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Arab American Identity Duality

posted on: Jun 26, 2019

By: Haneen Abu Al Neel/Arab America Contributing Writer

The United States is a country said to be built by immigrants; if we forgo the early version of it. Intermixed ethnic groups and nationalities continue to develop the country’s reputation for hyphenated identities colorfully. The immigration influx, which witnessed exponential increases in the 1800s, is arguably what makes America great. The stories told over telephones, in TV shows, and personal anecdotes advertised a land where unlimited success is an attainable dream, and arguably set the American Dream immigration spike afoot. It was an invitation card sent across the globe.

The Arab immigrants to the United States welcomed the invitation, much like many others. Modestly approximated at 50,000 immigrants from the Levant between the 1800s and 1920s, the Arab immigration wave is one that prides itself on being critically involved in the economic infrastructure of modern-day America. Immigration continues to blur the lines between the definition of Arab and Arab-American. There remains those whose identities fit within no strict lines, and in the process face slightly nuanced challenges. I talked with a few Arab international students, Arabs with green cards, and Arab Americans for a closer look at the transitional Arab identity in the U.S. today.

In today’s day and age, technology serves as a vital tool in staying connected to home. However, it seems like feelings of alienation, although lower, remain constant. Captured in Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s words, you become “Too Foreign for Home, Too Foreign for Here, Never
Enough for Both”, said one of the Arab students who spent a significant time between the U.S. and home. The student goes on to describe it as a constant cycle of alienation from both identities, but also a window of opportunity to establish a more authentic version of yourself. Another student, Amir, points out the difficulty of having to negotiate the intricacies between and within Arab and American identities. He goes on to add that “ in a lot of ways, that negotiation is done before you even become conscious of complex identity”.

Although the most dominant, cultural belongingness and homesickness are not the only byproducts of resident non-immigrant Arabs’ experiences, instead, legal limitations also contribute to a more significant identity gap between Arabs and Arab Americans. Ismail, a student from Egypt, elaborates on the various ways he feels restrained due to his immigration status. A few of the salient points Ismail mentions are the limited resources available to international students to attend expensive higher education institutions, and the need to obtain authorization to work off campus. Without the ability to apply for student loans or scholarships, Arab students are forced to make ends meet by working multiple jobs on campus. Many students seek paid off-campus opportunities as well, which are only permitted after a year of attendance and is granted through Optional Practical Training (OPT) Visas. Legally, non-residents cannot start businesses or NGOs without the guardianship of a citizen, which Ismail also cites as another frustration. Reasonable or not, limitations and differences like those mentioned above are responsible for the growing gap between the two identity groups, let alone American culture.

Ironically, Arab-Americans voice similar concerns about inclusion and affinity to the American culture. Muna, a Palestinian-American student, shares her experience growing up in predominantly White spaces yet feeling estranged upon various random security checks and house raids. Muna says that she has always seen herself as American, but incidents like her father’s arrest for Islamophobic charges made her feel shunned by the very place she calls home. On the other hand, Arab-Americans often express concerns of isolation from their fellow Arab immigrant communities. It is peculiar to see the development of divisions within an already fragmented society like the U.S., but it makes evident that diversity is the key to inclusive, and progressive spaces.

While America prides itself on its plethora of hyphenated identities, it appears that there will always continue to be tension. Whether Arab, Arab-resident, or Arab-American, navigating how to embody each part of your identity is an ongoing conversation. In more ways than one, this conversation about identity politics dovetailed with limitations accompanying each identity is a quintessential America dialogue. America is a nation made up predominantly of diasporas and sub-categories and is shedding light on a unique espousing of variant ethnic, religious, racial, and linguistic combinations.