While working in Cape Cod during the summer of 2019, I met the beautiful and vivacious Raneen Nassar. When I asked her to partake in my Oral History Project this Spring, I had no idea that she was about to share with me an intense migration story and divulge her personal journey to grappling with her Arab heritage. Not only did Raneen live through the Arab Spring, manage complex family dynamics, and navigate the American foster care system, but she has also shown an unwavering determination to establish what her own identity is in the United States as a young Egyptian-American woman.
At only 5 months old, Raneen’s parents left her in Egypt when they migrated to the United States. They worried Raneen wouldn’t be instilled with traditional Arab values if she grew up in the United States and wanted her to be raised in a proper Egyptian society by her mother’s family. Raneen grew up in what she describes as a “very conservative neighborhood,” playing in the streets with her cousins and neighbors. She attended a Coptic Christian school as a young Muslim girl and had a deep attachment to her aunt.
In 2011, the same year that Raneen came to the United States, the Arab Spring Revolution was brewing in Egypt. While the public was calling for the removal of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, Raneen recalled that her family lived fearfully as his government tried to fight the change. Without access to the internet, they received their news from the television and were told to obey a strict curfew from 3pm until 9am. Her schooling and all events such as weddings were cancelled. In a house composed primarily of women, her grandmother and aunts were particularly frightened when the government released many male prisoners, aiming to instill fear within the protesting Egyptians. Raneen stated that the situation was somewhat like what we are experiencing now during the COVID-19 Pandemic, though indeed much more serious. Families didn’t leave their homes and were afraid to go on the streets. Raneen remarked that “people were fighting over bread.” When her family members went to run errands, Raneen’s grandmother “wasn’t sure if they would come back because it just was not safe.”
Simultaneously, Raneen’s father had been having an affair when returning to Egypt in the summer. When he was exposed by one of Raneen’s aunts, he became irrationally furious. Raneen described his anger to me succinctly. “To him the idea that a woman was holding something on him was not something that he could accept. Because at the end of the day in Egypt, it’s not even a religious thing. Men are superior to women. I don’t agree with it, but it’s just the way that it is.”
Since Raneen’s father felt infuriated by her mother’s family in Egypt, he in turn wanted to punish them by taking away something they loved…or someone. Consequently, Raneen’s parents came to bring her to the United States when she was 13, much to the sadness of her aunts and grandmother.
Raneen’s migration to the United States was not an easy transition. Her initial excitement was dampened when she discovered that her English classes had not even taught her to form a sentence. When Raneen was thrown into an 8th grade classroom, she found that she was the only girl of Arab descent in her school. “I felt so left out,” she recalled. The social world of a junior high school is a difficult time for everyone but imagine not even speaking the language of your peers. Even the kids in her ELL (English Language Learner) classes were somewhat exclusive, being primarily of Asian descent. She didn’t take it personally, accounting their reactions to cultural differences. In her town of Quincy, Massachusetts, she recognized that “they’re not used to seeing people like me.”
Raneen’s parents were strict and did not allow her to maintain friendships outside of school, afraid she would “go crazy, become sexually active, and have guy friends.” She didn’t blame them for their parenting style because “that’s the way they were raised.” Although she was placed in a difficult situation, Raneen developed an empathetic understanding for everyone around her. Instead of manifesting an angry personal vendetta against those who did not treat her correctly, Raneen instead tried to comprehend what aspects of their lives made them the way they were. She displayed a maturity towards her parents and peers that I doubt any other student her age could have demonstrated.
Raneen’s childhood story came to a climax when her family returned to Egypt to bring her brothers to the United States. Tensions still high, Raneen’s father refused to let Raneen or her mother see her family. Disobeying his orders, Raneen and her mother went to see her grandmother one evening. What Raneen described next to me was truly shocking.
When her father found out, he tracked Raneen and her mother down. Filled with rage, he began physically abusing them both. Raneen described to me that she had to jump from her grandmother’s balcony to a neighboring home to escape her father so he didn’t “literally kill me after he went to get a knife.” Even though she escaped, Raneen’s father attacked her mother, leaving a large cut requiring twelve twitches above her eye. He delayed their flight back to the United States so US Customs would not question her mother’s injury.
However, “the crazy part is that she went back to him that night,” Raneen told me. “He kissed her forehead and just said that he was sorry.” Upon returning to the United States, Raneen only stayed with her parents for 8 months before she transitioned into foster care.
After her experience, Raneen associated her parents with Arab culture and attempted to eliminate this part of her identity. She only spoke Arabic when speaking to her Egyptian family. Other than these exchanges, she stopped watching Arabic TV, stopped listening to the music, and had no contact with her friends in Egypt. Since her foster mom was Irish and Catholic, Raneen tried to assimilate to American culture and fit into the mold of a typical “white middle-class family.” She still possesses a lovely accent, remarking “that’s the one thing I couldn’t get rid of.”
However, in 2018 when she became an American citizen, Raneen flew back to Egypt to see her family. This is when she had the revelation that “I have been missing out on so much and what my parents have done does not define the whole culture.” Raneen found that with the support of her Egyptian family, she could embrace the part of her identity she had tried so hard to suppress. She discovered that she loved listening to Arabic music, going out and eating shawarma,” and laughed that she enjoyed smoking hookah “even though it’s not good for you.” This experience with her family even led her to practicing her first Ramadan in several years, truly taking steps to salvage her identity as a Muslim that she had concealed. Afterwards, Raneen decided to study abroad for a semester in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.
While abroad, she met many different Arab people, “from Lebanese to Palestinian to Syrian.” However, at first she maintained that she “was still kind of refusing to really partake the culture.”She would only speak English, even with her Arab friends. And then “all of the sudden,” she wasn’t speaking a word in English. She was speaking Arabic, got Arab food, watched Arabic movies, and listened to Arabic music driving around for hours with her friends. When given free time during her studies, she traveled to Lebanon, Jordan, and back to Egypt, seeing beautiful landscapes and experiencing the many varieties of Arab culture. This helped her decide that she could “embrace my culture without being like my parents.”
Since her time abroad, Raneen remarked that “I proudly identify as a Muslim now.” Looking forward, she is grappling with questions about what she wants her own family to be like. Rightfully so, Raneen is proud of herself for forging her own path by rediscovering a love for her religion and culture. A new 2020 graduate in Political Science from the University of New Hampshire, Raneen plans to move to a big city and perhaps work for an NGO, eventually planning to join the United States law enforcement.
Now that she has graduated, Raneen is excited to start a family of her own. She told me “one thing that did not leave me from my culture is the idea of marriage being so big.” She is currently pondering questions such as, “Do I want to marry a Muslim? Do I want to marry an Arab? Do I want my children to be raised in a house with parents who have two different religions?” Although Raneen is still attempting to figure out what exactly she wants to do with her life, her story of resilience and renewing a love of her culture is one that will hopefully inspire everyone who reads this.
In Raneen’s case, it wasn’t her choice to leave Egypt. Although she was uprooted from her family and culture, she has overcome language barriers, racial discrimination, and a difficult upbringing. Raneen has since redefined herself as a young Muslim woman living in the United States and holds a newfound pride in her cultural identity. Her successful story proves that there are multiple complex planes and spectrums of migrant assimilation, and that one’s relationship to their culture is indeed an apeirogon.
Please feel free to comment any reactions or suggestions below! It is important to generate discussions based upon the stories we read and engage with others to help celebrate the diversities and multiplicities that make up our world.