As An Arab-American, Combating Prejudice Has Been A Lifelong Battle

by Sara Springer
DonNichols / iStock

Not every story of turmoil and discrimination is a major one. Some set the tone for adulthood, and some just remind us that prejudices exist. Mine is the latter.

I am an American citizen born and (mostly) raised in the United States — more specifically, middle America. Born to an American mother and Kuwaiti father. I don’t remember much of my first eight years in this country, but some memories stick out.

Playing with my childhood friends was always fun but sometimes hurtful. I was the dark-haired, brown-eyed, olive-complected girl among blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned darlings. (Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Boy, can I relate to that movie on so many levels.) If we were ever playing house, I wasn’t allowed to be sister or mom; I was the maid since my physical appearance favored that role.

I remember being told that Iraq had invaded Kuwait, my dad’s home. I remember my dad being glued to the television on a daily basis, making desperate phone calls overseas to contact his family, trying to gather any information he could. I remember his brother being taken as a prisoner of war and watching the effect that had on my father. I remember his “Free Kuwait” campaign, hearing his voice on the radio and seeing him on local news shows. I remember the talk of threats to our family and what that meant for our safety. I remember having nightmares that Saddam Hussein would take me from my school (as a child you only understand fear with no concept of geography).

Eight months after the liberation of Kuwait, we moved there. I remember descending into the country from above and seeing fires. I remember being told to never pick up anything off the ground or from the sand because it could be the leftovers of war. It was a country trying to rebuild from devastation. I remember several occasions where Saddam Hussein was on the border threatening to invade. I remember the conversations between my parents about whether or not the threat was viable — if we should stay or go. I never experienced war firsthand, but the threat of it seemed real.

I remember loving life there. Most of the kids at my school were like me: an American parent and a Middle-Eastern parent, all of us with darker complexion, hair, and eyes. Acceptance and fitting in — how important that is for a child.

Everyone always wanted to know: Are you Christian or Muslim? I hated that question. To me, it meant I was choosing between my mom and my dad. I studied Islam for five years. Today, I may be Catholic, but I remember those teachings. I was never encouraged to hate or fight against anyone. The love for America was overwhelming; they freed Kuwait.

We moved back to the States when I was 13. To say I was an awkward teen is an understatement. Crazy teeth and crazy hair. Shy and insecure. Being told on more than one occasion my nose was too big and that I must be Jewish (ignorance is astounding).

Then 9/11 happened. The fear of what that would mean for my family was overwhelming. Being inspected at airports more thoroughly than my fair-skinned counterparts. Despising terrorism as much as they did had no bearing on how I was viewed. A toothbrush being deemed a weapon. Being asked about my last name and where I was really from. I must say, traveling with my married Irish name definitely makes things simpler.

I remember my father becoming an American. He fought the war on terror for four years. He gave more than most American-born individuals, myself included.

Individuals “joking” with my husband and telling him that he was “with the enemy” were bothersome. But I was supposed to laugh and “don’t take it personally.”

Fast-forward several years to the present-day, when I’m wondering where the line will be drawn. How far will people go to squelch their fear? I may be American, but I have Arab blood and Muslim “ties” (aka family and friends), as do my children, as does my dad. Knowing our country has a history of reacting to fear with confinement — think World War II and the internment camps). What did we learn from it?

I want to give our president the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe that he is trying to “Make America Great Again.” At the very least, I hope to hear him speak intelligently. But with each passing day, that seems more unlikely.

I can hide behind the ignorance: People think I am either Italian, Mexican, or Hispanic. I don’t have an accent, so when I am asked, “Where are you from?” I answer, “Here.” They accept it, but not every immigrant or person of color has that luxury.

If you are a person who cannot understand this fear, I envy you. But I also ask you to have empathy toward those who face prejudice in because of the current political climate. If you know me, then know that this is personal. It is real. It is happening. Today I am free, but it is in the back of my mind that it may not always be this way.

I have not given up hope. Those who showed up to #riseup gave me encouragement. Still, I am discouraged by the number of people who lack empathy and compassion, who view Muslims as terrorists instead of understanding that there are radicals in all walks of life, who support the radicalization of immigration without understanding our current process. Those who cannot see the hate in their hearts and the prejudices they endorse.

I am not sure what is perpetuated by the media and what is real. I am not sure how to use my voice. But I know I will start by breaking the silence. By saying it is not okay. Freedom is never free, but hatred is never right.