Learning Through a Photo

By: Samiha Ahmed, UMR | University of Maryland Chapter

The best thing about participating in Project Downtown or a similar act of service is the eye-opening quality of it. When you go into a service project, you can’t help but often distance yourself from those you are helping. You learn to empathize, not sympathize. It’s always “I’m helping them,” as if you both come from different worlds. You start to believe that only you have something to give. However, after my experience, I’ve realized this mindset is utterly ignorant.

You’re a fool is you think wealth is defined by material goods. There are a lot of types of wealth depending on your personal perspective. While the homeless in Franklin Square Park in DC may not have traditional wealth, they have the wealth of experience and spirit.

“Looking back, he told us he’d realized that ‘not all money is good money.’”

I’ll never forget speaking to Nathan. Going into the park, I was a bit intimidated. I’m great at talking to people I don’t know, but for the most part I’m always interacting with other college students. Here I was faced with strangers I’ve never met, completely out of my element, because I was unsure whether we’d have any common topics to discuss. Many times I would speak to someone and after a “Hello, how are you?” the conversation faded out. More than anything, I was terrified of saying something offensive, or that asking about their backstory might be too touchy of a subject. Some men and women in the park simply weren’t interested in conversation. Nathan was different. He openly started to tell a group of us about his life after introducing himself. He told us about his struggles coming from a background of drug dealing, and how he’s been clean and sober for five years. He told us how he left his wife because she didn’t want to live that lifestyle, and that he was proud of his two children in college. This man had everything, all sorts of wealth, and lost it all.

Looking back, he told us he’d realized that “not all money is good money.” I was awed by how open, inspiring, and relatable he was. I’m the type of person who does poorly on one midterm in a class and just gives up on that course entirely. Nathan is the kind of person who would never allow himself to linger on a single failure. It’s mind blowing how much he’s done for himself, sobering up and actively looking for a job, while some of us have won the world lottery and do nothing. We have the privilege of going to college in the United States of America, we have opportunities set in front of us, aesthetically displayed on a silver platter easily within reach, and yet we sell ourselves short more often than not by letting our mistakes and failures limit us, at least for me. Beyond his inspiring qualities, I was surprised by how much of what he had to say related to my beliefs as a Muslim. He said he “believed in a higher power,” and that “he’d rather be poor and comfortable than rich and unhappy.” He was disappointed by his lifestyle consumed by drug addiction and abuse. These are all principles that Muslims live by as well. It’s amazing how much common ground I could find in our shared humanity.

Something else was really significant to me: as someone who documents and photographs UMR events, some of the men at the park asked me to take their photo and genuinely got excited. One man jokingly said, “you should take a photo of this handsome face right here.” And, as I got excited to take their photos, I noticed they were even more excited to take the photos and see them. It was no word short of adorable.

We live in a generation blessed—or cursed (depending on your take)—with cell phones, and we constantly take photos and selfies. We have Facebook and Instagram. Some of us even run out of storage space on our phones because we have so many images of ourselves. To meet people in this day and age who rarely ever get their photos taken took a toll on me. It made me realize how lucky I was, that with a single click of my Nikon, I could do something spectacular for them that I take for granted. I’m currently working on having photos delivered to those who took them, and, God-willing, I hope it works out.

To come full circle back to my main point: I went into this thinking I’d give and not receive. Little did I know that I would take away so much. I gained from their inspiration and their hope. I had my eyes opened to all the small things I should take advantage of and be grateful for. I even gained some relatable friends and good conversation for a few hours on your average Saturday. This is the beauty of service. It’s not just what you yourself give, but what you are given as well.

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