I remember when I first found out I was going to speak at a TED conference. I ran across the hall to one of my classrooms to inform my students.
"Guess what, guys? I've been asked to give a TED Talk."
The reaction wasn't one I quite expected. The whole room went silent.
"A TED Talk? You mean, like the one you made us watch on grit? Or the one with the scientist that did this really awesome thing with robots?" Muhammad asked.
"Yes, just like that."
"But Coach, those people are really important and smart."
"I know that."
"But Coach, why are you speaking? You hate public speaking."
"I do," I admitted, "But it's important that I speak about us, that I speak about your journeys, about my journey. People need to know."
The students at the all-refugee school that I founded decided to end with some words of encouragement.
"Cool! It better be good, Coach."
There are 65.3 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes because of war or persecution. The largest number, 11 million, are from Syria. 33,952 people flee their homes daily. The vast majority remain in refugee camps, whose conditions cannot be defined as humane under anyone's definition. We are participating in the degradation of humans. Never have we had numbers this high. This is the highest number of refugees since World War II.
Now, let me tell you why this issue is so important to me. I am an Arab. I am an immigrant. I am a Muslim. I've also spent the last 12 years of my life working with refugees. Oh — and I'm also gay. It makes me really popular these days.
But I am the daughter of a refugee. My grandmother fled Syria in 1964 during the first Assad regime. She was three months pregnant when she packed up a suitcase, piled in her five children and drove to neighboring Jordan, not knowing what the future held for her and her family. My grandfather decided to stay, not believing it was that bad. He followed her a month later, after his brothers were tortured and his factory was taken over by the government. They rebuilt their lives starting from scratch and eventually became independently wealthy Jordanian citizens.
I was born in Jordan 11 years later. It was really important to my grandmother for us to know our history and our journey. I was eight years old when she took me to visit my first refugee camp. I didn't understand why. I didn't know why it was so important to her for us to go. I remember walking into the camp holding her hand, and her saying, "Go play with the kids," while she visited with the women in the camp. I didn't want to. These kids weren't like me. They were poor. They lived in a camp. I refused. She knelt down beside me and firmly said, "Go. And don't come back until you've played. Don't ever think people are beneath you or that you have nothing to learn from others."
I reluctantly went. I never wanted to disappoint my grandmother. I returned a few hours later, having spent some time playing soccer with the kids in the camp. We walked out of the camp, and I was excitedly telling her what a great time I had and how fantastic the kids were.
"Haram!" I said in Arabic. "Poor them."
"Haram on us," she said, using the word's different meaning, that we were sinning. "Don't feel sorry for them; believe in them."
It wasn't until I left my country of origin for the United States that I realized the impact of her words.
After my college graduation, I applied for and was granted political asylum, based on being a member of a social group. Some people may not realize this, but you can still get the death penalty in some countries for being gay. I had to give up my Jordanian citizenship. That was the hardest decision I've ever had to make, but I had no other choice. The point is, when you find yourself choosing between home and survival, the question "Where are you from?" becomes very loaded. A Syrian woman who I recently met at a refugee camp in Greece articulated it best, when she recalled the exact moment she realized she had to flee Aleppo.
"I looked out the window and there was nothing. It was all rubble. There were no stores, no streets, no schools. Everything was gone. I had been in my apartment for months, listening to bombs drop and watching people die. But I always thought it would get better, that no one could force me to leave, no one could take my home away from me. And I don't know why it was that morning, but when I looked outside, I realized if I didn't leave, my three young children would die. And so we left. We left because we had to, not because we wanted to. There was no choice," she said.
It's kind of hard to believe that you belong when you don't have a home, when your country of origin rejects you because of fear or persecution, or the city that you grew up in is completely destroyed. I didn't feel like I had a home. I was no longer a Jordanian citizen, but I wasn't American, either. I felt a kind of loneliness that is still hard to put into words today.
After college, I desperately needed to find a place to call home. I bounced around from state to state and eventually ended up in North Carolina. Kindhearted people who felt sorry for me offered to pay rent or buy me a meal or a suit for my new interview. It just made me feel more isolated and incapable. It wasn't until I met Miss Sarah, a Southern Baptist who took me in at my lowest and gave me a job, that I started to believe in myself. Miss Sarah owned a diner in the mountains of North Carolina. I assumed, because of my privileged upbringing and my Seven Sister education, that she would ask me to manage the restaurant. I was wrong. I started off washing dishes, cleaning toilets and working the grill. I was humbled; I was shown the value of hard work. But most importantly, I felt valued and embraced. I celebrated Christmas with her family, and she attempted to observe Ramadan with me.
I remember being very nervous about coming out to her — after all, she was a Southern Baptist. I sat on the couch next to her and I said, "Miss Sarah, you know that I'm gay." Her response is one that I will never forget.
"That's fine, honey. Just don't be a slut."
I eventually moved to Atlanta, still trying to find my home. My journey took a strange turn three years later, after I met a group of refugee kids playing soccer outside. I'd made a wrong turn into this apartment complex, and I saw these kids outside playing soccer. They were playing barefoot with a raggedy soccer ball and rocks set up as goals. I watched them for about an hour, and after that I was smiling. The boys reminded me of home. They reminded me of the way I grew up playing soccer in the streets of Jordan, with my brothers and cousins. I eventually joined their game. They were a little skeptical about letting me join it, because according to them, girls don't know how to play. But obviously I did.
I asked them if they had ever played on a team. They said they hadn't, but that they would love to. I gradually won them over, and we formed our first team. This group of kids would give me a crash course in refugees, poverty and humanity. Three brothers from Afghanistan — Roohullah, Noorullah and Zabiullah — played a major role in that. I showed up late to practice one day to find the field completely deserted. I was really worried. My team loved to practice. It wasn't like them to miss practice. I got out of my car, and two kids ran out from behind a dumpster, waving their hands frantically.
"Coach, Rooh got beat up. He got jumped. There was blood everywhere."
"What do you mean? What do you mean he got beat up?"
"These bad kids came and beat him up, Coach. Everybody left. They were all scared."
We hopped into my car and drove over to Rooh's apartment. I knocked on the door, and Noor opened it. "Where's Rooh? I need to talk to him, see if he's OK." "He's in his room, Coach. He's refusing to come out." I knocked on the door.
"Rooh, come on out. I need to talk to you. I need to see if you're OK or if we need to go to the hospital."
He came out. He had a big gash on his head, a split lip, and he was physically shaken. I was looking at him, and I asked the boys to call for their mom, because I needed to go to the hospital with him. They called for their mom. She came out. I had my back turned to her, and she started screaming in Farsi. The boys fell to the ground laughing. I was very confused, because there was nothing funny about this. They explained to me that she said,
"You told me your coach was a Muslim and a woman." From behind, I didn't appear to be either to her.
"I am Muslim," I said, turning to her. "Ašhadu ʾan lā ʾilāha ʾilla (A)llāh," reciting the Muslim declaration of faith. Confused, and perhaps maybe a little bit reassured, she realized that yes, I, this American-acting, shorts-wearing, non-veiled woman, was indeed a Muslim.
Their family had fled the Taliban. Hundreds of people in their village were murdered. Their father was taken in by the Taliban, only to return a few months later, a shell of the man he once was. The family escaped to Pakistan, and the two older boys, age eight and 10 at the time, wove rugs for 10 hours a day to provide for their family. They were so excited when they found out that they had been approved to resettle in the United States, making them the lucky 0.1 percent who get to do that. They had hit the jackpot.
Their story is not unique. Every refugee family I have worked with has had some version of this. I work with kids who have seen their mothers raped, their fathers' fingers sliced off. One kid saw a bullet put in his grandmother's head, because she refused to let the rebels take him to be a child soldier. Their journeys are haunting. But what I get to see every day is hope, resilience, determination, a love of life and appreciation for being able to rebuild their lives.
I was at the boys' apartment one night, when the mom came home after cleaning 18 hotel rooms in one day. She sat down, and Noor rubbed her feet, saying that he was going to take care of her once he graduated. She smiled from exhaustion. "God is good. Life is good. We are lucky to be here."
In the last two years, we have seen an escalating anti-refugee sentiment. It's global. The numbers continue to grow because we do nothing to prevent it and nothing to stop it. The issue shouldn't be stopping refugees from coming into our countries. The issue should be not forcing them to leave their own.
How much more suffering, how much more suffering must we take? How many more people need to be forced out of their homes before we say, "Enough!"? A hundred million? Not only do we shame, blame and reject them for atrocities that they had absolutely nothing to do with, we re-traumatize them, when we're supposed to be welcoming them into our countries. We strip them of their dignity and treat them like criminals.
I had a student in my office a couple of weeks ago. She's originally from Iraq. She broke down crying.
"Why do they hate us?"
"Who hates you?"
"Everyone; everyone hates us because we are refugees, because we are Muslim."
In the past, I was able to reassure my students that the majority of the world does not hate refugees. But this time I couldn't. I couldn't explain to her why someone tried to rip off her mother's hijab when they were grocery shopping, or why a player on an opposing team called her a terrorist and told her to go back where she came from. I couldn't reassure her that her father's ultimate life sacrifice by serving in the United States military as an interpreter would make her more valued as an American citizen.
We take in so few refugees worldwide. We resettle less than 0.1 percent. That 0.1 percent benefits us more than them. It dumbfounds me how the word "refugee" is considered something to be dirty, something to be ashamed of. They have nothing to be ashamed of.
We have seen advances in every aspect of our lives — except our humanity. There are 65.3 million people who have been forced out of their homes because of war — the largest number in history. We are the ones who should be ashamed.