My best friend, a
What she has taught me and what we as global citizens must learn
By Ashley Fisseha, SPS graduate assistant | December 1, 2015
Unlike many American
friendships in college, we did not meet over cheap beer in a raucous, dingy
college bar. We did not meet in a residence or dining hall. We did not meet in
a sorority. We met in Arabic class. Aside from my husband, Jamila is my best
friend. She is also a refugee. She is also Muslim. She is also a wonderful
person, a professor, a volunteer. The lessons she (unknowingly) taught me will
stay with me for the rest of my life.
Her family initially
settled in Kenya as refugees from the Pakistan-India border. More than a decade
and three children later, her family resettled to a second location — Iowa.
Their father moved first, as is typical for many refugees. Then the rest of the
family moved. Jamila was eight years old when she left her friends and
everything she knew home to be. She quickly adjusted to her new school, learned
English, and made new friends.
It is easy to see a
refugee child’s everyday struggles: fitting in, taking care of their parents,
acting as the family’s interpreter, working as a teen, never staying out late.
But what about the additional layer of being a Muslim refugee in America?
particularly moves me. As I reflect on the recent terrorist attacks in Paris,
Beirut and elsewhere and on many state governors’ rash opposition to refugee
resettlement, I imagine how different my best friend’s life would be if she
were a new refugee.
My friendship with
Jamila, whose name I changed for this essay to protect her privacy, provides an
insight into Muslim refugee life I otherwise wouldn't see as part of the white
majority. Questions as simple as "Where are you from?" turn into
fiveminute superficial conversations peppered with skepticism. "Oh, so
you're Kenyan? Or Pakistani? Or Indian? Wait, you're Muslim? But what kind? So
... why do Muslims hate America?"
How is she, an
American woman who loves her country, supposed to answer that question? What is
expected of her? Should she take the easy route by answering with the expected,
or should she take it upon herself to speak on behalf of nearly a quarter of
the world’s population?
A story: One day our
friend, a Bosnian Muslim refugee, was driving home from Friday prayers wearing
a hijab. Sitting at a red light, a man next to her shook a cross at her,
honked, and proceeded to follow her. She was afraid to lead the man home, so
she drove around the neighborhood until he gave up. Another story: Our
Palestinian friend, also a refugee, grew up in the West Bank until she moved
with her father to the U.S., which accepted him as a refugee. Her father left
her grandmother behind and continues to feel guilty for it. Her grandmother
cannot visit her family. That means our friend has to wonder if her grandmother
is alive and well after every news clip airs after recent Israeli-Palestinian
The American majority
does not see these things, does not wonder if their grandmother was hurt in
conflict, does not wonder whether the person in the car next to them fears them
for what religion they follow, and does not have to answer on behalf of 1.6
The lessons Jamila
shared drive me to reflect in light of the recent terrorist attacks. Hate and
fear fuel these attacks with the intent to breed more hate and fear. It’s a
ploy to polarize our world. This is what Daesh survives on, and it is exactly
what we must not afford Daesh. We must not marginalize fellow human beings
brutalized by the same group.
After news broke
about state governors opposing refugee resettlement, I contacted Jamila in
disbelief. The governor of the state that once welcomed her now didn’t welcome
What would I ever do
without my best friend? How would her life be different? She wouldn’t be
teaching in a university. She wouldn’t have volunteered for a year in China.
She wouldn’t have invested in our economy. She wouldn’t have the appreciation
and love for America that she does now. By letting hate and fear cloud our
judgment and humanity, we lose the opportunity to see refugees as contributors
to society and as human beings.