By Yasmine El Baggari
By Yasmine El Baggari
Boston- I still remember that day—the song playing on the radio, the sun shining all around me, and the excitement that grew with every passing moment as my brother picked me up from JFK airport, fresh off the plane from Morocco.
A new chapter in my life was about to begin only a few hours later when he dropped me off at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
I approached my new life in America with the hope of having a positive impact wherever I went.
With this idea in mind, I stepped onto campus, ready for a fresh start.
That was two years ago. With all that has happened since then, I feel the time has come to reflect on this chapter of my life story.
Soon after I arrived in the United States, the chaos and excitement of college life began. I couldn’t help but look around and think to myself, “There is just so much to do!”
My experience at Hampshire was completely different from what I had imagined, but I came to love and devote much of my time to my college community.
I took advantage of every opportunity presented to me. I took classes in five different colleges, and was surrounded by intelligent and dedicated students. I held a variety of positions that were valuable and inspiring for me, including conference and student group coordinator at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Organization based in Massachusetts, a cafeteria worker at a weight loss camp, a house intern with residential life, and a French and Arabic tutor.
But it is the hospitality and open-mindedness of the American people that has impacted me the most. As a self-identified Arab-Muslim-Moroccan woman, I have been able to successfully integrate into this western country, and live life to the fullest, more than I ever thought possible.
This experience has given me a greater appreciation and love for America. I have been able to understand how much beauty this country possesses, and to allow it to open my mind to new ideas and endless possibilities.
I have visited 30 states and more than 36 cities in two years thanks to support from the individuals surrounding me.
Going from east to west and north to south, I experienced the joys of making new friends, exploring new places, and exchanging and educating each other about our lives. I rode along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, crossed the entire Midwest, and marveled at the beauty of Latin and South American culture.
Some of the most memorable moments from my time in this country have occurred during dinner and car conversations as I chatted on subjects such as Islam, identity, politics, women in the Arab world, empowerment, migration, environment, racism, inequality, Africa, etc with my new friends.
Throughout my travels, I have stayed with Americans who have invited me, welcomed me and showed me beautiful places I would have never been able to see alone. American [including South American] families, friends, and acquaintances I met in college, conferences, and through personal networking have contributed to this journey, and deserve to be acknowledged:
… To my family in Buffalo, New York who shared a meal with me every Thanksgiving and Christmas break and explained the importance of sharing,
… To my family and friends in Kansas, Illinois and Ohio, who exposed me to Midwestern culture and their Christian and Jewish values, which I found similar to my own Muslim principles,
… To my family and friends in California and Massachusetts, who, with their strong liberal views, taught me to respect and tolerate people no matter their race, social or religious convictions, or sexual orientation,
… To my family in the South, whether in Virginia or Florida, who instilled in me the feeling of humility, and acceptance of people regardless of their personal status or social class,
… To my family in Ecuador who showed me a different way of living, which I found so similar to my Moroccan life,
… To all the other 27 families who have accepted me for who I am and welcomed me with open arms,
I have become a more tolerant person thanks to these people. I have come to understand other values, develop more self-awareness, and be more openly grateful to those around me.
It is amazing that, as individuals from so many different countries, cultures, religions, and backgrounds, we can have so much in common. What Americans have offered me, I want to share with others.
They have inspired me to positively affect others, which gives me joy, fulfillment, and hope. They have helped me develop the confidence to overcome boundaries by breaking down stereotypes and promoting peace between opposing parties.
With Critical Connections, a non-profit organization based in Massachusetts, I have worked to deepen popular knowledge both within and about Muslim communities living in the West. Through this organization, I have assisted in fostering dialogue within and between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, and have examined the impact of Islamophobia on identity construction within Muslim populations all over the world.
In Morocco, where I recently returned for summer break, I worked on an initiative, which assessed ongoing government and NGO initiatives to empower Moroccan women socioeconomically and investigated the degree of government commitment to maintaining a well-educated population.
Through this work, I have met with activists, students and professors, politicians and ministerial officials, NGOs and development programs, in an effort to analyze the quality of the Moroccan education sector and ascertain the causes of student emigration from the country.
I have also expanded this project to analyze the migration of Muslim students from North Africa to Europe to determine how these experiences shape these students’ identities.
By delving into these students’ environments, social activities, and personal experiences, I worked to understand the process of identity development and evaluate the most pressing challenges faced by North African students within European universities. In the future, I plan to complete a comparative study of Muslim student identity evolution here in the United States.
Through my work and studies, I have come to appreciate the development challenges that arise from rapid changes in the politics, economics, and cultures of various countries. My time in the Unites States, and work in Morocco, have made me more aware of the inequality in social class, health care, and sexuality, which affect all of us.
I have been blessed with many privileges, and afforded the opportunity to learn about new cultures, and meet people so different, yet so similar to myself. These experiences have contributed to my awareness of human rights violations at the national and international level, which have further inspired me to engage the world by working in human rights.
In the future, I plan to work as a politician, economist, and a social activist in countries that are economically underdeveloped, suffer from illiteracy, and lack educational opportunities and human equality.
The experience of entering a new culture and finding my place in an unfamiliar society has made me excited about the future and what our generation and succeeding ones can achieve if we dream, envision, and collaborate together. We possess strong cross-cultural communication skills and a variety of experiences that can help us make the world a better place.
Originally published on Muftah.org. Republished with author’s consent
Yasmine El Baggari is a Moroccan undergraduate at Hampshire College studying Socio-Political Science, Economics, and web development. Her research focuses on women’s empowerment and the concept of identity, morality, and cultural evolution. She can be reached at [email protected].