The process by which one blends into society is probably one of the most difficult experiences we encounter in life. English is not my first language, Christianity is not my faith and my name doesn't as of yet read "All-American." Although I was born and raised in Suffolk County, Long Island, my childhood town more closely resembles one down south. It's steeped in a pretty conservative political atmosphere: NRA bumper stickers are a common sight, over 90 percent of the town is white and it's generally unwelcoming toward newcomers. As a child in kindergarten, the language and cultural barrier made it difficult to blend in, and I was naïve to believe that it couldn't get any worse. By the second grade, my assumptions were proven wrong. On September 11, 2001, blending in was no longer an option.
I am the third-born son to two Afghani immigrants, and by the time I entered the world they were already somewhat acquainted with the American lifestyle after raising my older brother and sister. Nevertheless, my parents believed that it was imperative for me to speak Farsi and that I become familiar with the different aspects of our culture. Unfortunately, my Farsi has deteriorated and my knowledge of the Persian culture has been swept under the rug. I would consider my efforts to connect with my culture, or lack thereof, as one of my biggest regrets and failures. Although, I embraced the Islamic religion and culture in the privacy of my home, to the outside world I cloaked my identity out of fear of being targeted.
Hopes of blending in quickly withered away as society started to fall into disarray. My name indicated that I was "one of them," and my hope to become just another American child became a despondent delusion. I closed my eyes on the night of September 11 as an American, and I woke up the next day as a stranger -- an outsider -- a walking target.
Shortly after, labels like "Bin-Laden" and "terrorist" became synonymous with my name. It was difficult for me, as a 7 year-old child, to understand why I was being placed into the same group as the monsters who committed the horrendous attack on my country.
Though I had my own battles at school, nothing I experienced could compare to the horrors that my mother and sister would face. Both of them wear the hijab (head scarf) and there was no way to mask their identities. I recall various accounts in public settings when my mother was mocked and insulted for her head scarf. The dirty looks and the insults in the supermarkets hurt my mother emotionally, but she never allowed such actions to break her. Every time I wanted to say something, my mother would stop me and tell me to be patient and that things would get better over time.
Growing up, diversity lacked in my town, and with the exception of a handful of people, the vast majority weren't willing to stand up for someone different. As a child, the only place I felt safe was at home. 9/11 was a traumatic event for every American, and while the rest of society was allowed to grieve, being an American-Muslim didn't afford me that privilege. Islamaphobia was the living nightmare that we awoke to. And like every nightmare, there was nowhere to turn and no way to escape.
I am now in in college and have been able to reflect on my experiences following 9/11. It is not the first time that the actions of a few have caused a whole demographic to be painted with a single brush and it is most definitely not the last. The fallacy of guilt-by-association is something that history has witnessed and will probably always endure, whether it be our generation of Muslim Americans or the Japanese-Americans in the 1940s who went through an extreme period of persecution. But as a society, we have since been able to move forward and stray from the corrupted and fearful mindset of the 1940s. I know we'll move forward through this one too.
We are living in a revolutionary time period in which everything is moving at a rapid pace and social tensions continue to rise. The war on terrorism is only one of the many crises that have catapulted American society into its current fragile state. And it is in times like these when fear corrupts the views of the masses and we fall into the mistake of generalizing a demographic as a result of the actions of a few. It is important that society moves forward, and as difficult as it may be to believe -- things do get better.