Sam Jelousi’s submission earned second place in the personal essay category. It is a powerful piece of writing from an old soul. His treatise is part love letter to his beloved personal hero — his grandfather — part unflinching dive into the complex emotions around escaping trauma when loved ones could not. As he recounts what has inspired him, he inspires others to take the same journey of introspection.
“The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own” remarked Dr. Dan Lowenstein, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at UCSF as he explains the meaning of the term “Sonder” in April of 2018 during accepted students’ weekend (ASW).
This quote by Dr. Lowenstein resonated with me on a personal level for several reasons.
First, like many people, I grew up with a passion for stories and storytelling. This was in large part due to my grandfather’s influence. His story began in 1925, born to a Kurdish family in Syria. The Kurds are an ethnic minority in Syria who have been historically oppressed and denied civil rights, including government representation and access to education.
My grandfather never finished 5th grade, he was forced out of school and was never able to get a formal education. Nevertheless, he managed to educate himself through reading. He was an avid reader and taught himself a wide range of subjects including economics, science, and literature. This allowed him to build a better life for himself and his family, despite the terrible injustices he had suffered.
His bookcase at our home was quite large and imposing to me as a child growing up. To my family, my grandfather was a paragon of wisdom, the go-to consultant on most family issues.
In addition, he was also a fan of novels, classical works of fiction, and Arabic poetry. In many ways, he imparted on to me the passion for reading and storytelling.
This is probably why I often try to imagine myself as the main character in the story of my life. Of course, most people do this to a certain degree, but for me, it has also served as a coping mechanism.
During times when I found myself facing a daunting challenge or feeling stuck and unmotivated, I would ask myself: If this was a movie, what would the protagonist do right now? What sort of action would the hero take to overcome this challenge?
This ritual has helped me view most of life’s difficulties as important challenges necessary for my “character’s” growth, as opposed to negative experiences that hold me back. My own version of a “growth mindset” if you will.
Who knows? Perhaps my grandfather used this system as well, drawing inspiration from the heroes of his favorite stories.
The second reason Dr. Lowenstein’s lecture stuck with me lies in the rest of his quote: “[Each random passerby] has an epic story that continues invisibly around you…”
I was fascinated by this quote from Dr. Lowenstein upon first hearing it. As a matter of fact, I took a picture of it during the lecture. Only after reflecting on it much later did I realize that the word “invisibly” stood out to me.
Not long after arriving in America, I began to experience feelings that I initially couldn’t describe. As time went on these emotions became clearer, and I realized I had been feeling a mixture of guilt and sadness. Guilt from all of the seemingly unearned blessings and privileges I’d been afforded in America, and sadness over the lack of ability to share them with the people I had left behind. After all, I had grown up with family and friends who were just like me, if not better in many regards.
Regardless, only I was lucky enough to escape the disaster that had befallen Syria. Only I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to build a new life in this great nation. In many ways, my character survived and my story went on, whereas they were stuck, and their stories invisible.
Stories like that of my grandfather, among others of my family and friends often leap into my mind, and leave me feeling somber. Although my grandfather doesn’t have any groundbreaking achievements or celebrated accomplishments in the traditional sense, he was still my hero.
I can commemorate his memory and his impact by telling his story. The story of the man who taught me that even in the face of injustice, you can overcome your predicament by arming yourself with the drive to learn and the will to persevere.
If you have experienced anything similar to what I have described, if what I have shared here resonates with you, I invite you to share and tell the stories of your invisible heroes. Those unsung champions that had a monumental impact on your life. The supporting actors in your story. The ones who sacrifice and relegate themselves to a secondary role just to help your “character” carry on. Their narrative is the inspiration to your narrative. Their stories are too important to remain untold. Their characters are too beautiful to remain invisible.