Hey everyone! My name is Sara Mohamed and if you’ve been following for a while, you know that I am the child of immigrants to the United States. My mami is Colombian and my babi is Egyptian. I’m hella proud of this but it also means that my life experience is different from those of others who grew up in the U.S. This post is my attempt to share that with the world.
Where it began- the story of my parents
So let me get started here with a little context. My parents came to the United States (U.S.), New York specifically, in their late 20s/early 30s. They didn’t necessarily plan on staying but it just sort of happened, especially after they got together. Now that I’m at that age, I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been to uproot their lives and move to a totally different country without completely speaking the language! Like let me just hop on over to Italy where I have a beginners level of the language and make a life there…no thank you. Given that, let me just put something front and center now: IMMIGRANTS ARE BRAVE. They are part of what has made this country great. I mean think about food. The most quintessential “American” foods like pizza and hot dogs all came from immigrants. They have also helped build, and I mean literally build, this country. Anyway, now that we’ve briefly touched on how awesome immigrants are, let me get back to my parent’s story.
My parents met in New York and fell in love. On their first date they had to bring a dictionary to help with communication and I think that’s just the sweetest thing. They had my sister and then me about 2 years later and they started living their American dream (which the whole if you work hard enough, you’ll make it thing is a myth, but you know it has a ring here so I’m using it). Eventually, they decided that for them, the city was no place to raise kids so they moved to the suburbs of Maryland.
From the beginning, my parents worked so hard to become U.S. citizens. Currently, my parents are proud U.S. citizens, but for a while when I was growing up, they were undocumented. Because of that, my dad couldn’t even go to his own mother’s funeral. The fear of being undocumented goes further though. I remember my whole life being told not to talk about it to anyone. At one point, we were seriously considering moving to Canada because my parents weren’t sure they were going to get their green card. And since we’re here, let me go ahead and tell you a little something about the immigration process, especially for those of you who say “well why can’t people just come here and follow a legal process to become citizens? Easy Peasy!”. When my parents first arrived they came on student visas. Following that, they hired a lawyer to help them apply for citizenship- my dad’s employer was even sponsoring them. But here’s what happened, the lawyer messed up and screwed them over and they lost a bunch of money. Following that, they spent YEARS (I think probably 13 or more) looking through the paperwork themselves and applying until their application was accepted. Now take a minute and think about how much taxes stress you out, a native English speaker. Now let’s add in about 20 times that amount of legal paperwork to figure out and you have to do it in your second language. Congrats, you now have a vague idea of what my parents went through. I remember the day my parents got their green card- they came to school and called me and my sister out. My sister was in class, but I came out and we all hugged and cried together. I had prayed for that exact moment every night for years and it was the best thing ever. Honestly, I’m tearing up writing this.
Other than that though, my parents have lived pretty normal lives! They worked, cooked, cleaned, travelled, loved, and most importantly raised two stellar daughters 😉 But this post isn’t technicalllyyy about them (love you guys) so I’m moving onto my story.
Sara- the early years
I’ve heard a lot of immigrant kids say they were ashamed of their background growing up and understandably so. You are ostracized if you are different here in the good ol U.S of A. I don’t remember having those feelings, but I knew I was different. I remember one time in kindergarten the teacher asked us all to say our favorite foods. Everyone went around and said some variation of pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs etc. When it got to me, I proudly stated red beans and rice like the good little Colombian I was. My mom also exclusively spoke Spanish to me and my sister so wherever we were- grocery store, school, etc. I was speaking Spanish. I never felt weird doing this because this was just what I had grown up doing! I now know how much of a blessing this skill really is (heyyy job applications).
There were many other differences that I now can reflect back on. I won’t go into all of them but here are a few that stood out to me.
- I remember seeing kids in my class who had cousins and grandparents who lived in the same town. My family had to go buy phone cards from the local Mexican grocer to call my family overseas. I saw my grandparents on my mom’s side probably 5 or 6 times in my life while I met my grandmother on my dad’s side once before she passed.
- Growing up, I thought it was weird that people ate out even once a week. My parents cooked for us EVERY DAY. As an adult, I have no idea how they did that but I appreciate it so much. I now love to cook and love eating.
- Other kids would say that they had their parents proofread their papers. Yea, I was on my own there. My parents helped us in so many other ways in school and encouraged us to be in charge of our own learning, but proofreading was definitely not a privilege I had. However, my mom read the hobbit to us in Spanish and my dad sat down with me to help with my math homework every night sooo
- I was often on the phone with doctor’s offices and the like asking for things for my parents. Now, my mom is fearless and would often take the phone from me before I could finish talking because I wasn’t saying what she wanted, but still.
- I had thick, curly dark hair (all over my body, lol) and eyebrows and all the other girls seemed to have straight blonde or light brown hair.
I’m not sure how much I consciously realized these differences until I was older because that was just life for me. I do remember having to go to school after my grandmother had passed and feeling sad and also angry that my dad couldn’t see her. I remember asking my parents why borders were a thing and why there were people who could control the land and where we went. I know now that all this had a profound impact on me though and brought me even closer together to my family.
My thoughts now
Okay this is going to be the longest section because I have a lot of thoughts. Thanks for sticking with me this far. There is so much beauty in coming from multiple cultures, but there is also a dark side to it that often comes from other people and society.
I have watched my parents experience many overt forms of discrimination. I remember the parent of one kid in elementary school asking my mom if she had lived in a hut in the jungle in Colombia. There are people who do and that is their way of life which is awesome, BUT that was all he thought Colombia was. You would think as time went on things would get better, but nope. The last time we went to Colombia my mom and I went to the pharmacy to get a few things and my mom asked for help from someone who worked there. They were chatting and my mom told her we were going to Colombia. The lady’s response was “Oh I hope you have your will written up before you go!” To this day if I tell people I’m Colombian the first thing they bring up is Pablo Escobar and drugs. What they don’t realize though is that Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries you will ever visit both in flora and fauna (second most biodiverse after our neighbor, Brazil), there are a multitude of climates and they are all beautiful, Colombia is one of the few places emeralds occur naturally, over 75% of Valentine’s day flowers come from there, and some of the best coffee you can find is Colombian.
My dad is constantly stopped in the airport and told me I should change my name when I got married as it would be easier to find a job (I didn’t, I’m a proud Mohamed). Upon arriving to the U.S. he chose to change his name to Bob from Ihab so it would be easier for others to say. And he deeply feels the pain of the Muslim community in the United States. What people don’t realize though is Egypt is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, that falafel you love so much some say originated in Egypt, the origin of bread can be traced back to the Middle East and many people think specifically Egypt, and my family in Egypt and many others I met there are some of the most kind and welcoming people I ever met.
I am lucky enough that I grew up speaking English without an accent and while I don’t look White I definitely benefit from light skin privilege. All of this has made it so I haven’t really experienced overt discrimination in my life. The worst I get is “What are you?”. My experience comes with it’s own struggles though. I have never really quite fit in anywhere. I’m not Latina enough to hang with Latinx folx and not Middle Eastern enough to be a part of that group. I’m in this weird in between group. I’m not White, I’m not Black I’m just in my own little group hanging with my sister and Shakira (she’s also Colombian and Middle Eastern). There’s an interesting phrase that I feel describes this experience: “Ni de aqui, ni de alla”, “Neither from here, nor from there”. I feel this perfectly describes my feelings and sometimes that is a lonely thing. I have felt the need to push down my experiences because I reasoned that it’s not as bad as what darker skinned people or people with less financial resources are experiencing or any other marginalized group, but lately I’ve realized that’s not good either. My story is valid and worth sharing. The injustices my family has felt are valid and what push me towards a passion for social justice.
My experiences have also imparted me with a beautiful superpower- the ability to connect with so many different people from all walks of life. I have always been able to be friends with many different types of people and I think it’s because I have a wide range of experiences to pull from and connect to people with. I love this and it makes hanging out in the grey area all the more worth it. There are so many other benefits that come along with it. I speak multiple languages, I have family all over the world, and I have a rich food culture. Most of all though, because my family had to go through all these struggles together, we are really close.
In the end, I would never trade my experience and my family’s experience for anything. This is part of the reason I never changed my name. I am COLOMBIAN AND EGYPTIAN AND AMERICAN and I am proud of it. I will pass this on to any future children I may have and hope they grow to love their family’s culture as much as I do. I think there will always be a journey when it comes to figuring out my race and what it means in the broader spectrum, but I’m happy to be on it. I hope you enjoyed this and thank you for reading this far.
I’ll be adding to this series over time so be on the look out for that!
All my best,