As we sat comfortably across each other, I noticed Dee (name changed) looking nervous but excited to answer all my questions. I told her that it was okay to talk to me in Arabic as I wanted her to feel relaxed and free to say whatever without the constraints of English. I began by asking her to take me back to what life in Egypt was like for her. With a reminiscing sigh, she took me back to when she was my age and living in a big loving family. “My family was at the same status as upper-middle-class families here in America.”. Coming from a large family of doctors, entrepreneurs, and diplomats, Dee lived a comfortable life where there were always big family get-togethers and friends who cared for her. “I was happy,” she said calmly. It was never in her mind to leave Egypt to America. She had everything she could ever want or need right where she was! As she spoke more in-depth about her doting five uncles and her early administration career, sadness filled her eyes in a way that made me choke up to continue. She jokingly said, “you’re going to make me cry!” as we both chuckled with tears welling up, daring to fall. I proceeded to ask her about what went through her mind when she was told she was going to America. The first thing she said after a long pause was, “I was shocked that I was leaving to a country I had no connections to.”.
Dee was twenty years old when she married my father, a young doctor with a new practice in El Maadi. She was young and married him out of familial pressure rather than love. He promised her and my late grandfather a life of comfort and love that came to no fruition. The young doctor set his sights beyond El Maadi to Mission Viejo, California, searching for a better life and a Ph.D. To fulfill this goal, he decided to take Dee along with him as his new bride. Dee saw moving to America as neither a bad idea nor a good one. She was puzzled by why she would leave her country to live in one she had no fundamental knowledge about. As she spoke about her thought on the matter, she shocked me by explaining that living in America was temporary. “I was told that I would live there for six or seven years until he would finish his education.”. That, of course, didn’t happen.
After a long pause as we both collected ourselves not to cry, I asked her to take me back to her last day in Egypt. “Hmm, look, my last week in Egypt was all shopping, shopping, shopping. I wanted to leave just so the shopping could stop!”. She looked away as she described how her in-laws would give her a hard time—insinuating that she was using the young doctor to go to America because she wasn’t calling them regularly. “Their comments were weird because it was never like that. I was leaving without knowing when I would return to my family, culture, and language in Egypt.”. Her voice cracked from the tears she held back as she told me it was tough for her, and nothing was making it more manageable. She became numb from the underhanded comments and shopping until she got to the airport and sat at the terminal waiting. She traveled that day alone as her husband waited for her across the globe for her arrival in LAX. “I cried so much that day to the point where airport workers were bringing me tea and cakes. Every time I wiped my tears away, a new slice of cake would be in front of me!”. A sense of defeat filled the room as she looked down. “I wanted to get off the plane. I didn’t want to leave my home,” she said quietly. We sat sniffling, daring not to look at each other in fear we’d spend the next hour crying.
Trying hard to continue my interview, I cleared my throat and asked her about her citizenship journey. “Yes, so I entered the US with a traveler’s visa. But even that took forever to obtain.”. Before she could leave, she had to get a visa to enter the states. To do so, “I had to get a visa from Australia, so when I apply for an American visa, they would see a western nation accepted me.”. I learned that it’s a widespread practice for many people in Northern Africa and the Middle East to get a visa from Australia so that the US will accept your visa request. She explained to me in detail how she arrived and her many interviews with her husband to prove that their marriage was real and not a farce for the blue book. However, those interviews were a breeze for her as she would waddle in pregnant, ready to prove the legitimacy of her marriage. “It took me seven months to receive my green card and surprisingly seven months to receive my citizenship.”.
Dee told me how the most challenging part wasn’t obtaining the green card; it was becoming an American citizen. She explained that the last interview for citizenship was the hardest because she had to sit outside the office at three in the morning in a line that began at one in the morning. When the clock turned to eight in the morning, Dee stood as number twenty, ready to finish this exhausting journey.
I remember that day well; they treated us horribly. The guard by the door was the worst, though. A guard brought out the flag so we could all pledge allegiance, but an older man who was exhausted from the cold and the long wait sat down, unable to stand. Oh my God, a guard nudged and pushed him roughly to stand up. The older man was standing all night on the cold street, and you could see he was exhausted. The guard yelled at him, telling him to respect the flag and respect America. How could he say that? In my mind, you didn’t treat us well in the first place.
After finishing her biometrics, it was time to take the oath. With wide eyes, she told me even that was horrible! “I don’t understand how people could treat others harshly in a time where they’re choosing to be part of your country.”. She described how a man rose from the sardine-packed room onto a small stage with the coveted blue passport. He spoke about how America is the best country on Earth and that they were lucky to be part of this great nation. Waving the blue book in his hand, he spoke about how it’s an honor to have this and citizenship. As she spoke, I sensed a hint of resentment and annoyance towards that experience. “It was a weird ceremony. I felt like I got my Doctorate in ‘America,’” she said sarcastically. I didn’t poke further in it as I moved on to my next question.
I asked her to describe some of her first moments in America when she finally became a citizen. “To be honest, 9/11 made the biggest impact in my life”. Dee at the time wore the hijab and had a “non-American” accent. She explained to me that she didn’t go out during that time, but she would receive a lot of hate when she did. Her biggest fear was someone kidnapping my sister and me. “The hurtful words didn’t bother me, but I was afraid. I was mostly afraid that someone was going to take you and your sister away from me”. As a new mother trying to make sense of this new world alone, Dee feared her new normal. “People would stay away from me, and that’s fine. If they didn’t physically hurt me, then I’m fine”. After moving from Mission Viejo to Sunnyvale, things got better for her when she worked and met new people.
I asked her if she ever felt welcomed or able to set roots. Dee let out a laugh and exclaimed, “I don’t know because when I first got here, I didn’t leave the house. After 9/11, I was definitely not welcome.”. She recalls when she started working for the Apple store back in 2011 when her husband left home to pursue another field of education, making her the sole provider. “I was now interacting with so many people, but the funny part was that my coworkers were unsure about me.”. She told me about their hesitation in getting to know her because of the social barrier they created from her hijab. Dee said that eventually, they saw her for who she is and began inviting her to get-togethers. She even made some long-lasting friends that she keeps in contact with. Her happiness was contagious as I laughed with her over fond memories of her time at the Apple store. “Roots happened without me trying. My children grew up here, and my friends became part of my daily life.”.
The next question I asked her as if she wanted to leave the US and move back to Egypt indefinitely. Before I could finish, Dee blurted out, “very much so! Very much so. I did back then, and I still do now,” she said, grinning happily. But Dee quickly explained that it’s harder now because her kids are more American, and this is their home. “They grew up in this environment, and they know this culture better,” she explained. “They know of the Egyptian culture, but I don’t know if they would want to live there.”. She told me that her wish is to spend six months in Egypt and the other six months in America. That way, she is still close to both of her families. I asked her further how she felt about having two homes. She told me that it becomes even harder to find your place after so many years of being an immigrant in a foreign land. She explains that in America, she is seen as an outsider because of her culture and accent. When she goes back to Egypt, she’s also seen as an outsider now because of her new culture, the way she speaks and dresses. “I feel like a stranger in both countries.” It’s a matter of being stuck in the middle.
I took in a long breath as I asked Dee if she regrets coming to America. Silence drowned us as Dee looked down, thinking how to answer. Breaking through the quiet, Dee said, “it’s not really regret. it’s more of loss.”. She told me that her family name is well known and that if she stayed in Egypt, she would probably have a more affluent life and a higher-ranked career. “I could have been a CEO!” she said, laughing. She told me that people look at her in America like America was her salvation and that she’s needy. Dee looked annoyed as she talked about how some Americans look at her this way and her country’s poor. “They would treat me like I needed them and America to live.”. It was clear that there was a contrast in her life in Egypt and America. In Egypt, Dee was treated as part of an upper-middle-class family that is well connected and highly educated. In America, Dee was treated as an ignorant immigrant from a “lower” country than America. “I don’t have regrets, but my life in Egypt is way better than here in America,” she said indeed.
Dee warmly smiled at me as I looked away, feeling somewhat responsible for keeping her away from her family back in Egypt. I shook off the unsettling feelings as I asked her if there was anything she wished she could tell her younger self about going to America. With a broad smile, Dee laughed, “don’t get married! Don’t marry this guy; it’s a mistake!”. I let out a laugh as we both sat there, flashing back to the older doctor who brought Dee here initially for education. Her now ex-husband’s promises back then to her father spoiled fast when they got to America. He became abusive towards her and her children, causing Dee to leave him after twenty years of domestic abuse. “Ahh, but for real, I would tell myself to find a job right away and to make as many connections as possible. Also, get to know the family laws here.”. She told me she wishes she could have learned how to live in the US and knowing how credit scores work before she left. I further asked her if she could go back, would she still leave for America? Before I could finish, Dee blurted out, “No! I wouldn’t leave my country ever. Your place is here, and no matter what happens in Egypt, your family and career is here”. Dee told me that there are many “should have’s” and “could have’s,” but they aren’t productive or healthy. She told me that it’s her job to share those lessons learned with her kids. “I don’t want to come off as a hero who never made a mistake—no—I was stupid, and I made mistakes I think you shouldn’t repeat,” she told me.
I ended our interview by asking her how she sees the US from her eyes.”. I see that people here live in one area, and the government lives in another place. I feel like the government isn’t checked by the citizens the way it says it’s supposed to be,” said Dee. She further explained that people here (at least in California) didn’t care what the government did because they were too busy chasing their credit and student debts. “Right now, all I can think about is my credit score. When COVID happened, people began seeing their lives as more valuable and that they need to hold their government more accountable,” she explains. Dee also feels like Americans live with a blindfold over their eyes. She told me that some Americans feel like America is the best country while the rest of the world is a poor mess. “Immigrants don’t come from ‘lower’ countries the way some Americans believe to be. Every country has its pros and cons, and that’s hard for some to believe,” she explained.