When growing up on rural Donegal, you can imagine there wasn’t much opportunity to mix with people of different nationalities, cultures or religions. Where I come from, children are separated from 4 years of age by what religion they are. Catholic children go to Catholic primary and secondary school, and Protestants go to their own schools. So, from the age of 4 until 18 we have Catholic and Protestant national and secondary schools and unfortunately the segregation does not stop there. We even have a few sports which are seen as Protestant and Catholic, with Catholics playing Gaelic football and hockey and badminton popular with Protestants. Any exposure to any other religions or cultures was next to none. Of course, it is nobody’s fault by any means that this separation happens, it’s just how life in here where I live near the border.
Coming from this background, you can imagine when I found out that I was sharing a room with an American Muslim girl in Vietnam, that I thought we wouldn’t have much in common. She was a different nationality and religion, and even though my 4 years in college had led me to opportunities to develop friendships with many cultural people, unfortunately Muslim wasn’t one of them. And this is the beauty of volunteering, you connect with people whom you never would. Zaynab was the most patient, compassionate and funny person I had ever met. Overall, she was “good craic” (a phrase she had picked up from me). Even though we have such differences and live so far apart, our personalities just clicked. Every weekend, we travelled together from Cao Bang in the north to Hoi An in the south. We spent most evenings together, eating dinner, going for coffee and we found we had similar opinions when it came to certain topics. But it wasn’t just Zaynab, I became really good friends with a girl who had a Sri Lankan background, Marisa, and also a fantastic French dancer, Anouk. And we all had one common interest: Bubble tea.
This journey has taken me to new opportunities and success that I just found difficult to experience in Donegal and even in Ireland itself. We were different, myself and my friends in Vietnam. All from different backgrounds, cultures and opinions. But there was something similar that I found with everyone. They were all compassionate, heart-warming, “would do anything for ya” kind of people. Kindness is a universal language and something I was very lucky to experience during my time away. A person once told me, we create divides with each other over differences we cannot control. You cannot choose your race, nationality and most of us cannot chose the religion we were raised upon. So, it is unfair, to others and to ourselves and this splendid world we live in, to create these partitions between communities. So, here’s to Zaynab, Marisa and Anouk and to a fantastic 8 weeks in Vietnam that I will never forget.