I’m 8 years old and we’re in the midst of the Persian Gulf War. Between my parents fixated on the television watching the news, rushing to the bomb shelter, and bartering with neighbors, we don’t go outside much. That is until our upstairs neighbors packed up to leave. We had grown up with them. We would play house with their two little girls who were our age. They were the first in our building to leave the country, to go somewhere safer…where I don’t remember. We hugged tightly and wished each other well. I was upset they were leaving and ran back upstairs early.
That same day, I heard explosions and instead of going to the basement I peered out our apartment window. Gray planes were flying over the main road and one of them was dropping bombs. My Mom rushed over to cover my eyes but it was too late. I saw one of them go through a moving car. I can still picture the explosion vividly in my mind.
Today marks the 25th year anniversary of my family migrating to Philadelphia. With the refugee crisis in Syria, I’m filled with gratitude at the lucky cards we were dealt. Of thousands of families, two men from the American embassy came to intentionally find and collect us – all because my little brother had just been born there two months prior.
I follow the news about the refugees’ journey with newfound interest. Actively reading media publications or watching news channels isn’t in my repertoire. But this is different. I picture my family all those years ago and I can’t help but think about what would have happened…
…if my Dad didn’t go to Philadelphia two months before.
…if my Mom hadn’t joined him.
…if my Mom hadn’t been six months pregnant.
…if my grandmother had not agreed to take care of the 5 of us while they were gone.
…if they would not have stayed as long as they did.
My heart broke when I saw pictures of the 3 year old child who drowned and washed up on the beach. When I read his father’s personal story of losing his whole family. When I watched the video of a journalist tripping refugees trying to cross the Hungarian border for safety. When I see other videos of police beating them back after their long journey.
And my heart warmed when I saw the #refugeeswelcome hashtag, shots of European citizens cheering as the migrants disembark from the trains. Of humanitarians passing out food. Of countries opening up their borders.
Then there are the comments.
“They don’t belong here.”
“They’re going to take all our jobs.”
“They brought it upon themselves.”
“We should mind our own business.”
“Why are we letting terrorists into our country?”
“Round them up and send them back.”
I know it’s fear and ignorance that drives those perspectives. At the same time, I want to bring them together and explain the randomness of the birth lottery. The pure luck of the draw of being born in a particular country. And how it could have been them.
We don’t choose our parents, the culture we’re born into, the color of our skin, the religion that’s bestowed upon us, our socioeconomic class, the order in which we’re born, the education we receive…and they all have a direct impact on the opportunities and disadvantages we’ll have in life. Furthermore, we have zero influence on these when we’re most vulnerable.
I gave a TEDx Philly talk on the topic. I was apprehensive about it because I don’t like sharing stories of my past. The stare of disbelief is something I can do without. But the awareness afterwards – that’s important and it makes it worthwhile. The videos are taking a while to come out – and part of me is glad, but another part wishes it was ready so that I can share it anytime I hear or read those remarks of indifference. In the meantime, I gave a similar presentation – this one focused on empathy – at Creative Mornings Philadelphia a couple of months ago. The goal of the talk was to fill people with compassion and understanding for others who are not like them or went through different experiences. If you like it, please share it with someone who could use it.
I haven’t been back to the Middle East since we were whisked away. It’s been on my bucket list since I became a citizen 3 years ago. How am I going to celebrate the anniversary today? Besides booking a trip, I’m not sure yet.
Update: An hour after posting this, I received an acceptance email for an entrepreneurship fellowship I applied for a few months ago. It’s in Jordan. <insert goosebumps>
Update 2: It’s World Peace Day! What a crazy coincidence!
The anniversary of 9/11 is difficult for me because it’s a painful reminder of the discrimination that followed my family. I usually take a break from social media so I don’t think of the “terrorist” jeers, or the screams to “go back to your country.” It didn’t matter that my Mom volunteered to be a translator or that I attempted to enlist in the army. From the outside our skin, dark features, and last name were synonymous with the enemy.
The prejudice was heaviest at work for me. I had two jobs to support myself through college. The ordeal motivated me to be my own boss so I had control over my career, the people I surrounded myself with and the customers I interacted with. So I could treat and lead others the way I’d want to be led. I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t go back to sleep when I encountered the #afterseptember11 hashtag on Twitter. I clicked on it and I instantly became emotional reading the heartbreaking experiences other Arabs and minorities faced and continue to endure.
It’s ironic that my latest venture, ROAR for Good, officially turned one yesterday. I didn’t share it outside the company because it didn’t feel…right. Now I want to reclaim that. There’s something symbolic about how it came around. Instead of a tragic day that set actions in motions I’d rather forget, I want to remember it for what it was and the person I became.
It’s been 14 years since the 19-year-old me said “One day, I’m going to have my own business.” I never would have guessed it would have fallen on the date that turned my life upside down and inside out. Except now, it’s memorable as a new beginning.