I’m sure that at some point in their lives, everyone faces an existential crisis and questions, very philosophically of course, their roots and achievements and reasons for being. For some, this point is not reached until middle age, at which point they realize that their lives have been for naught and that the countless goals that they had set for themselves in their youth must be achieved immediately. For others, like myself, every other day contains an existential crisis of sorts.
It’s easy to get sucked into the confusing, messy whirlwind that is our world and question one’s place in it. However, this chaos and confusion has never managed to maintain a steady grasp on me, for my roots have always kept me grounded and reminded me of who I am. My refugee grandparents, immigrant parents, and ever so loyal friends have forever instilled in me the importance of trusting in the best of others, finding strength in the easily overlooked beauty and blessings in the world, and fighting for what I believe in even in the midst of tribulation.
Such lessons have allowed me to dream of accomplishing magnificent things in my life, despite the obstacles facing me due to my Arab-American Muslim background, in order to make my faithful friends and family proud of me and to ensure that the world is a better place after I leave it than it was for my parents and grandparents. With so much to live for, I know that no existential crisis could ever overcome my confidence and faith in my aspirations of improving humanity.
I’ve been taught since I was a child that my history begins in 1948, with war and migration and refugees. 1948 was the year in which my grandparents, who lived in the beautiful, olive garden-filled land of Palestine, fled their precious homes as war invaded their lovely cities. After abandoning all of their possessions and property, my grandparents and their families desperately turned to nearby countries in search of temporary shelter and eventually settled in a refugee camp in Syria called Yarmouk.
They, along with the other inhabitants of the Yarmouk refugee camp, held on to the ostensible fantasy that the war was temporary and that they would soon return to their homes. However, when their long days of waiting turned into months that turned into years, they were forced to consider the very real possibility that the war was nowhere near over and that Syria would be their new home. So my grandparents took on arduous, demanding jobs to earn some money and raised large families in the refugee camp. From the many children that both sets of my grandparents had were my mother and father.
Although the size of their families and the other obstacles they faced challenged my mother and father, they did not dissuade them from dreaming of the attainment of success. My mother, who was the eldest of seven children, spent her childhood striving to be a strong role model for her siblings while also struggling to escape their rowdiness by studying all night when they were asleep. Her dedication to her studies enabled her not only to succeed at the top of her class but also to be admitted to medical school.
My father’s story was a little different. One of ten children, he took on jobs from a very young age to help sustain his family, who lived in poverty. His life became a juggling act of balancing his jobs and his schoolwork. But from elementary school, he had made it clear what his primary focus was: his education. Rather than play outside with his many siblings, cousins, and neighbors, he would opt to study in his room for hours at a time in an effort to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor.
The hard work paid off, for he, like my mother, graduated at the top of his class in the best high school in Damascus, Syria, and went to medical school. After proposing to my mother, my father moved to Chicago for residency. For two years, they were engaged and were finally married in Syria in 1992. The day after their wedding, my mother bade goodbye to her family and came to live in America with my father. At first, life in America was difficult for my mother and father.
Their time was monopolized by their residency, so there was no time to start a family, and they had very little money to live on. Still, they worked long and hard, moving from Chicago to New York to New Orleans and, at last, to Monroe, Louisiana, where they were finally able to settle down, raise their five children, and live their American dreams. In Monroe, my parents put all their efforts into ensuring that my siblings and I have quintessential childhoods free from the impoverishment, insecurity, and pain of their own childhoods while also receiving the best possible educations in the area.
Consequently, I spent my childhood days fearlessly roaming the streets of my well secured neighborhood with my venturesome friends, scrupulously constructing commendable mud pies with my sisters and brothers with the help of innovative tools such as cups and sticks, playing soccer and basketball in my mosque with friends, and reading wondrously magical stories that expanded the horizons of my imagination. In my spare time, I solved countless math problems in the arithmetic workbooks that my mother and father bought for me and learned to crochet dozens of scarves and hats under the guidance of my mother and visiting grandmother.
Every sight and experience in my life captured my curiosity, managing to teach me some sort of valuable lesson about the world. When I was finally old enough to attend school, my parents enrolled me in J. S. Clark Magnet School, a school they felt would provide me with an exemplary education. In my years at J. S. Clark, I learned about a diverse array of topics such as art, animals, and numbers in detail, so my parents were correct in their faith in its education.
However, after just three years, my parents pulled me and my younger sister from it following our many complaints about our lack of friends in the school. A. L. Smith (now known as Sterlington Elementary School) became my parents’ next choice of schooling for me and my sister, primarily because of its relatively close proximity to our house. And so, from second grade onward, I became a Sterlington girl, a student in a small school in a small town surrounded by a loving, tight-knit community.
In my opinion, sending me and my siblings to Sterlington was perhaps the greatest decision that my parents ever made. Sterlington, I later realized, was the missing puzzle piece from my generally content life. With it, I became utterly invincible. The summers of my childhood were always spent under the smoldering glare of the scorching, sweltering sun, either at home in Monroe or in Damascus, Syria. Of course, my most memorable summers were those spent in Syria. In my young eyes, the city of Damascus was an enchanting wonderland brimming with excitement and adventure.
Containing almost all of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, Damascus provided me with days of endless entertainment and merriment, as well as the sense of family. And to me, it appeared to exist on an entirely different universe than Monroe. In the mornings, merchants would walk through the streets with horses drawing carts of watermelons or milk jugs, offering their commodities to all, while jolly yet persistent street vendors would spend their days imploring all passers-by to purchase their wide varieties of products, whether it may be fruit, meat, or clothes.
The twisting streets of the Yarmouk refugee camp, which is where my extended family still lived, were permeated with the pungent smell of rotting meat and garbage, but a single step into almost any shop dramatically shifted the smell to that of exotically fragrant perfumes or aromatic spices. Five times a day, the adhan, which is the Muslim call for prayer, echoed through the city from the minarets of Damascus’s innumerable mosques as the electricity unreliably flickered on and off in my grandparents’ home.
This was the land in which my heart belonged; this mountain-filled city that shone brighter than the stars breathed the very essence of life into my soul and supplied me with exquisite memories to last me a lifetime. Although my summers in Syria certainly played a major role in my life, the most significant event of my childhood was the moment I made the decision to wear the hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women. An awkward, innocent child who tended to rush head first into situations, I decided to wear the hijab full-time in third grade after accidentally wearing it on a trip to Walmart.
In my childish logic, I reasoned that if I could wear it in front of a bunch of strangers at Walmart, then wearing it in school in front of people who already knew me should be no trouble at all. Fortunately, the transition was not too difficult. A few harmlessly curious questions from students and teachers were asked, but if anyone held a negative opinion about the matter, then I most likely remained oblivious and didn’t notice. After all, obliviousness was my greatest trait as a child.
Middle school, however, was a wholly different story. It was as though my power to remain oblivious to the criticism of others melted away under the intense pressure of the pandemonium that existed in the territory of wild not-children-not-adults. In the place of my obliviousness emerged a deep oversensitivity. Every curious stare or seemingly distrustful glare directed at me flooded me with self-doubt, and I began to believe that the entire world stood against me, though in reality, no one meant any harm.
I was convinced that everyone considered me to be a terrorist or some other type of suspicious character and deemed it necessary to prove myself as the kindest, most innocent person to exist in order to eliminate such ideas. The obstacles set before me were much more difficult than those set before my classmates, I believed, but they had to be overcome despite their laboriousness. Of course, these were all mental obstacles that I had deluded myself into believing; no one held such negative perceptions of me, and all that I had achieved from this self-imposed predicament was unnecessary stress and a loss of faith in humanity.
Luckily, as time passed, I realized all of this and saw that my classmates cared for the heart and mind of the person they knew underneath the layers of clothing and the hijab on my head. This realization reinstated my hope in people, empowering me to live a happier, less suspicious life once again. Apart from the mental obstacles that I had created for myself, another situation that made my middle school years painful transpired: the civil war in Syria.