Amina Amdeen was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1997 and lived there until she moved to the United States as a refugee. The eldest of five sisters, Amina is now a student at the University of Texas at Austin. I recently talked to Amina on the phone and she talked about her experiences growing up in the United States, and why her experience as an immigrant has compelled her to study International Relations and Global Studies to help more refugees and people in need achieve what she’s been able to.
Interview with Amina Amdeen — June 17th, 2017
What’s the beginning of your story?
When America invaded Baghdad, I remember distinctly we had to hide in a bomb shelter in another city. But I remember the noises, like we could see the rockets from the sky. These are really like unforgettable moments, but it’s kind of extraordinary how a child doesn’t really feel as much fear as an adult. So because it was so normalized I was never really afraid.
I do remember sleeping at night and devising sort of an escape plan, like if like a rocket was to come on our house and demolish our house, like where I would put my parents and my sisters?
So I remember stuff like that. And the sound of missiles and gunshots at night, I remember those. And a couple of times my family narrowly escaped bombs that would’ve had us perish. But not only that, before the invasion [I remember] the atmosphere of repression and not being able to speak, not being able to criticize the regime, not being able to complain about anything that was going on, and you can’t even ask about your family members.
Like when my grandfather disappeared — when my mom was 2 years old that’s when he was taken — my grandmother was not able to ask people, “Do you know where he is? Do you know what’s happened to him?” She just had to wait and see if he came back and knocked on the door one day.
How did you end up in the US?
Why we came to this country is because, you know, my sisters could have a better future and we can actually be someone in the world. And I have my dad to thank for that, because he risked his life working for the American embassy and working at American companies when he was in Iraq. He was a programmer, he still is. But during that time I had no idea what he was doing, my mom didn’t even know that he was working with American companies. Because he couldn’t tell us, he was scared that he would tell the wrong person. We didn’t find out that he had been working with them until 2 years later when they offered him a visa to come to the United States. That’s when we found out. It was kind of like the Promised Land.
So how old were you when you moved to the US?
I was ten years old. And when we moved to the United States we moved to Austin. We stayed there for five years and then my family moved to Chicago. Chicago is where I graduated high school and then I went back to attend the University of Texas. When we were in Chicago my mom had another child, so that’s my fourth sister. She’s the American in our family. She’s the only one that was born here!
So being ten years old and moving to America, what was the integration process like?
It’s almost indescribable how much of a different world it was like for us. It was an entirely different universe. When we were in Iraq my dad would watch shows like Friends, and we watched cartoons — like there’s a cartoon called Totally Spies that took place in Beverly Hills, California. And like watching the cartoon I never knew that there was actually a place like that. I thought these cartoons were based on fantasies. Like there’s no place that had these things in it.
When we came to the United States it was like that universe; it was what we saw on TV, so it was incredible.
I remember the first time my family went to Walmart, ’cause we don’t really use shopping carts in Iraq. But me and my sisters would fight over the shopping carts, ’cause that’s what you saw on TV. Everything in that way was different, like all these little things that you wouldn’t think about
And then when we started going to school that’s when the really big shock came. Not even considering the language. I didn’t speak any English; neither did my sisters. We knew ABC and 123 and that’s about it. Besides the language barrier, the fact that everybody looked different.
The fact that, I mean we came here, me and my younger sister, we both wore hijabs. We were ten. In Iraq the tradition is to start wearing it at 9, but at 9 or 10 I hadn’t really internalized what the hijab meant, and I wasn’t really ready for being the only one in my whole school to be wearing the hijab and to be asked so many questions about it. That took me a long time to adjust to — only until probably high school was I really able to answer the question of why do you wear it and what does it mean and things like that.
How did you feel as a new immigrant?
Throughout that time I would only describe it as kind of lonely. My family were the first family of refugees in Austin. In my school I was the only Arab student, the only Muslim student, the only refugee student, the only immigrant student. It’s easier now for the students that are coming in now because there’s an established refugee community and they can help each other out.
But at that time I remember also my dad bought a white board and markers at home and he was gonna teach us English, you know to my sisters. He spoke some English; he has an accent. The first sentence that he taught us was, “I am not a terrorist. “ Like, “my name’s ____, and I am not a terrorist.”
Because he knew we were gonna be asked that question, and it did happen a lot. I mean I can’t really tell if some of the questions people asked me were like to make fun of me or genuine questions about the hijab and about my culture. On a couple of occasions in fifth grade, the first year that I was here, somebody tried to snatch off my hijab, but thankfully I had worn the type of hijab that you couldn’t snatch off that easily. So yeah I remember those distinctly because I wasn’t sure if it was a mistake or not. I was just confused.
I couldn’t really understand why somebody would do that. I knew I looked different than my peers, but I didn’t know that it was something to be threatened by.
I didn’t know that it was something they didn’t understand, that’s another thing. I thought America is the best country on earth, that’s what it’s sold as. So I thought students would know. I mean in knew about America and their culture — why did they not know about me?
Especially because Americans were in Iraq, like they invaded the country. So and then after a while I realized that they don’t really know anything about Islam or Iraqis. It was like that. I feel like the experiences that I had at public school here, they’re not anything compared to what other people go through. Thankfully my family wasn’t threatened physically. We weren’t targeted as much I guess. I don’t know, I consider us pretty lucky to have assimilated kind of quickly.
So what do you study at UT currently?
My major is International Relations and Global Studies. And within that I take international political economy, it’s the track. And coupling it with African studies. I’m hoping after I graduate to work in international organizations either as an economist or work on projects for economic development in the third world, or in Africa, things like that. So my dream would be like International Monetary Fund or World Bank.
Do you think your identity as someone who is not from the United States contributes to your future goals?
I hope so! People do tell me that. I do believe it gives me sort of a unique perspective on the world, and I can understand the variety of countries the world has. Iraq and the United States are almost the two most different countries on earth. So anything in between, I feel like I’m ready to take it on. I’ve considered going back to Iraq, working there, after I graduate. It might be a little too early. It might not be safe yet, I don’t know. I might go back but we’ll see.
I definitely want to give back to the world. Because I feel like, as a girl from Iraq that grew up in war, a lot of girls my age from Iraq — or from Syria now, or other countries that are war torn or have corrupt governments, as a girl from a country like that — it’s almost a miracle that I’m living in the United States.
It’s a miracle that I’m getting to attend an American university. It’s what, like a one in a million chance. That kind of places responsibility on me or on my children to do as much as I can with it and help the girl that I once was. Go back and do as much as I can to help those people.
What’s your favorite thing about being a girl in the United States?
The freedom. It’s a very diverse spectrum of identities for women in the United States and almost all of them are acceptable, so you don’t get looked down upon comparably to other countries or other societies. Like you can be whatever you want to be, it sounds kind of cheesy, but yeah. There are a lot of way to go of course, compared to the society I grew up in, which has its own merits compared to the United States. There are a lot of things in Iraq and the Arab world that are better than the United States, that are done better. But in the realm of individual freedom and the right to express yourself however you want, the society in America is generally accepting of that. You can find almost anything if you’re looking for people that are similar to you. You can find your own niche, your own community.
Did you or do ever find yourself homesick for Baghdad?
Yes, very much so. It’s human nature to want to belong, and for those first 5 years or so of being in the U.S. I was the epitome of “not belonging.” I longed to be with people who didn’t view me as so foreign, and it was quite tough. But you grow up and you fill the shoes you’re meant to wear. It wasn’t long before I was taking pride in how different I was, and what I had to offer those around me. The questions eventually seemed inviting, and I welcomed them. I started to smile in the face of those that glared at me. I took ownership of my “ambassadorship.” I still long for Baghdad, but at this point this country is my home.