Sunday, January 29, 2017

Who Tells Your Story?

On Friday, an executive order was signed by President Trump barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. He claimed they would be instituting more rigorous vetting procedures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States, despite the fact that the vetting process to get into America are already some of the strictest in the entire world.

"We don't want 'em here". You can find multiple sources on the unlikelihood of being killed by a radical religious terrorist of any faith all over the web, so I don't need to drag them here. I can say that you're more likely to be killed falling out of bed than you are by a Syrian refugee.

After this order was signed, those very same refugees that were making their way towards a sound night's sleep, mile by mile, had no idea they would be detained when they reached US soil or even sent back to the horrors they were fleeing from. This executive order has trapped innocent people escaping extreme violence in a horrifying limbo. People with permanent resident cards and visas are also unable to come back to the place the call home now, the place they're working and raising their family and studying.

In 1989, my mother packed up everything she could in a single suitcase (including VHS tapes of I Love Lucy) and brought my sister and I back to the United States to escape the political unrest that would eventually turn into the Gulf War. I have two passports and dual citizenship and the reality is not lost on me that if I decide to leave US soil, I may not be welcome back. Even flying home from New York City fills me with this sense of unease that I may be detained at the airport and denied due process. Rules and laws have been broken before, they're bring broken now, and I am afraid.

While thousands gathered in airport terminals around the country, blocking exits and demanding the released of those detailed, while lawyers worked tirelessly on their days off to assist in any way they could for free, I was doing something very different.

I, a queer Muslim immigrant, was sitting three rows from the stage of the Richard Rogers theater, watching a cast of people of color tell the story of another immigrant. I got my ticket way back in August. Back before we knew what would happen, back before Trump, before any pen hit paper. I saved every penny I made for six months, stashing it away and watching for tickets to go on sale. I finally managed to get one at face value when another round went on sale, but just barely. I wasn't even sure I had gotten a real ticket until they scanned it last night and actually allowed me in the building.

There was a part of me that didn't want to go, didn't want to be there when I could have taken a train to JFK. But the other part of me wanted nothing more than to hear the line "another immigrant coming up from the bottom". I've been fighting hard since November 9th. All I wanted was a little bit of reassurance. Say what you will about the actual Alexander Hamilton, and there's plenty to be said about the cultural aspect of the show itself, but all I wanted was my one, single line.

Everyone loves the line "Immigrants: We Get the Job Done", which received a thirty-second standing ovation, but the line that comes in the opening number of the show has always stuck with me, since the first time I heard the song a few years back. I have yet to meet an immigrant who doesn't work themselves to the bone to "make it", myself included. 

Lately, I've felt very lost in this new administration, but last night's show has planted a seed of purpose in me. It's inspired me to continue head-on into more school, to protect those who cannot protect themselves, to demand more for myself, to demand success from myself, to be nonstop and unrelenting, to do more than the bare minimum. 

The world's gonna know my name.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration 2017

On November 4th, 2008, I stood in line outside of the local library with about a hundred other citizens of Clay County, Florida waiting to cast our votes for the next President of the United States. It was a very sunny day, probably in the upper 70s, and a pleasant autumnal breeze kept us relatively comfortable as we shuffled slowly into the small room the library had reserved for voting purposes. I was one of the youngest people in line, newly nineteen years old, and I held my crisp Voter Registration Card and Driver's License in one hand and my iPod in the other. I spent two hours listening to now-defunct Pop Punk bands, but I had the perfect song ready for when it was my turn to enter the brooth: Aretha Franklin's "Think".

When the big wooden doors came into my view over the bend over and grayed heads of the only other demographic that might have a Tuesday off, I switched the song and held my cards out. I was ready. 

As I cast my very first vote in that little booth in my local library, Aretha sang "Freedom, Freedom" into my ear as I chose Barack Obama to lead me and the rest of the American people through the next four years. A lovely older woman handed me an "I Voted" sticker and let me know that Starbucks just across the way was giving out free coffees so I better go get one, which I did.

Huddled up in my room on my turquoise and magenta comforter, I watched as the votes rolled in. And when Barack Obama was declared the winner and every news station broadcasted huddled masses, holding each other and crying together, I too ventured outside of my home into a silent and empty street. And in that silence and darkness, I walked alone in my neighborhood, my mind finally realizing the reality of the events of that day. 

Mixed in with the chorus of just-leaving cicaidas and frogs hiding in the bushes of my rural neighborhood, Aretha Franklin sang "Freedom, Freedom" into my ear. My President was Black. Finally.

My interest in civic duties and government came from my senior year AP US History class. I didn't necessarily want to take that class, especially since I was already required to take American Government, but I felt pushed to take an AP class and that one seemed "easiest". It was not, by any means, easy. Just like America's happenstance into Independence, I struggled through that class. But I came out of it knowing more about our Constitution than anyone I had ever met. When we learned about the Constitution, I became obsessed. I needed more. I delved into the Bill of Rights, Thomas Paine, the Federalist papers, any law document I could get my hands on. I passed those two classes and I passed the AP exam and on our last day of class in May, my teacher told us something I'll never forget (mostly because he printed it on a handout that I kept and still have): 

When you turn eighteen, if you haven't already, you are going to be given an enormous amount of power. You are going to be given the right to vote. A right that many have fought and died for, the right that many still do not have. The responsibility to wield it will not come on the same day. It requires time and effort. It requires you to pay attention, even when you think you can't. Even when you don't want to. It requires you to ask hard questions to the people you respect the most and it will require you to ask those same questions of yourself. This power will lose you friends and maybe even family. In the moments when you think you don't matter or you can't make a difference, remind yourself of how powerful you are and how much that power can grow when you work for it.

This is something I thought about all summer and into the presidential campaigns that followed. I read everything I could on both candidates and as I was making my final decision of who to vote for, I felt an incredible weight. A responsibility to myself, to those around me, to those who would come after me. The choice I made did lose me friends, and it did change the relationship I had with my parents. But, I kept steadfast in my views. I believed in "Yes We Can". It was the first time in my life that I didn't let the opinions of others, especially my family, influence my decision. 

When I stood in line to vote for the first Black President, I felt that power. I felt strong. And when the decision was finalized, I felt calm but didn't cry. I'm a crier so this was very new. It wasn't until I watched the Inauguration on TV that I finally let myself feel everything I wanted to feel all at once. I cried as it became real, really real, right there in front of me. I cried as I watched history books be written right before my own eyes. Right next to Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas morning, right next to the moon landing.

I felt the same sense of responsibility and power when I voted in the midterm elections, when I voted again in 2012, again for my Black President who had gone grayer and disappointed me a few times, but still got my vote.

When the DNC announced that Hilary Clinton would be running for president, and not Bernie Sanders like I had hoped and worked for, I was again disappointed by the process but still put my full support behind her. I reminded myself on the people who relied on my voice, the future generations that would need her in office. I needed her in office. She, too, would go next to Washington crossing the Delaware, the moon landing, and Barack Obama. America needed to continue our upward motion, our progress, our growth. I remember holding my absentee ballot against my chest, hoping that by some weird cosmic...something, I could imbue it with everything I wanted America to be and said a prayer that it would get to the election office safely.

The evening of November 8th is almost a blur, but I'll never forget it. I sat in the corner of my best friends' home, laptop open, refreshing CNN every thirty seconds and stress eating kettle corn. I had recently suffered a fair few personal losses: loss of a job, some friendships shattering, an even deeper gouge in the relationship with certain family members, my health insurance. I needed a win.

As we know, that win didn't come.

I suddenly felt so many things I've campaigned for, marched for, wrote my representatives about, I felt them slip through my fingers. A woman's right to choose, access to affordable healthcare for those who were previously uninsurable, freedom to practice my religion without undue persecution, the constitutional right to move freely in and out of the US. All of it was suddenly gone.

In the days after the election, I and those around me became fueled by anger to protect those rights and privleges that we had fought eight years for. With our votes, our time, our money, our resiliance. We were not going to give those things up. I called every representative, I spoke my truth and the truths of others. I supported the representatives who would fight for me in DC, and I questioned those who would not. 

I didn't watch any Inauguration coverage today. I will not give views to someone who sustains himself on celebrity and lies. I will not watch his motorcade pass by empty bleachers, I will not relish in the poor turn out, I will not smirk at the barren DC streets.

I chose to do something else on this Inauguration Day: I chose to write Islamic fantasy stories. I chose to have ice cream for breakfast. I chose to prepare for the Women's March, I chose to reach out to my friends who are scared and those who will feel the sting of this regime the most to let them know I care and that I'll always listen.

I chose to get ready to fight, to strengthen the power of my voice, to let Washington know that I still believe in America's original de facto motto "E pluribus unum" or "Out of many, One", I still believe in the power of my vote, in civic duties, that I'm not afraid of the very platform they built themselves up on.

I chose to live today, in the same way I have lived everyday up until now: By being kind, compassionate, empathetic, and proud to be part of the American experiment. 

I chose to remember today, and be ready for tomorrow.

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