This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Pride parade, which took place in New York City after the Stonewall Uprising.
As a gay Muslim woman, who came to America fleeing bigotry in my native Jordan, this day means everything to me.
Back there, being gay is punishable by death. Over here, police raids against the LGBTQ community led to a national movement—one that recently saw civil rights protections extended to my community.
Nothing like this could ever happen in Jordan.
I can still remember calling my parents in Jordan just weeks after my graduation from Smith College in 1994 and telling them I was gay. I prayed for their support. Instead, they cut me off. I lost my family, but I got to live.
Today, I am a proud American citizen. I have a beautiful wife and children of my own. This country is our home.
In 2004, I was living in Clarkston, Georgia when I happened upon a group of refugee boys playing soccer in a parking lot. They were barefoot and using a deflated ball and cardboard boxes as goals.
Being a refugee myself, I appreciated their ingenuity. Within a year, I left my job running a cafe to found Fugees Academy, a nonprofit school for refugees with locations in Clarkston, GA and Columbus, OH. We use soccer to teach leadership and help refugee families acclimate to their new American lives.
Watching my students learn resilience in the aftermath of trauma is inspiring, but it’s especially instructive now, as America undergoes the hard work of criminal justice reform and economic recovery. Pride Day is proof that we have the ability to effect change. Whether you’re a refugee or not, we all have the creativity and perseverance to face our current challenges.
Our resilience was on display back in March, when the pandemic closed our schools in Georgia and Ohio. Many of our students lacked the necessary tools for remote learning so we got busy, securing computers and free wifi being offered by local carriers.
We launched Facebook groups to run soccer practices remotely. And our teachers held morning check-ins via Zoom to spark conversations that would help students process their feelings about current events, and alert us if any families fell into crisis.
As refugees, our students had seen their education disrupted before; attending school in refugee camps is not always possible. But their ability to adapt to this uncertainty and thrive in spite of it, reminds me what the human spirit is capable of.
Of course, it hasn’t been easy. One of the ways that refugees build resilience is by giving back to the community. It’s why so many of our students’ parents are essential workers. Healthcare is the second most common career for refugees, with more than 161,000 people caring for our sick as physicians, nurses, personal care aides and lab technicians, according to New American Economy.
Refugees also play a crucial role in our food supply chain. More than 31,000 work in grocery stores and supermarkets, and more than 46,000 in food processing. Immigrants also comprise more than one in eight education workers, including 9.6 percent in Georgia and 5.8 percent in Ohio. These jobs are equally essential and will become increasingly dangerous as daycares and schools begin to reopen. But take it from me: we do this work because we care.
Practicing resilience isn’t easy. Earlier this semester, a 13-year-old student named Eissa had a panic attack in art class. The night before, members of his family in Syria had been killed in a bombing.
Between sobs he told me, “They are all dead.”
When I dropped him off at home later, his mother answered the door. I searched for words to console her.
Finally, she said, “We are lucky that we are here, and that we are alive.” Having fled LGBTQ persecution myself, I understood what she meant. America is our home now.
The families at our school feel the same. As our students become more confident, so do their parents, pursuing their own educations and careers.
Many of my students have gone on to college and become airplane mechanics and serve in the military.
That’s what America has given people seeking refuge: a fresh start, a chance to live. And in return, they do everything in their power to give back to this country.
Fifteen years ago when I came across those boys playing soccer in Clarkston, I remember being struck by their creativity. They’d taken a deflated ball and some cardboard boxes and created joy.
Now, as Americans celebrate Pride, I know we will find similar glimmers of happiness and hope.
We are Americans. We are resilient. We will emerge stronger, our heads held high.
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