Although my father is not in the military, I grew up overseas for most of my childhood. I spent my youth playing in the sprawling green parks in Dubai, UAE, sinking into sand dunes in the vacant lots next to my house, and popping wheelies on my bicycle in the then-empty neighborhood developments.
What made my time overseas significant was the community my mom built around my siblings and I. It wasn’t until I returned to the region for university that I truly understood what it meant to build a community, and how crucial it was to create a support network abroad in order to thrive.
When I was a kid, my community consisted mostly of Muslim families, but only two or three of them were African American. My closest friends were from Bangladesh, Morocco, and Malaysia. If you had asked me what an African American was when I was 10, I probably wouldn’t have understood the question.
After realizing that we had little connection to our Black history and heritage, my parents moved us back to the USA. We settled into the heart of the Atlanta Muslim community, where I finished high school at a small private school dominated by African American Muslims. Suffice to say, I experienced a culture shock, and that community taught me what it really meant to be Black in America.
In the search for universities to apply to, NYU was at the top of my list. On a weekend visit with my mom and twin brother, I discovered that NYU had a campus in Abu Dhabi, UAE(NYUAD), and I saw the opportunity to start anew. Although I’d be going overseas for school, the individuals who surrounded me made sure I would be well taken care of by the Black community already established in the UAE.
Before I went off to school, several Black women reached out to me, giving me the contact information of a few African American Muslim women who were in the UAE teaching. I met up with them as soon as I could, and next thing I knew I had twenty surrogate aunties. It was a well-connected group who were constantly welcoming and saying goodbye to women of color as they settled and moved out of the region. From them, I learned how flexible African American women could be to change, how incredibly pliable our small overseas communities are. But I was still searching for a Black community that was made up of my peers.
NYUAD is a young university, and has one of the most diverse student bodies in the world. Despite this promise of diversity, I knew that as a freshman I was probably going to be the only African American student on my campus of then 500 students. I wasn’t totally wrong. My first year of college, I was one of three.
I would walk into the dining hall and look around at everyone socializing, largely grouped by nationality, and I wouldn’t know where to sit. I felt anxiety for months, not knowing where I fit in and unsure of whom I would connect with.
NYUAD was my dream school because although I loved being in America, I craved an international experience. I have been blessed to take class trips to places like Cambodia, Jordan, Sri Lanka and Qatar. However, when I went on those excursions I was always the only African American. None of my NYUAD professors are African American. Although the diverse student body and travel opportunities were what I had always wanted, it came with unexpected adjustments. Thankfully, on campus there were a few African American female staff members, who today remain my emotional support. I also credit Professor Michael Dinwiddie, a Black visiting professor, and his one-of-a-kind African American history class with being exactly what I needed to help me adjust.
I began doing everything in my power to make it known that African American students were not only wanted, but also needed at NYUAD. I had meetings with the head of admissions and the Dean of Students. I participated in focus groups and voiced my concern that as an American university, we had to have an accurate representation of America on campus, and that included more African Americans. I spoke directly to young high schoolers back home in Atlanta, and other potential students as often as I could. That is why the little community of Black students that is slowly growing on campus means so much to me — I feel like I’ve fought for it for years.
Young Black communities abroad are created out of necessity because we need to share the knowledge, the resources and the friendship. We need someone who can give us a hug or a reassuring glance when we are overseas and hear of another police shooting back home. We need someone to vent to about Trump, cultural appropriation, and the latest Kanye West controversy.
My junior year, two African Americans were in the freshman class. To say I was excited was an understatement. When I met them, I knew there was a change on the horizon. Questions began to pop up for me: How do I support these young Black students when I’m trying to figure out life myself? There are already African students; how do we not alienate ourselves from the other students of color on campus? How can I make sure that we aren’t ignored as an American minority? How will this community stay together after I graduate?
Young Black communities abroad are created out of necessity because we need to share the knowledge, the resources and the friendship. We need someone who can give us a hug or a reassuring glance when we are overseas and hear of another police shooting back home. We need someone to vent to about Trump, cultural appropriation, and the latest Kanye West controversy. We need a social gathering to cook comfort food and watch Denzel Washington movies. We may be minorities wherever we go, but we don’t have to be disconnected or alone.
What is unique about the community we’re working to establish is that we are a mix of Muslims and Christians. For once, we are not defined by religion, and are instead connected by a shared ethnic identity. This does not mean we exist in isolation from everyone else — far from it. In fact, we blend into the global community better than most. But there still needs to be a support network for us, a space where we can be authentically ourselves, where we know we will always be heard. In order to be an effective member in the global community, we have to nourish ourselves by establishing spaces where what we do, say, or share tears about requires no explanation. This year’s incoming freshman class will bring in six more African Americans — the highest number accepted yet.
We are now nine in total. You might think that this is a pretty dismal number, but I could almost cry — I never thought I’d see so many on campus before I graduated.
Now the real work begins. I can think of no greater honor than to be blessed with the challenge of creating a strong Black community abroad with my fellow African American students. I can’t wait to establish tradition, to make memories, and explore together.
My advice to the young Black men and women in America is this: Constantly expand, move across the globe, and set down roots. Do not let the fear of the unknown or the idea of being the only one scare you. Some may think that traveling the world and being a key figure in global conversations is out of our reach, when in fact it has never been so attainable. If you travel, you will discover that the world knows about our hair, our food, and our music; they just don’t know about us. So let’s show up and show out!