Bright rays from the orange dawn filter through the window where the three of us sit. My parents – my mom and dad – are sitting across from me on a couch, their hands intertwined. Our family is accustomed to moving forward with the rhythm of life; it’s rare that we take the time to deeply reflect on our individual histories. One thing that may surprise you about the migrant life is just how traumatic it can be. Although my parents were both ultimately able to provide my siblings and I with a better life, they paid a large price for it. They dealt with war, poverty, and a lack of opportunities in their home countries, and then when they immigrated, they put up with discrimination, insecurity, and loneliness. It can be difficult to open up those old wounds, and as a child of immigrants, I’m usually tender with the questions I ask about my parents’ experiences prior to when I was born. Therefore, when Clara approached me with this project, I was hesitant to participate. It was my parents – who I had been worried about – that encouraged me to share their words with others. Every opportunity for an immigrant to have a voice is one worth taking, no matter how small or large the audience may be.
My mom and dad, ages 43 and 48 respectively, grew up in different parts of the Middle East. It is easy for people to imagine the Middle East as a large, monotonous slab of desert, dotted with camels, tents, and terrorists. God knows Hollywood, the U.S. government’s penchant for propaganda (as well as oil), and terrorists have not done great things for the Middle East’s image. It is quite a vibrant place, though. America has a quaint loneliness to it, where the bustling streets of its cities are maintained by the continuous ebb and flow of quiet individuals, where one’s world is only composed of those they know best and strangers remain strangers, with the exemption of an occasional friendly exchange in a supermarket or neighborhood street. The Middle East, on the other hand, is a place where every stranger becomes a friend, where the warmth of the sun is incomparable to the warmth in peoples’ hearts. To call the Middle East “family oriented” doesn’t even begin to encompass it; I believe the Middle East is “people oriented.” It does the Middle East a great injustice to reduce it to the image the West perpetrates.
That being said, growing up in the Middle East wasn’t easy for my parents. Politics plays a dirty hand in ruining the lives of innocent people and the beauty of innocent countries. My mom, in the middle of her happy childhood in Kuwait, was forced to immigrate to Jordan when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the Gulf War. To this day, she still remembers the belongings she was forced to leave behind as a seventh grader, including her favorite pink stuffed bunny. My dad, on the other hand, grew up on the rougher streets of Amman, Jordan in an immigrant community. His dad worked as a cab driver, and my dad sold watermelon on the streets during his summers. My dad lived in poverty with his six sisters and three brothers.
Despite growing up in distinct parts of the Middle East, my parents both had one thing in common: their parents’ politics. When I ask my parents about it, my mom recalls passionately: “They were very invested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That was their life. Nothing else mattered.” All four of my grandparents were Palestinian. They had good lives there … and then they were forced out of their homes, forced into poverty. My mom’s parents went to Kuwait (which they had to flee later). My dad’s parents fled to Jordan, where they were lumped in with over a million other Palestinian refugees who were forced out of their homes. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the reason why I’m an American today; it caused the chain of events that led to my parents coming to America. Living in Jordan was difficult for my dad (and later for my mom, who moved there from Kuwait). Despite having Jordanian passports, they were considered to be Palestinian-Jordanian, and thus, not entitled to the same advantages as “actual” Jordanians. Their access to education was severely limited.
There’s a raggedy high school that sits atop a sinuous hill in Amman. It’s covered with graffiti of the Palestinian flag and peeling paint. It’s where my dad went to school, where he was beaten by teachers, bullied by other school children, and told that he’d never amount to anything. My dad’s lifelong dream was to go to America and study mathematics. My dad speaks three languages fluently today: Arabic, English, and math. I like watching him work on his research; it’s elegant, the way his hand flows across the page, how he draws his integrals and matrices. He writes every number with passion. Way back then, my dad knew he wanted to study math. So few of us are fortunate enough to know what we want to do when we’re young. Even fewer of us have the resources to pursue such dreams.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Jordan, my dad worked hard to get top grades in the mathematics department. He asked relatives for money and worked summer jobs. He took every job he could. He went to the few college fairs that popped up in Jordan. He did all this with severe health issues and a large family to support. His father (my grandfather) was his greatest supporter then. My dad gets emotional every time he tells me that my grandfather – the cab driver – took extra hours driving to raise money for my dad’s future. When my grandfather noticed how much my dad was excelling in school, he signed my dad up for English lessons at the American Embassy, not caring about the cost. When my dad’s grandfather passed away, my grandfather forced my dad to attend his English class, which was at the same as the funeral. This is the sacrifice immigrants make. They don’t have the privilege of being vulnerable. Their goals are not for luxury … they are for survival. My grandfather recognized that my dad was their hope to be released from the cruel cycle of poverty. My dad tells me that every sacrifice was worth it. He came to the U.S. a year later, got his graduate degree in mathematics, and eventually worked his way upwards to becoming a full Professor of Mathematics which he is today.
When I was born in 2000, my dad made an epic mistake on my birth certificate. In the Middle East, children are often referred to by their first name as well as their parent’s first name. Therefore, on my birth certificate, my dad accidentally put his first name as my middle name. Every now and then, he jokes about changing it, but I’m proud to carry his name. I can only hope to carry his legacy of hard work, perseverance, and sacrifice.
Although my dad struggled when he arrived to the U.S., living off of 49 cent burritos and on the couches of friends’ apartments, he claims that it was Americans who changed his life. It was his phD adviser, his roommates, the Muslim Students Association at his university, the university’s financial aid office … all of them showed him kindness. They bought him meals and showed him around the city. My dad fell in love with America quickly because of its people.
Recounting all of this, my dad gets a warm smile on his face. “How do you feel about America’s political climate?” I ask, slightly goading him. It’s a tough time to be an American. My dad, who’s usually kinder in his view towards America because of his experiences there, surprises me with unusually harsh words.
“I’m disappointed,” he says, his voice raw with pain. “After everything … America is not the same it once was. The image it gives off now is the opposite of the true principles of America, of freedom, opportunity, equity.”
I smile wryly at this, knowing that America’s history has been much more tumultuous. The crimes of America’s past weigh heavily on people around the world today, including my parents. America has played a great hand in monopolizing and terrorizing the Middle East. My dad surprises me again, though. “Don’t get me wrong – America has always had lots of problems. But I still believe their shit is better than other countries’ shit. At least in America, you know about it. At least in America, you can speak up against it. By the way, you can quote me, swear words and all.”
I pocket these words for later. As an American college student myself, I find myself getting lost in resentment towards America. It’s easy to, given the rampancy of terrible news on social media as well as the frequency with which supporters of a certain politician spew hatred. My dad’s words serve as a gentle reminder that at least in the U.S., my words are not abridged. Having lived in multiple countries around the world that require censorship myself, I know first-hand that such a right should not be taken for granted. Furthermore, my dad always reminds me that American people are truly good at heart. If we could just find a way back … if we could just remember what we owe to each other. If only we could just remember compassion.
Although my dad claims he’s disappointed by America’s current state, he tells me he doesn’t remember being discriminated against. “People are usually excited to hear my stories,” he says. “They ask me to speak Arabic and love hearing about my family.”
My mom, on the other hand, shakes her head with a smile. Her and I connect instantly through the glance I send her. My dad, a relatively tall, attractive male, that can pass as multiple ethnicities … he doesn’t have much on us. My mom and I share a face. We both have strictly Middle Eastern features, with our thick black eyebrows and olive-white-skin. Moreover, we both wear the Islamic headscarf, also known as a hijab (this is where I mention that the majority of Muslims are NOT Arabs. In fact, fewer than 15% of Muslims are Arabs. It’s important not to conflate the two!). When you wear the hijab, it’s easier for people to make judgments about you. Words that usually come to mind are “oppressed,” “prudish,” and “unapproachable.” If only these people knew the inappropriate sense of humor my mom and I share!
My mom came to the U.S. after she married my dad. They met in Jordan one summer when my dad visited Jordan from the U.S. to see his family. My dad was lonely, and his old college professor from the University of Jordan said, “Hey, you should meet my niece!” My dad was skeptical, but he eventually made a trip over to my mom’s family’s house.
He was bewitched by her. They married a couple months later.
While my dad welcomes help from everybody, my mom’s the type of person who likes to try things on her own. If her computer stops working, she’ll stubbornly fight it until she fixes it. She refuses to give up on a recipe until she’s perfected it. If she starts a book and hates it, she won’t stop until she finishes it. It’s one of the many things I admire about her, and one of the many things that made her succeed when she moved to the U.S.
She learned how to speak English quickly after watching all ten seasons of FRIENDS over and over again. While my dad taught in his new teaching job, she spent hours in the university computer lab, trying to figure out how to use the technology. My dad and mom complement each other like that. Together, they learned how to survive and thrive in America.
Perhaps part of the reason why my mom is more reluctant to accept help is because it is offered to her less. Growing up in a large family (six brothers, mind you – I would die) and then moving to America wearing the hijab was difficult for her. People were cautious around her and were more likely to question her. One time, my mom went to the DMV, and the lady at the counter shoved a packet of visa documents in my mom’s face. This was after both of my parents obtained the American citizenship.
“I’m a U.S. citizen,” my mom told her tightly.
The lady looked at my mom skeptically. “What?”
My mom just pointed at the passport the lady was holding. “That’s my American passport you’re holding.”
The lady flipped to the front, and sure enough, it was an American passport. This wasn’t an isolated incident for my mom.
When I ask my mom what she wishes everyone knew about the immigrant life, she responds with the following. “I wish people would just ask. I don’t care if someone is ignorant – as long as they’re not intentionally offensive, I don’t mind answering their questions. If someone wants to learn – about the Middle East or Islam – I won’t judge them. It hurts less than them ignoring you outright.”
My dad, on the other hand, says, “I wish people understood the pain people have been through in their country in order to leave it. It takes a lot to move across the world, leave behind family and loved ones and culture to go somewhere else … people don’t understand what it means for you to come and how much it hurts to leave people behind. I consider myself to be a luckier immigrant because my path with paperwork was straightforward. There are other people that stay illegally and it takes them fifteen years to get paperwork. They leave people behind and they can’t go back to visit … it’s tough. Nobody immigrates for fun. They do it out of necessity.”
Growing up in Pennsylvania, I had quite the identity crisis. I looked different from my peers and had different values. Being an Arab Muslim in America made me feel like an outsider, but I can’t imagine what my parents must have gone through, having to justify their existence for so many years. My mom, willing to subject herself to the ignorant questions of others, and my dad, aching for somebody to understand the trauma he’s gone through. Before my parents became citizens, I had the privilege of whipping out my passport. They couldn’t do that. They had to go above and beyond with their character to prove to people that they belonged.
Above all, they missed the Middle East as much as they needed to leave it. As a child, I saw my parents searching for home everywhere: in the shelves of the “Ethnic foods” section at Walmart, YouTube playlists dedicated to Fairouz (a legendary Lebanese singer), extra TV channels such as AlJazeera where they could finally be spoken to in Arabic. It’s difficult to see your parents go through such pain.
Are they Arab? Are they American? What are we, my siblings and I? Where do we belong? Long ago, after becoming American citizens and still not completely fitting in, our parents decided that belonging to a specific place was overrated. As much as they love America and miss the Middle East, they don’t consider themselves fully “anything,” and neither do my siblings and I. My siblings and I have assimilated into aspects of the American culture while preserving many Middle Eastern traditions.
That’s a weight that many of us immigrants and children of immigrants bear, but it really isn’t all that bad. We’ve got each other; we belong to each other. Long ago, my parents fought for each other and they fought for family. They fought to create a better life for themselves as well as my siblings and I. People are so quick to call immigrants selfish; “they want to take our homes, they want to take our jobs!” My parents never tried to find another place to call home. They just wanted to find peace … and I don’t think that’s an unfair thing for them to want. It’s something we all intrinsically want, and to deny others of it, I believe, is cruel.
Sometimes I wonder what it would’ve been like, had the Palestinian-Israeli conflict never been born. Right now, would I be sitting underneath the juniper trees, letting the warm Palestinian sun shine on my face? Would I know more about my relatives, speak Arabic a little better? Would my grandparents die content rather than in anguish, missing their true home that they were forced to flee? Would they be with their loved ones too? Most of all, would I identify with one place, be able to call it my home?
Without my parents’ “migrating stories” though, they might not be the same people I know them as today. And to be honest, they’re pretty damn great. They make America great.