I will forever remember the summer of 2017 as the summer I watched my sleepy, beautiful college town of Charlottesville burn across the world’s television screens as neo-Nazi groups descended, clashing with counterprotesters, leaving one dead and many injured.
As I watched on television and online, part of me felt a maternal instinct to protect the city where two decades ago I arrived from Bangladesh, beginning a chapter in a country that would eventually become my home. Far away from my family and friends back home, it was in Charlottesville where I found the best of America.
Like the thousands of other students who come to America to attend world-class colleges and universities, I ended up in Charlottesville because my parents wanted me to have the best educational opportunities. Between my older sister and me, we have three degrees from UVA. My father, who also attended university in the States, was always a staunch supporter of higher education in this country — which even today he considers among the greatest in the world.
His belief in educating all four of his daughters, and in sending us abroad for higher education, however, was practically unheard of in Bangladesh in the 1980s. When I was growing up, higher education was not only a luxury not afforded to girls, but most families also married off their daughters after high school graduation.
“How could you not educate your children?” Dad would say. “You have got to educate your sons and daughters.” That sentiment in many ways saved my life, and I never took my time at UVA for granted because I knew how narrowly I escaped a very different fate.
Anybody who has been to Charlottesville knows how closely the city and the university are intertwined. Both have an idyllic feel, especially the university, with its “guys in ties and girls in pearls,” a popular saying at the college where students famously dress up even for football games.
But more than anything, the town I went to school in felt safe, which is one of the many reasons it’s consistently named one of the happiest places in the country.
In a matter of hours over the weekend, Charlottesville went from the happiest place in the country to an inferno.
My memories of feeling safe and of how much I learned and grew as a person while living in Charlottesville make it especially jarring to see the alt-right’s weekend assault on the city: Neo-Nazis with torches replaced scenes of students enjoying picturesque picnics on UVA’s famous green lawn. Charlottesville’s popular Downtown Mall, whose corners I spent my college years exploring, suddenly became an epicenter for the violence that engulfed the city.
“As a public institution, we value diversity, inclusion and mutual respect,” UVA President Teresa Sullivan wrote in an email to alumni, and she is right. “We value an environment in which learning happens. The views of many of the groups who converged on Charlottesville are in direct contradiction with this.”
As images of the protests continued to flash across our TV screen, I tried to shield my five-year-old daughter from the violence.
“What is happening at UVA, Mama?” she asked me. “Nothing, honey,” I answered. I simply did not have the heart to tell my child that her mother’s perfect college town, where I was already hoping she would apply, had become a battleground for white supremacists.
America’s complex history of hate and racism is lying exposed on the streets of Charlottesville. As a country, we are being tested on what we stand for. Who will win this fight for the soul of America?
As much as my heart hurts, I know hate groups do not stand a chance against Charlottesville. There are simply too many good people there for hate to win.
As I continue to try to process the events over the past few days, it is the image of a group of students holding a white banner reading “Virginia Students Against White Supremacy” that gives me hope. Even though they were surrounded and outnumbered by neo-Nazis with torches, they still stood up for what’s right.