Finding home in America is difficult these days

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

On this fourth of July, finding home for immigrants and minorities in the current political environment is a difficult conversation. While immigrants like me know we are home in the United States, some of our neighbors are questioning whether we really belong.  The recent SCOTUS decision upholding the Muslim Ban and the extraordinarily harsh treatment of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers on our borders sends a strong signal by this administration that recent immigrants don’t belong.

This is not the first time in U.S. history that immigrant communities have been treated this way. The Irish, Chinese, Latinos, Japanese, and even Germans and Italians during WWII, have been told they have no business calling America home.

People who make such claims forget that our founding document, the US Constitution, gives me as a U.S. citizen the right to say this is my home — whatever my origin.

But it’s not only the Constitution that makes me an American. I share the American ideals of democracy and pluralism, inclusion and equality, religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and all the other values reflected in that document.

I am also an American because I see myself and my fellow Muslims as part of America’s historical narrative, starting with enslaved Muslim Africans who made up between 20 and 30 percent of all the people forced into work in North America.

Unfortunately, many Americans don’t see me as one of them because I am neither Christian nor white of European origin. Like Jews, I’m a Semite—my people speak a Semitic language, Arabic—and, again like Jews, I look back to Abraham as my forefather.

Americans who think only white Christians are “real Americans” or the sole purveyors of American culture don’t understand what America represents. We are a new nation, but the original inhabitants of this land go back thousands of years before Europeans and other immigrants made it their home.

Nor did white Christians build this nation alone. The first settlers would not have survived without help from Native Americans, which is the foundation for another American holiday, Thanksgiving. And without the labor of enslaved Africans on plantations and elsewhere, this nation could never have attained the prosperity it did.

The same is true of the Chinese who built our railroads, the Mexicans whose farm labor is essential even today, of the Italians and East Europeans who worked in the factories—just to mention a few among the many diverse communities who have contributed to the building of this nation.

Yes, Americans of European origin held the purse strings and control of our industries and the seats of power, but the workers whose labor created their wealth hailed from all over the world, including a significant number of Muslims and Arabs.

And immigrants are still contributing.

My father, a psychiatrist, came to America in the 1960s with other Muslim doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and graduate students. He worked hard to pass the equivalency exams and held positions in several hospitals before establishing his own practice.

He adopted American culture immediately and became a Republican. His first presidential vote was for Richard Nixon. He drove a big clunky Ford station wagon, which took us on road trips across America to all sorts of national parks.

You can’t get more American than summer road trips to national parks.

My father also taught us to study, get good grades, go to good colleges, work hard, and live the American dream as he did. My family is typical of the vast majority of immigrant Muslim American families.

Even while suffering from the sting of Islamophobia, Muslim Americans still feel that they’re doing well in the United States according to recent polls — thriving and contributing as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs, and donating to charity.

I engage in non-profit work for a living; ING, the organization I work for, promotes interfaith engagement and religious literacy throughout the country.

Muslim Americans pay taxes, vote, and serve in the armed forces.

That’s why it’s not just heartbreaking, but a betrayal of everything that America stands for, to have to deal with the day-to-day vitriol against a community which is contributing so much to this country.

Inclusion and equality are what I am fighting for which is why we must counter Islamophobia with greater zeal and passion than the purveyors of hate.

On this July 4th, I vow to redouble my efforts to make sure that people who don’t understand what being a “real American” means don’t get their way, and that our country lives up to what is best in our heritage by welcoming everyone who considers America to be their home.