If the United States is able to bring as many of Syrian refugees to its shores as proposed, the country will undergo a cultural transformation. The creation of a new cultural identity as Arab Americans, spring from such tragedy, will be bittersweet.
I was born as an Iraqi-American in New York 30 years ago. My family came to the United States having fled the Ba’athist regime and an endless barrage of wars, declared and undeclared, by land and air, that had plagued their homeland for decades.
At that time, there was not much of an Arab-American population to speak of. Growing up with a unique cultural and ethnic identity and few people with whom to relate, I felt isolated. It was as though the ancient and embattled history I carried with me was a strictly private affair, taking place within my own heart and mind.
My belonging to an indigenous Iraqi ethnoreligious minority, the Mandaeans, amplified this feeling. I could not see my own people even in the few Western Asians who were around me, because they were mainly of Muslim Arabian descent.
The new Arab-Americans
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, this began to change somewhat. My family were visiting the homes of newly arrived Iraqi refugees to welcome them to the U.S. and assist them in the process of settling here. Some of these people were even Mandaeans.
They represented a new guard of Iraqis in diaspora. My family came from the leftist movements of the decolonization period of the late ’50s and early ’60s under the overthrown nationalist government of Abdel-Kareem Qasim. But these people were reared from birth in the perpetual war zone of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. They had never seen peace.
When I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school in 2011, I found that this burgeoning Arab-American population was greater than I had imagined. Arabic-speaking peoples had felt the effects of the continually escalating conflicts in Western Asia for years. From the Northeast to the Southwest, they live, work, study and attempt to create normal lives for themselves with the memories of hardship and brutalization behind them.
My encounter with Arab Americans in such numbers was surreal. It shattered the privacy of my experience. My identity, which I had constructed independently in the absence of a real community, was facing a contrast.
At the same time, however, the solidarity to be felt between us was naturally undeniable. In 2013, NewsWorks reported on the experiences of Iraqi immigrants newly calling themselves Philadelphians. The sentiments these immigrants expressed were, of course, all resoundingly familiar to me: their feelings of alienation, their difficulties assimilating, and the casting aside of shallow differences such as religion and ethnicity.
I got to know some of these new Arab Philadelphians a few years ago when I worked temporarily at an immigration law firm, translating the affidavits of Arabic- and French-speaking asylum applicants into English. I also came into close contact with survivors of the Syrian civil war, and became acquainted with their struggles. One young Syrian man applying for asylum had been approached by members of the Syrian Free Army at a gym and pressured to kidnap members of the family of President Bashar al-Assad. When he refused, he found his life in danger both from the rebels and from the Assad regime, which suspected him of colluding with the rebels.
A bittersweet transformation
The entry into Philadelphia of people escaping such conditions does not show signs of slowing. Last month, President Barack Obama promised that he would admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States over the next 12 months. His administration made this announcement after Washington had come under fire for not doing enough to aid in the Syrian refugee crisis. During his U.S. visit, Pope Francis increased the pressure on the government to move on the president’s promise. In his address to Congress, the pope stressed his position of charity and acceptance toward these people in need.
The crisis is indeed severe. According to MercyCorps, the four-year Syrian Civil War has killed over 220,000 people to date, and the U.N. has estimated 7.6 million people are internally displaced there. With Russia intervening in the region, launching airstrikes on ISIS targets, the already tremendous number of people fleeing to the bordering countries of Jordan and Lebanon is expected to swell.
If the United States is able to bring as many of these people to its shores as proposed, the country will ostensibly undergo a cultural transformation. Arab peoples may constitute a legitimate ethnic minority, as they have for many years in countries such as France, Spain and Great Britain. A new people will emerge, with its own identity, its own cultural standards, its own aesthetics, its own folkways and mores. The Arab Americans, another amalgamated people resulting from the collision of nations, as with African Americans and Latinos, will begin to affirm their selfhood.
Philadelphia, with its already comparatively large Arab community, will be among the first to witness the birth of this distinct cultural identity. It is a happy occurrence to find myself in a city where the Arab community is substantial, at the cusp of a new era in which many people like me will be born. As these newcomers walk through the streets of some yet-unbuilt Arab quarter analogous to Chinatown, where the vendors speak Arabic, the signs are in Arabic, young Arabs sit in the terraces smoking nargila (hookah), and radios are placed on the sidewalks blasting the music of Feirouz and Abdel-Haleem Hafeth, they will have something I did not have: markers against which to measure their own notions of what it is to be an Arab American and an Arab Philadelphian.
It is a bittersweet reflection, both for its departure from my memories and for the tragedies from which it springs. Such is the way of history.