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Self-Sacrifice, Belonging, & The Wishing Tree
Episode 918th November 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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Sitting at her 9-to-5 desk job in corporate finance, Mariya Ilyas loved her job, but craved something more. Her time in college had taught her the concept of community, resilience, and giving back, and - despite resistance from her family - Mariya accepted the opportunity to become a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Istanbul, Turkey, where she eventually discovered the power that lay in her hyphenated-identity. 

This episode is a story of resiliency, self-sacrifice, and belonging. Join us to hear more about Mariya’s ExchangeAlumni experience and how it also led her to an encounter with the “Wishing Tree.”


Mariya Ilyas

My name is Mariya Ilyas. I was born in Pakistan and I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia.,

I went to school with students whose parents were in the military and immigrants from places like Afghanistan and Sudan. And as an immigrant myself, it was an incredible experience to be surrounded by so much socioeconomic, linguistic, ethnic diversity.

And growing up, I always thought that that's what America looked like because that's where my family settled and that's all I knew. Um, I ended up going to go on and study at a small liberal arts college called Bowdoin College in Coastal Maine, uh, which was a unique experience. Not only because it was very homogenous, um, and not as diverse as the D.C. aArea where I grew up, but it also turned out to be one of my most transformative life experiences. Um, it taught me a concept of community and resilience, um, and giving back.

as a sophomore in college in:

tional work. Uh, in summer of:

And, um, what I did was initiated a journalism program to help students learn the power of words, um, and in creating peaceful and democratic societies.

We had field trips to the national newspaper done. We had news trips to a radio station, um, in India and my students published their first newspaper, um, it also came at a time, um, when the world's most wanted, uh, terrorist Bin Laden, uh, was found in that same town where I was teaching, Abbottabad.

And so, um, I felt that the impact that I had on in the community that I was working on, um, was, you know, far-reaching in helping, um, my students understand how journalism could be, uh, used as a tool for, uh, for creating peace And so both of these experiences expanded my perspective that professional work doesn't have to be a 9:00 to 5:00 job in an office. That it could be in the field, it could be in a different country, it could be while navigating unique experiences and challenges, connecting with people, um, adapting to environments.

After completing her undergraduate degree at Bowdoin, Mariya moved to Boston to pursue a corporate career in finance. However, after realizing that her interests lay beyond the walls of her 9-5 desk job, she began exploring the possibility of a career in public service. 

So I ended up, uh, you know, moving to Boston as, um, most Bowdoin graduates do. And I thought, you know, "Let me try my hand at something new. Uh, let me give the corporate world a try." And so I was working for a big insurance industry. I loved it actually. I, you know, I majored in math, so numerically, quantitative stuff was, was fun for me.

So from a skills perspective, it was incredible, but I just knew in my heart that that's, that's not what I was meant to be. Um, especially since I had such great formative experiences in college that I knew that I had a calling for, um, you know, something more, something different. Um, and growing up in D.C. As well, you know, that heavily influenced my, uh, career choice in public service.

I remember on my commute to, you know, every single day to Back Bay thinking, you know, "Is this what life for me is gonna look like for the next 40 years. Until I retire?" And I remember just that thought daunting me and thinking, um, you know, "What w- w- am I happy climbing the ladder?"

Um, and so while I enjoyed the skills I had just missed, I, I had a craving for something more. I had a craving for, um, interacting with people and seeing my work, um, have a more direct impact and a more immediate impact.

So I grew up as a Muslim in Pakistan and of course I brought my, you know, cultural and religious identity to the United States and I spent a majority of my life growing up in United States. So I was eight when my family immigrated, um, to the United States.

And at that time, um, I had no idea what was happening. I felt my two worlds were clashing. I was adapting to, um, a new place, a new language, a new school, a new social life, um, and a new way of lifestyle. And so for me, when I, uh, was reflecting on, "Why was I applying to, to Fulbright and where did I want to be," um, Turkey felt like a natural place because Turkey is a country that is, uh, geographically situated, uh, where the East meets the West. And I felt that my entire life has been the East meeting the West.

And so it was an incredible experience to be in Turkey and, re- uh, you know, go as a cultural American, you know, educational ambassador while being in a predominantly Muslim country. It was, um, the first time where in a long time, um, you know, I would listen to the call to prayer five times a day, um, and feel comfortable, uh, with my hyphenated identity. It just, it felt, um, that I could be both Pakistani and American in Turkey, um, because oftentimes growing up, um, and actually as my experiences in Pakistan demonstrator, the two summers that I went, I felt very American.

reconcile with and [inaudible:

While Mariya was thrilled at the opportunity to explore a new culture and country on her Fulbright Scholarship, convincing her parents of the value of exchange was a different story. 

It took a while for my family to warm up to the idea of, uh, a career in international affairs, um, but at the same time, um, I'm the third out of five in my, um, family, five children. I have two older sisters and in my entire family and my l- entire life actually, I've always been the person that, you know, push the envelope further and further and further. Um, what I mean by that is that growing up in a South Asian Muslim household, um, with, you know, four girls and my brother is the youngest, um, my parents were very protective of us, um, very conservative in our upbringing.

My father, um, did not want me to do the Fulbright Fellowship. Um, he wanted me to do, go to law school as is typical in immigrant, um, households, um, to finish my education, to get married and then, and then start my career.That was kind of, uh, what he expected of me, but I knew that having gone the Fulbright was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I. Think after they saw how much I loved my time in Turkey, they came and s- ex- visited me and I, and I don't think that ever would have visited Turkey if I weren't there. And I remember the day when they, you know, landed at, in Istanbul, I picked them up. I showed them my, um, you know, uh, the amazing places in Istanbul. We went, we flew down to Antalya where I was living. They got to meet my students. They could just see how happy and how meaningful this experience was for me.

I feel very proud to be an American because, you know, the United States has allow, allows, uh, you know, many people like myself to pursue the American dream. The fact that as an immigrant, I can represent the most powerful nation on this earth. And, you know, when I walk into meetings and say that I am a diplomat of the United States of America, is, is just in, it feeling, um, that, you know, uh, uh, that you can't describe in words. It's, um, it's true what the, what America can, uh, stands for and delivers on.

When I reflect on my life, my first eight years of my life in Pakistan, um, I see a small girl growing up in a small village in the mountains in Northwestern Pakistan, um, an unmotivated young girl. I did not enjoy school. I loved learning to knit from my grandmother and cooking from my mom. And I just wanted... I couldn't wait to be a wife. I wanted to wear earrings. (Laughs). I wanted, uh, you know, like have kids. That's the, because that's what I saw around me.

Mariya Ilyas (:

And so, um, when we moved to the States and all of that was taken away, that, you know, that, that, um, that, uh, model, um, and then my father, um, emphasized education, um, I, I knew that that meant f- what that meant for him. It meant that he made a sacrifice for us. So at the time it was, you know, three, my three sisters and I, so four girls. And in patriarchal Pakistan, um, as you might know, it's, um, it's [inaudible 00:20:41] to have a boy in the family. And so for my father, our only hope was education. And so he was an economics professor in Doha, Qatar.

And when he, we, when we moved to the States, he gave up on his dream to pursue a PhD and to teach at a university and take up a job so that he could support us. And so he, um, every day when we, you know, we're going to school, in elementary school, he would say that, you know, "I will always be the person that works in the family. You guys study. You know, if you need books, if you need supplies, I want to see you succeed." And so, um, you know, the fact that he prioritized education in my life and that has opened up so many doors for me, that's where I got convi- my conviction from; is, um, I can't let him down.

with people through Turkish.(:

And when I think about also, you know, why I chose to pursue foreign, foreign service, I think about, um, that experience as well because the way you can connect with others, um, by speaking their language, um, is, uh, you know, breaking down barriers, um, that you, you know, otherwise may not be able to do.

While she had a number of experiences during her exchange that shaped her spiritually and professionally, perhaps the most notable one was Mariya’s encounter with the” Wishing Tree.” A tradition in Cappadocia, Turkey, the “Wishing Tree” offers visitors a chance to wrap a piece of cloth or fabric around the branch of a tree before making a wish. 

So while hiking in Turkey, I stumbled upon, um, a, a tree that was wrapped in. 

just clothes of, of, of, uh, things written on them. And so I felt deja vu, uh, when I took this photo, uh, of this tree with white clothes wrapped around it, um, because I had seen a similar tree near a cemetery, uh, while growing up in, in Pakistan. 

And so the clothes that were tied to this, um, I remember represented prayers and dreams of people from around the world, hoping to connect with a spiritual being through nature.

And I was so captivated, uh, by what I was seeing because next to the tree were these colorful pottery hanging by a dried up riverbed, there were two horses that were roaming in search for grass or water. And then there were these deserted caves that were longing for inhabitants. And yet there the s- stood this mighty tree reaching towards the clear blue sky as it's branches so heavy, uh, with wishes and dreams. And so what appeared be an abandoned site, um, was actually home to a beautiful spiritual life. And I got to recreate this wish tree in graduate school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where, um, the librarians helped me find a, you know, an, an, a small tree, um, and we invited students and faculty and staff members to come and write a wish or a hope or a dream on a piece of cloth and tie it to, uh, the tree.

And within weeks, you know, it filled up with so many, um, wishes kind of floating and it was such a beautiful way to build community.

It makes me smile because one of the most, um, one of the most profound things that might international experiences have had on me is my, um, spiritual growth.

Um, I had wished for my family to experience what I was experiencing. Um, it sounds perhaps, um, you know, a, a throw away wish, but while I was in Turkey, um, and even though I had a roommate and incredible colleagues with whom I was traveling, um, there were times where I felt very lonely. Um, and there were times where I, um, was filled with so much joy and a little bit of guilt that, "Why was I having these amazing experiences? Will my siblings ever get to, you know, hike this hot air balloon like I did or climb at the top of this mountain or, you know, pray at this beautiful Blue Mosque or, you know, lay, um, you know, see these centuries old, um, uh, ruins from the Greek and Roman times?"

And so I just wanted to share my experiences, you know, with, with my family. Um, and it was a craving for both, you know, um, company and it was a craving thing for a desire to make, uh, my experiences available to others.

When I was in Turkey, uh, on this Fulbright Fellowship, um, we had some State Department officials come and talk to us about careers in international affairs. There was also a meet-and-greet with the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. Um, and both of those two things together helped me realize, "Huh! So you can live abroad and get paid for it and, you know, learn different languages and not sit in an office? This sounds really cool. Sign me up."

Um, when I ran across the Pickering Fellowship, um, I, it was ironic because I, I remember knowing or, you know, being familiar with that name. And so as it turns out, um, Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering is, um, not only a Bowdoin alum, also a Fletcher alum and a Fulbright alum. And, um, now is a mentor to me.

And, um, before coming to Jordan, I had the unique opportunities to sit down and interview him. And I'm hoping to publish that, um, interview soon, um, because he had actually been, the, he was ambassador Jordan and here I was a young, um, you know, entry-level foreign service officer going to Jordan as a vice council. So, I wanted to get his thoughts and experiences about his reflection on his journey, um, to become a seven time, you know, uh, dip- uh, ambassador.

I would say that, um, my Exchange experiences, um, have allowed me to, um, understand what it means to be an American more. Um, when I'm abroad. Um, I am cognizant that I only represent a very small part of what the, you know, the American story. I hail from Alexandria, Virginia and I can, you know, speak to my times in, in, in Maine and Boston, but there's a whole other part of the country that I'm not familiar with.

And so when I have conversations abroad, um, you know, with, with people abroad, I am humbled by my, my own, uh, you know, learning process. I learn often, um, more sometimes from, um, others that have visited the United States and from their experiences. And, um, it's, it's, uh, you know, it's, uh, I feel very proud when I get to paint, um, United States, but also here, um, you know, different views. And so, um, it's really, really allowed me to redefine over and over again, um, what it means to be an American, um, and what it means to be an American diplomat abroad.

For those that's considering, uh, going on an International Exchange Program, especially for the first time, I would say to be open-minded and to say yes to every experience. Say yes to the person inviting you to their home for dinner, say yes to, you know, drinking shai and playing backgammon tavla in a smoky café, say yes to going on a hike. Say yes to everything. Um, every single experience that you'll have, you, it'll challenge your thinking, it'll challenge your understanding of, of what the concept of home means, what the concept of belonging and family means. It'll expand, um, you know, your, uh, your sense of, um, being a human, um, and it'll humble you, um, so say yes, be open-minded.