In 2011, an unexpected friendship began between Penn State professor of sociology Sam Richards and Basim Razzo, an Iraqi citizen living on the other side of this world. Over time, the bond between these two men would profoundly impact them both, and ultimately lead to a transformative classroom experience that would change the perspective of many students.
Richards delivered a TedTalk on “radical empathy” in 2010, in which he asked his American audience members to put themselves in the shoes of an average Iraqi citizen during the U.S. invasion of their country. Moved by the lecture after seeing it on YouTube, Razzo emailed Richards to thank him for his insight and empathy for the Iraqi people.
The professor asked Razzo for a simple favor: Skype into his Race and Ethnic Relations course, share his experience and give them real-world insight into the average lives of the Iraqi people. Razzo agreed, and became a regular fixture in Richards’ popular course, which routinely fills the largest lecture hall on campus. Over the years, he told Richards’ class how the world is filled with people who have needs and desires; people just like him, just like the students who were watching. Ultimately, he told them, we are all in this together -- there are more commonalities than differences between people.
And then came “the accident,” as Razzo calls it.