When people from rival nations meet in the Pacific Northwest, do their national grudges hold true?
Ever since India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947, the two countries have been at each other’s throats.
Land disputes over Kashmir led to a series of wars between the two countries, and currently have the two nuclear-armed neighbors into a bitter Cold War.
Right before Indian student Sumit Karn left his home in New Dehli to study journalism at Everett Community College, he found out that one of his roommates would be a Pakistani. Like many Indians, Karn hadn’t ever met a Pakistani before.
Karn’s friends and family warned him about his soon-to-be Pakistani roommate. “They told me to stay away from him, because he is Pakistani and he cannot be a good person,” Karn said.
The India/Pakistan rivalry on full display at the only open border crossing between the two countries.
Adnan Syed, who hails from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, had similarly never met an Indian before Karn.
Syed said there’s a strong sense in some of the more uneducated and rural communities in Pakistan that all Indians are their enemies.
“It was a very strange feeling for me, meeting Sumit for the first time,” he said.
Once the roommates met, they sat down and talked it out. “It’s all about discussion,” said Karn.
Before long, the two were studying, watching cricket matches and learning to cook together. Neither Syed nor Karn said they were good cooks back in their countries, but in Everett they took it upon themselves to learn how to make spicy Indian and Pakistani-style dishes to share.
At Everett Community College in May, Karn and Syed presented a “travelouge” where they invited the community to learn about the controversies between their two nations.
“I met a person from India, so I have a chance now to see how an Indian person is, from very close,” Syed said, “And I have found he is just like me.”
Karn and Syed aren’t the only people to find common ground after bunking together in college.
Eritrea and its southern neighbor, Ethiopia, share a tumultuous history littered with power-grabs, civil wars and border disputes.
In the 1970s, Semone Andu’s father fought against the Russian-backed Ethiopian forces as a guerilla fighter for Eritrean Independence. His dad later fled into Yemen and raised his family there before moving them to the United States in 2001.
Now, Andu is 25 and recent graduate from Washington State University where he majored in Global Politics.
In 2007 Andu discovered that his new roommate at WSU, Dawit Ayana, was from Ethiopia.
It wasn’t long before, Andu’s green, red and blue Eritrean flag hung side by side with Ayana’s Ethiopian flag.
Ayana and Andu had set out to lead by example and represent the ideals of African Unity for the other African students at WSU, said Andu.
“If not us who is going to take the leap,” said Andu, “You cannot be stuck in the past, but you cannot ignore it.”
And while Karn and Syed bonded with cooking and cricket, Anaya and Andu liked to smoke hookah and engage in intellectual conversations with the African community at WSU.
These days, Ayana operates a hookah lounge called Da Spot in Seattle, where many of Andu and Anyan’s friends come to hang out. Andu is writing a book about his father’s time as a guerilla fighter and the sacrifices of the Eritrean people during that period.
With the academic year drawing to an end this week, Karn and Syed are both preparing to head home. But they plan on staying in touch.
“[Karn] has told me, when you get married, you are supposed to invite me and I will dance at your wedding,” Syed said. He adds, “If you really want to see your friend happy, you have to dance at his wedding.”
Syed doesn’t have any marriages lined up quite yet, but he hopes when the time comes, Karn will be allowed to enter the country. He notes that travel between India and Pakistan is scrutinized by the government and sometimes difficult.
Both men intend to use media to educate and connect people back home. Syed will report on the positive influences cricket has on Indian-Pakistani relations. Karn plans on opening up a newspaper in the village where he grew up, and use it as a platform to promote peace.
Karn and Syed weren’t expecting to make peace with a person from a rivaling country when they set off to the United States.
But they’ve been lucky enough to discover that friendship can be the most powerful diplomacy.