“Are you American?” I always struggled with this one, even though my cousins in Pakistan declared early on that since I had the accent, I was in. That, and of course, the much sought-after green card. I always thought it was my Western clothing style or my appreciation for good ‘ole country music.
My dad arrived in the Lone Star State in the hot summer of ’93 with nothing but a green Pakistani passport, my mother, baby me, and a small suitcase all topped with big dreams for a bright future in medicine. Raised in a spacious Midland home while making summer trips back to Karachi, my siblings and I picked up the beautiful Urdu language and an intense love for our culture and faith. But we also got a front-row seat to poverty, without ever having to experience it. We picked up terms like first-world and third-world, justice, and freedom. My cousins would playfully brag about their country as if it were not mine and I would brag about America.
When the Twin Towers tragically collapsed, my classmates told me that I was in some way associated with the terrorists involved. As if I was the culprit, my cheeks flushed with shame and uncertainty. Islam was not only questioned by the world, but by a frustrated 9-year old me at the dinner table for many nights after. The much bigger world was opening up before my eyes and I, at times, found myself conflicted with where I belonged on its vast map.
Moving north to Missouri a year later and excited to have a fresh start, we took to exploring the neighborhood on our bikes and recruiting comrades for our upcoming missions. Our chosen comrades had no specific criteria; they could be of any gender, race, color, background, or faith. No questions were asked except whether or not they were ready to fight against the unknown dark forces. And, of course, the youth came prepared with curiosity, courage, and all the best equipment necessary for a sturdy fort. We faced adventures together in our basement as underdogs who come out on top in the greatest journey known to mankind. The stories we shared at imaginary camps under dark, yet starlit ceilings are all we needed to escape a reality we did not understand. I did not realize I would have to leave my shelter behind so soon.
My father’s work moved us back to a Texas I was no longer familiar with, and I was starting high school with no friends and no confidence to start over again. I began to question what my parents got from leaving behind their motherland, family, and friends. Depression kicked in and my patriotism hit a new low. During this time though, our family of five huddled so close that we would look back fondly on these days. With them as my new comrades, I learned the importance of being able to maneuver the school hallways on my own. President Obama taking his seat in office as the first black president answered my previous doubts about my parents’ dreams for the priceless gift of freedom. The underdogs were rising as the face of the most powerful nation and I not only felt a strong sense of empowerment, but a warm sense of nostalgia.
The power to bring about change in my community started at George Mason University, a home that boasts its diversity as a strong asset. Through the deepest friendships, I now have a home in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Dubai, France, Sweden, Germany, Israel, Japan, Korea, and even India. The world’s vast map became much more accessible and suddenly, instead of searching for where I belonged, I wanted to explore it all.
Marches, demonstrations, spoken word poetry, and revolutionary art became my landscape for five years. Finding my own voice through the art of the written word, I joined the relentless resistance in the powerful Washington D.C. area as a Muslim, as a Pakistani minority, as a woman, and most importantly, as a fellow American. It did not take our naturalization last year to seal that deal. I realized that being American has nothing to do with the paperwork or the accent, but it has everything to do with the heart.
What naturalization has given me is easier access to both worlds. In fact, it has opened up the whole world to me in many ways I did not consider before. Personally, the greatest liberty of all is my right to vote and stir change. Having the chance to be on both sides of the spectrum when it comes to immigration, I am able to better understand why people continue to go through the process despite the uncertainty, long paperwork and waiting time.
What exactly makes the American dream a reality for people? It is the access we have to practicing the rights we have been granted and the chance to challenge the law where it might be weak or just downright broken, while also paving the way for empowerment for others. This is what America preaches. This is why I am proud to be American.
To reclaim our narratives, we must be willing to continuously stand up for justice again and again. We must make changes. As understanding makes way for change, the fort made with comrades from around the world will be a much more solid structure of peace than one touched by a single tribe.