From Refugee to American Citizen: Thoughts on Trump’s Latest Immigration Orders

A celebration shot from the night I became an American citizen on April 19, 2012. Photo Credit: Colin Lenton.

I don’t see myself as an immigrant first yet I’m reminded of it every day, especially now. Donald Trump is ordering a temporary ban on refugees. He is eliminating the chance to immigrate to America based on where you come from. He’s signing an executive order to start building a wall to “prevent” Mexicans from crossing the border and he’s defunding sanctuary cities.

It’s ironic that he’s going to be in Philadelphia tomorrow, my City, considering it’s where America’s first immigrants fled to avoid persecution of their religious and political affiliation. Where America first formed as a nation, and where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed.

As you may know from my TEDxPhilly talk, I’m a big believer in the birth lottery or the randomness of our starting point and how it shapes and influences our lives.

If you could choose where you were born, would you have selected your birth country knowing what you know about the world today? Warren Buffett came up with the “Ovarian Lottery.” To paraphrase, he said “imagine it’s 24 hours before you’re born. A genie comes to you in the womb and says you’re going to emerge tomorrow. You get to determine what race, gender, socioeconomic class you’ll be born into. Knowing the choices and the randomness in pulling a slip that may not work in your favor, how would you design the world?” It’s a profound thought and something I think about a lot.

The country we’re born into dictates our citizenship, our fundamental rights, our freedoms or restrictions, our life expectancy, our culture and the religion that is bestowed upon us to name a few.

And we have no influence on our starting point, no say whatsoever.

You may be born into more opportunities, with the world at your fingertips, or into more circumstances where you start with the short end of the stick. This is the essence of the birth lottery. This is why understanding it is key to extending compassion to others you may not understand.

My parents fled Palestine, their home country, to Kuwait because they didn’t want to raise their family among the civic unrest. Unbeknownst to them, they ended up at another war-torn country. One of my earliest memories is being in a bomb shelter surrounded by my family when two men burst through the doors asking for my little brother. He had just been born in the States two months prior and they were there to extract all American citizens away for their safety.

In a twist of fate, I ended up in Philadelphia as a refugee of the Persian Gulf War. I came as a child without speaking a lick of English, with two suitcases shared between my family of eight, and nothing else but hopes for the future. Unfortunately, my 8-year-old best friend didn’t have the same fate. I watched as she and her mother perished when a bomb went through their car as they tried to flee the same war.

It’s now been 26 years since I arrived and I’m grateful to have had the chance to live the American Dream. I learned the language and worked hard to pay my way through school. I’ve dedicated my life to empowering women and helping the unprivileged. I started a software business that was acquired, a nonprofit chapter that provides opportunities for women to learn how to code, a social impact company focused on eliminating sexual violence and dating abuse, and I sit on the board of another nonprofit that provides inner city youth opportunities to break the cycle of poverty. Everything I do is geared towards tilting the imbalances of the birth lottery.

I’ve been honored to be recognized as one of BBC’s 100 Women of 2016, Upstart 100’s most dynamic people shaping business, and Philadelphia Magazine’s 2016 “Entrepreneur of the Year” to name a few.

I created a life for myself while I’ve being called a terrorist, repeatedly told to “go back to your country”, getting fired shortly after 9/11, and being ridiculed because of my accent.

We don’t get to choose what country we’re born in, and being fortunate enough to be born a U.S. citizen provides more opportunities than any other nation in the world. While we decide how to react to the hand we’re dealt, that one stroke of luck makes a tremendous difference in our lives. I wish fewer people took it for granted.

I can’t stop reading the news about what Trump is doing to stop other immigrant and refugees from receiving the same opportunity I had. I want to do something about it but I’m unsure of what. I do know that there’s not much I can do alone. If this message touches you in any way, or if you have any ideas on how we can come together to help drive a more just, fair world — I’d love to hear from you.

To slightly paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., “I look to a day when people will not be judged by their country of origin, but by the content of their character.”

If you haven’t watched it, here’s my TEDTalk on the birth lottery. I truly believe the concept can help others see every human as one, regardless of citizenship, religion, race, and gender.