International Affairs Reflections

Finding My Syrian-American Identity

By Hajar Abdul-Rahim

My father always said, “You don’t understand the price of freedom.” But I do know and understand the price of being robbed of my right to grow up around grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I know the price of growing up nation-less; the price of having no national identity; the cost of not knowing who I am or where I am from.

I am the daughter of a mother wanted for execution in Syria for simply owning a dream to think freely, and of a father who would not bow to the country’s criminal silence. They escaped in 1980, reunited in Jordan, moved to Iraq, the United States, Canada, then once again back to the United States. They stamped each country with the birth of a child, clinging to their dream of returning to Syria. I was born in Montreal, Canada.

As a child, I was Syrian. But as a teenager, I was lost. In America, I wasn’t American. On my two visits to Syria, I wasn’t Syrian. I couldn’t own pride in a country that stripped my mother and father of the right to live or the right to return. I didn’t understand the fear, the silence, the poverty, or why my grandfather hung a two-foot portrait of the President Hafez Assad right above his television. When my 13-year-old cousin pointed his finger at me and accused his uncle, my father, of being too much of an arrogant doctor in America to even pay a small visit to his family in Syria, I opened my mouth to unleash my rage only to find my grandfather’s strong palm glue itself to my lips.

At 24, after I completed graduate school, still without an identity or nationality to boast, I decided that I would embrace the identity of being an “American,” and accept my Syrian heritage as something that belonged to my parents, something of the past. I slowly erased that image from my memory.

When the revolution in Tunisia dominoed its way to Syria, when peaceful protestors were instantly captured, detained, and had their hearts foam out of their mouths, I didn’t understand why my mother and father were depriving themselves of sleep at night. I was offended that when I flew across the country to visit them over the holidays, they were not emotionally with me as we sipped our nightly tea. They were glued to their computer screen at home, signed into Skype, talking, arranging, organizing, doing anything and everything within their human power to help the people of Syria. They even traveled to Turkey and lived with 8,000 Syrian refugees in Antakya for one month as an in-house doctor and emotional supporter sleeping in their tents and using their overcrowded toilets.

For 10 months, I prayed for the dead, the detained, and the tortured. I followed the news for ten days then abandoned it for twenty. I wanted to put this past behind me. I wanted to convince myself that there was nothing more I could possibly do. But as the symphony of protestors grew louder and stronger—bouncing off high concrete walls over a web of narrow ancient alleys every time a child was sniped, a woman beaten, and a man burned to death only after breaking his back and slicing off his fingers, my heart began to feel alive. I began to see a different purpose to this life. Was it simply to get an education, dine at fancy restaurants, travel, have children, and move into a large home while the blood of others gushes into rivers, or children die of starvation? Where were the Syrians finding the courage to persist? Where had their fear and silence gone? I no longer wanted to continue my perfectly played out movie, or worry about things that really didn’t matter.

My numbness to the image of tortured body after body after body for the past 10 months burst. I finally understood my parents overworking their minds, bodies, and hearts. I understood how they went two days without feeding their stomachs because they had no time to stop. No interest. They had no time to even grow hungry. My parents outran death, literally, when 40,000 others couldn’t. For 26 years they told me and my siblings that this life was only a journey, and the purpose of that journey was to make it to heaven. “Never get too comfortable,” my father said. “Be the last to eat and the first to serve.” Just as my parents began to grow numb to the idea of ever returning to Syria, watching the last flicker of fire fade, a few boys in the village of Daraa relit the match.

I am not the child who was brought to America to have a better life. I am not the Syrian daughter who came because her parents wanted to practice medicine and flourish financially. I am the child of a man who miraculously escaped in the trunk of a Beetle, and helped by a Lebanese priest, fled the country. I am the daughter of a woman who was grabbed by her neighbor seconds before entering into her apartment to warn her that the Syrian Secret Police were inside waiting for her. She watched her two roommates hauled into mukhabarat (Secret Police) vehicles, then thrown into torture cells for nine years. I am the granddaughter of a man shot by the mukhabarat, and later killedI am the granddaughter of two women whose dying wishes were to see their daughter and their son in Syria, embrace their hands, and hold it against their own face while they ejected their last breath.

That is who I am. Only now am I learning to adopt and combine the qualities that make America so great, and the qualities that charge Syria with spirit. Only now do I realize that my lost identity, split into two countries, symbolize who I am. I know that I am proud to have grown up American and free, to have been educated, to ask questions, seek answers, sleep at night comfortably, proud to have a childhood. I am proud to see the men, women, and even boys and girls fight for freedom, fight for the silence of their parents and grandparents. I am proud to own Syrian blood. I am proud to stand up for truth and speak against injustice, something my parents were able to teach me because we were in America, and something I witnessed my Syrian brothers and sisters die for. I am proud to be Syrian-American and American-Syrian. And in the end, this life is really only a journey; and my journey is to hold my free mind in one hand and courage in the other, and live for something worth living for.

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  • SubhanAllah! May Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala grant victory to Syria very soon insha Allah Ameen!

    May Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala end their sufferings and the oppression Ameen

    May Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala forgive this Ummah and have mercy on this Ummah Ameen

    Subhan Allah! May Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala grant you and your family Jannat Al Firdous Ameen

    Insha Allah Allah’s help will arrive. Hasbiyallaahu Wa Ni’mal wakeel

  • THIS IS AN INCREDIBLE PIECE. MA SHA’ ALLAH. May Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala give relief, ease and VICTORY to the people of Syria against the disgusting murderer and his accomplices SOON. AMEEEEEN

  • Very good piece and brave, honest writing mashAllah.

    This is a very healthy multiculturalism that I was referring in my comment on the article Arabism Vs. Universal Islam.

    We must learn to embrace and honor our heritage languages and cultures as part of who we are, even as we become Americanized. We can claim and express our whole identity, and this only enriches the whole society.

  • Amazing piece……a feeling shared by many coming from the same background. Syria soon will be free…….but Allah is still accepting shaheeds. Alhamdulillah.

  • This is taqdir Allah set for u. As long u be a good Muslim its the most victory. U can do u dakwah worldwide. Alhamdulillah. (sory for my English)

  • i just don’t understand, the ruler of Syria now, Bashir al Assad, he’s a muslim right? i mean the oppressers are muslim right? why oh why, how could they do this to their own brothers and sisters? please, can’t the OIC or or anybody at all help them? so saaaaad =(((

  • Great piece! I can really relate to every word you said. It’s amazing to know there are others out there that share such similar experiences and that we are not alone in our struggle for justice and freedom.

  • This article has touched me deeply as my daughter, who is 19, has felt the same way about her identity growing up and was deeply affected by the fact we had no relatives or close Muslim friends. Luckily she now has a Muslim community she identifies with: the MSA of McGill university who is her new family away from home.
    For years I felt very sad for my children for not having close Muslim friends growing up or relatives. I am happy now to see that it has not affected them negatively. We cannot have everything in life and I’m happy that they were born and raised in Canada than in Algeria where they would not have had the same opportunities as here.

    Thank you for sharing your story.
    My prayers are with Syrians.

  • If there is one thing i have learned over the last ten years, it is:

    Whenever the Americans say someone is such and such, one only needs to do reverse engineering. Americans help no one except themselves and those rising against Asaad are traitors.

    He might not be the best leader out there but hey, the guy isn’t invading nations after nations for oil.

    • So sad to read this: “the guy isn’t invading nations after nations for oil”
      He is just slaughtering his own people and ruling with an iron fist.
      Have you lived in Syria? Are you living there? Have you tried to find out what is going on?
      If not then next time get the facts before you make statements like these.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this article.
    This young lady isn’t dismissing her Syrian heritage but realizes she is American too and has decided to combine both cultures which is what my children have done.
    My children wen through the same struggle growing up and I was too busy with my professional life and the day-to day to help them, and I couldn’t have as I didn’t have the answer. I made sure I adapted to the society where we lived without losing our Muslim identity. They had friends from every background religion and they never paid attention to it. If anything they were enriched by it.

    As N stated in previous comments:
    “We must learn to embrace and honor our heritage languages and cultures as part of who we are, even as we become Americanized. We can claim and express our whole identity, and this only enriches the whole society.”

    Thank you for sharing your experience and this wonderful article. It has touched me deeply.

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