Mohammad Behroozian, a Fulbright Student from Afghanistan, was selected as the Grand Prize winner of the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) New Leaders Group award in recognition of his Fulbright-MTP documentary film project, “Heading South,” for its transformative impact on advancing and exploring cultural diversity between the United States and Afghanistan.
Below, Mohammad reflects on one interview to be included in his documentary.
My most recent Fulbright sponsored adventure involved traveling over 3,000 miles through the Southern United States.
While on the Fulbright-MTP journey, I traveled from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, making stops in San Antonio, Austin, New Orleans, Baltimore and Washington. I interviewed imams and videotaped Islamic centers to learn how they interact with their surrounding American communities. When I departed from my cold host city Boston, I knew the South was going to be warm, and I was prepared for it. What surprised me upon arrival in the South was the level of diversity and intercultural receptiveness I witnessed.
The media paints a particular picture of the American South, complete with failed politics, gun violence and extreme conservatism. During my visit, I learned that there is much more to the South and its people than what is presented by the media—but I should have known better. After all, I am from Afghanistan, the country that media often radically associates with Taliban, conflict and terrorism while overlooking the green valleys of Badakhshan, the 40-plus delicious varieties of Herati grapes, and the warmth and hospitality of my people.
In the South, I learned that the vast majority of people, regardless of their faiths, respect each other and often enjoy the diversity of their communities.
After interviewing an Afghan Fulbrighter and experiencing two mosques in California and San Antonio, I decided to interview the general public in Austin. Makaila was one of ten random individuals I found outside of the Capitol building in Austin, Texas. As I interviewed Makaila, a woman from Austin who identified as an atheist, I listened to her talk about her regular interactions with Muslims. I admired her openness to others’ belief systems.
Makaila shared no beliefs with Islam or any other religion that I know of and I’m sure that she probably questioned the fundamentals of the world’s great religions as well as the idea of religion itself. Nevertheless, she was able to associate with people of faith and enjoy the diversity of perspectives that they bring.
That Makaila could connect with others without sharing their belief systems was one of the most fascinating things I came across during my train journey. Meeting her helped me to realize it is a great model to look for common ground that we can all stand on and coexist, but it is even higher ethics for humans to recognize and respect each other’s differences while respecting their individual faiths.
Traveling on the Fulbright-Millennial Trains Project was as much an inner journey as an outward journey. As a Fulbright Student, I embarked on bridging the cultural gap between the people of Afghanistan and the people of the United States. Along this journey, I managed to meet numerous people, most of them American. In those interactions, I told them about Afghanistan while also enjoying hearing their points of view that were either new and/or beneficial to me.