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The greatest lesson of my life was not taught to me by my parents, but by total strangers.
Don’t get me wrong: my parents taught me great principles to live by. They taught me to aspire to be a world citizen. But I actually learned to be a world citizen by living with my American family!
Let me back up a little and explain.
When I was in elementary school in Iran, my teacher assigned us an essay: what we wanted to be when we grew up. I had procrastinated writing it until the night before, so Mom had to come to my rescue, as she often did. She infused my writing with the Baha’i principle of service and its power to unite humanity. This is a beautiful principle to inculcate in young minds, but at that point, it was just a theory to me.
I learned the practice of it when I turned sixteen and went to the United States as an exchange student on the American Field Service Scholarship program. That program gave me the opportunity to live with an American family, carefully selected by AFS, and to complete my senior year of high school.
I arrived, all dewy-eyed and open to possibilities, in Erie, Illinois, a rural community east of the Mississippi in the summer of 1972. My American family consisted of a farmer, his wife and their youngest daughter—all other children grown and pursuing their lives elsewhere in the country.
To say that I experienced major culture shock would be a vast understatement. Our first challenge: communication. One reason I had won the scholarship was my command of the English language, but alas, the rapidly-spoken Mid-western dialect was not taught in Iran!
I was raised in Tehran, the capital city of Iran and home to 3 million people. Erie’s population was 600! Erie’s town center was called the Erie Triangle—the intersection of three streets! You couldn’t get more rural than on my American family’s 400-acre corn and soybean farm, complete with 30 cute sheep and a coop full of egg-laying chickens. My father was an accountant who dressed in suits and ties and sat behind a desk; my American Dad wore his overalls, donned his John Deere cap and rode his combine! I came from a Baha’i family; my American family was church-going Methodist. We ate rice and stews of lamb and mutton in Iran; they ate macaroni and cheese and pork chops! All in all, we had nothing in common—on the surface, at least.
In our youth, we tend to be wonderfully open, rather than closed to ideas and challenges. We embrace change. I had that going for me. I believed in the Baha’i principles that my parents had taught me in childhood: the oneness of God, the oneness of religion and the oneness of humanity. What I found out in the course of that year was that I had much more.
I had this gift of the beautiful Morgan family who hosted me with open arms—a gift from heaven itself. Within a month of my arrival, they were Mom, Dad and sister to me. They helped me with my homework: when I couldn’t understand the lectures in American Literature class, Dad ordered a cassette recorder from Sears Roebuck so I could record the lectures. When I studied a short story about Pocahontas all night and thought that she was a ship and Captain Smith was her Captain, they laughed a little and gave me a birthday gift to cheer me up. Mother sewed me beautiful clothes so I could dress up for school like all the other girls—we had uniforms in Iran and did not need as many clothes! Religion-wise, too, we got along fine. I already believed in Jesus Christ and the Baha’i principle of oneness of religion, so it did not faze me to go to Sunday school with my sister and Sunday Service afterwards with the family. Bible Study on Wednesday nights introduced me to the words of Christ for the first time, and implanted his love in my heart forever. In short, the Morgans took me in and embraced me as their own! The love between us was as real as any between blood relations.
I left the Morgan home a true world citizen. I learned that if we open our hearts to total strangers, we discover the essential oneness in humanity. These words from the Baha’i teachings have guided me ever since:
Regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 218.
That year I discovered that the distance between stranger and family is a short hop, which takes a little understanding, willingness to try new things and openness to seeing things through other folks’ eyes. The love and understanding that binds us all far surpasses any differences in language, culture, religion or race. I have had two families since 1972: one that taught me the theory of world citizenship and one that taught me the practice of it.