A cheer for the enemy

The eyes of the 14 kids sparkled with anticipation. A map for their classroom! Two maps, in fact - one of the world and another with bright green India in the center, its immediate neighbors in different colors encircling it like a carousel. We were working on geography for the first time.

I was three weeks into my six-week stint as a volunteer in New Delhi. My job and aspiration was to help these children develop their English and math skills. Their parents were migrant construction workers, and when their latest project ended in three months or so, the families would pack up and move to the next job. The children, ages 6 to 12, would get no formal education. Competition for spots, even in public grade schools, is fierce, and these children would never stay in one place long enough to get into a school.

I turned to the map of India and pointed to it. "What country is this?" I asked. My interpreter, Lalit, translated the question. All eyes looked intently from me to the map and back again, waiting for the answer. "India!" I shouted. Smiles and laughter broke out. "Yaaayyy!" I led the class in a clapping cheer for India.

"What city is this?" I asked, pointing to Delhi. Again, they eagerly stared at me. "Delhi! Yay!"

I pointed to more cities. "How about this one?" Silence. "Bombay! Yay!" They were getting into this.

I moved on. "Who knows this country?" Lalit had told me they probably had never heard of some nearby countries. "Nepal!" They started the cheer this time: "Yay!" "Sri Lanka - yay!" I paused as I considered where to point next. "Pakistan - yaaayyyyy!"

Pakistan! A bolt of lightning flashed through my mind. Pakistan and India have been enemies for more than 55 years, ever since India had gained its independence from Britain.

As independence had drawn near, Muslim leaders feared they would not be fairly treated in the new, mostly-Hindu India. They demanded a country of their own. India was partitioned, and the Muslim country of Pakistan was born. Millions of Hindus and Muslims, former neighbors, moved, by choice or force. Much bloodshed ensued. Since then, tension between the two nations has ebbed and flowed, especially over the disputed area of Kashmir. Just two years before, India and Pakistan had been aiming nuclear weapons at each other. Should we have said "yay" for Pakistan?

The parents of these children labored eight hours a day, seven days a week, carrying bricks and pots of concrete on their heads. They lived in mud and plastic-tarp shacks at the back of the construction site. They had no TVs, and most of the workers were illiterate. Harboring ill-will toward Pakistanis was probably not something they indulged much.

For these children, Pakistan was just the yellow country on the map, right next to the green of India. It was a neighbor that deserved a cheer just like the others. In that precious moment, I felt a surge of hope for the future. Here was a group of children eager to learn, full of innocence, enthusiasm, and trust. They didn't identify their neighbors as the enemy. If this acceptance that came so naturally to them could be nurtured, there might be a little more peace in the world.

I pointed to Pakistan again. "Yaaaayyyyy!" It felt subversively moral. We had cheered for the enemy. And that was OK.

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