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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 11, 2003

Muslims opened hearts to a foreigner

Betsy Polhemus, a St. Andrews Priory graduate from Kailua, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, West Africa.

On 9/11, I happened to be in Kolda, Senegal, a gorgeous 3.5-mile bike ride from my village, Saare Foode, doing errands and visiting with Peace Corps friends. I'll never forget what Natalie said when she got off the phone: "New York City just got bombed."

We stuck together, huddled around a short-wave radio tuned to the BBC, waiting on word from Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. We were advised to return immediately to our individual villages until further notice.

On my way home, friends in town stopped me on the streets with worried looks, confirming again just how far Hawai'i is from New York City. Total strangers shook my hand, asking if I knew whether or not my family was with peace. I went to the bank and was called behind the desk to the manager's office, and he described his sadness at hearing about all those who had died that day.

Since the war on Iraq started, I've experienced nothing but the same genuine concern. For safety, all of us Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal — a West African, almost entirely Muslim country of 10 million — were placed on what our country director called "Stand Fast," an order to get to the village and to stay there until further notice. The people in Saare Foode know me like family, after almost two years of amazing relationships, and I agree that there is no place safer in the world for me to be.

Again, during that first week, I saw nothing but support from every single individual I encountered — friends, family and total strangers alike.

They give me space when I listen to the BBC, constantly ask about my brother and my father (who have both visited Saare Foode). They know I'd rather we weren't at war; they ask if my mother is with peace.

By now, we have been taken off Stand Fast status, and are now able to move, live and work again normally.

And still, even after a trip to the busy capital city of Dakar, I've been offered prayers, blessings, condolences and real smiles on a daily basis.