Growing up Muslim in America.
What “Go Back to your country” means to me.
Last week began with racists slurry tweets, Nuremberg-style rally chants, superficial denunciations of racisms by the political left, and ended with the President of the United States defending those chants. For most of us who grew up in the United States but were born elsewhere the “go back to your country” trope is not a shock. We were told to go back to your country in front of adult parents, school teachers, and other students. It was not a big deal to them and in a way it wasn’t to us either.
When young children migrate to this country they go through an identity crisis throughout most of their adolescent and teen years and can have profound effects on them for their entire lives. I want to write about my experience growing up as a Muslim Afghan-American in these United States of America.
Coming to America.
As a child I was very astute and to a great degree aware of what was going on around me. At about age six or seven, my brothers and I learned that we would be moving to the United States, or simply America. There was not much that we knew about America, except it that it was a place of abundance and opportunity. And for some reason I was convinced roads were made of glass here. At the time my brothers and I, along with our parents, lived in a small refugee community on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our schools were made out of tents and we walked sometimes barefoot to school many miles away. Electricity was scarce and there was one tv in the entire community that we would gather and watch for an hour or so. Interestingly, the WWF broadcast was something we looked forward to every weekend. It would come on at late at night and there was always a good chance that the electricity would go out just a few minutes after the program started. It usually did, but we loved Hulkamania. While our childhood was hard by any western standard of living, most of us kids in the camp played cricket and soccer and tried to be kids. I will not go into the details of the hardships of living in a camp because I hope everyone knows that refugee camps are no picnics.
We were informed that our refugee application had been approved and we were scheduled to depart to the United States in early 1990. Saddam’s incursion in Kuwait and the subsequent first Gulf War put those plans in jeopardy. Our departure was postponed indefinitely and between 1990 and 1992 my family lived with constant anxiety. We had sold everything and spent every penny (rupi) on applications, trips to Islamabad, and everything in between. Our anxieties were relieved and January 28th,1992 we were on our way to the land of dreams and opportunity, we were going to America.
By many accounts our journey to the States was relatively safe and comfortable. We faced many of the same hurdles that migrants from Latin America face today on our journey from Afghanistan to Pakistan, but I cannot fathom the hardships faced by migrant families trying to get here from Latin America. The point is that families just do not leave a comfortable life in their home country to go to another country, when they know they will not be welcomed by all and even painted as infiltrators or invaders by other. We come here because it is the last hope for a better life for our loved ones. I remember that day on January 28th in 1992. We were not just leaving a piece of land, we were leaving our heritage, our families and our identities. I remember my mother clutching my uncle because she knew it would be a long time, if ever, they will see each other again.
Adolescent and teen years.
One aspect of migration and relocation that almost everyone ignores is the impact that migration has on children and young adults. We struggle with identity crisis and often feel like we are not welcomed and are at odds with our own identities. I come from a fairly strict household. I constantly found myself trying to fit in and be “more American” at school and be the perfect Afghan or Muslim at home. Speak to any of your immigrant friends from the Middle East or Asia and you will hear the same stories. We had to sneak out to hang out with friends and would lie about just about everything to experience being a kid in America. You see most of us were dying to be “more American.”
On the other hand when we would be out in the playgrounds we were told to “go back to your country” on a nearly daily basis. We would be looked at as foreigners and parents would feel uncomfortable allowing their children to play with us. Maybe it was because we were dressed different than them or at the time spoke a different language or maybe they truly were afraid. Ironically those instances did not bother me back then as much as they do now. Back then at home we were told we were here to get an education and make a life of ourselves and outside were looked at as foreigners.
Being a Muslim after 9–11.
As I entered High School and had a little more sense of who I was and where I fit. My parents had opened up a little (assimilation is unavoidable) and I had more freedom. I ran cross country and wrestled in the eighth grade. We had freedoms and I was coming to terms with my dual cultural identity and felt that both can coexist at the same time. Then 9/11 happened. I was driving with my brothers in a cramped 1996 Blue Chevy Camaro T-Top when the DJ on KSFM 102.5 announced that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center. Like most, I thought it was strange but maybe it was an accident or maybe a small private jet crash landed. Then another plane hit, and then another plane hit the pentagon, then Pennsylvania, and the worry began to sit in. This was a terrorist attack.
I remember praying to myself, please do not let it be a Muslim who did this. A prayer I would say to myself everytime a mass shooting or terrorist incident happened for the next two decades. Once it was determined that Al-Qaeda was responsible and that the attacks emanated from Afghanistan, that sick feeling came back to my stomach. Will I have to choose again between my Afghan Muslim identity or my American identity. I was torn. I could not fathom how someone can murder thousands of innocent people and commit those heinous acts in the name of my religion and from my birth country.
My family and I were lucky. We saw minimal physical violence in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But for the next 18 years as Muslims we had to apologize for the actions of others. I Constantly watched as virtually every politician, news broadcasters, pundits and hollywood movies portray Muslims as violent people, hell bent on destroying the democratic order in the world. Everytime the word “Islam” or “Muslim” was mentioned in any headline, it was preceded by words like “radical” “extremists” “fanatical” and everyone’s favorite “Islamic terrorist.” No one ever prefaced headlines of Dylan Roof as “Christian fundamentalist” or “radical.” For almost two decades the media conditioned the general public to believe that there is something inherently violent about the religion. The chants “go back to your country” crept up again but a bit more elusive this time. We were adults then and crazy for an adult to tell someone to “go back to your country.”
Trump’s “Go back to your home” and the chants that followed.
As I watched this last week unfold I observed a few interesting trends. One of the trend is that the media paints what happened last week as a week of racism by the right. Although I agree, there was a racial component to events, I argue it was largely an anti-Islamic campaign to attack the one Congresswoman that not only does not look like them but one who is wearing a visible piece of Islam. If you followed the entire week, you will see that it became about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and not so much about the rest of the so called “Squad.” The crowd was not chanting “send them back” they were chanting “send her back.”
The president invokes Al-Qaeda and September 11, to paint the Congresswoman with the same brush that the media painted every Muslim with after 9/11. He is saying “She is a Muslim and Muslims did 9/11 and so she hates America.” Unfortunately our media is helping him strengthen that argument. As you read many articles when they speak of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, they have to bring up two things;
- She is a US citizen but was not born here. As if that clarification is going to be enough to get those chanting “send her back” to ponder what they are chanting.
- They always bring up her so called anti-semitic comments.
I think it is easy to put the blame on Donald Trump when it comes to racism and bigotry in this country. It is easier than having to reflect on ourselves and the role we have in the societies we structure. Yes, Donald Trump is the epitome of literally everything that is wrong with the world today but institutionalized bigotry has been present in this country for almost all of our history. I am grateful to be in this amazing place where I can speak my truth about injustices without the fear of repercussions (at least not yet). Today I am proud to call myself an American, a Muslim, and an Afghan national.