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Qiamuddin Amiry, May 24, 2009
Watch the Video | Listen to the Audio
Good morning. And congratulations to you all. How are you all doing? Seniors, how are you guys doing? You see, I know that we are not used to waking up this early. I know that Soule is napping right now somewhere there. Dude, you need to wake up! It’s not your econ class, you know.
When I was selected though, I really feel humble. Well, actually more excited than humbled. So I thank you. I thank you for your confidence in me.
But then you guys started congratulating me, you know, like, “It is going to be great!” Some of you warned me: “Qiam, it better be good!” you know. Others, like Shirmila, tried to get me tipsy (unsuccessfully, of course) and asked me: “So what are you going to talk about?” That was the question I got the most, and she was a bit more creative. When I sat down to try to write this speech, I have to say, the excitement was gone. I said to myself, “Qiam, you’re in trouble.”
And I tell you why I was in trouble. I’m sitting there asking myself, “Why did they choose you as the class speaker? You cannot represent such a wonderful class.” I mean you guys are diverse, talented, multitalented. Seriously, I did not attend any of the dogheads in four years. Lame, right? I know. Then Bro—on top of all this—Bro asks me to keep it short: ten to fifteen minutes. Ten to fifteen minutes? Do you guys even know me? I hardly warm up in fifteen minutes. It is not that I’m really talkative … well, okay, actually I am. I sound like Joe Biden sometimes. But you see, I have a theory. My theory is that when you speak a language as your second language, you are either very succinct—you know, like, four years of Spanish in high school, and all you say is like “Como estas?” and then you keep smiling, and nothing else happens—or you are very talkative.
I’m very succinct in Urdu. But I’m guessing that five minutes of speech in Urdu would be even less welcomed than ten minutes in English. So, President Adams, I’ll keep it short, or I’ll try.
First, I need to thank some special people, for myself and on behalf of the Class of 2009.
I’m personally grateful to Mr. Shelby Davis and his wife, Gale Davis, for financing and supporting not only my education, but the education of thousands of people, students from around the world. It’s through their generosity that the lives and perspectives of thousands of people change drastically. So I thank them. I also thank my host family, Joe and Caroline Feely, who are here with us today. Without them my Colby experience would have never been the same. So thank you Joe and Caroline.
On behalf of the Class of 2009, there are so many people I want to thank today, but time won’t allow me. So I’ll keep it limited to families and friends, professors, staff, Colby administrators, the members of the Board of Trustees, dining services, and, of course, security. That was not a joke.
But as Professor Rodman would say, let me recapitulate on that, starting with our professors. Esteemed faculty, without your wisdom, leadership, kindness, and patience we wouldn’t be who we are today. By that I mean skeptical of everything! As Socrates would say, you guys have been great midwives. The Class of 2009 came to Colby pregnant with knowledge. We just didn’t know it. So you helped us to give birth. (That sounds weird. Okay, let’s blame it on Socrates and move on.)
My professors, you will have a special place in my heart—although my head sometimes had a hard time following you around in class. You were the reason I came Colby. (Well, who comes to a college with no professors?) But once I came to Colby, I found teachers, mentors, and friends in you. I trusted you, confided in you, and relied on you. That a kid from Kabul could consult about everything from an identity crisis to culture shocks that I get every week with professors like Jill Gordon or Professor Mannocchi tells you a lot about you and how approachable and warm you are. So we love you. We love you even if you gave us low grades. In case of Professor Denoeux, we love you because you gave us low grades.
Next, parents. Let me talk to you for a second. I congratulate you today from the depth of my heart. Today belongs to you too. You see, students are happy because we don’t have homework—at least for a while. You guys are happy because you don’t have to pay our tuitions anymore. But that’s not why this day is special to you. It’s special because parents seem more excited and happier about the dreams of their children than the children are themselves. You get way more worried about our troubles than we do. Actually, you get worried even if we are not in trouble. This seems to be a universal fact. When I came here first, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit, and my parents called me to see if I’m okay. So I said, “Mom, I’m fine. The distance between Maine and New Orleans is more than the distance between Kabul, where my family lives, and Tehran, Iran.” (Or, as you guys would say, “Eye-RAN.” You didn’t run anywhere. Please, don’t say that.) I know that my mom is probably crying or will be crying while watching this video. (Hi, Mom! I’m fine.) I also know there is something about your hearts, parents, that we children will never understand or feel—at least until we become parents ourselves. That’s what my mom tells me, so it must be true, right? I salute you, and thank you on behalf of the class for everything you have done for us.
I also have to thank the Colby community in general. You see in four years I found out that at Colby, besides professors and administrators, there are some hidden treasures that you have to look for, and they are everywhere. People like Ellen Paul, who used to drive the shuttle, or people like Lucie, who used to work at Foss. These people really care about us, who we are, where we come from, how we do, what our plans are. So they’ve been amazing. They’ve been unassuming and wonderful. And so I thank them.
On to students. Class of 2009, I thank you for teaching me so much, starting day one. During our COOT Jamie Warner asked me if I had Facebook. I seriously thought that she was messing with me—but then she patiently taught me what Facebook was.
Seriously, though. Students taught me that it’s okay to speak up, that I shouldn’t settle for half measures. I needed to learn this. I grew up in a society where speaking up was not such a good idea. I remember in grade ten, under the Taliban regime, the director of education of Kabul visited our school. Sitting on the dusty floor, I raised my hand and I said, “Could you please replace our math teacher,” because he could not teach due to old age. Instead he always told us stories about his golden days. (So now you know why I am so bad at math, right?) Anyway the teacher was not replaced, but I was surely punished for what I had done. I brought that “don’t-speak-up” mentality to Colby, but I learned from my fellow students the importance of speaking my mind.
Here at Colby you showed leadership, classmates. The recent unfortunate incident in the Pugh Center, as troubling as it was, stands out as an example of bold but civil student voices. I believe that we can find our best selves in our worst moments, and this event united our class and made the administration see us differently. I salute you for your uncompromising determination, which you carried with wisdom and maturity. I encourage the under-classmates to be more vocal and to demand a more proactive approach from the College. Being reactive is dangerous, both for the administration and the students.
This campus was not special to me because it was perfect. Rather what made it special was that you identified its imperfections and you challenged them. That requires character and courage, and those actions helped define Colby for me. I thank you for that.
Enough thanks. Now to my main point and to wrap this up. I want to share one message that I have reflected on since my freshmen year, so it is pretty ripe!
It is this: I believe that the environment in which we grow up, and the people that we encounter in life, shape our character and mold our dreams. In Persia we have a saying ___________. Roughly it translates that melons gain color from the other melons around them and they ripen together. You, Class of 2009, have colored and shaped me—and one another—in ways that will alter the rest of our lives. In the bus on the way to Portland last week, Menya and I had a really good discussion about this phenomenon. He called it “The Art of Association,” associating with our surroundings and with each other, and they change us.
In my short life I have lived under five different regimes, some of them very repressive. I lived under the Communist regime in Kabul, the Mujahedin, a bloody civil war, the Taliban, the Karzai regime, and of course the Bush administration. Yeah, that was repressive, too, right? God knows how many times they listened to my phone conversations.
During the civil war, survival became the number-one objective of life. Leaving our house was a matter of life and death. In my neighborhood, many people lost their lives either by getting caught in crossfire or by shrapnel. A rocket crashed into my neighbor’s house, and it could have been ours.
Under the Taliban regime, as in Orwell’s 1984, simple activities such as listening to music, listening to radio, or reading certain books became very dangerous. People would disappear at midnight. At night you would hope it wass not your house or your door that gets knocked. To watch a week-old recorded soccer match, I would rent it through underground channels and watch it with a thick curtain over our window so that the voice wouldn’t go out, and the temperature inside would get 90 degrees. So it’s a lot of fun to watch in the Pugh Center, right? In that environment, making it to the next day becomes the focus of life—and that became my objective.
At my United World College, Li Po Chun in Hong Kong, and at Colby, the environment changed and the people around me changed. Talking to my professors, reading about phenomenal individuals such as Greg Mortenson, being touched by people like Shelby Davis taught me that one could live for another reason too. I realized that, beyond mere day-to-day survival, a rewarding life entailed thinking about others.
You might not know this, but you, Class of 2009, left huge impact on me. Through our simple conversations after a pickup soccer game or over dinner, and through your simple questions, like “Are you planning to go home after Colby?” you made me focus on my own responsibility. You helped raise the bar for me.
President Obama said this, but I actually learned what it means from you. He said, “Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.”
It was here, it was from you, that I learned to look beyond simply where I might be tomorrow. Therefore, I see the Afghan Scholar Initiative Foundation as our collective effort.
It was here that I had the chance to see that it is merely a different environment, different people that I had the good fortune to interact with, and different sources from which I took inspiration that made the difference between a young suicide bomber from Kabul and the young man standing before you today. My UWC, Colby, and, most of all, my parents played great roles in who I am today. I thank you all for that.
I share these observations with a sense of humility and gratitude, but I also embrace my past. Without it I would not be who I am. I share my thoughts with the classmates who helped shape me because I believe you understand the weight of our responsibility to the world around us.
As his highness the Aga Khan reminds us: “There are those who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Unless these unfortunates can be touched with the spark, which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will only sink back into renewed apathy, degradation, and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark."
There is no doubt that we are the fortunate ones. The question is, can we provide the spark?
Colby Class of 2009, I believe that you have an appetite for great things. I am not asking you, as Professor Hatch would say, to save Afghanistan or to save Africa. Instead, look around you. Look in your own communities and you will find people who cannot improve their own lots themselves. I’ll close with a poem by Saadi Shirazi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet:
Of one Essence is the human race,
thus has Creation put the Base;
One Limb impacted is sufficient,
For all Others to feel the Mace.
“One Limb impacted is sufficient, For all Others to feel the Mace.” Around the world there are many limbs impacted, my friends. Be open or remain open to feel the mace.
Congratulations to you. It has been fun, it has been real. And I thank you for all you have done for me. Thank you.
Qiamuddin Amiry '09, from Kabul, Afghanistan, made rugs and translated for the British armed forces before being selected for a scholarship to the secondary school Li Po Chun United World College in Hong Kong. He came to Colby as a Davis United World College scholar and, as an undergraduate, he and classmate John Campbell founded the Afghan Scholars Initiative Foundation, which already has placed outstanding students from Afghanistan on full scholarships at Gould Academy. He was elected by the Class of 2009 to be their class speaker. He is planning to attend the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University in the fall.