You never forget the first time you're told to "go back to your country." It's like being punched in the heart and stomach simultaneously. The first time for me was during Desert Storm. I was 11, playing basketball on the playground. A boy who was notorious for talking back to teachers and eating glue had suddenly taken up a new cause: informing me that I didn't belong in the country of my birth, the country I loved, the country I could never imagine leaving. In short, my country. After I deftly blocked one of his shots, he told me to "get a life" and "go back to Iraq." When I told him that my family was from IraN, he retorted, "Iran, Iraq, same difference."
This was the memory that sprung to mind when I first heard about the death of Shaima Alawadi, as I wondered when she first heard the same vile refrain that assaulted me on the playground over 20 years ago. Ms. Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi-American mother of five, was beaten nearly to death in her home in El Cajon, California last week. She has since passed away.
A note left next to her battered body read along the same lines as a letter left at her house just a week earlier read: "This is our country, not yours, you terrorists." In effect, "go back to your country." Ms. Alawadi didn't report the initial note, thinking it was just a prank by some neighborhood kids.
I wonder how many times she could have heard similar assertions to start taking them so lightly -- to start considering them harmless pranks, as opposed to legitimate threats.
I can confidently say that I've received over a hundred similar comments, and like Ms. Alawadi, I've never even thought to report them as "threats." Rather, I just consider them a normal part of life as an Iranian-American Muslim -- even a rite of passage. If I were to report every time someone called me a terrorist or sent me an email telling me to go back to "my country," I'd not only be wasting my time (given how little the authorities can do in such situations), but I'd also be wasting precious energy. Today, if I bother to respond at all to such statements, I generally just say that I am in my country, and maybe the bigots who tried to make me feel like I wasn't should consider going back to their country by learning more about it.
My heart goes out to Ms. Alawadi's family and to all the American families who have lost loved ones as a result of hate, bigotry and ignorance. I pray for the day when women in hijabs and black boys in hoodies can feel safe in their own homes, their own neighborhoods, their own country. Some may say this is asking too much, that I'm being naïve. I say, maybe they have a point, but I'd rather be naïve and wrong than hopeless and right.
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