I was 11 years old the day the Twin Towers were hit. My brother and I were in the school library, studying.
This story is part of an LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.
"Did you hear what happened?" my brother asked me. "They said terrorists destroyed towers in New York."
We gave each other an “oh, sh**” look. We both felt that we would somehow be blamed.
When we got home, I remember being struck by my father's jaw-on-the-floor expression. He was staring at the TV, his eyes wide open. The screen kept showing the World Trade Center's destruction on replay. I saw my parents slump when we heard that the perpetrators were believed to be Arab.
“Allah yahafidhna,” my parents said. “God protect us.”
I’m sure it was not lost on them that protection was what they’d once come to this country seeking.
A life without fear
More than two decades earlier, my mother had stepped off a long one-way flight from Baghdad, Iraq to Nashville, Tennessee. She was here to start her graduate studies at Mississippi State University, alongside my father, who had arrived in the United States one year earlier.
Both aspiring scientists, they were taking advantage of an opportunity to build careers beyond what they could have in their home country. That, and an even bigger opportunity: to make a life and raise a family in a place where they would feel safe.
The Iraq they’d left was going through a seismic political and ideological shift. The tight alleyways of Baghdad echoed with the emergence of a regime that would maim and murder anyone deemed an enemy — even if they were the finest scientists in all of Asia.
I want to think that it wasn't so much an "American Dream” that my parents were after. Instead, it was the protections that come with it — that freedom to live without fear — that they sought.
America wasn't quite the shining castle on the hill. Segregation was by then illegal, but it still existed in some forms. Teachers forced my father to sit in the back of classrooms with other non-white students, while the light-skinned and fair-haired Americans sat in the front.
He didn't complain, knowing this was part of the culture in America. My parents kept their heads down, eyes on the prize. In 1981, the year that their first child — my sister Ranna — was born, they together received full-ride scholarships to attend New Mexico State University.
War back home
Moving to Las Cruces was like a breath of fresh air for them. The different cultures, the Hispanic community, and the open-mindedness of their neighbors made them feel like they were back in Baghdad.
My family’s biggest challenges during this period were fallout from the Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980. My uncle Nasser, my father’s brother, was taken prisoner of war by Iranian forces. Meanwhile, more Iraqis were coming to the U.S., as asylum seekers or with government-assigned visas. Those who were already here began finding one another, creating community.
My dad's cousin, Jawad, who had left Iraq in 1977 to seek protection here, showed up on our doorstep one day. He’d been working in a Kentucky tire shop when he learned that my parents were in the U.S. He tracked us down in Las Cruces and decided to stay.
My parents kept their goals in sight. My brother Yousif was born a little after my father received his Ph.D. I was in my mother's womb when she accepted hers.
In 1992, my parents received a contract to study soil in Las Vegas. Uncle Jawad, as we called him, left for California.
Vegas, for my parents, was in some ways like going back to Mississippi. Their employer pretended to "not understand" my father's proposals because of his accent, and told them they could not obtain raises because they weren’t U.S. citizens. But they eventually secured better jobs, and accomplished one big goal: they bought a house.
Iraq, though, kept haunting us. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm and an embargo nearly eliminated Iraq's contact with the outside world.
One day my uncle Talib, my mom’s brother, called us from overseas. Due to the embargo, he had to drive hundreds of miles out of Iraq and into Jordan to make the call. He said we needed to do something to help my grandmother.
Thanks to that conversation, one of the best things in my life happened — my grandmother, our Bebe, came to America.
Learning to have pride in myself
I knew growing up in 1990s Las Vegas that we were different, but if being different meant being around my grandmother, then life was pretty good.
My grandmother wore a white hijab, had tattoos under her eyes, and wore long dresses that were decidedly not American. Everyone loved her. I learned a great deal from her, including some of my Arabic.
She had a calm and friendly laugh that she would let out after rebelling against my parents, usually by taking me on shopping trips without their permission so I could help her bargain for things.
She reminded me to have pride in myself, and that it’s okay to cause trouble sometimes.
Every other month, we would all take a family road trip to Southern California to stay with Uncle Jawad, who was building his life in Anaheim. He had a son and daughter who were a little younger than my brother and I. Albeit long-distance, I loved growing up with my extended family.
During Eids each year, we would go to a Shi'a Masjid in Pomona called the Ahl el Bayt Mosque, where many Iraqis gathered. I’ll never forget one Eid in the late 1990s when the then-Imam, Ridha Hajjar, spoke about dealing with discrimination against Muslims and Arabs.
“If someone does not know about your way of life, teach them,” he said. “Guide them to learn what they don’t know. They were once like you — they didn’t know.”
This message stuck with me.
By the time I got to middle school, the U.S. had lifted some sanctions on Iraq. My parents could finally get hold of their family overseas and send money home. I heard the voice of my uncle Nasser, now released from prison in Iran, on the phone for the first time.
All of this was a relief for my parents. Things seemed to be looking up.
Then came the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. Before long, there would be government surveillance programs that targeted people of Arabic or Muslim backgrounds. And in the days and weeks that followed the attack, people who looked like us would be assaulted, even killed in hate crimes around the country.
My parents knew we may be targeted.
“Don’t tell anyone where you’re from,” they told my siblings and me. “You are innocent, and have nothing to do with this or anyone involved.”
A few weeks after 9/11, I defied my parents’ warnings to lay low and came to school wearing the Muslim skull cap, called a taqiyah, for an important day on the Muslim calendar.
The dean took me aside. “Why are you wearing that?” he asked me.
I remembered what the Imam in Pomona had said. I tried teaching him about it. He didn’t listen.
“It’s inappropriate and against our dress code,” the dean said. “Remove it.”
Some students noticed and began taunting me. “Prove that you’re not a terrorist,” they would say, challenging me to fight. I was skeptical that anyone would help me, and I was scared they would continue to bully me. So I fought.
The 2003 invasion
George W. Bush announced the invasion of Iraq one year before I entered high school.
I remember a feeling of numbness in my family. The promise of Saddam’s removal seemed nice, but Iraq had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda.
Despite any evidence, by proxy, Iraqis became part of the “terror” in the “War on Terror.”
A year or two later, I flew on an airplane without my parents to visit relatives out of state. I was taken aside for a "random inspection." TSA agents placed me in a white room and searched my bag, clothes, and person using some kind of chemical agent. They then put me in a machine that felt like it was blowing air into every crevice of my body; I would later learn it was a “puffer” machine, meant to look for explosive particles.
The agents told me I would be checked like this whenever I entered an airport.
I was only a teenager. It left me feeling violated, and like I was somehow a problem. It took me ten years to gather the courage to fly on an airplane again.
At the same time, the horrors of the war quickly caught up to us. When I was around 15 or 16, we drove to Anaheim again, this time to comfort Uncle Jawad, whose brother was killed in a car bomb in Baghdad. I remember my uncle crying in his backyard. I tried to comfort him. “It’s okay,” I told him as he hugged me. No doctors or school counselors told me how to handle this trauma.
The U.S. executed a flawless invasion of Iraq, but did not seem to consider how Iraqi Americans were caught in the middle, doubly traumatized by the loss of family and the destruction of Iraqi cities, and by constantly having to justify our place in America.
Stories kept flooding in from Iraq. My mother's immediate family was forced at gunpoint from their home by Sunni militants, then ousted from their second home by Shi’a militants. My aunt’s brother, Asad Nash, was kidnapped and held for ransom. To this day we don’t know if he is alive or dead. Without his body, his wife cannot receive payments from the government to support herself and her children.
My parents wanted to get family members out of Iraq, but could not. This was an invasion designed by people in power, based on flawed intelligence. Ordinary people like my family, here and in Iraq, were powerless.
At school, I felt caught between dueling narratives while my family suffered. Some said I should be grateful for the removal of Saddam; others told me they were "sorry" for the invasion.
During my senior year, a politics teacher asked me, "Do you think the U.S. is doing a good thing in your country?"
Numbly, I said, “I don’t know.” Which country did he mean, anyway? I was born in the United States.
‘I’m from here!’
By the time I started college at UNLV, I was lost and searching for community. I genuinely hated — resented — when people treated me as a foreigner. The first time I heard someone say, "Go back to where you're from," I got heated. “I’m from here!” I retorted.
I needed to change something. So I became active.
I became president of the Muslim Students’ Association. We hosted "ask a Muslim" sessions on campus, where people could engage in meaningful conversations with us. I spoke out on campus radio, organized round tables to discuss the Iraq War, and met with campus administrators to raise awareness of what my community was living through.
But Vegas dried up on me. The last straw came when the local Muslim community tried to build a dedicated cemetery. The debate got ugly. I remember seeing a detractor’s comment online, calling it a "terrorist graveyard." I felt like being Muslim in Vegas meant I couldn’t even die in peace.
I decided that my future would be in California.
I transferred to and graduated from California State University, Long Beach, and began my graduate studies in Claremont a few years later.
For the past 11 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work as an educator and researcher and to do work that matters — including research that helped Anaheim's Little Arabia receive its official designation. I’ve learned the best way to make systemic change isn't just through direct advocacy, but through education and empowerment.
My parents came to this country for freedom, even though they were acutely aware of America's flaws. I don’t know if the hardships they or their children have faced as Arab Americans would fit into their definition of the American Dream, but the road they paved equipped us to make a difference in this country.
I know that I am an American. My family belongs here, and people like me belong here. Since the invasion and the war that followed, many Iraqis have come to this country — not to make scientific discoveries like my parents, but to leave the destruction that the U.S. caused.
My dream is to have this country define people like me as a part of the American fabric, and ensure that we are an essential part of this country’s future.
Maybe then it wouldn’t be so easy to make us scapegoats, or destroy an entire country based on lies.
Amin Nash is in the qualification stage of obtaining his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University. He works as a research fellow with the Arab American Civic Council. As an American Studies major, one of his goals is to see an inclusive curriculum that recognizes the contributions of Arab Americans, and encourages Arab American youths to become innovators and changemakers in their communities.
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