From Syria, Denmark, and Japan to New York: How I Became American

The author (far left) with her parents and two siblings, boarding the Japanese bullet train away from home (1997). Photo credit: Laila Alawa

I’m a child of Syria and Denmark. So when people ask me where I immigrated from, I know exactly what they’re expecting me to say: that I’ve come from Syria.

It always surprised them when I tell them I came from Japan, but was born in Denmark. That I left when I was almost six years old, unamused by the prospect of coming to the country my parents believed would hold a better future for my two siblings and me. That when I heard the English language for the first time in Japan, played over the Winnie the Pooh episode I was watching with my neighborhood friends — an attempt by their mother to get me excited for the move — I was taken aback by the coarseness of the language.

I’m a child of fearless parents. So the trip to the United States was an experience, meshed together in memory and imagination. My parents came on a work visa.

The trip to upstate New York comprised of multiple flights and way too many Hi-C juice boxes. I could never drink from those juice boxes after that, the tang bringing out memories of travel, coupled with exhaustion and sleepless flights. The first few months were spent in a motel, and my family quickly found solace amidst the swirl of abrupt change and new languages within the local Muslim community. Somehow, I made friends, our connections strong despite the broken English I struggled to pick up.

I’m a child of Muslim parents. I grew up with a firm grasp of what I stood for, unshakeable.

I believed I was an American before we even had green cards in our hands. I knew I was Muslim from the moment I was born. Hyphenated identities? That was natural for me. Wasn’t everyone hyphenated in some way or another? My younger self couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that people might hate or impede another’s life just because they happened to be of the same religion as the terrorists that struck in 2001, only four years after my family had come to America. Before then, visiting Syria was a possibility; now, with the fear of being deported or stripped of visas, we were firmly stuck on American soil.

I’m a child of parents who refused to give up. Despite everything the immigration process put us through, they kept going.

The entire family in 2015. Author is far left. Photo credit: Huda Alawa

It seemed that the process took forever, and with every year my parents were promised it would end — a broken promise. My Baba was Syrian, an engineer, and his name was similar to one on a watch list. It meant that the struggle we were going through was multiplied by some abstract figure. It meant that there were more lawyer calls, more bills, more issues with work security. I’d tell you more about the process, but all I remember were the forms. Initially a novelty, the immigration process became so embedded into the day-to-day of my reality that I no longer noticed when we hit a bump or moved forward. Immigration applications were simply a part of life.

I’m a teenager that almost had to apply to college without financial aid. Because what was financial aid if you just had a visa?

The immigration office made the green card proclamation so, so close to my college applications. My family — my parents, my six siblings, and I — trooped into the immigration offices. Four of my siblings were exempt, born here, as American as sliced bread. The rest of us were still “other.” We were grilled about one another, about ourselves, about our plans. When we were finally given the go-ahead for our green cards, and my mother brought us to a post office to get our pictures taken, I dressed up. No longer a child, almost an adult, but American through and through — the product of a green card process that had taken almost 10 years to complete.

I’m an adult that swore her allegiance to America in March of this year. I became truly American, surrounded by more than 300 other people in the capital of the United States.

Photo credit: Laila Alawa

I cried as we pledged our allegiance to the country we lived in. Cried for the years of being told I wasn’t American enough, cried for the struggles my parents went through to give us the opportunity for the better future. My voice cracked with the knowledge that this country was mine as much as anyone else.

I registered to vote the moment I became an American citizen. Ask me about my immigration story and where I’m from — but I’ll tell you exactly why I’m American, and that starts with my arrival.

This essay is part of the My Time in Line series, in which immigrants are sharing their experiences of what it’s really like to get legal status.