When I was in first grade, I came home one day in tears of frustration. Flushed cheeks with uncontrollable hot streams running down my face, I sobbed to my parents: "They...keep...calling...me...Indian...but...I'm...not!!!" For a few days now, my classmates had been asserting to me that I was Indian because of my (clearly-not-white) brown skin. But I was born in America! I couldn't even speak another language! I would tell them I wasn't, but they just wouldn't listen. My parents responded coolly, attempting to ebb my ridiculous heaving sobs, "Tell them you're American with Indian blood." I liked that. And the next day, as we washed our hands before snack time, that's what my six-year-old self said in the most confident voice she could muster.
Those became very defining words in my life. I first and foremost have always considered myself an American. Even when I didn't look like my next door neighbors or celebrate the same holidays as my classmates. I was proud to rock my red, white, and blue and live the life of a typical kid growing up in the States in the early 2000s.
I had never really thought about what a privilege it was for me to have that identifier, until honestly this past week. If my parents hadn't immigrated to the United States thirty years ago, I wouldn't be proudly pronouncing myself as "the American with Indian blood." They came here with nothing. But now I'm sitting here in my on-campus room at an incredible institute for higher education. I grew up with the world in my palms--hundreds of opportunities and privileges to choose from--because my mom had just enough money to pay the $5 application fee to apply to a graduate school program in Mississippi twenty-five years ago. My mom sacrificed ease, comfort, and proximity to family because she wanted to pursue her education in a country that prides itself on making dreams a reality.
But what if she had checked just one box on those visa forms?
Do you identify as Muslim?
What if she had been barred from entering the United States because of the faith she internally identifies with, a faith that she views the world through? And because of the actions of a select few throwing around the name of the same faith as their justification?
My mom was not fleeing persecution. She was not being forced out of her home, attacked by the same people her refuge may have projected her to be.
But today, there are millions of people who are. Millions of refugees from Kosovo, Syria, Afghanistan, and north African countries are losing their homes and families. They're walking hundreds of miles, they're trapped on cramped boats for weeks. And when they reach the gates to what they think is their heaven--they are turned away. They are looking to us, the country that was founded by religious refugees, for help.
How can we be so hypocritical to say no?
I am blessed. I got lucky. Beyond all those other identifiers that may bring me some slack--young, Muslim, brown, girl--this is the one that haunts me the most. I am here because of the sacrifices of family and the support of friends. I am enjoying my privileged life where the biggest hardships are my difficult finals and picking up the wrong Starbucks order. But right now, on the other side of the world there is a young, Muslim, brown girl who is dreaming of being in a classroom, of reading a textbook, of debating politics and the nature of the world.
I wish I could share this world with her. Just as I wish I could share my world, the truths of my faith, with those who have fallen to some very extreme misconceptions. Many people now believe that Islam is an inherently violent religion. That it preaches violence and murder as the answer to everything. They'll concede that the entire Muslim population is not like that, but the view they have is that the religion itself is cruel and violent. It breaks my heart to hear people associate the basis of my faith with hate.
But if there is just one thing you know about Islam, know that the first words of the Quran are "In the name of God, the Gracious and the Merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, Master of the Book of Judgement." And everything, I mean literally everything, every lesson, every law, every pillar comes back to these words: gracious and merciful. It's a religion of peace and mercy that came to a desert ravaged by corruption and sexism in the 13th century.
I've been in an interesting position observing the duality of the world and my identifiers over the past few years. And it can be incredibly difficult when other people are telling you that the words you use to define yourself are contradictory or at war with each other. I want to be the voice that says they aren't. I can be an American, a Muslim, a woman, a student, a leader, and a follower all at the same time. In fact, each of these aspects makes me better at one or more of the others. And it is incredibly unfair and cruel to make people feel otherwise and force them to question themselves--to make them feel like there is something wrong with them because of their identifiers or, even worse, to project your own ideas and opinions on them and define their identity by your own assertions.
We are a diverse nation like no other because we are full of "Americans with _______ blood." And we are stronger for it.