Siddrah Alhindi is a Staten Island high school senior, an aspiring journalist and one of Afro Puff Chronicles’ staff content creators! From the first time I met Siddrah, our relationship has been both of friendship and education. I will never forget the night that she told me why she wore her hijab. I asked questions, she answered; she spoke and I listened. I appreciate her deep value and respect for cultural exchange, for, without her, I would still be ignorant to fundamental aspects of Islamic culture, just due to the fact that I, like many others, rarely get exposure to stories such as hers. So today, I challenge you to come with open ears and an open heart, like I did that night many months ago and listen to Siddrah’s breathtaking story.
A Child of The West & of The East: A Story of A Syrian-Muslim-American Girl
By Siddrah Alhindi
My little sister and I listened to the sounds of protesters and police clashing back home in Syria. “Don’t look,” our father commanded, while his eyes were glued to Facebook. It was 2011. We were at home in Staten Island, where my sister and I, native New Yorkers, live with our Syrian-born dad. My sister and I have not been back to Syria since 2011 when the war began. My father has been away from Syria for even longer than that, despite it being his own homeland.
When I finished the fourth grade, we flew out of Damascus for the last time. We’d lived there for four years with my grandparents. We packed lightly thinking that it was just another summer vacation, unaware that it was the last time I’d ever smell the sweet Syrian air again.
Summer in America was always memorable. I got to catch up with all my childhood friends, go to the beach and enjoy the east coast water, spend time with my dad, speak English, and be “American”. Yet the summer of 2011 really took all of us by surprise. As we watched the revolts and protests on the news worsen back in Syria, where a revolution began to spark, my father decided that it was too dangerous for us to go back. As a child who learned to adapt to constantly changing environments, this was nothing new, but it was one of the hardest experiences I have ever been through. The decision to stay might have hurt at the time, but it was one of the best decisions that altered my life entirely. In Syria, I still had my personal belongings, friends, family, and mother. Yet in America, there was an opportunity, and a chance to survive. I haven’t been back to Syria ever since.
I am a child of the West and of the East. I was born in a Brooklyn, New York hospital. I go to a private Muslim school in Staten Island where the hijab is a part of every girl’s uniform and all the boys and girls pray together at the end of every school day.
I spend summers in the Middle East with my mother who’s been divorced from my dad since I was four. For four years straight, we didn’t see her at all. When that separation ended, in the summer of 2016, Mama looked at my chest and hips and the hijab that girls like me begin wearing once they hit puberty. She seemed kind of shell-shocked. “Are those really my daughters?” She kept asking that question. This summer, my little sister will again argue with me over who gets to sleep in the same bed with Mama and sit in the front passenger’s seat of her car. She will even type on her phone whose turn it is to be closest to Mama. When we leave my mother at the end of this summer, all three of us will cry. I have a video of us crying and hugging at the airport—that was when we’d not seen each other for those four years —and I set that video to Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” Nobody said it was easy, it’s such a shame for us to part … That’s how the chorus goes. My mom will tell us “Don’t cry, we will see each other again soon.” Yet we always do, though we promise each other that we will not. You can get used to the distance, but the longing will always be there.
After this summer ends, I won’t see her until the next one. Airports have always been places that I both love and hate. They unite us and yet also break us apart.
I do not know the details of my parents’ divorce. I do know that our parents love us fiercely. I know that my mom lives far away in Qatar in order for her to work and support her family in Syria, she is their only source of income. Along with sending money back home, she saves up money to give us the best summers. Being away from my mother is painful. It also makes us cherish each other more. I know that my dad hustles to make a way for us in this country. He’s had a lot of jobs. He mainly is a carpenter, a job he loves—when he can get it. He drove a car for Uber briefly, but quit. I respect his hustle. I wrote a poem about it. When my father spends a couple of days at a time at a construction job, my sister and I look after each other and answer our father’s calls to ask if we are ok and if the door is locked.
America is my home. But I come from a family of refugees. My father remained in the States to work, and that was his life ever since he left his family to go find better opportunities during his teenage years. That was the case for most of my uncles, so my grandparents had their children distributed worldwide as a side effect of the economic situation in their country.
My Grandpa passed away last year, and every time my Grandma recalls his last moments she cries and tells us how he told her “I am dying and my kids aren’t even here around me”. He had ten kids and only five were by his side in his final moments.
My uncles always sigh at the separation. Six sons sighing at being placed in these foreign lands, away from home and from their dying parents. With the ongoing conflict, the sons could never go back to their mother-lands. Some even have children that never stepped foot in the soil of their ancestors, it is all rubble now anyways.
My male cousins are currently scattered around European countries because they had to flee in order not to be put into the military. My mother’s younger brother was serving before the war started, expecting to do 2 years and move on. He has been serving for 8 years now and still is. His life put on pause, his youth stripped away from him. He is currently unmarried, unemployed, and only gets to spend a few days back home, then he has to return to his tent. Set up in the middle of nowhere, amidst the wreckage of a forgotten land.
So, what’s my point? I’m just another teenager trying to make her way in her family and a complicated world. I’m a daughter of divorcees. I love them both. I blame neither of them for anything. And I’m an American Muslim teen who has worn my hijab long enough that I almost forget its on my head. When people see me, the first thing they see is my hijab. What they don’t see is the Arabic language inscribed in my tongue. The strands of Ottoman ancestry in my eyebrows. The faith in my heart.
I am troubled by what some people assume about me when they look at my covered head. I know that many outsiders stare at me but don’t imagine me in my bedroom, behind a closed door and dancing to 90s throwbacks or binge-watching Netflix and crying when a character dies. Or ringing our nice white neighbors’ doorbell to hand them a dish of the food my father cooks or a Christmas gift for their two little boys. Neighborliness is a basic teaching of Islam.
What people miss when they see me kneeling down to pray, is the Quran memorized in my head, the lessons of peace preached into my ears. The prayer traced onto my hands as they come together and lift up at times good and bad.
When people see me they just see a timer. With every tick, they believe they hear, they give me stares, judgment, and fear.
When people stare at me, they fail to truly see who I really am. So I made it my responsibility to correct their misinterpretations. To tell them my story, to voice my hardships, and to shed light on my religion. Because just like them, I am just trying to achieve my goals, be there for other’s, and attempt to bring light into a world filled with darkness.
Despite the rest of my family being refugees, and despite my parents immigrating to this country, I am still an American. Despite wearing the hijab and calling myself Muslim, I am more than that. I am a combination of my parents, their homeland, and all of my experiences. I am Arabic and English. I am Syrian and American. I am east and west. I am bicultural and bilingual, and all that comes in between. Yet most importantly I am no different from those around me, those that are seeking opportunities in this great country. Opportunities that others struggle to acquire.
I am a child of the East and the West, and very much an American girl.