#blessed

Amena

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By now, Thanksgiving isn’t just around the corner; it’s right across the street. So while this blog post may seem last-minute, I find it necessary nonetheless. This year, I’m thankful for a lot. I’m thankful for the fact that Trader Joe’s cookie butter is a real thing that exists. I’m thankful that the Earth, tilted on its axis, travels in a loop around the sun each year, causing the leaves to change color and the streets of my hometown to look effortlessly photogenic. But above all else, I’m thankful for community. Now, I’d like you to recognize that I failed to include an article before the last noun in the previous sentence, indicating that I could not limit my gratitude to a single group of people.

When I say community, I am not necessarily referring to a small one. Although my family of seven constitutes a community, all 2000+ students at my school are also a community; Muslims of the Triangle are a community, educated people are a community, bigots are a community (not one that I’m thankful for), etc. The first community I’d like to verbalize my thanks for is that of my peers.  When I started wearing the hijab last summer, I was terrified of the kind of feedback I’d receive, whether it came in the form of a dirty look, an offensive question, or an obvious, though never verbalized judgment. However, I was not prepared for the support, encouragement, or respect that came along with my new look. I didn’t expect my friends to overwhelm me with compliments and potential outfit ideas, I could never have predicted my Spanish teacher would develop an evident appreciation (/semi-creepy crush) for the fact that I remained confident and easily approachable despite the transition, and I certainly didn’t anticipate the fashion industry’s defiance of its typically-short trend cycle and the subsequent popularization of vibrant maxi dresses summer after summer (thanks for that, Vogue).

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The next community I’d like to recognize is made up of just two people: my parents. You probably saw this coming, and I assure you I’m not just including them because I know they’ll be the first to read this and I could use a little gas money. The respect I have for my parents is hard to articulate because it can’t be summarized by a single instance. Looking back at my childhood, I don’t remember a time when a directive was rationalized by “because I said so.” Whenever I asked why; why I needed to study for my test, why I couldn’t sleep over at my friend’s house, why I was expected to make my bed every morning when, come nighttime, I’d inevitably ruin the perfectly parallel folds in my comforter, there was always a legitimate reason. My parents lead by example. They want us to take pride in our identity, so when our four-hour car rides to the mountains are interrupted by a call to prayer, my dad wastes no time pulling up at a rest stop and leading us through a prayer equivalent to the one he’d lead were we in the comfort and privacy of our home. They don’t cut corners, and they expect the same from us. They encourage curiosity; we’re always welcome to ask why. I’m thankful for their wisdom, their dedication, their discipline, their patience, and their consistency. That’s not the most romantic term, consistency, but I appreciate that if I am to ask myself “what would mom and dad do?” I always know the answer.

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The last community I believe deserves a shoutout is the aforementioned “Muslims of the Triangle.” I couldn’t be more proud to share a faith with people of such unwavering humility, grace, and resilience. It seems like every time I log on to Facebook (which is more often than I’d like to admit) I’ve been invited to yet another food drive supporting Syrian refugees, another fundraiser looking to raise money for the expansion of a local Mosque, another Saturday spent feeding the homeless of downtown Raleigh. Last February, when three integral community members were shot and killed in Chapel Hill, I saw a call to action that, over nine months later, has yet to die down. I’m blessed to live among the kind of people who respond to violence and brutality with kindness and compassion, role models who define the true meaning of Islam through everything they do.

I’m thankful for a lot more than the few things I’ve described, but I’m already well over my self-imposed 700 word limit. I believe it’s important to reflect on the things I value, and the cliché, “go around the table and say three things you’re thankful for” tradition just doesn’t seem like it’ll cut it this year.

Shereen

It is much easier to identify and feel thankful for the blessings that appear prominently in our lives than it is to shuffle through pain and darkness in search of the gifts that are hidden within their folds.  Late October of 2003 was the start of a difficult experience that has evoked in me a deep and lasting sense of gratitude.

I am thankful for a physician friend who went out of his way to get me an after-hours appointment, just to save me weeks of anxious waiting for consultation.  I am also grateful for the renowned surgeon who approached me at 5:00 o’clock with an energy level and an attitude that her first patient would receive at the start of the day.

She patiently listened as I told her how scared I was, and even teared up when I said that I was not ready to leave my five children (ages 5-16 at the time).  I remember how she held my hand while explaining the difference between cell grades and cancer stages, and how she referred to the recommended treatment plan as something that she would choose for herself.

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My doctor was humble enough to tell me that medical treatments would only give me half of what I needed, and that the other half relied on my state of mind, resilience, and personal willpower.  She always talked about how “we” will defeat this “thing” together.

My surgeon told me about the preliminary tissue analysis that would take place while I was still on the operating table, and she managed to put a smile on my face when she asked that I remain under anesthesia even while the surgical team cheered loudly for the good pathology results that she hoped for.

I was excited that my surgery date was moved from late in December to early in the month.  That meant much less time for me to anxiously wait, and for the grade 3 in situ cells to mutate and/or spread.  I was later amazed to know that my doctor had canceled a personal vacation to be able to perform three surgeries that she believed were urgent.

My surgeon took the time to stop by the holding room before surgery to check on me and lift my spirits.  I will always remember the feel of her palm on my forehead, and the amazing relief that I felt as we each prayed silently.

Dr. Rosa Cuenca put my mind at ease, helped charge my energies, and filled my heart with hope.

I will always feel indebted to a radiology oncologist, Dr. Hyder Arastu, who modeled humility and care as he explained treatment and expectations.  So many unnamed health professionals cross my memory and evoke a deep sense of appreciation for their encouraging remarks, cheerful attitudes, lovely smiles, and well wishes.

I will forever be grateful for my husband who attended every doctor’s visit, and told me that I looked prettier without hair.  He held my hand, helped me eat, and even carried me when I was too weak to walk.

I am thankful for my friend who came to my house after her 12-hour shift so that she would answer my phone, greet my guests, file my mail, and make sure that the house ran to my liking.

I feel fortunate to have a friend who would leave her twin toddlers with a babysitter to spend the day with me, holding my hand or watching me as I slept.  Another friend came over day after day so I would not be alone, filling my time with quality conversations, sweet memories, and positive thoughts.

Some of the most valuable advice came from a beloved wise friend who suggested that I think of sunrays as I watch the chemotherapy drip.  Imagine that each drop represented a beam of cure that expelled the disease from my body and cleared the way for total remission.

I will always remember looking forward to Friday mornings when two best friends came over for a breakfast date that extended until lunch time.  They did a great job keeping me good company and making the day so pleasant.  They made sure that I later enjoyed a special treat of pumpkin soup that was prepared earlier with a lot of love.

How can I not feel blessed when my child’s teacher offers to cook for me or at least take the boys with him to the ball games occasionally.  What a great gift to run out of space in the fridge because people cook so much, or to miss my children because they spend most of their free time in the company of loving and caring people.

As I went through treatment, I wondered if I would attend the high school graduation of my oldest child, which was expected a year later.  I also wondered how many more times I would get to hold my baby’s hand as we walked together.

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My heart is overjoyed and filled with gratitude for having attended four high school graduations so far, and looking forward to the one coming up next June.  I am also grateful for holding hands with my baby (17-years-old now).  She may sometimes think that it is awkward or strange, but she also knows how much it means to me.

 

Not me, Not Islam

Amena

Deah Yuosor Razan

“Humanity is but a single brotherhood: So make peace with your brethren.” (Quran 49:10) This quote is rarely appreciated or sufficiently acknowledged, and I find it far more accurate than many of the generalizations made by mainstream media outlets in this day and age. I believe it deserves to be recognized, especially at a time like this, when extremists who have abandoned the message and value of my faith choose to carry out senseless crimes against humanity and expect me and those of the same mindset as myself to sit back and watch. Last night’s attacks on Paris were terrorist attacks, but ones I should not feel the need to compensate for, defend, or explain. I am as appalled and disheartened by the tragedy as anyone else, and I remain a proud Muslim.

Terrorism has no religion. This reality has been proven countless times throughout the course of world history, yet when Charleston Shooter Dylan Roof was identified as a devout Christian, I saw no hateful messages targeting his faith. I saw none of my Christian peers get dirty looks or receive negative comments. Most notably, I did not see Christians nationwide feel the need to defend themselves or denounce him as an outsider. It was implied. People assumed that he was what he was, a terrorist who does not stand to represent Christianity as a whole. Why is it that Muslims are not granted the luxury of respect and common courtesy when we are placed in the exact same position?

Earlier this year, when three young, prominent Muslim community members were brutally murdered in Chapel Hill, I remember writing my thoughts down much like I am doing now. I wrote, “I commend them for being the subject of one of the few media-related instances that puts forth a pleasant, gracious, humanitarian name to the Muslim faith rather than the exact opposite, which happens entirely too often.” Today, however, I feel frustration when referring back to my previous entry. I am frustrated knowing that, despite the tragedy that hit so close to home for Muslims worldwide, a tragedy that many of us are still recovering from, Muslims are regressing to the same societal position we held prior to the Chapel Hill Shooting.

I question the effectiveness of some of the measures being taken to promote the reality that actions of the Paris attackers are in no way defended or rationalized by Islam. For example, #MuslimsAreNotTerrorists is a hashtag that is currently trending on Twitter, in hopes of defying the false stereotypes believed by many. While I understand and appreciate the idea behind the hashtag, part of me finds it, quite frankly, a bit insulting. The fact that Islam promotes peace, togetherness, and tolerance is a basic foundation of the faith. The hashtag reminds Muslims that, despite our consistent efforts to put forth a positive name to Islam, we must still defend and rationalize it to people who so clearly are unwilling to change their inaccurate and often ignorant perceptions.

When I see my peers tweet ideas like “Don’t allow terrorism to shape the way you view a religion or culture. Terrorism has no religion”, I recognize that as a society, we are taking steps forward in terms of tolerance and acceptance. However, I should not have to feel satisfied and grateful for this reminder, because the same words are rarely documented in situations like that of the Charleston Massacre, when the perpetrators are not allegedly Muslim. Today marks the first of three days of national mourning declared by French President Francois Hollande, and while my prayers go out to the victims of this tragic attack, they are also with the 1.6 billion Muslims who are to be blamed for it.

Shereen

Kaaba

Criminal acts are committed daily, everywhere, and on every scale.  Checking the news in the morning has become a burden as it typically marks the day with sadness and worry.  Various aggressors and scores of victims, but my urge to speak up is more pressing in some situations than others, and I wonder why.

Drone attacks, ethnic cleansing, border blockades, random shootings, suicide bombs, arbitrary arrests, systemic torture, and false imprisonment; all destroy innocent lives, disrupt promising futures, breed anger and entice hate.  My puzzled mind and heavy heart fail to make sense of compound evil and find it easier to reject aggression altogether: twisted thoughts, vile speech, despicable actions, and ignorant dispositions, until someone shouts, “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest).

As a proud practicing Muslim living in the West, it hits me hard when news reports claim that assailants carried out their attacks “in the name of Islam.”  I feel compelled to clear the name of a beautiful religion and explain an inspiring phrase.  When understood within context and away from cherry picking or cutting-and-pasting, the message of Islam is one of love and peace.  It values human life without limitations and teaches respect for people and property.  The Qur’an says “whoever kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity.” 5:32. The Prophet of Islam instructed on most everything, even the etiquette of disagreement and conflict resolution, “May God bestow His mercy on a person who shows grace in everything even in conflict.”

It is true that God is the greatest, His grace is greater than painful suffering, His love is greater than prevalent injustice, and His compassion is greater than devastating oppression.  As a Muslim, my faith in a great God overrides my inner fears, my doubts and hesitations, and also my weaknesses and frustrations.  When overwhelmed by tyranny, injustice, and oppression, I turn to the Quran and the practices of Prophet Mohammad. This always provides me with guidance on how to remain positive and productive and I always find a way.

That’s why I find nothing in my faith and religious practice that I should apologize for.  I do not apologize for lies that people choose to believe, half-truths that become popular, senseless acts that I do not commit or condone, and I definitely won’t apologize for believing in the equal humanity of all human beings.  This all seems to make sense as long as trouble is at a distance and reactions are politically correct, but when tragedy is close to home we seem to forget.

We forget that all lives are the same and no one life is worth more than another.  In addition to the valuable lives lost in Paris, there have been millions of lives claimed to blind aggression on markets in Iraq, villages in Afghanistan, hospitals and schools in Gaza, and fleeing Muslims in Myanmar, just to name a few.  We forget that hypocrisy and double standards leave their victims desperate, which can’t lead to a good place.  When people lose everything and have nothing to live for, everything becomes at risk even their faith, and life and death become the same as they are consumed by revenge.  We forget that anger and ignorance can easily combine into a deadly concoction, and that hate is a blind beast and harms indiscriminately.  I think of my son who is studying abroad in Europe and realize that he could have fallen victim to the criminals in Paris the same way his uncle and cousin suffer imprisonment under the current tyranny in Egypt, and I stay reminded.

I stay reminded to stand in solidarity for justice everywhere and send my prayers to all innocent victims in cities that are not “important” enough to be trending worldwide.  I stay reminded that justice and human decency are our main assets.  I stay reminded that life is short and that what we leave behind is much more than what we take with us at the end of the journey.  I stay reminded that there is only one Islam that is comprehensive and unique, while there are various people who claim it to be their own.  People may choose to be radical or progressive, while Islam remains true to its stable foundation and steady principles.  I stay reminded to rejoice in the beauty of my faith and always be proud of who I am and what I do.

The Well-Rounded Personality

Amena

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High school is stressful not just because of the heavy course load and the sudden responsibility, but for how many things students are expected to balance at once. There’s the academic factor (duh) but there is also volunteer work, clubs, sports, social life, family, and not to mention standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT. My school is ranked top in the county, but this statistic did not come easily for students. Grade inflation, test anxiety, and cheating are few of the numerous measures students have come to rely on in attaining desired grades. However, these wouldn’t be necessary without the main stressor, parental pressure.

I’ve observed that parents who moved here from another country are far more pressuring than those who have lived in the US their entire lives. I think this is because often times, parents move to America in hopes of fulfilling a dream of success. These parents push their children to ensure that their sacrifices were not made in vain, not realizing that academics are not the only key to a positive and impactful future. Social skills that are compromised when students spend nearly all of their free time studying often lead to a deceiving perception of success. Parents are proud to see their kids getting into exclusive schools, not realizing that fulfilling one dream led to the loss of crucial skills that will allow their children to enjoy themselves at Stanford or Columbia.

Last year, I got a job at a local tutoring center for elementary school kids, and it was quite the eye-opening experience. To begin with, almost every student was from Southeast Asia. Most of them complained with every visit, and their repetitive “is my session almost over” questions assured me that they were primarily pressured by their parents. Although I think it’s a great idea to assist kids in receiving help when they’re struggling in school, my job prompted me to question why parents put so much pressure on their children to get ahead and outdo everyone around them when it really isn’t necessary. In the long run, it’ll be these kids that stand out among their peers, but on the downside, their success is what makes the college application process so competitive. Last year, the valedictorian of my high school finished her career with 17 Advanced Placement courses. While I am impressed by her work ethic and intelligence, I also realize that this is an unrealistic standard to expect from someone who is taking the time to embrace every aspect of high school, including the social and athletic factors.  At what point do students and their parents realize they are compromising the high school experience for the sake of their resumes?

Looking at many of my peers and the way they view school has made me especially grateful for the way my parents taught me to balance such a full schedule. While they understood that getting a few B’s was a reasonable side effect to engaging in daily exercise and spending time with friends on the weekends, they never let our social situation get out of hand. Our curfew is strictly 11 o’clock, we’re encouraged to put our phones away while we’re doing homework, and they’ve come to realize that not a lot of studying happens on a study date. However, they don’t pressure us about our grades as long as they think we’re doing the best we can. For example, last year I took AP Calculus and just didn’t get it. None of the concepts came easily to me and my grades consistently backed that up. When my mom noticed that I was overwhelmed and unsatisfied by how poorly I was doing, she encouraged me to look at the class as a test in resilience and stress management rather than to worry about how a C will affect my GPA. When I ended the semester with a C in the class, I didn’t feel as though I’d disappointed anyone and I was able to accept that although I’d done my best, Calculus just wasn’t my thing.

Considering this situation from an alternate perspective, I feel like some immigrant parents would have handled it differently. There were four sophomores in my AP Calc class when, according to the normal course pace, sophomores should have been two classes behind. I don’t think it is any coincidence each of these sophomores came from either an Indian or a Pakistani background. The sophomore who sat next to me always did considerably better than me on tests and quizzes, placing in the low 90’s at least, but she never seemed satisfied. She instead wondered aloud how her mom would react, and how disappointed she would be to find out that her child earned a B in Calculus instead of the expected A.

By putting so much pressure on their kids to do outdo everyone academically, some immigrant parents are beating the purpose of high school. I can’t imagine the constant stress I would have been under knowing that my mom was mad at me for getting a C. Furthermore, had I spent all my free time studying for Calc instead of running Cross Country and volunteering regularly with National Honor Society, I would have probably earned a higher grade. In my eyes, it’s more about embracing the full package than putting too much attention on one aspect of the high school experience.

Shereen

boston  family

Little faces, big smiles, and curious eyes are all directed towards the parent as a child innocently asks the typical question, “What do you want me to be when I grow up?”  Seeking a well-supported answer, the parent’s mind immediately rushes through academic interests, hobbies, skills, and favorite activities.  Engineering is usually recommended for a child who excels in math while Medicine seems suitable for those who do well in science classes, and Law School is the typical answer for the argumentative little ones.  Lucrative professions are always given priority as parents also want to see their children live comfortably.

You were probably eight when you first asked me this question.  Your ability to clearly express yourself and easily connect with others prompted me to talk about public relations and jobs that utilize social and people skills.  Over the next ten years, our discussions about course selection, college applications, and choice of major have all steered me in a different direction.  At the present time, the important question that I think needs to be answered is, “Who do I want you to become?”

I would like you to always be clear with yourself and with those around you about the things that you value and the principles you stand for.  That is why I am a strong proponent of books, talks, panels, movie screenings, and trips near and far.  I believe that the more exposure you have to the world around you, the easier it is to identify your own ethical code and uphold it in meaningful ways wherever you are.

I would like you to always have great ambition and big dreams that fill your heart with hope and thrust you forward.  That is why I keep track of your personal running records, encourage your varied involvements with school organizations and clubs, and support your summer activities in every way that I can.  Just make sure that you pursue attainable goals and realistic plans to avoid getting stuck in the dreamer phase or disappointed by inevitable limitations.

Broadmindedness is a great complement to these points as life situations and circumstances vary, and your personal moral compass will eventually become necessary in evaluating the wide grey area that exists between the two small margins of black and white.  Define success according to your own values, not what is common or popular, and always be flexible to accommodate twists and turns as you pursue your dreams.  I hope you enjoy the journey as it lasts much longer than the brief moment of victory at the end.

I would like you to always place high value on your time and energy, take every minute as a slice of life and every ounce of energy as a valuable gift.  I enjoy watching you plan your days, apply for jobs, pursue hobbies, and select leisurely activities.  It is not about serious or fun, it is about purpose and substance.  Self-worth is something that no one can give you, and once you are in the habit of making your time and effort count, it becomes about the quality of life rather than just passing the time.

I would like you to always be mindful of your responsibilities, school is a major part now along with work, family, friends, and community.  The future does not change the components much, but it definitely changes the proportion of required attention and the type of duties involved.  Your serious commitment and work ethic will remain central to a productive lifestyle and I am always happy to see you plan ahead, develop to-do lists, set priorities, and play an active role in school and community events.

Regular assessment of strengths and weaknesses lead to self-awareness and will allow you to capitalize on what you like and what you are good at while correcting and marginalizing flaws.  This will guide your involvements and contributions and put your time and energy to best use as you represent yourself and serve your community through deep interest and strong capability.

I would like you to always have an active social life that is rich with close friends and healthy relationships.  Diversity is a beautiful reality and I maintain that our family has always been blessed with amazing friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  I would love for you to have as much of a meaningful presence in the lives of your friends as they do in ours.  That is why I always encourage you to attend games, go to camp, engage in conversations and seek quality times.

I would like you to always keep your heart alive and your spirit uplifted.  Working with the disadvantaged yields empathy and a sensitive loving heart.  Spiritual practices and deep thought keep the soul nurtured and elevated.  I would like you to examine the true meaning and the symbolism behind religious practices so that you enjoy the inner peace and the gracious interactions that they invoke.  Interfaith events provide safe spaces for finding commonalities and understanding differences, which leads to understanding and respect, thus, bringing people closer.

There are numerous academic prospects and career possibilities out there, and you are the one who will give meaning to any of them.  When I say that I want you to have it all, nothing materialistic comes to mind because what I want for you relates mainly to the mind, the heart, the soul, the character and human assets.

The 72%

Amena

America 2

I’ve lived in North Carolina for 16 of my 17 years of life, and I’ve enjoyed nearly every minute of it. I am blessed to live so close to the beautiful Bond Park where I enjoy my daily runs.  My head cover speaks to the fact that I am a practicing Muslim, but it never prevented neighbors walking and running the trails from complimenting my dedication and cheering me on.  I can’t remember the last time I smiled at someone without immediate reciprocation, and I love it when they ask where I was if I miss a couple of days.  I took the warmth and sense of community for granted until just a few days ago. When I came across opinion polls reporting that 72% of North Carolina conservatives agreed with Dr. Ben Carson that a Muslim should not be allowed to be president and that 40% of them thought that Islam should be illegal, I thought for sure I was reading The Onion.

I was raised to project respect and kindness towards everyone, with the belief that such an attitude propels a positive cycle of healthy relationships and productive communities.  In my household, we are proud to be Muslims and we are also proud to be good neighbors and active citizens.  We reach out to classmates and coworkers and take pleasure in volunteering at outreach centers, homeless shelters, the neighborhood YMCA, and with area schools and churches.  I have been brought up to live by the Islamic ideals, which lead me to uphold the law, value human rights, and pursue social justice. Qualities like these that allow me to proactively embrace my identity, and put forth a positive name for my faith, but clearly this is not enough for some.

I believe that statistics like the one referenced above are a reality not because of their rationality, but because of the lack of exposure to Muslims that many North Carolinians have. After hearing a faith tradition get repeatedly bashed by mainstream media, one can only expect listeners to start taking these unjustified insults seriously. However, it’s surprising to note how apparently few listeners rely on their own research and experience and so willingly accept and defend insults directed at Muslims and at people with different backgrounds entirely. Two nights ago at a school football game, I overheard one of my peers talking about how an Indian family didn’t tip her while she was waitressing, and how she couldn’t wait for Donald Trump to take office and “deport them back home.” In defense of the Indian family, I wouldn’t have tipped such a clearly hateful and intolerant waitress either, no matter how good my wings were.

As Muslims, I believe that it is our duty to dispel negative expectations and stereotypes such as those referenced above, and I think the best way to do so is through first-hand communication. It’s a lot easier to hate someone you’ve never met than it is to hate someone who projects compassion and positive energy through their every interaction. Although it’s difficult to come across as pleasant and inviting to people who have already made up their minds about Muslims, it’s important to step up and break the cycle of distrust and misunderstanding. This will take persistence, and patience, as well as maturity and self-restraint from returning such destructive negativity. But as Muslims, I think we’re up to the challenge.

Shereen

America 1

In the fall of 1999, my next door neighbor asked me how I felt about my new place after having moved from Illinois to North Carolina two months earlier.  I told Mrs. Tice that I loved it here as the weather closely resembled that of Egypt at this time of year, while the smiling faces and caring gestures reminded me of home where I was always among family and friends.  Things did not change much over the next sixteen years; my appearance with the Muslim attire never got in the way of cheerful interactions, and my Egyptian accent did not get in the way of making friends and engaging my community.  Several universities trusted my husband and me with student education while school districts and sports teams relied on us as involved parents and active volunteers.  We answered more questions about Islam than I can count, and have participated in interfaith events and service activities with numerous churches and groups.  It comes as a great surprise to learn that a recent poll found that 72 % of Republican primary voters in North Carolina believed that a Muslim could not be president, and that 40 % of this group was also as likely to say that Islam should be illegal.  Either things have changed too much too fast, or I have been really lucky to have been mainly surrounded by members of the 28 % who invoke reason and reject ignorance and bigotry.

It is amazing how being a Muslim would not get in the way of being a cardiologist managing critical healthcare, a college professor guiding the intellectual development of a generation, an activist defending the disenfranchised of all backgrounds, but it may have a negative effect on presidential candidacy.  I wonder how such generalization could be validated and how people who think this way address the questions and concerns that their opinion raises.  Should there be any consideration for a Muslim candidate’s academic background?  History of civic engagement and coalition building?  Experience with the political process?  Voting record and views on the issues?  Are the 72% willing to risk losing a well-equipped leader who is dedicated to honor and serve his country and base their decision on the presidential candidate’s faith tradition?  If that is the case, I wonder which Islamic tenets cause this apprehension, and which credible sources revealed the risk to them.  I also ask what happened to the separation of church and state, and whether neutrality towards religion stops at Islam. What makes a Muslim presidential candidate any less American than a Presbyterian real estate tycoon who collects bibles and pledges to be the greatest representative of Christians if elected, or a Seventh Day Adventist neurosurgeon who attributes his success to faith and determination and proudly shares his favorite Bible verse?

The image of America that the 72% envision is not clear to me, but I am perfectly clear about the America that the rest of us know and want to maintain.  Our America continues to be a pluralistic society that accepts all; it is a place where individuals are valued on the merit of their contributions to society.  In our America, political campaigns do not cause seasonal changes to guiding principles; it is a place where reason prevails to substantiate opinions and inform decisions.  In our America, individuals do not denounce faith traditions that are different from their own, and we do not ask others to deny parts of their religious doctrine, redraft their religious text, or reject a portion of their guiding principles.  In our America, members of the electorate ensure credibility and accuracy of any information that they receive, and are not fooled by politically-motivated comments and flashy media tactics.  We reserve our right to check out sources and question wild claims, and we are constantly reminded how religious affiliation and personal integrity are not mutually exclusive, and that applies across the board.

Personal Identity

Family 2

Amena

Growing up in a household of six fellow Egyptian Americans, we understood that our lives never blended evenly with peers and friends. Our traditions, appearance, and social behavior were sometimes distinctly different from those around us. Many immigrant parents have reservations about their children getting too close to people of differing faith backgrounds and cultures. My parents did the exact opposite, encouraging us to embrace our community in a positive and healthy manner. They explained how the real world wasn’t an organized event with a guest list that is tailored to our private cultural specifications, and that we would meet people of various faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds throughout our lives who could be just as integral and impactful society members as those we appeared most similar to. I took this wisdom to heart and did my best to embrace my heritage within my present reality.

When asked where I’m from, I instinctively say that I was born in Illinois. “No, but where are you REALLY from,” is an almost guaranteed follow-up question, which I find intriguing. If my friend Sara said that she was born in North Carolina, would anyone think to ask her where she’s REALLY from? Doubtfully so. I wonder what is it that makes me any less American than my friends with lighter skin tones. I was born and raised here, I enjoy attending baseball games, I have the pledge of allegiance memorized by heart, and I know the words to almost every song on the radio. The fact that my parents emigrated from Egypt adds another layer to who I am; not only am I American, but I am Egyptian American. This does not decrease the legitimacy of the American half of my identity, and although both sides of this identity describe me, American does come first.

What sets me apart from my parents in terms of personal identity is the level of emotional attachment to Egypt. My relationship with the homeland is at a close-to-surface level; planned, touristy trips to the Pyramids or the beach and organized family dinners where I’m asked questions like “how are you,” with an expected simple “I’m fine.” I don’t have childhood memories of me in Egypt celebrating a holiday, playing a sport, or riding the bus around Cairo on the way to school. I can’t easily connect with random passersby because a smile may be misunderstood as a flirtatious gesture and a driving error may result in a curse or an angry look. My broken colloquial Egyptian doesn’t help either. While I feel sad to learn of the struggles of Egyptians, I don’t experience the emotional upheaval that my parents go through upon watching the news. My love for my relatives in Egypt fills my heart, and enriches the life that I am living and the future that I am pursuing here in America.

Being an American Egyptian has challenges, but often rewarding ones at that. It is quite amusing to see the surprised look when people see me wearing a monogrammed sweatshirt or eating a burrito, instead of whatever Egyptians are expected to eat (cats?). I encountered many people who thought that Egypt is a vast desert with nomads wearing togas and riding around on camels. The funniest questions I was ever asked were whether my family lives in pyramids and if there were calculators in Egypt. Many people are taken aback to learn that Cairo is much like New York City, with crowded, chaotic streets and billboards on the side of every highway.

I think inaccurate perceptions of an Egyptian American lifestyle are perpetuated by Egyptians and Americans alike when they don’t actively reach out and try to discuss their differences. Blurred lines constitute a major hardship in the lives of many immigrants who aren’t sure where one identity ends and another begins. They either end up abandoning their heritage entirely while trying too hard to fit in, or going to the opposite extreme of holding on too tightly to their culture of origin with little effort to integrate into their new societies. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to the underlying tension when my teachers or my friends’ parents meet my own. The different appearance and skin tone seem to invoke strange assumptions about their language proficiency and cultural familiarity. People start to talk unnaturally slowly and rely heavily on body language. Such situations speak to limited knowledge and lack of awareness as a dark skin color and Islamic traditional head cover do not necessarily mean un-American.

I recently read the expression, “happiness is a decision,” and that led me to tirelessly explain where I come from and take random questions and strange looks as curiosity, lack of knowledge, or limited understanding rather than rudeness or insensitivity. I consider it my personal responsibility to always be approachable and relatable while I introduce the normality of an Egyptian background to those around me and break inaccurate stereotypes or labels. In my experience, the best way to combat this awkwardness is to get to know people better by inviting them over for dinner, making sure to bake them baklava at Christmas, and helping them understand that although my family migrated from another continent, we still fight our parents over curfew, we’re still picky eaters, and our household rules are not so different from those of our friends.

Balancing one’s heritage with the American identity of the present requires confidence and grace; the confidence to explain the value of what others may find weird or intimidating, and the grace to dismiss misunderstandings and laugh at unintentional mistakes. In the future, I hope to take my kids back to Egypt often. Maybe we’ll do touristy trips but I also plan on maintaining strong relationships with my family overseas so that my own children have an additional element of cultural awareness. I hope that when my kids introduce me to their friends’ parents, it will be assumed that I’m simply someone whose identity does not end at U.S. borders.

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Shereen

My family is from Bangladesh. My mother is Moroccan. My father is Lebanese. All are familiar responses that I have heard over the years from first-generation American children of immigrant parents as they respond to questions about where they are from. Such statements are always spontaneous and truthful. At the same time, this type of response causes many parents to get uncomfortable and sometimes feel alarmed about their children’s sense of identity or connection to their motherland. To me, it makes perfect sense to hear you say, “My parents are from Egypt, “or “I am from North Carolina.” In fact, I think that your answers indicate a unique sense of individuality.

My Egyptian origin and upbringing, followed by a journey of transformation into an Egyptian American, all mean a lot to me as they entailed the unique experiences that shaped who I am today. I am deeply grateful for that process, every small event, as well as each passing individual and the way they impacted my character and views. As a loving parent, I do not want any less for you. I do not wish to mold your personality a certain way or steer it through some magical flawless direction, nor do I want for my background or personal experiences to overshadow the development of your personal identity and sense of belonging. I see what I have to offer you as a necessary but small part of the backdrop as you explore your feelings, navigate your way, sort through your experiences, and make your own meaning of what comes your way.

Being at the intersection of two cultures is a unique experience that has many advantages and carries a lot of potential. At the same time, it is important that we know where you come from so that it is easier to decide where we are headed, and I hope that you feel clear and comfortable with who you are wherever life takes you. Your Egyptian heritage presents you with rooted traditions and a lot to live up to. Both of your grandmothers were wives and mothers who also led the way towards advanced education and successful careers. Your grandfathers were progressive thinkers, had strong ambitions, lived by integrity and selflessness, and demonstrated great respect and appreciation for women and their rights. Parallel to that, your Islamic heritage provides a framework to live within, a comprehensive structure of principles, a wealth of meaningful relationships, and a promised yield of emotional security. A deeper understanding of Islam gives purpose to all that we do and emphasizes the manner and the quality in which we do it. I hope that these treasures mark your path with clarity, confidence, consistency, and serenity.

I look forward to seeing how your heritage serves as a strong foundation as you navigate your life in America and beyond, define who you are, and decide who you want to become. I am deeply grateful for the quality of your educational experiences and the range of opportunities that they allowed. I am thankful for your early experiences with community service and employment. I am constantly reminded that the amount of family time that we were able to have in America would not have come by that easily within a comparable lifestyle in Egypt. I am also excited for the prospects that our move brings your way as you live in a society that allows for considerable personal freedom within a premise of law and order. Instead of either/or, I see the situation as both/and, with hopes that you enjoy and cherish your American-Egyptian identity as much as I do my Egyptian-American one.

Identity is supposed to provide sameness and continuity in personality over time and under varied conditions, and that is exactly what I want for you. As you build your character, I hope that your ancestry and tradition provide framework and stability while the present offers opportunity and adventure. I want you to plant your feet where you feel most comfortable. As I watch you grow and mature, I aim to help you develop your own sense of self by highlighting strengths and identifying weaknesses and how to deal with them. I hope to understand the way you think and get a glimpse of your dreams. I wish to share the excitement as you identify possibilities and pursue your plans. While I will always be there for you, I urge you to trust your feelings, follow your inner wisdom, talk freely and ask questions.

So where do we really belong? To me, it does not really matter where you reside permanently or visit occasionally. I believe that the meaning of what we say and the message we deliver are far more important than the language of communication. The interest and ability to connect with those around us outweighs sharing their ethnic origin or family name. A sense of belonging enriches our lives and gives us cause and purpose, therefore, the significance of our lives directly relates to what we do regardless of where we are. At the risk of sounding cliché, I share with you how I see myself. I am a citizen of planet Earth who belongs to the human race and identifies with just causes that bring harmony through empathy and compassion. And my last thought on this is that you should live where you love and love where you live.