This post was developed in collaboration with P&G as part of their Love Over Bias campaign.
I was in the third grade living in California. During that time there were 53 Americans being held hostage in Iran. Our school decided to show support for the hostages by planting trees and tying yellow ribbons around them. It was a symbolic gesture to show those people held hostage that we hadn’t forgotten them. During the assembly, there were two teachers standing behind me. While the principal played the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” the two teachers spoke:
“These Arabs in the Middle East are trying to destroy the world. They’re all evil. What kind of religion do these people have?”
Not even nine years old yet and I remember thinking about ways I could hide my identity. I immediately felt sick and my eyes began to water.
After school, I ran the four blocks home, not even stopping to look both ways to cross the street. I climbed the steps to apartment 3D, flung the doors open and threw myself into my mother’s arms. I told her what happened between sobs of fear and anxiety. She pulled the tissue out of the Kleenex box and wiped my tears away, grabbed her purse and my hand, and we walked to a local fabric store where we bought yellow fabric. When we got home we cut strips, lots of them, and took them outside and began tying them around trees.
“If teachers ask what you are, tell them American. They don’t like us. We are American, understand?”
My mother was an immigrant from Brazil. My dad, a Palestinian Muslim. We weren’t Iranian, but it didn’t matter. The teachers didn’t know the difference. I’m sure my mother had her own paranoia of how her new adopted country worked. She was always telling me to tell people I was American if they asked what I was – especially my teachers – because she was afraid they would fail me if they knew I was Arab or Muslim.
The truth is, my teachers did fail me. Not academically, but morally and emotionally. Educators that were supposed to uplift me – but instead they made me feel like an outsider, a threat, a terrorist – without even knowing it.
That evening my mother and I continued to tie ribbons around trees without saying a word to each other – until it began to lightly rain. We walked home and she drew a hot bath for me and added bubbles, telling me I needed to relax and tomorrow would be a new day. As I got ready for bed that evening, I went to my jacket hanging in the closet and reached into the pocket where I saved a yellow ribbon left over. I placed it in an old cigar box my mother had given me to save important items. I was American, no matter what anyone thought, no matter what my national origin was, and no matter what religion I practiced.
36 Years Later
No longer in California, I find myself living in a small Southern town with my four kids and husband during a time where Islamophobia and Xenophobia seem to be growing more acceptable. In fact, being Arab or Muslim today has no social sanction protecting us.
What do I mean? There is an understanding that it is politically incorrect to speak ill publicly about marginalized groups – unless you’re an Arab or a Muslim. For those two groups, it’s open season. If you look Arab or possibly Muslim, you are a target.
We saw this more than ever during the presidential campaigning with talking points that focused on “the Muslim problem” and “Islamic extremists.” While infuriating, it wasn’t new to me, so I would go on doing my work around the house while the television news blared these crazy soundbites. First on the list was to ban all Muslims from entering this country; second, Muslim citizens would have to register as such and be given identification cards; and last, the infamous wall.
Throughout the decades of my life, I have seen this type of rhetoric, albeit this time a bit more extreme and open. It’s not to say that I wasn’t concerned – but I had hope that this type of talk would not poison the water of the citizens in this great nation. That is, until one of my boys woke me up from an afternoon nap one rainy Sunday afternoon.
“Mom, I forgot to show you this.” One of my 11-year-old twins pulled out a pamphlet from his backpack. It was literature from a local church that someone had secretly stuck in his bag.
“You don’t know you gave you this, son?” He said no, but reminded me that in such a small town, it could have been anyone because practically all his friends went to that church. He then said that maybe if we go to the church, maybe then we wouldn’t have to get a Muslim identification card. “I mean, we would still be Muslim in our hearts – but this way no one will come looking for us.” I assured him that no one would ever come looking for us because we are Muslim, which seemed to put him at ease.
The pamphlet, or indirect invitation to a church in my son’s backpack, didn’t bother me. That’s normal in these parts of the country. It was my son’s concern about people knowing what his faith was that tugged at my heart. Was he afraid or feeling anxious the same way I still remembering feeling when I was close to his age?
Memories of that time in the 80s came flooding back into my mind. I got off the couch and went into my room where I pulled out an old cigar box from the top shelf in my closet. There it was – my yellow ribbon. I gently picked it up and remembered the evening my immigrant mother and I tied them around trees in my neighborhood.
This time would be different. This time I was confident of my homeland and my home. This time…I would encourage my kids to talk to their friends about where their grandparents and father came from – because no matter where some of us were born – no matter what faith we practiced – we belonged here, too.
I put the ribbon back in the box and I called out, “Omar, it’s good weather for a warm bubble bath. Do you want me to run you one?”