America, will you be okay?

When I was 5 years old, I remember laughing at American cartoons on Cartoon Network. When I was 9 years old, I remember being starstruck by the escapades of Hannah Montana. When I was 12, I remember listening to Taylor Swift. When I was 14, I remember making a list of American universities I wanted to apply to. When I was 15, I remember hearing news that my country was engulfed in anti-government protests. In April 2011, I woke up to protests and arrests in Damascus and news that my family would move to Turkey to get away from the volatile situation. In April 2014, I received an acceptance letter from a major university in the greater D.C. area that filled me with an indescribable hope. In Fall 2014, I moved to Washington D.C., and my family moved to Ankara. I remember my mother doing what she does best: "Did you pack your clothes?" "You should find restaurants that serve food similar to home." "Make sure to take sweaters and jackets, I heard it's cold in America." "Be careful, I love you." I remember my dad doing what he does best: "I'll book you a flight in first class so you're not tired after the long haul flight." "I'm opening an account for you with a Dutch bank because I don't want your life in America to be associated with Syrian money." "If you have any problems, call so-and-so family friend if you can't reach me." "Don't worry about money." "Be careful, I love you." That was 2 years ago and, in some ways, a lifetime ago. 

I started my education in America with the kind of hope and naïveté only first-time visa-holders and immigrants will ever understand. All around me, I saw disappointed and dissatisfied Americans: no jobs, high taxes, credit card debt, terrible dorm showers (valid worries, to be sure). I remember listening to them and smiling - I thought "do you know what you have? Do you have any comprehension of the advantages you've had purely because of the accident of birth to be complaining about slow university wifi?" I didn't think this way out of envy or spite at all, it was just a natural thought process - one I know for a fact that many international students go through. Imagine if you didn't have a country to call your own, a government and rebel force both hell-bent on oppressing your voice, other countries that sit in big conference rooms and sign agreements about you and your country without understanding the human faces behind the rubble. What you know about Syria from New York Times op-eds isn't enough - there are families behind the faceless destruction, there is profound love beyond the violence, there is hope far greater than what you can see in pictures.

Being American was never an ambition for me: I am proud to be Syrian and I knew I would go back someday - I just thought it would be on my own terms. I wanted to learn what I could from what I believed to be the greatest democracy on the planet. I wanted to learn about the past in ways I'd never thought about before, think about the present critically, and use my education in international relations to help whoever I could in the third world. My sophomore year I interned with the International Organization for Migration, because I knew from personal experience that there are very few pains greater than constantly searching for a place to call home. I love America in ways Americans themselves could never love America: for me, this was the gold standard - everything I hoped for my country, and for the world. Its thriving civil engagement and profound belief in rights and liberties was so incredible to me. Here was a nation where the unifying factor wasn't race, religion, or geography - it was ideas, plain and simple. Ideas such as civil liberties, free enterprise, equality before law, dynamism, and the one that struck me most: reinvention. A belief that the American Dream would be your tabula rasa, your second chance. I didn't have to believe in Islam or identify as a certain ethnic group to be here and thrive here: all I had to do was be myself. How amazing is that? This wasn't a land of opportunities as many would people say, it was a land of outcomes: be myself, and I'd become even more. I was thrown into the swirling matrix of world politics: hungry, ambitious, intelligent - I was ready to change the world. Of course, this was 2 years ago. 

Today, I am a Syrian in America in the aftermath of a caustic presidential campaign, living in DC under the shadow of a volatile anti-Islam, anti-immigration administration. Today, I'm the girl who got an email from her university saying her visa had been revoked. Today, I am the girl who briefly considered staying in America illegally anyway. Today, I am the girl who thought about tearing up her incriminating Syrian passport because I was afraid of what might happen if I had it on me. Today, I am a junior in a college I paid nearly $150,000 to and am leaving without finishing my education anyway. Today, I am a 20 year old Muslim Syrian woman in the United States, and in one week, I am flying to Turkey, because my home country - Syria - doesn't exist anymore for me to go back to and I am no longer welcome in my adopted country - the United States. 

My mother did what she does best: "Don't forget to pack everything." "Eat something before going to the airport." "Say goodbye to your friends and promise you will call." "Thank your professors." "Don't cry." "Be careful, I love you." My father did what he does best: " I booked you a first class ticket." "Don't be late to the airport!" "Don't forget your passport." "Don't get involved in any anti-Trump protests, who knows what could happen to a foreigner like you?" "I will pick you up at the airport myself." "Be careful, I love you." When I started writing this, I thought I would have a lot to say and that the anger, indignation , the fear, and betrayal would flow from me. Funny, there isn't that much to say at all: I'm just heartbroken. Doing the legwork to apply and come here was the hardest thing I've ever done, or so I thought. Of course, convincing the visa interviewers I wasn't anti-American was harder. Leaving my family was devastating. Acclimating to American culture was painful. In the end, I didn't finish my education, and I didn't quite change the world. Still, I'm not leaving filled with resentment or anger: I will finish my education in Canada or perhaps the U.K., and I will do all the things I promised myself I would do when the going was tough and I wanted to give up. My kid brother wants to study in America too - he's taking the SAT this June! I know his visa will probably be denied, but I'm going to go home and help him study for it anyway. You see, I still believe in the power of dreams. In the end, the only message I want to send out into the void is this: I will be okay. In fact, I intend to be great. And so will my brother, and millions of other Syrians praying and working for a better life. America, will you be okay? 

 

UPDATE: The author has relocated to England where she will be completing her studies. Thank you to those who reached out with suggestions and concerns. 

The author is a student in Washington D.C. The Editorial Board has decided to publish the following piece anonymously due to the sensitive nature of its content. We believe that this work is important and deserves to be shared but in order to protect the safety of the author, her name has been withheld. 

Photography by Jessica Li

Tiffany Tao