Nadia Mourtaj giving a presentation on Non-violence. She's standing in front of Reutersward's Colty Python .357 Magnum sculpture with the twisted barrel.

Life is about connections.

Okay, life is about many things. But it’s at the connections where we so frequently realize and savor what we have.

During my last year at Elizabethtown College, I had the pleasure of teaching and learning with a student named Nadia Mourtaj.

I recently learned that Nadia and her younger sister, Zeyneb, died as a result of injuries from a car accident. Their relative, Meklit Techlehaimanot, was also in the car, surviving with a broken arm and the unimaginable trauma that comes with being alive in the after.

I never met any of Nadia’s family, but I know she loved her family dearly. In many ways she was a shining star for them. In finding her own way through this life, she was realizing the open-ended dreams they had for her.

I saw how she shined brightly for her chosen family at Etown. Nadia won numerous honors for her stellar academic work. She was a fierce activist. By the age of 21, she had experienced public service at local, state, and federal levels. The future, her many friends assumed, was so bright for her.

As I try to wrap my head around the future that won’t happen, I remember a sunny Saturday where I saw Nadia blissfully riding around campus on a rental bike. I often came up to campus to let my kids run around a bit on the weekends. It wasn’t uncommon for me to see students that I knew.

But Nadia caught me by surprise because I knew, and she knew, that she had a very big assignment coming up in my class. And she had work to do.

Yet there Nadia was, cruising Alpha Drive, basking in the sun’s rays. I made eye contact with her just long enough for her face to confer that this wasn’t one of those moments where I was supposed to pretend she was invisible until class. I asked, “How’s it going?”, leaving unspecified the pronoun so that she could assess her priorities before responding to me. She was a student in my Signifying Religion course so she knew that my question contained multitudes.

And Nadia said she was good and that she just had to enjoy the sunshine.

We left it at that as we each went our own ways.

Nadia and I had many conversations as the semester continued and my time at Etown came to a close. We talked about professional stuff like grad school applications and resume building. We discussed civil rights issues a fair bit. And as almost anyone who knew her can probably guess, she made sure we talked about non-violence and peacemaking.

I think what I’ll remember most about Nadia are the less scripted moments of our exchanges. Like we never played poker, but I imagine she wasn’t very good at it because her face let you know how much she prepared for a class assignment or if she thought a class assignment was bunk. The same face also let you know when she was about to bring it. And that was a real treat!

If Nadia could juggle, I would not be surprised. She was involved in a lot of activities. I don’t think she really believed in wasting time. And in her learning to figure out the elusive–if not, illusive- balance between self-care, achievement, and a social-life, I saw so much humanity. I think a lot of people saw that and benefited from that. And I count myself fortunate that in that balancing act, she would take time to send me news articles that resonated with things we had learned in class–even after the course was over.

As those who’ve been part of this online community know, I’ve ended almost all of my courses with a community meal or potluck. We get together. We share food. We exchange memories and dare to speak about our hopes for what comes next, knowing that one can never tell.

So over the last few days, I’ve come back to the potluck for Nadia’s class. I remember her singing along to “Bodak Yellow.” I remember how she talked of learning from classmates–a somewhat surprising revelation given how much of the course she spent helping others. I’ll also remember talking to her about boxing combinations and the fight game because she had hands. And I will hold fast to the feeling of that not being the end of our connection.

Yes, one major aspect of that connection has come to a close. But she taught me to enjoy the sunshine, and there will likely be many more of those to come.

When Nadia learned that I was coming to the University of Alabama, she wished me luck and encouraged me to keep doing so much of what I was doing before. She told me that she had a friend attending there and that she would recommend my classes to her. Turns out the friend actually attends the University of South Alabama but that search to be helpful says a lot about Nadia’s character.

Last week as I guided students through the syllabus, I stopped and shared a bit about Nadia and the importance of not taking our shared classroom moments for granted. And sure enough after class, one of my new students said he knew someone at the University of South Alabama who lost a friend named Nadia too. He said she seemed like a cool person.

As a professor, I’m the last person to throw around labels like “cool.” I can say that Nadia was bright and that her brilliance will continue to outshine the shadow of a life concluded.

Nadia, you are missed.

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

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