They say there is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.
That intolerance is nothing but a sign of an inadequate education. That prejudice is just an opinion formed in the absence of evidence.
But when you experience prejudice, it doesn’t feel like ignorance or the absence of education and evidence.
When you are subject to prejudice, even in its mildest form, it feels like only one overwhelming feeling: Loneliness.
As an Egyptian Muslim woman in Oslo, Norway, I lived in that loneliness for about a year after I moved here.
I left behind friends, family, a network and everything else familiar and moved to Norway in 2005 from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where I was born.
At first, there was the excitement of moving to a new country, experiencing the four seasons including rain and snowy winters, and a fresh start.
But a couple of months into the Norwegian winter, I realized what so many Norwegians said about winters here – they’re cold, dark and hard to get through.
And then one day, I stumbled upon a piece of news that made me sit up: The Norwegian Queen and Princess were going to have a cup of tea at a Muslim immigrant family’s home, here in Oslo.
This gesture was to mark the beginning of ‘Tea Time,’ an initiative by the Norwegian Centre Against Racism.
As a part of this initiative, Muslims in Norway were encouraged to invite their Norwegian neighbors over for tea as a way to get to know each other better and dissolve any prejudices around the minority.
It took me less than five minutes to put down my name and address and open my door to my Norwegian visitors.
Within a few days, I received a list of 11 Norwegian guests who I could host, and I decided to host all of them.
The initiative involved me setting up one-on-one tea-times with each of our guests. The guests were obligated to attend once, but any contact beyond that was up to them entirely.
I wanted to provide my guests with a cultural and culinary experience from Egypt and the UAE. So, I welcomed them with traditional Arabic sweets, cakes, and that very significant cup of tea that marked the start of so many beautiful relationships for me here in Norway.
I had all kinds of people visit me – from a 19-year-old with a Muslim boyfriend who wanted to learn more about the religion, to atheists who wanted to know if I would still be as welcoming when they told me they were atheist, which to their surprise, I was!
The conversations just flowed. We talked about light matters, sensitive issues, and slowly, one conversation at a time, I watched as the barriers dissolved, that we opened our minds to one another.
Today, I am still in active contact with ten of my 11 guests. We’re way beyond tea-time acquaintances now.
It has been two-ways right from the start: That first tea party opened the door for me to their lives and homes, too. My family and I have since been invited to summer parties, birthday parties, New Year’s Eve and Christmas celebrations, and more.
Over the years, I’ve created several opportunities, events and occasions (I should call them excuses, really!) to get people together. I organized cooking clubs, evening get-togethers and more.
Last year, during Ramadan, I created a Facebook event for my Norwegian friends and invited them over for a traditional ‘Iftaar’ – the meal with which we break our nearly 19-hour fast.
I laid out a traditional Iftaar meal, complete with homemade Iftaar beverages and even special Iftaar tablecloths and decor.
Some of the Norwegians who attended even fasted for the whole day, while others did water-fasts. Others attended out of curiosity. It was an incredible evening that further fastened those two-way ties.
Each connection led to more relationships and introductions and slowly but steadily, I built that network around me that I know I’ve always needed.
One of those relationships paved the way for me to NHO’s Global Future Program, where the seeds were first sown for Generation Mobility, the company I co-founded to help people and businesses thrive abroad.
My journey is nowhere near its end and I can already see how everything comes together. My purpose and passion has always revolved around bringing people together – whether it is academically, professionally or socially.
In my social life, I do this by bringing my friends and family together in as many meaningful ways as possible.
At work, I do this by speaking on various platforms and bringing together people with similar causes and motivations as mine, so that collectively, we can drive positive change.
At Generation Mobility, I make this happen by helping to break down global mobility barriers and bringing the world closer together.
Do you see the pattern? It is in that synergy that I know that I have found my purpose.
Note: The Tea Time initiative was put to rest a few years ago, which I found quite unfortunate. Today, as the world is growing more globalized, we need movements like Tea Time more than ever before.
Under Authentigration, a podcast that I co-host, we are setting the wheels in motion for a similar movement, to help immigrants and minority groups ‘Authentigrate’ wherever they go. More information coming soon!