jdeena

Never settle for what is…come tomorrow it will be what was

Tag: education

The Trip That Changed Me

It’s been a month. And I am changed forever.
On November 14th, 2015 I embarked upon a mission like no other. I traveled to the country of Jordan for a medical mission with the organization I work for, the Syrian American Medical Society. My position in SAMS is to coordinate the medical missions from the US side, and to communicate with our Jordan office to set up the logistics. I’ve done this countless times over the past year and half that I’ve worked, but I wanted to gain real insight into our missions to better help the volunteers. And so I went.

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A side street in Zaatari. Photo taken by me.

 

I’ve spent time in refugee camps before. Growing up Palestinian, we used to travel to Palestine every summer to visit our family and reconnect with our homeland. I have seen the devastation that is a refugee camp; the run-down homes, the sense of resignation, the hopefulness of the people. Yet nothing could have prepared me for the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
I am the type of person who likes to stand strong in times of crisis. I am the one holding everyone together. I rarely cry in public, and sometimes even find myself holding back tears in private so as not to fall weak to my emotions. I know it’s not healthy, and one needs to express emotions, but this is why I write. So when I entered the refugee camp, I felt strong. I reminded myself that I was there to do a job, and that I needed to focus on my duties as a SAMS employee.
However, that went out the door as soon as we saw the first patient: an 18 year old girl who had a 6 month old child and was afraid she was pregnant again.
Those of you who know me well, know that I am a huge advocate for women all around the world. My goal is to run a nonprofit someday that focuses on empowering women through education and microfinance. So to see such a young girl already married with a child…well, it tore me apart. But it didn’t stop there. I saw women my age on their 7th or 8th child; women who were younger than me who looked 20 years older. I saw women who had hope in their eyes for a future outside the walls of the camp, but who knew realistically that may never happen.

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Me and Aseel; one of the most lovable children I met there.

The first night back at the hotel, I cried; in my room, the shades drawn, the lights off. I felt helpless and hopeless. I felt guilty that I lived a good life in the US, and these women had done nothing wrong yet they lived a life of misery. But I knew feeling sorry for them would do nothing to help.
For the rest of my time at Zaatari, I worked on talking to these women as if they were my friends. Many would notice my Arabic and come speak to me candidly about their lives. Some held out their children for me to hold and take pictures with. Many thanked me for just listening to them, and even more sent me home with an abundance of blessings for being there and helping out. I felt so unworthy of all of that praise.
My experience did not end there. The other group that pulled on my heart was the children. Specifically, the girls. In any type of situation where there is war and poverty, the girls suffer the most. When there is a lack of funds, a girl’s education is the first to be sacrificed. Because she cannot be educated, she is then married off young. The reason behind this is to preserve her safety and honor, as unmarried girls are susceptible to kidnapping and rape.
So many of the young girls that I met were bright, energetic, and driven. They had hopes for a future filled with school and careers. Many of them were continuing to learn on their own as the education cuts off for them around high school. Over the course of the week, I began to learn many of them by name. These girls would come up and ask me questions unabashedly- nothing was off limits for them. And I did my best to answer them honestly. Looking into their eyes as they spoke, I wondered what they were thinking. I wondered if they felt their status as a refugee. Many of them were in their early teens- I worried for these girls the most because I knew that unless they had a chance at higher-level education, they would be married off soon.

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Me and some of the beautiful girls I met.

Leaving Zaatari was like cutting out a piece of my heart. Since I’ve been back, there has been a dull ache in my chest. I am not sure what it is I am feeling, but something took a hold of me during my trip, and it won’t let go. I have the amazing opportunity to lead our next medical mission in Jordan in April 2016, so once again I will travel to Zaatari, and I hope to have some educational services to implement by then.
I know my work is far from done. I know I have so much more to do. I have started this journey and will not stop until I have created a lasting impact on the Syrian refugees in Jordan. I am still at the beginning of my legacy, but mark my words- that legacy will change the world.

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The Power of An Education

This past weekend, I had the pleasure and honor of speaking at Kent State University for the Arab Student Association’s Women’s History Month event: Modest Me. I haven’t done much public speaking in regards to Muslim women in a very long time, but I’ve never been shy about speaking in front of large groups. I was on a panel with two other influential women, Winnie Detwa (a fashion/lifestyle blogger) and Fatina Abdrabboh, (the director for the Michigan Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)).

We were given questions ahead of time to prepare, but the answers I gave were a lot of the same ideas that I present in my blog, so I didn’t have to write anything down. One thing really stood out to me throughout the event, and it was that the questions asked by the audience members came from an uneducated space. Which is completely acceptable; I am in no way saying this is a bad thing. Quite the opposite; these events are created for this exact reason. But this just reaffirmed a view I’ve always had about non-Muslims’ perception of us: they are simply uneducated.

I included in my introduction the clause that I welcomed any question, no matter how offensive it may seem. I wanted people to feel comfortable asking anything, because I feel that is the only way to truly seem approachable. I made sure to notice people’s reactions as the panelists spoke, and I saw a lot of nodding heads and smiles. It was important to also add in humor, which I wanted to do in order to make the subject a little less serious.

The best part of the night came at the end, after the event was over. I had students come up to me, thanking me for speaking on such an important topic. They told me they had learned so much from our talk, and many exchanged information with me so we could plan more events in the future. It really warmed my heart to know that in that span of two hours, I was able to reach over 200 students and give them a different view of Muslim women than what they see in the media.

This reaffirmed my belief that so many people have the wrong idea about Muslims, simply because they are uneducated. The proof of this lies in my daily interactions with people. I am always asked about my hijab at the gym, as many people don’t know that Muslim women- can in fact- work out! I am asked about it at the mall as I shop for clothes at Express, or as I buy $5 scarves at Charlotte Russe. It amazes me that as many Muslims as there are in my city, many have never spoken to one. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that we are unapproachable.

I cannot stress it enough; we NEED to be more approachable. That is the only way to show who Muslims truly are in this country. We can post articles on social media until our fingers are tired, but the only way to prove ourselves is by living our life and being the embodiment of a good Muslim in our society.

Another way to help educate is by pointing out the wrongs in people’s thought process when we hear them. We cannot allow false assumptions to be made and let go. I read a post today on an Instagram site I follow, and the girl was talking about how she was in an elevator at a hospital where she works. She overhead a woman saying all these awful (and incorrect) things about Muslims. Yet because she was at work, she couldn’t say anything to this woman. While I can understand that, I would have politely tried to approach the woman and ask her to check out some sites or visit a local mosque to learn more about Islam. Letting it go only adds to the fuel that woman has, and as she was talking to someone else, that is one more person who will have the wrong impression of Muslims.

However, I think that while there are many injustices happening to Muslims nowadays (as Fatina pointed out in our panel, anti-arab/Muslim hate is at an all-time high, even more so than 9-11), we cannot dwell on those. Because for every negative incident, there are so many positive ones. And to use those negative experiences as an excuse to turn the hate around on another group, is not only cowardly, but it contradicts the defense we use when a Muslim commits a crime and we disassociate ourselves from them. The hate/acceptance goes both ways.

Maybe I am a rare exception, but I rarely have negative experiences with non-Muslims. And I am giddy at the thought of being asked questions about my faith and culture. I NEVER get offended. And I’ve had some crazy questions haha.

So the next time you are given the opportunity to speak to someone about Islam or Arabs, take it. You never know who that person may be in contact with; you may end up passing knowledge that will travel across many groups. And if you encounter those very few who are so deep in their ignorance that no amount of education will dissipate, take a deep breath, smile, and move on. For people like that are not worthy of your time. Focus on what you CAN change, and eventually, we’ll get there.

Personification of a Female

I’m obsessed with social media. At any point of the day, you can find me with my phone in my hand, scrolling through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Some may call is obsessive, but I hardly ever watch TV and so I get all my news from articles posted by the local police, weather, and news stations.

So it’s no surprise that on a daily basis, I see posts made by friends on these sites that tend to irk me a little. For instance, the other day I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a mother post a picture of her daughter baking a cake and then washing the dishes. Underneath the picture was the caption: “future housewife in training.” My stomach roiled at the phrase. The girl was no more that 7 or 8 years old. Already, her mother was conditioning her to be a housewife. It unsettled me.

Why? Because we are still, as a society, giving girls the impression that they need to be good at cooking and cleaning so that they can be a good wife and mother, or else she is worth very little. Why not teach her to be an entrepreneur and give her the encouragement to start a lemonade stand? Or teach her about leadership and give her the tools to start a group with her friends that comes up with ways to help in society? Maybe you think I’m being dramatic, but it seems that all we do from the time a girl is born, is mold her into the future wife and mother you expect her to become.

Not all girls are meant to get married. Some may not have kids. Yet if this is what we continue to drill into their young, impressionable minds as they grow, they will reach adulthood and feel that if they do not adhere to these roles, they must be defective somehow. Women are meant to be more than just mothers and wives. They can contribute so much more to society if you would just let them. And while women can have a family and work, the stigma that surrounds a working mother makes her feel that she is selfish for wanting to do something for herself by working when she has children at home. I have heard it time and time again from a multitude of people: society and the values we used to hold dear have gone downhill because there is no mother at home, cementing these values and making sure the kids are brought up right. However, the blame should not be placed on the women; men have just as much responsibility in raising the kids as women do.

Too often we blame the woman for all that is wrong in society. Take rape for example. Women are taught to dress a certain way to fit into society, and when they are attacked by a rapist, they are told it is because the way they dress. Society has yet to take a stand against men and tell them that it doesn’t matter how a woman dresses; it gives them no right to rape them. The woman is told that she was raped because she brought it on, which leads to years of self-doubt and loathing. Men are now the superior gender in her eyes because as a female, she brought this upon herself. Just look at women overseas who are used as pawns in mens’ patriarchal games. A woman in India is raped by a man who was cheated by her brother as a punishment to the brother for his unprofessional business etiquette. Now that the woman is deemed impure by society’s standards, her brother will kill her in order to save the family’s honor. It is devastating and atrocious to see women used like this all over the world. And here we are in America, holding our daughters back from advancing by teaching them at a young age to be good housewives.

There is a balance. A woman can be successful and a great mother/wife. I will never think that any of my married friends are less than intelligent or accomplished. I can only imagine how hard being a mother is. I have seen enough glimpses of that life to know that it is not for me. But please, mothers, teach your daughters to be strong, independent, and successful women. It is the only way to truly secure their future. While marrying a great guy can give security, that security is fleeting. What will stay with a girl throughout her life will be the value that you invest her; value that no one will ever be able to take away.

Veiled Perception

On March 1, 1997, I made a decision that ultimately changed the course of the rest of my life. I started wearing the hijab.

I was a freshman in high school, and nothing could have prepared me for what was to become the defining characteristic in my being. I’ll admit; high school wasn’t easy. I endured a lot of snickering and pointing fingers. I had rumors made up about me. I lost friends. None of that mattered to me though because I had my Muslim friends outside of school who supported me. I was involved in my mosque and had a lot to be thankful for.

Then I started college. This was a whole new world for me. I was exposed to so many new experiences. I joined the usual activity groups like the Arab Student Union and Muslim Student Association. But then I was invited to join Student Government, and once I was in, the doors were flying open. I was so involved on campus that people knew me by name. My social circle expanded beyond the typical. I was now friends with many non-Muslims, and so things shifted a bit. I now had people asking me questions about Islam and my hijab. However, throughout all these inquiries, I remained myself. I acted as who I was, and never hid or altered my true being.

Truthfully, it was those from my similar background who judged me more than anyone else. They felt I was being “too liberal.” Just because I didn’t fit into the mold they expected me to fit in I was cast as a pariah. Looking back, I know now that those people didn’t know any better. Or maybe I’m just giving them the benefit of the doubt.

When 9-11 happened, I really thought my reign as campus queen would be over. I thought for sure the students on campus would turn the other way and hide under their ignorance. But I will never forget my first day back on campus after it all happened. I was in the Student Government office and one of my friends told me that she had been so worried about me and my family. And then she said something that has always been something I carry inside me. She said, “I don’t even notice the scarf on you anymore. At first it was something I saw, but now it’s just become a part of you that I don’t even see it anymore.”

I remember my eyes brimming with tears and my heart swelling with gratitude that I had found such an honest and compassionate person. It wasn’t just her though; the entire Student Government members echoed her sentiment. That was the day when I realized I could rule the world as a hijabi.

Since college, I have been afforded so many wonderful opportunities. I have never interviewed for a job and been denied for wearing the hijab. I have never been singled out in a crowd, or felt uncomfortable walking into a room. Yes, people stare at me at the mall. Yes, I have had some people make unnecessary comments to me. But hey, everyone gets stared at for some reason or another. People make derogatory comments to anyone, not just hijabis.

So, with all that being said, this is what I want to discuss: should Muslim women in America wait to wear the hijab until a much later age to avoid the perceived complications it may administer? Yes, wearing the hijab makes you stand out in society. Yes, Muslims have a negative image thanks to the media and extremists actions of a few. Is it fair to say though that hijab should be pushed aside until society is “more accepting?” I have heard some women say lately that they have a good standing with their childrens’ school, parents of their friends, and teammates. Meaning, that they feel they are giving a good image of Muslims, showing how modern and non-threatening we are. To them, wearing the hijab would make them seem “extreme.” They think that if they “win” these people over with their “normalcy” then 20 years down the road put on the hijab, these people will be more accepting. Also, they don’t feel that it is fair for their kids to have to explain to people why their mother “wears that thing on her head.”

I have to disagree.

I think that you can still present a positive image of Muslims as a woman who wears hijab. So what if your kids have to explain why you wear hijab? Are you ashamed to have them do that? Why is it such a big deal? It seems to me that although you feel you are being a modern Muslim, you are hiding what Islam really is. Hijab can be a beautiful thing, even “modern” as you so like to emulate.

It seems to me that what people want to do is “win” people over with their personality and then wear the hijab once they are confident that they will be accepted. However, no one ever said that wearing hijab was easy. You stick out like a sore thumb in society, especially here in the US. So there is a bit of a struggle, but that is to be expected. My job requires me to speak in front of 40 strangers every week and get them to trust and respect me enough to learn things that will help them become more successful at work. It may sound like it is hard, especially for a hijabi training mostly in the midwest, but it honestly is not.

I never feel uncomfortable or uneasy walking into a room. I’m not wondering if people are judging me or calling me a terrorist under their breath. If anyone has ever had any reservation about who I am, I have never heard it. What I HAVE heard, however, are people saying that they give me credit for wearing hijab in such an unforgiving society. I have girls who come up to me, grateful to see a minority female in corporate America. My hijab has given me more power and confidence than could have ever been thought imaginable.

So to all those women out there who don’t want to wear hijab because it will draw attention to them, I say this:

It’s best you don’t wear it until you are 100% invested. Even then, you will still have doubts. What you need to remember is that in our society, people will judge you no matter what. If it’s not for your hijab, it’s for your name. If not for your name, for your skin color. If not for that, then the color of your hair. You can choose to not wear hijab, but if you are seeking to live without judgement, you will never find that.

When I first got this job, I was in Chicago at dinner with my boss. Over our appetizers, he confided in me that he was worried about me training employees. I was confused as I asked him why. He told me he was afraid of how people would react to me. I personally had not thought of that, as those things never cross my mind. I almost laughed at him but I saw how serious he looked. He told me that when I walked into my interview, he instantly got nervous. Not because I was Muslim, but because he wasn’t sure how people would perceive me.

However, he said, by the end of the interview he no longer saw the scarf. All he saw was a great candidate for a trainer position. And that was when he knew that I would be okay.

This is my point, people. You CAN be viewed as just a normal person in society. Whether you have a hijab, a different skin color, an accent, or a non-traditional name, you can still be YOU. It may take a little longer for people to push past all that, but once they do they will see an amazing person. If they choose not to, well, then….that’s just their loss.