As some governors call for Syrian refugees to be turned away, one who is already in the US speaks out.
Recently, I’ve become fascinated with the history of Boston, Massachusetts, where I was born and educated. Boston is a very old city – for the US, at least: the birthplace of the American Revolution, a home to the Industrial Revolution, the city upon a hill.
Boston is also rich in immigration history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish, Italian, Armenian, Jewish, Chinese, Portuguese and Arab (largely Syrian and Lebanese) groups all made Boston their American home.
Although I’d always known that Syrian and Lebanese families had settled in Boston at some point in the past century, there was very little media interest in it – Hollywood certainly wasn’t knocking on our door. For that reason, many people don’t realise how thoroughly Syrians are already woven into the fabric of America.
After President Donald Trump halted the resettlement of Syrian refugees and banned Syrians from entering the US, I was deeply upset. I started researching the history of Syrian immigration to the US to prove that Syrians have been here all along and that there’s nothing to fear from our community.
I searched for “Syrians in Boston” and, after a few queries, discovered the following photo:
The caption read: “Hudson Street, Boston 1909”. That’s when I knew I had found something incredible.
As I kept digging, I learned the following: Hudson Street was the centre of “Syriantown” or “Little Syria” in Boston. Staring in the 1880s, it had become a neighbourhood for Syrian immigrants in Boston. It was home to Syrian churches, grocery stores, civic associations and small businesses. The famous writer Khalil Gibran made his home in this neighbourhood when he first immigrated to the US.
At this point in my research, I was excited. I pitched the series to my boss as a multigenerational story of Syrian immigration to the US. The idea was to identify a descendant of early Syrian immigrants, a family of more recent Syrian immigrants like my parents, plus a family of Syrian refugees who have arrived since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. I came up with the idea of centring it around Boston and jokingly said we could interview my parents as part of the story, since they live in the area – not believing that my boss would actually be interested. She loved the idea.
After identifying characters for each of our pieces, we set off for Boston, landing during freezing temperatures in the middle of the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory.
The next day, we met Olivia Waishek at her home in West Roxbury, Boston. She has lived in the same house since 1963, when she was forced out of her original home in Boston’s Syriantown. Her parents had lived in Syriantown since the early 1900s. In their day, it was a thriving neighbourhood in the heart of Boston. Olivia described what it was like to grow up there and what had happened.
As I listened to her, I was taken to another time, another era. I could sense the immense pride she had in being a person of Arab and Syrian descent and how urgent she felt it was to share the story of her ancestry. I discovered the depth of the history of Arab-Americans in Boston.
Then it was time to go home to see my parents.
As I walked up the steps to my parents’ house – cameras following behind me – I felt nervous. Would my mum say something to embarrass me? Would my dad be uncomfortable in front of a camera? Would the whole day be a disaster? My mother had jokingly tried to back out a few days before.
But they were great.
Growing up, you never really appreciate your parents enough. And it stems from not being fully aware of all they have done for you and all the sacrifices that came with bringing you into the world. All those times I poked fun at my mum and dad’s accent … I was completely unaware of how hard they’d struggled to learn a new language in a new country, far away from friends and family.
And I tried to bring the knowledge of those difficulties with me as we visited our last interviewees: the Abdo family.
Entering Zainab’s house, I wasn’t sure who was more nervous: Zainab, the family’s oldest daughter, or me, asking a family of Syrian refugees to open up about the tragedy that had befallen them – on camera.
Zainab gave us a powerful interview. I admired her bravery in starting over in the US and was amazed by the generosity and hospitality of a family enduring such financial struggles. I wish everyone could meet them and be a witness to all they have gone through and how hard they are working to adjust to their new home.
Home – that four-letter word is really why we produced this series; to talk about this place called the United States that I call “home”. I now understand that home isn’t necessarily where you were born or where you are from. Home is the place where you are made to feel accepted by others in your community – where you are most comfortable with yourself and those around you.
And that applies to Syrians, too.
The US is Olivia’s home and it’s all she has ever really known. My parents immigrated here from Syria and decided to make this their home. Zainab fled Syria and resettled in the US, which is now her home. It doesn’t happen overnight, but whether you’re a refugee or an immigrant, you can make this your home. You just need to be given a fair chance.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.