6,289mi: The Story of One Man's Journey for Acceptance and Assimilation
By: Holly Johnson/Arab America Contributing Writer Fear of the unknown can be paralyzing. The short, sharp breaths, tense muscles, and stress-induced headaches as the fight or flight mode of our biological beings take over is part of the aftermath that generally keeps us in our comfort zones. Imagine waking up one morning in a completely different country. Instead of the dusty, sand-filled outskirts of Beirut for the lush farmlands of Kentucky, or the New York skyline, filled with the imposing high rises and suffocating smog. How would you feel? For one individual, immigrating felt like a “necessary evil that I had to do.”
For Ahmed Al Hammad, a twenty-something-year-old currently pursuing business administration at Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina, the decision to come to the United States was rooted in a yearning to reach his full potential. Born in Amman, Jordan, Al Hammad’s father passed when he was only six, leaving his mother and four siblings starving for nourishment and love. At the age of 12, Al Hammad began taking odd jobs after school, recalling that the jobs always revolved around “physical labor that would make me feel so bad that I couldn’t move my muscles the next day”. By the time Al Hammad was 16, he was working three jobs as well as attending school, when his mother had enough money to put food on the table and he could afford to take an afternoon off.
After eight years of grueling work, Al Hammad received an invitation to pursue his passion for environmental studies at the Arava Institute in Jerusalem. Feeling morally responsible for the care of his mother and sisters in Jordan, Al Hammad wrestled with whether it was right for him to go, attempting to balance his desires with the needs of those he holds most dear.
Following much cajoling, Al Hammad decided to attend Arava. It was there, sitting with his four roommates in their cramped, dingy dorm, that he heard second-hand the liberties and possibilities that permeate the culture, and atmosphere, of American soil. Jerusalem, in Al Hammad’s eyes, was enchanting, however, his time in the program did not allow him the ability to provide for his family. Realizing that he could not put his wishes above the needs of those dependent on him, Al Hammad resolved to immigrate to the United States, a perceived haven of opportunity and opulence for the hard-working.
Describing Charleston as “a historical hub of riches and salty air”, Al Hammad is a student by day, and full-time worker at night, as a desk clerk at a downtown hotel. Although he admittedly doesn’t “make as much as Trump” at his job, Al Hammad does make enough to send back to his mother and younger sister, who still reside in Amman. While he loves the opportunities that his move has given him, he admits that settling in his been difficult, and a complete culture shock.
Among the many things that Al Hammad, and other Arab immigrants struggle with adapting to upon their move, is time orientation. Although the Arab world is characterized by their familial values and hardworking attitudes, Arab residents describe their home culture as being relaxed and focused on one goal as opposed to multi-tasking, which is the proverbial American way.
In a society overflowing with endless possibilities, the need for constant movement and productivity is a trademark of our culture. From commercials touting a product’s ability to keep you awake and focused to achieve your never-ending to-do list, to the merging of work, home, and social lives, as many simply leave the office and return home where are hostages trapped in their smart devices, rest and relaxation is something that you engage in occasionally; in the words of my beloved mother, you can sleep when you’re dead. While Arab countries embrace hard-work and perseverance, they believe in the power of relaxation, and often view our culture as too focused on advancement. Language is, of course, a barrier for those immigrating to the United States from the Arab world, as the English language can be repetitive and confusing; the dictionary mired with multiple words spelled similarly, yet requiring gregariously different pronunciation.
However, to Al Hammad, the biggest challenge he faced when first moving, was the difference in the open, honest, unabashed interpersonal relationships that he was so accustomed to (primarily the cultivation of). For Al Hammad, and those immersed in the Arab world, family, and friends are the most important aspects of life, with decisions and daily activities revolving around the ability to provide for and accommodate these relationships.
While American culture acknowledges the need for close relations, it is highly individualized and independent, with children leaving their parents at an early age and building lives of their own, regardless of their family’s needs and expectations. For Al Hammad, used to popping in on friends and family unannounced throughout the day, only to spend afternoons enjoying a fresh juice or a walk along the market square, the daily routine of work, and eventual rest perpetuated in our society leaves him bewildered. “How do you get anywhere with friends?”, he questions, as as the slight strain in his voice showcases his distress.
A self-professed “foodie”, one aspect of American culture that Al Hammad has quickly adapted to, is the wide array of edible choices surrounding him in his adopted home. From small stands peddling the comforts of home in the form of falafel to bakeries offering buttery croissants, Al Hammad beams with pride as he tells that he has “gained almost ten pounds since he moved to Charleston”, a sly grin painting his handsome features.
Although he still finds himself cooking enough food to “feed an army”, as his girlfriend, a Charleston native tells him, Al Hammad has learned to use this Arab tradition to the city’s advantage, often donating uneaten food to the area’s homeless. “It makes me feel good to give to them”, Hammad tells me, “because I know that one day, that could be me out there.”
For now, Al Hammad’s life is filled with colorful palm-lined streets, work, and cozy evenings spent canoodling with his raven-haired girlfriend (Al Hammad pleaded for me to include this term, as he says it is one of the first words he learned to properly pronounce when first attempting to ‘woo’ his girlfriend). While he dreams of one day bringing his family to Charleston, Al Hammad has found contentment and peace, amidst the cultural uncertainty; a sign that others, although difficult, can too.
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