This past week has been difficult for me. In fact, it has broken my heart and torn it in pieces, as I try to understand President Trump’s incomprehensible ban on immigration, motivated, it seems, by a fear of Muslims. For any immigrant who comes to a new country, life is already difficult; and it for a long while, it does not get easier. There is no ‘fresh’ start. The new beginning is actually a new struggle, learning to adjust, learning new customs and a new culture. It can be tiring, costly, and sometimes it even seems thankless. It takes years before any of the joys of freedom come to fruition.
In my case, I came to the United States of America from Pakistan, to complete my education. I came with three bags, and two children. We sought safety, security and opportunity, much like the thousands of immigrants from other countries who, once upon a distant past, set foot on Ellis Island.
My story is not different from the people I have left behind, or many others who seek to find acceptance in a country known for having a heart of gold. On December 17th, 2014, I decided that I would have to go back to college to finish my undergraduate degree. 9/11 had forced me to abandon my education, and that too was a dark time in history. But on this date in 2014, in the city of Peshawar, Pakistan, 90 children were brutally gunned down, execution style, by terrorists. These innocent children were shot in the head; a female teacher who tried to save her students was burned alive. The principal was killed by grenade. Hundreds of other children survived but were severely injured by the indiscriminate shooting. As nationwide mourning began, all of the schools were shut down. Every school was under threat of an attack by extremists. One month later, as I gathered the courage to take my children to school, I saw the reality of my situation. Surrounded by rangers, the anti-terrorist police force, brave children and tearful mothers, I left my children in the hands of the principal. The talk I had with them before dropping them off was like a plea: I begged them, try not to be a hero if someone came in shooting. I told them to play dead or hide. My children then, were 5 and 8. It was no way for them to live, no place for them to have a childhood.
Such are the lives of many others who have fled their homes and left countries that cannot protect their citizens. Our religion is not what sets us apart. It is that we cannot accept the terrorism and tyranny that makes us want to flee. So, we seek a new beginning in a new place, and we hope that we will be welcomed. That is how it has been… until recently.
In a way, I feel I am lucky. I don’t look like the stereotype of a Muslim. I don’t dress very Muslim. I don’t wear a headscarf. I wear dresses and pants. I don’t have much of an accent. I blend in. But my children don’t. They have thick, heavy accents and are very brown. They stand out, whether they want to or not. The same is true for a girl in one of my classes who covers her head and always looks distant.
But I want people to know that I am more than a Muslim. My religion is something I was born into, much like being born a girl, or a sister. What I have become is a mother, a compassionate human being, and a dreamer. I listen to Ella Fitzgerald. I sing Etta James. I dance the salsa. I make movies and direct musical theater. And yes I’m also a Muslim.
The ban on immigration has been heavy on my heart, because it says to Americans that Muslims are something to avoid, something to fear. I do not want people to feel that way about me or about my religion. And yet, I am also seeing that not everyone is afraid. When I look around, I hear the voices of so many strangers– people I do not know– who are standing up and fighting for my rights, as they protest a piece of legislation that will not affect them in any way. Their actions have encouraged me, even while what the president wants to do has made me sad.
So, now I choose not to look at the ban in a way that disheartens me; I prefer to treat it as an opportunity to finally see the America where Americans are the heroes. They are my heroes. They are all colors and all religions, and yet I am what they care about; and my children are the ones they want to protect. So, bravo America, for not giving in to hatred or fear. This is the love I came here for; and even if I only see a glimpse of it, I can sigh not with grief… but with relief.