It was roughly 9 AM when I boarded a flight that would take me across the world to the United Arab Emirates. I had barely slept the night before, and I kept my fingers crossed in hopes that the seats next to me - 18 B and C - would be empty so that I could sleep.
As I approached my row, I saw a young girl excitedly looking out the window. I let out a sigh as my short dream of having three seats to myself faded away. I took my seat, and the sound of the safety instructions on the intercom and of babies crying faded away as I began to read Capricia Marshall's Protocol. Then, I immersed myself in the details of Putin and Obama's G8 meeting at the World Summit.
Suddenly, I heard the passenger in 18C's voice. She introduced herself to me, asking why I was traveling, where I was from, and most importantly, what movie I'd watch during our flight. I soon learned that her name was Leena, coming from the symbol of a "young palm tree" in the Qur'an - hospitable, strong, and flourishing.
I placed a bookmark in my book, and we started to talk. We discovered that we had much in common: Leena was from Saudi Arabia, and similarly to me, she had moved to the United States for high school. She reminisced about the kindness and opportunity she had found in her new home, also emphasizing how much she missed Saudia Arabia.
After sharing some stories, we started to talk about food. "Oh, Marianna, you are going to LOVE Arab food," said Leena. I told her excitedly that I ate a lot of Lebanese food growing up in Barranquilla, Colombia, due to Colombia's significant Lebanese population. I recalled my love for "Hojitas de Parra," which she told me was called Warak Arish in Malay.
Leena's father later joined us from his seat farther away, sharing with me his inspiring life story: He had immigrated to the U.S, pursuing a career in medicine and becoming a very successful doctor. The three of us exchanged Arab, Colombian, and American snacks as we shared stories, words, and phrases from our respective languages and many laughs.
To this day, Leena and I continue to keep in touch. I share my life, culture, and journey with her, and she does the same with me.
I haven't wished for empty seats since that day.
Instead of rushing to put in our earbuds in our next journey, whether that be on the metro, an uber, or a plane, listen to the voices that fill our diverse communities. These small interactions bring us to see the common humanity in all of us, especially those who have a different journey than ours. We all have the power to bring a voice and journey to life.
There is so much to learn, and sometimes all you need is a small "hello" to break the ice. Thank you for that, Leena.