Posted by Joshua on Sunday, December 30th, 2007
Syrian-Americans: The Identity Balancing Act
By Salma Al-Shami
Originally published in Forward Magazine, Damascus
“What America does not ask is as important as what she does ask of new Americans,” wrote Reverend W.A. Mansur in the January 1928 edition of The Syrian World magazine. “She does not ask that you forget and not love the land of your early humanity; that you refuse to acknowledge your race and your love of your race; that you feel a sense of shame because of early material poverty; that you lose your love for the language of the homeland; that you make no reference to the talents and achievements of your race and homeland; that you see no beauty in the customs of your people.”K
Or does it?
In the wake of 9/11, the experiences of many Arab-Americans might suggest otherwise.
While President George W. Bush publicly declared, “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith,” fanatic American citizens drove automotive vehicles through mosques in Ohio and Florida. While members of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Virginia offered to publicly escort Muslim women who feared leaving their houses, the U.S. Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, a law allowing authorities to place wiretaps, keep watch-lists, hold secret trials, and conduct searches and seizures without warrants—measures that violate the constitutional rights of all American citizens.
Unfortunately, ignorant, vengeful voices overpowered statements supporting Arab-Americans. Media outlets were flooded with non-Arab Americans asking why the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States were not doing more to distance themselves from the crimes, condemn the perpetrators, and affirm their themselves as American first.
But for many Arab-Americans, this latter task is impossible. Unlike the hyphen that can linguistically separate the duality of their identity, most Arab-Americans cannot so clearly demarcate the boundaries of their ethnic or nationalistic associations. A fluid fusion of cultures, their identity continuously adapts and responds to changing political environments.
In spite of the post-9/11 backlash, Arab-Americans continue to educate the public about their heritage and to fight for justice. Now, it is not America but Americans who were calling upon themselves to celebrate the lands, languages, and accomplishments of their ancestors.
Syrian-Americans lead such efforts on both individual and group levels. In the United States, they manage two balancing acts, first as members of the Syrian-American community and second as members of the Arab-American community. They strive to celebrate the uniqueness of their Syrian heritage while working as a part of one political unit with their fellow Arabs. The processes through which they form their identities are as varied and complex as those identities are colorful and distinct. They may not be the loudest community, but they are also not as silent as some critics claim.
According to the United States Census brief “The Arab Population: 2000,” Syrians comprise 12 percent of the Arab population in the U.S., the second largest nationality among Arab-Americans. The Syrian population grew by 10 percent between 1990 and 2000, and communities reporting Syrian ancestry were largest in California, Illinois, and New York.K “We the People of Arab Ancestry in the United States,” a Census 2000 Special Report, indicated that 59.2 percent of polled Syrians were American born and that 45.8 percent of them reported that they spoke only English at home.K
Economically, the Syrian community has fared well. In 1999, the reported median family income of a Syrian family was $58,204, surpassing both the Arab ($52,318) and national ($50,046) medians. Meanwhile, the poverty rate (by age) of the Syrian community was 11.3 percent, lower than both the Arab (16.7) and national (12.4) rates. 35.0 percent of Syrians report having a bachelor’s degree or more, which is higher than the national average (24.4) but trails the Arab population, of whom 41.2 report having a bachelor’s degree or more. The plurality of Syrians, 41.9 percent, work in managerial or professional capacities, followed by 32.5 in sales and office work, and roughly a quarter of the population working in various other industries.
More telling than such statistics about their current status in the United States, however, are Syrian-Americans’ perceptions of themselves.
Talking to Syrian-Americans
BALANING ACT #1
“Identity cannot be compartmentalized. You cannot divide it into halves or thirds or any other separate segments,” wrote Amin Maalouf in Hawiyat Qatilah (1999). Several Syrian-Americans interviewed agreed.
“I have one identity, and that is Syrian-American,” says Wael El-Nachef, a second year medical student at Northwestern. “Ultimately, the two identities are inextricable.”
When asked if they saw themselves as Syrian-Americans or Syrians in America, most answered the question as a function of where they were born, the former referring to individuals born in the U.S. and the latter referring to expatriates. But some say that while association with the country where one is born and/or raised does not exhaustively define the parameters of identity, it is not completely inconsequential either.
“I feel more comfortable in the United States,” says Sara Suleiman, a sophomore studying political science and journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. “I’ve lived my whole life here. I am more accustomed to an American lifestyle.”
While Suleiman loves “waking up with the athan, being surrounded by extended family, the street vendors and shouting peddlers selling things,” she says she could not live in Syria, as she is too accustomed to the modern amenities she enjoys in the U.S.. Alternatively, Mazen Khabbaz, a Syrian expatriate studying Molecular and Cell Biology and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, expresses a responsibility to return to Syria after completing his college education. “I would like Arabs to go abroad and study and bring back their skills and knowledge to help their countries.”K
But identifying “home” to be in one country did not diminish the importance of the other. Of the Syrian-Americans interviewed, none could hierarchically categorize components of their identity and in fact reject the very notion of referring to multiple “identities.” Rather, they see themselves as having one identity with fluid components whose relevance and importance constantly shift with varying circumstances.
“When I’m in America, I’m always the Arab. But in Syria, I’m introduced as the American kid. You realize no matter where you go you’re identified by what is unique about you,” explains Sarab Al-Jijakli of New York.K “My childhood and fondest memories are from Damascus. My heart, heritage, and my blood go back there. On the other hand, I’m a New Yorker. My life, my home, and my professional career are in New York. I am forever destined to be connected to both worlds.”
Balancing Act No. 2: Syrian/Arab
Syrians comprise only .05 percent of the U.S. population, but as Arab-Americans they comprise .42 percent. While Syrian-Americans want to recognize and celebrate the diversity of Arab-American population, they are aware that highlighting differences potentially exacerbates cleavages in the community, thereby rendering it less effective in the American political arena.
What separates Syrians from other Arab-Americans? (Half)-jokingly, some say better food and prettier women, but more seriously, others add unsurpassed hospitality and a reputation for being a people “of their word.” Yet, despite such distinguishing characteristics, Aesop’s famed observation, “united we stand, divided we fall,” is confirmed in the opinions of several individuals.
“If you want an Arab-American community, we need to stick together,” explains Marwan Kamel of Chicago, IL. “The problem is that people tend to stick with their individual nationalities, Syrian, Egyptian, Lebanese etc. So when problems arise that affect the entire Arab-American population, [these smaller groups] start pointing fingers and blaming each other. You see the same conflicts between groups in the Middle East replicated within the Arab-American community.”
Aside from these imported cleavages, the motivation behind immigrating and the environment into which individuals are trying to assimilate also provide explanations for the divisions in the Arab-American community. El-Nachef suggests that, “individuals have their own reasons for coming to the States, whether they’re refugees or fleeing civil wars or looking for jobs. So they have their own prerogatives for being active. If you’re here and you’re a successful professional, you might not want to be come politically active.”
Indeed, activist members within the Arab-American community criticize their fellow compatriots for limiting their civic involvement once they have met their professional aspirations and secured their financial comfort. While this criticism might be equally applicable to past generations of Arab-Americans, the political climate in the aftermath of 9/11 seems to have given further impetus for some members of the current Arab-America community to retreat into private life.
Overwhelmingly negative public sentiment towards this community and the constant probing of government agencies have caused some Arab-Americans to first affirm their loyalty to the U.S. and wait for rampant emotions to subside before responding to the ignorant and racist statements made against Arabs everywhere. With the clamor of sound bytes from foreign policy officials, a biased media, and racist members of the non-Arab American public raging in the foreground of American political life, some Arab-Americans see that organizational efforts and activism might be wasted on deaf ears.
But thus far there is no evidence to suggest that the majority of Arab-Americans feel this way. Moreover, a lack of organizational affiliations is not synonymous with a silent community, and in fact, attempting to judge the political activism of these Arab-Americans solely based on what they do at the collective level unjustly ignores what they accomplish on the everyday basis and at the individual level.
“It’s like Ché Guevara once said,” explains Kamel, “‘a revolution is not built by hundreds of thousands of people, but by one person talking to another.’ It’s much more effective to befriend other people and tell them you’re Syrian. Over time, they’ll see that what’s said in the news is not true.”
The activism of Syrian-Americans takes many forms. Suleiman regularly attends lectures and discussions relating to Arab-American issues. As a member of the American Student Medical Association, El-Nachef takes his activism to another level. “I don’t just focus on Arab or Syrian issues. I focus mainly on global health and human rights. I’ll talk about Iraqi refugees and Palestine, but I’ll also talk about health care and access to medicine. That way you show people that on a more fundamental level you have things in common with them.”
Arab-American activism is also prevalent at professional levels. Al-Jijakli is the co-founder of the NY chapter of the Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP), whose mission is to enhance social interaction between Arab-Americans, to explore their heritage and expose it to the public, to insure that Arab-American interests are being pursued in the political arena, to encourage community service, and to help foster and mentor the Arab student movement.
“Here we are not targeted as Syrians, but as Arabs,” says Al-Jijakli. “People in the U.S. are not informed, so it’s up to us to position ourselves as ambassadors for our home countries, to answer the questions, and to set the political agenda.”
Rallying the Syrian-American Community
In the spirit of activism, the Syrian American Congress (SAC) and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) have mobilized and encouraged Syrian-Americans to take responsibility for improving their own lives and those of other Syrians living in the United States and in Syria.
Founded in November 2005, the SAC is a nongovernmental organization whose self-described mission is to be “recognized as a leading organization for the empowerment of Syrian Americans” and “to develop better understanding and cooperation between Syrian and American people.”
“We have a dual responsibility towards Syria, our motherland, and to the U.S., where we have progressed, gotten married, and sent our children to college,” says SAC president, Dr. Talal Sunbulli. “We see no contradiction between working for the Syrian people and for the American people.”
Thus far, the organization has worked towards achieving its goals by holding lectures called Hadith al-Sham, where topics such as the state of Syrian economy are discussed and where past speakers have included former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Theodore Kattouf and Syrian Parliamentarian Mohammad Habash. In the future, it would like to sponsor politician and professor exchanges between the two countries as a way of educating Syrian and American citizens about each other.
While acknowledging that the Syrian-American community is not yet as active as it can be, Sunbulli sees the SAC as an organization that can rally and channel the efforts of the Syrian-American community to get involved in political and cultural events locally and nationally. He mentions that the SAC has already established connections with American civic organizations such as United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of groups opposed to the Iraq War, and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Sunbulli hopes that the organization’s efforts “will encourage newcomers from Syria to be active. In the past, there was a feeling that it was useless to do anything. But doing nothing will get us nowhere.”
This belief in the power of activism also motivates SAMS, whose objectives are to promote general health, disseminate medical information, and increase partnerships between physicians in the U.S. and Syria. With more than 600 members, SAMS provides free medical services and supplies to disadvantaged patients and runs workshops to transfer vital medical skills to Syrian physicians. An average of 150 medical professionals from the U.S. attend its annual conventions in Syria.
Dr. Thabet Al-Sheikh, who just finished his tenure as president of SAMS, explains that focusing efforts in Syria has contributed to the organization’s success. “Initially, it was thought of as a step backwards to [identify] the organization as Syrian instead of Arab-American. But focusing on one geographic area has allowed our program to grow from simply giving lectures in one city to all the SAMS today in five cities and at times more than 18 hospitals.”
Al-Sheikh is one of many volunteers who lead tutorial courses in Arabic on various medical procedures. Each year, he estimates he brings $200,000-$300,000 worth of donated equipment with him to SAMS’s annual conventions. After six years of giving courses, more physicians in Syria are independently able to implant such devices such as pacemakers and stents in patients.
SAMS’s efforts have won it recognition and acclaim in both Syria and the United States. The Syrian Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education both consulted SAMS to help write the Continuing Medical Education policy for Syrian physicians. Furthermore, SAMS won the 2004 Humanitarian Service Award from the Florida Chapter of the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the 2006 International Service Award from the national chapter of the ACC. Though presented specifically to Al-Sheikh, a cardiologist, he stresses that he accepted the awards on behalf of the organization. “You can’t make a difference of this magnitude individually.”
While not explicitly political in nature, the framework for activism as established by SAMS provides a model for types of interactions that can yield fruitful results in the future. “The medical profession allows you to touch people’s lives at the human level without letting politics interfere,” says Al-Sheikh. “Anything that is nonpolitical and successful will have political results, directly or indirectly.”
Syrian-Americans have much to accomplish in the years to come, but the magnitude of the tasks ahead of them should not overshadow their achievements thus far. As Al-Jijakli explains, “Right now, many of us suffer from setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves. We’re in a state of infancy. Only when we mature will we be able to impact larger issues.”
To achieve their goals, Syrian- and Arab-Americans at large must continue to use machinery and of the American political system to advance their causes. In the U.S., the most powerful and effective voices are not the loudest ones: they are the most organized ones.