“Where are you from?” she asks me as I pay for my Gatorade.
“Wisconsin,” I respond automatically, wondering if I should make a joke about not finding a bubbler here in Florida.
She glances at me, taking in my headscarf and my darker complexion. She laughs at a joke I don’t comprehend. “No honey, where are you really from?”
I think I’ve always known that I don’t fit the mold of the standard American, whatever that may be. I’m brown. I wear a headscarf. I wear long sleeves in the middle of summer. If there’s a checklist for the “Not American” phenotype, I can probably cross off most of the items on there. But I was born in Chicago. I lived in Milwaukee for most of my life. And though I’m multilingual, I talk to myself in English. Legally speaking, I’m as American as they come. Unfortunately, my ancestors never arrived on the Mayflower. They came the unconventional way—by plane.
Over the last few months, immigration has become one of the most talked about political issues, bringing with it vitriolic racism disguised as self-preservation. As a first generation American, I find the stance on migrants alarming. Having often been mistaken for an immigrant, I have seen the shift in attitudes. Questions that were once asked out of genuine curiosity now contain barely veiled hostility.
I have noticed that when it suits our purposes, our land’s history is conveniently ignored. We pretend to forget about the land bridge that connected two continents, allowing for the first settlers to disperse into various tribes across North America. We rarely mention that the Pilgrims were immigrants hoping for religious freedom. We tend to shy away at the mention of slavery, rightfully uncomfortable with the knowledge that innocents were forced to leave behind their homes and were stripped of their humanity. Our country is what it is today because of these patterns of migration. To treat immigrants as a threat, regardless of their status as refugees, asylum seekers, or work professionals, is to deny a crucial part of the American makeup.
Part of the reason why I feel strongly about immigration is due to the role migrants play in my faith. The Quran details extensively the Children of Israel leaving Egypt to escape the oppression they faced under the tyranny of the Pharaoh. This day is so important to us that Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to commemorate the event. Islamic history mentions the early Muslims fleeing in the dead of the night to seek protection in the kingdom of the Christian king, Negus. The Prophet Muhammad himself had to leave his home behind as he left Makkah for Madinah. The concept of leaving behind all that is familiar for religious freedom is a common motif in my faith tradition. Given my own connection as the child of immigrants and the correlation to my religion, I have a personal stake in the narrative of this conversation.
The discrimination towards immigrants and those who we perceive to be foreigners based on religious and ethnic stereotypes colors interactions between the two groups. The creation of an ingroup and outgroup based on prejudiced beliefs only adds to the problem. With tensions continuing to rise as the issue is given more media coverage, I know my place in the country I call home will be questioned. But I remain hopeful that this land that birthed me and cradled me beneath its stars and stripes will not turn its back on me, not when its pride is in the basic freedoms it guarantees.
– Ufaira Shaik