I learned I was undocumented very early on in life. When I moved to Brooklyn from Egypt at the age of three, I was filled with hope and excitement. I heard stories about how safe America was, how the promise of jobs and opportunity was everywhere. My education would be free, accessible and unparalleled. I couldn’t believe our luck.
My father had been living in the United States legally for 10 years at the time, spending years applying to bring us along with him. When we were finally granted a visa, I couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of how this long journey would impact my life. We were the only family in my small Egyptian village to have gotten this incredible gift. The distracting promise of a new life, a new world, and the opportunity to be reunited with my father blinded me completely to the tremendous sacrifice my mother was now making for us. Not only had she been raising us alone for years, she was now compelled to leave her world, her sister, her friends, and the town she called home. She did what all immigrant parents do: she sacrificed her world for the future of her offspring.
A few months after we moved, the horrific 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers occurred just blocks away from where my father was working. My visibly Muslim family – my father, a clear black-brown man, and my mother who covers her head to follow the Muslim tradition of modesty – became clear targets for hate crimes. It was impossible to ignore the clear isolation my identity created for me in my world. It was impossible to ignore the looks, the words, and the attacks. It’s interesting to live a life where you are taught that you have to constantly be on your best behavior. If somebody yells at you and calls you a terrorist – smile and show that that you belong to a community of nice, kind people. “It’s up to you to show the world that Arabs and Muslims aren’t what the media portrays us to be,” my mom would always tell me.
The isolation I felt made it no surprise that I was rendered undocumented. My family’s numerous applications to renew our visa were continuously denied, something many lawyers attributed to our last name, “Ahmed,” a clearly Muslim surname.
Like others in my position, being undocumented in New York City, a “sanctuary city”, did not dramatically influence my life before college. Community centers like the Arab American Association of NY provided my parents with resources to enroll us into school, access affordable health care, and most importantly, provided a community that we belonged to. In 2012, when President Obama passed his executive order legalizing DACA, a government system which provided me the opportunity to apply for college, live without fear of deportation, and the legal opportunity to work, I felt that it was only a matter of time before I would be just like everybody else.
When I applied to college and was subsequently accepted to NYU, my dream school – I saw it as a way out, a one-way ticket out of poverty, and into the opportunities my family sacrificed their world to provide for me. I went to NYU for two years. I worked my butt off to make it on the dean’s list in order to maintain the scholarships I was given, and a week before my Junior year, I received a one page letter from my scholarship organization saying, “Due to to recent policy changes, we will no longer be providing scholarships or private loans to students under DACA.”
This one page letter followed me into years of fighting for my own education, a basic human right. I was forced to drop out of school and work full-time. I worked for Apple for two years, trying my hardest to afford to go back to NYU. I realized soon after dropping out that there would be no way I would be able to afford school, while managing the tremendous financial responsibility of maintaining my DACA status. I applied for many DACA-specific scholarships, only to realize a majority of them are specific “Hispanic” scholarships, a group I didn’t belong to.
Every two years, I’d have to pay over 5,000 dollars plus legal fees only to be treated like a criminal as I get fingerprinted, medically-tested and further looked into by the USCIS in order to maintain my DACA status.
The intersectional identity of being both undocumented and Muslim continuously closed doors for me. It made me angry at my friends, who didn’t realize the tremendous privilege they had to be able to apply for financial aid, and easily navigate through college in America. It made me hyper-aware of the injustice and racism of the United States immigration system. Every two years, I’d have to pay over 5,000 dollars plus legal fees only to be treated like a criminal as I get fingerprinted, medically-tested and further looked into by the USCIS in order to maintain my DACA status.
I am finally back in school, after years of working in order to afford it. As a student at Hunter, a public college of NY, I am now a member of one of the largest undocumented student bodies in the country. I still continuously have to take years and semesters off at a time in order to afford attending school, I still live in constant fear of deportation, and I still realize that my status in the United States, the only place I consider home, is far from permanent.
The current administration’s fight to remove DACA has caused me to live in a world of uncertainty, once more. It’s a world that questions if anything I’m working towards matters, if I’ll ever be able to finish my degree. I live everyday with the thought of losing everything, in a split-second. I think of my parents, my brothers, my community. I think about potentially never seeing them again, everyday. I think about the stress I impose onto them having to worry about something as crazy as losing me forever. It’s a tremendous burden you can’t understand unless you live it, like I do, everyday. I live in constant worry of losing my rights, losing any rights, having some government body decide and dictate where I go, completely against my will.
It is a real possibility that I may have to leave the United States, and with the current privatized prisons that are being directly associated with deportations, I also fear being imprisoned if DACA gets rescinded. It’s a reality I am aware of, and prepared for. Being in this situation, you have to prepare. It’s the only way to claim agency over your life, when so much is out of your hands. I spent many years closeted with my immigration status, but I’ve decided to go out with a bang. We all deserve basic human rights. The thoughts I had about what America would mean for me has stayed true. I know I have to fight, but it’s a fight worth fighting. I’ll always fight for my right to stay in this country. I’ll do that by contributing to this world to the best of my ability, by sharing my story, and staying strong.
Despite it all, I will continue to declare that I am undocumented. I will continue to declare who I am, and no matter what, I will always maintain ownership of my own identity.