It was my first time to travel abroad and I worked so hard to make it happen, for it is not easy for an Upper-Egyptian conservative family to let their only daughter travel very far away from home on her own. After being accepted by Fulbright to take part in a cultural exchange program that entails spending an academic year at an American university to assist in teaching Arabic, I was also allowed to audit some courses. I started a very long flight to the United States including two layovers and I was overwhelmed by the new experience I was about to have when I started my flight from Cairo International Airport.
I was thinking that I would land in a new country with a welcoming atmosphere and friendly people but I think I was too optimistic because this was not the case, especially for a hijabi girl who can be easily recognized as a Muslim. On my way to Santa Barbara, CA, I entered the plane looking for my seat and I found it next to an already seated man. Once he saw me, he looked uncomfortable. When he realized that I was going to sit next to him, he instantly asked the flight attendant to find him another seat. I was very offended but thought to myself “he is one in millions, you won’t meet people like him again”.
The next incident took place so soon when I was in a restaurant and a man kept glaring at me as if he was saying “get out of my country”- I could not interpret him giving me such long dirty look otherwise.
I kept telling myself, the racists I meet do not represent the whole country. Moreover, all the people who were nice to me are still engraved onto my heart and memory. I thought whatever I go through does not matter if they are random people I do not know. But by the last quarter, the situation got worse when I was in a class and the professor mentioned 9/11 attacks and looked at me. Honestly, I do not remember why he mentioned it because everything he said before looking at me was erased from my memory.
As per the terms of my program, I was receiving money from the university every quarter in separate checks. I had to go to a financial officer in the same building as my office to receive my checks. Sometimes when the officer was absent or must leave early, she leaves me the checks with another employee who never replied my greetings, smiled at me, or talked to me unless necessary. She made me feel like I was getting her money, not mine.
This description was not everything I experienced, but I just do not want to waste my time and upset myself remembering such bad things.
Although I am a very strong girl, deep inside, I felt vulnerable then. Furthermore, I felt unwelcome in this country which made me think many times of canceling my program and going back. The only one who always supported me and was extremely nice to me was my Egyptian-American supervisor. In a certain way, she gave me strength and I finished my program. But what hurts me the most is what those people could do to me. After meeting one racist by another, I was looking at any one I meet almost every day – even my students – and ask myself “Are they a racist too, like the people I met?!”. On one hand, I was very surprised how could some bad people make me so skeptical.
On the other hand, there is one thing I learned. Wherever I will go, I will make sure to enjoy my time. And for racists, accept it or not, I am here, the world is as mine as it is yours- try to coexist or do not go out of your home.
I will not allow you to ruin again any future experience I might have.