head was level with the tray table, up and down and up and down again, and after a few confusing moments, I realized you must be praying, and yet, I confess, and I’m sorry, but I still felt uneasy—(praying for what, I wondered?)

It’s not an excuse but many of us feel uneasy now, because of Paris, because of California, because, mostly, we fear what we do not know, and mostly because we, all of us, instinctively fear those who aren’t of our “tribe.”

All of a sudden, though, you sneezed. Just a small tiny sneeze. And, I responded, reflexively, saying “Bless you,” and, then just a few moments later, digging in your bag, grabbing for a napkin, peeling the fruit carefully, and putting the rind into your cup, you finally looked at me, and offered me a slice of orange.

I said, “No thank you,” and then we both smiled. We didn’t say anything else for the rest of the flight, but somehow, I’m sure of this now, the tiniest of connections was made.

And, also I’m thinking now, that maybe fear is the reason you didn’t want to look at me in the first place. Maybe you just get tired of seeing the fear and–sadly more often now–hatred reflected back into your eyes. But in that moment, our moment, after I blessed you, and after you offered me your food, after our one small moment of communion and connection, I like to think that we both felt a little less afraid.

Social workers are committed to equal rights for all. To learn more visit the National Association of Social Workers’ Diversity and Equity website. Also read NASW’s statement on the recent Syrian refugee crisis and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

17 comments

  1. I did not respond to your blesssing as I do not need your blessing, I have Allah’s, the only reason I had asked you if you wanted something because you were staring at me while I tried to sit alone and enjoy my orange, it was sacrasm as I had no intention of giving you anything, you obviously did not understand.

    • I’m so sorry, Rose but it was not you who I sat beside–although they used your photograph in the blog. I hope that you find peace in your mission to educate others and greatly admire your work on this behalf.

  2. Peace and blessings. As a Muslim woman and a social work student I appreciate your willingness to see how scared Muslims are in the current climate, and your desire to build bridges and cultivate peace.

  3. Dear Pamela,
    Thank you for sharing your experience. It was important and constructive to be able to reflect on and then to report on your feelings in a mature and genuine way. It took courage, as you noticed your fears and chose to act differently with a nod and a smile.
    I guess the situation of being seated together on a plane, is about as random as it gets. Three hours of sharing space in close proximity with a stranger, shoulder to shoulder, was not chosen by either of you. Your acute awareness, high alert status, went out the window when she did a perfectly human thing. She sneezed. Your habit or custom of saying, “Bless you,” linked two humans together. By the way, just as customary and as likely reflexive was her offering to share her fruit with you. Your three hours spent seated together had no outside influence, interference or judgments. It only took each of you three hours to let down your guard. It gives me great hope.
    I encourage you to continue to share your experience!
    Let there be peace on earth, and, let it begin with a nod and a smile ……

  4. Ms. Lowell,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. As you mentioned, people tend to fear the unknown, as well as those we perceive as “outside” of our group. It is all part of the human experience. By sharing your experience, you have allowed it to potentially resonate in the minds and hearts of others. I can definitely say it resonated with me and reminded me of some of my own reactions.

    I was pleased to read that you were able to connect with the Muslim woman who sat next to you on the plane, and to find out that you did not let the fears you had stop you from interacting with her. Through your interaction with her, I believe that you put your fears to the test.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience.

  5. Dear Pamela
    Thank you for sharing such an honest and heartfelt account of your experience- I was deeply moved by your story and in your brief moment of connection tears welled up in my eyes. How beautiful and sad at the same time. As a side, this is my first post to NASW in over twenty years. Yes, this really affected me. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. Thank you for sharing this! I admit that I’ve had very similar feelings to the ones you’ve described and I’ve always felt a little ashamed/guilty as a social worker to feel that way. I think what really matters though is how we react to those feelings. I believe that honesty, such as yours, is what will move us all forward to living peacefully and will hopefully spark constructive open conversations between those who aren’t of our “tribe”.

  7. Thank you, Ms. Lowell, for your heartfelt statement. It was honest and touched my being.

  8. Marla Luke Lscsw, Lcsw, Msw

    Pamela Lowell, I was quite moved by your honest feelings, observations, and kind, simple human to human exchange. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. It felt like a risk to share this beyond my Facebook friends, but the response–from all over the world!–has been overwhelmingly positive. If it helps just one person be kinder to our Muslim friends–or really anyone who they might feel different from– it will have been well worth the risk!

      • Ms. Lowell, thank you for your honesty. Sadly, I have experienced a similar gut-reaction of fear in situations with others. Your comments are an important reminder that we have to work very consciously to not let our fears lock us in from interacting with the other person as a person. Easy to say, but very challenging to do.

    • Pam I so appreciate your COURAGE to not just share so openly with all of us visiting the NASW website, but to put voice to your experience and RISK VULNERABILITY and again, not just share with us, but to name what was true for you in that moment to yourself. If neuroplasticity teaches us that the brain is continually responding to experience and changing as a result, how could you not….. how could WE not all have such human reactions, instinctual in nature, culturally and socially influenced and evolutionarily hard-wried and supported. From a mindful perspective, to name what was true for you in those moments gives us the space to make some wise decisions about how or what to do with those experiences. And even then its not always that easy. Thank you for sharing. You model for all of us the “conversation about race, ethnicity and culture” this country says we need to have… but sometimes just find to difficult, scary or uncertain how to have! Appreciation. Respect. I hope your travel companion can read this. Change happens.

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