Monday, February 20, 2017

This is Them

They’re your above-average, all-American family. The dad is an internal medicine doctor, the mom a primary care physician. Their three boys are all smarter and funnier than your average kids: the oldest is a soccer-playing, straight-A student who loves to sing, dance and play guitar; the middle and youngest boys are 14 months apart and always together, always being comedians. Grandma, a former architect, lives with them and helps out with the boys, and she’s “always on her phone, playing Candy Crush,” or so says the oldest boy. 

They’re also Muslims. And from Iraq. 

Abdul and Zara met in medical school in 1996 in their hometown of Baghdad. They are Shi’ite, and life under Saddam Hussein and Sunni rule was hard. Each family experienced their own hardships - Zara’s uncle had been killed by the Hussein regime, and Abdul had a cousin who’d been unjustly imprisoned for eight years under Hussein. Without being Sunni, Abdul knew he had no future in Iraq, despite being a doctor. When he finished medical school in 1996, he left the country of his birth — his home — for Jordan, with his parents’ blessings, knowing he would never be able to return.

Zara, six years his junior, stayed in Baghdad to finish medical school, graduating in 2002. During her residency at a hospital in Baghdad, the Americans began their quest to oust Saddam Hussein. “I’d go to the hospital and I’d walk on blood because everyone was dying and there wasn’t enough time to clean it up,” she remembers. “Ever since I was born, there was always war.” She was 25 years old at the time, watching her country disintegrate. 

Zara left Baghdad late in 2003 and joined Abdul in Pittsburgh, where he’d secured a residency in 2000. During their time in Pittsburgh, they welcomed their first child. After residency, Abdul got a job in New Mexico. Obtaining employment wasn’t easy, and Abdul could only apply for a job that had been posted and unfilled for six months, to be sure he wasn’t taking a position away from an American. In New Mexico, they had two more children. Zara took and passed tests in between having babies, and eventually found a residency in Maryland, where the family moved in 2011. 

The process to become legal U.S. citizens was lengthy and expensive, and they earned their citizenship in 2012 after a requisite five-year wait after receiving their green cards. It was official…the entire family were Americans. Over the years, many of their family members left Iraq, settling in the U.S. and Canada. Zara and Abdul always knew there was some anti-Muslim dissent in America, but people were mostly quiet about it. They felt safe here, which is why they’d left their homeland in the first place — for a place where they could have opportunity, be free and feel safe. 

And then Donald Trump came to the forefront of American politics, first as a candidate and then as President. Zara and Abdul, and half of America, watched in alarm as Trump’s following grew and grew, though they never thought he would be elected president. Trump had no filter, but people loved him; he said outrageous things, but people loved it. After the election, Zara hoped that he’d been all talk and that he wouldn’t be nearly as provocative as he’d been on the campaign trail, that he wouldn’t do the things he talked about doing. But, as it turned out, Trump’s doing what he said he’d do. And his supporters love him for it. Zara thinks his election gave people the ‘courage’ to speak their prejudices openly. After all, if the leader of the free world can say it, why shouldn’t they be able to?

While Trump’s travel ban didn’t specifically apply to them because, legally, they are American citizens and hold American passports, they are frightened. They cancelled their trip to the Caribbean over spring break, fearful of what surprise executive order might come while they’re out of the country. Grandma, who is here on a visa, was affected by the travel ban. She had a trip planned to Dubai on February 10 to see the son she hadn’t seen in almost two years. Though the ban is now lifted, she cancelled her trip, fearful of being unable to get back into America, subject to the president’s whims. 

Zara tearfully acknowledges that while she doesn’t worry about herself, she is definitely worried about her children. She says she doesn’t care what people think of her, or her faith, because she knows who she is. But the boys are young and innocent, and she is fearful for their safety — fearful they will encounter hateful people who will say hateful things to them. Some boys at school called her oldest son “ISIS;” and when he found out about the travel ban, he worried whether their family and cousins would ever be able to visit again. 

Zara and Abdul want their children to grow up in the Muslim faith, to be knowledgeable about the language and culture and faith of their ancestors. Abdul recalls the hard times in his own life, when he felt all alone, except for Allah. He knows, statistically, people who have faith are generally happier, more successful, and less likely to turn to drugs, alcohol and suicide. But now Zara worries about sending their kids to the local Islamic Sunday school, a fear legitimized by the recent murders of six Muslims praying in a mosque in Quebec. The shooter was a Canadian, white-Nationalist who admires Trump.  
Emotionally, the election of Trump has taken a toll on Zara. She has less interest in social activities in their mostly white, Anglo neighborhood. Some of her patients and co-workers are outspoken in their admiration of Trump. Since the election, she second-guesses everyone and everything, unsure of how they might feel about her or her religion or where she’s from. 

Abdul is hopeful that the future will be better, but still worries the day will come when he will have to register as a Muslim, submit his phone for monitoring, or wear an identification badge of some sort. He worries that it is within the realm of the president’s powers to strip him and his wife of their citizenship, of what would happen to his American-born children if that happened. He doesn’t know where their family would go; he says he no longer has a country. They have no more family in Iraq; Zara’s father, a cardiologist, was the only one in the family who’d stayed there, in an attempt to help his failing country and countrymen, and he recently died. The family wouldn’t want to go back to Iraq anyway; they left so long ago on a quest for a better life. America has been their home for almost half their lives, and it’s the only home their children have ever known. But Zara says that, if things ever truly became terrible in America, they would leave because “the world is bigger than America.” They left their homes once before and, for the sake of their children, they would do it again, if they had to.

Abdul and Zara still believe in the goodness of America and most of its people. But they are also fearful for their children, in the very land they adopted and that adopted them, in the country that has been their home for so long. Words and actions have consequences, and both the common people and especially those in power need to think of the actual people who are being affected by their policies, implemented without thoughtful analysis…people like Abdul and Zara and their kids, people who are the face of the American dream.

Abdul’s and Zara’s story is compelling for so many reasons: they are highly educated and fluent in English. They are the neighbors we call when our kid has a cough that makes us nervous; they are our doctors. They are taxpayers who pay more than average; they are our fellow soccer mom and soccer dad. They set a powerful example of courage and hope by sacrificing everything they knew to make a better life for themselves and the children they hoped to someday have.

I know all this about them because I’ve asked them at the bus stop, at neighborhood gatherings, in random conversation. I wanted to know their story because everyone has one, especially those who were born somewhere else. 

Do you know someone who is of the Muslim faith? Do you know someone who left their birthplace in search of a better life? Have you ever talked to them or asked them questions about their background? As a personal plea, I beg you to ask questions every day so that you can put a face to “the Muslims,” to “the immigrants,” to “the gays,” to “the blacks,” to “the women,” or to whoever else happens to be in the group being persecuted. 

Find the individual stories before forming an opinion about the group. The only way to refute a stereotype or to confront a fear is to learn. So I offer to you the story of Abdul and Zara, an all-American family, so similar to my own. Who just so happen to be Muslim, and from Iraq.