America, Land of Opportunities

Making my dreams come true
By Dina Abo Sheasha

My mom’s voice echoed through the house: “We are going to America.” As a young Egyptian Muslim girl living in Doha, Qatar, the idea of America was a dream to me—or more specifically, the land of dreams. I saw America as the land of opportunity—beautiful lifestyles, success, happiness, skyscrapers and a melting pot of different cultures.
My parents always worked hard to find ways to improve life for my siblings and me, as they wanted us to have a better future and more opportunities than what they had. This would become a reality in the summer of 2002, as their search focused on how to secure the best education possible for us. At the time, my mom heard about the green card lottery, which only about one out of 100 people would win. She applied for it, and to her big surprise, she received the letter that we were the lucky winners. 

We first visited New York City in 1999. Even though we were focused on familiarizing ourselves with the country and its culture, going through the green card application process and finding a new place to settle, it was packed with fun memories and outings that I still cherish to this day. This is when I really fell in love with this country. I fell in love with the people and how they would smile at you and wave when your eyes met (that was a foreign idea to me). People were so friendly, and I loved it. I also loved how much diversity there was. It was truly a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” like Alicia Keys says. 

As the eldest child, my parents decided that I would be the first to attend an American school as a senior in high school. We agreed that it would be safer for me to move to Iowa and stay with a close family because of the crime rates we’d seen in New York City. I was happy to have had the amazing “vacation” experience in New York City, so it was painful to leave behind the family, close friends and loved ones that helped shape who I am to go to an unknown place to start all over. I was scared and overwhelmed. It was the hardest goodbye as I held my dad tightly at the airport like a little girl afraid to get lost in the crowd. It was the first time I had seen my dad cry—he was a tough guy who had said a lot of goodbyes in his life, from his dad dying when he was a toddler to his mom dying when he was in high school. 

Iowa was certainly very different from New York. In addition to the abundant cornfields, one thing that stood out was the lack of diversity. This was the beginning of my culture shock. There weren’t a lot of brown people like me around. People were generally friendly and welcoming, but I had a hard time making close friendships because I was still learning English. The American accent was hard to understand, and I felt that people talked so fast that I couldn’t follow what they were saying. 

By senior year, the students had already made their own circles of friends. On my first day of school, I noticed something odd. At lunch, the Black kids were sitting together at one table, international kids were at another (of course I was one of them) and white kids were at the other 15 tables. This caused me some discomfort, but I didn’t want to think too much about it since I had other things to deal with and a lot to learn. 

At my table, I got to know kids from Brazil, Germany, India, Venezuela and Mexico. I loved meeting people from different countries, but I really wanted to make American friends. I was self-conscious about my English, though, and I thought they wouldn’t want to waste their time talking to someone with broken English.    

My parents called me twice a day every day during high school to make sure I was OK. I didn’t want to tell them how hard the experience was since they were already worried about me, and I didn’t want to add to their pain. 

As an immigrant, your brain is wired differently. After leaving family, friends and loved ones and making sacrifices to create a better future, there’s a lot of pressure to make sure it’s worth it. I wanted to reach that American dream and make my family proud. I attended the University of Iowa as planned. My dream was to start my own business someday.

College was more diverse; I made lots of friends, and my English improved. I had always been fascinated by how people communicate as individuals, in society and interculturally, so I chose communication studies as my major. I also studied entrepreneurship management because I knew I needed to have that knowledge to pursue my dream of having my own business. 

I have always hated the negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. media. The racial stereotypes often show Arabs as barbaric terrorists and aggressive people and women as being oppressed and without a voice. I want to be an example to show that we are not how the media portrays us. I have never been oppressed; I’m a strong Muslim woman who pursued her own dreams, and there are many Muslim women like me. I try not to get offended if I receive questions that show ignorance or stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. I don’t blame people because I know that there have been years of misleading information in society and in the media about “others” that are not like “us.” I look at it as an opportunity to enlighten others. I know this is how I can make a difference in society. 

This is the very simple idea of Islam: Treat people with kind words and good deeds. It’s so easy to get angry and defensive; it’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to try to understand why they feel and think the way they do.  

I’m now a mother of three kids, a wife and a small business owner, and we call Rochester home. I want to raise my children to be proud of their identity and history and to be active members in society. They are different and that is beautiful.