Examining my family history, I am an individual with an ethnically diverse background. I begin by giving some background about my family, since their history is useful when understanding my American creed.
Born and raised in Lebanon, my Muslim mother first left her country and came to America in 2000 to attend Yale University. Going back several generations, my mother’s relatives all lived in Lebanon their entire lives. Her great-uncle, Hassan Khaled, was the grand Mufti of Lebanon. In this role, he served as leader of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community for more than two decades. He was assassinated in 1989 while defending his country. Because my mother is Muslim, I have been ridiculed because of her strict religious upbringing although I do not practice the Muslim faith.
My father was born in the United States (US), as were my paternal grandfather and grandmother. A supporter of the Russian czar, my paternal great-grandfather was a ‘white Russian’. He came to America from Russia in 1915. My paternal great-grandmother left Ukraine in 1917 to come here. Both followed the Russian Orthodox faith, which my father and grandfather also followed into adulthood. My grandfather fought in World War II. Coming from an educated family, my grandmother arrived in the US from Germany in the late 1930’s.
My American creed includes my belief in religious freedom, that all people are created equal, that we should obey all laws, and that we must defend our country. I also believe that our government provides significant opportunities to become highly educated, and hard work will provide a better life. Overall, my American creed has been highly influenced by my parents and my parents’ parents.
My father had an easy upbringing since he was a second-generation individual born and raised in the US. He had friends born to parents, some of whom were born and raised outside the US. None of this mattered to my dad because he believed all people were equal. Religious freedom was never challenged. All of his friends’ parents fought in World War II.
My paternal great-grandparents had a much more difficult life after entering the US. Having arrived between 1915 and 1917, they spoke and read Russian only. My father knew them very well, spending two weekends every month at their home while he was growing up. My father claims, “My paternal grandfather came from Russia, where he was an educated ‘white Russian’. The ‘white Army’ battled the Communists, and he escaped Russia to survive.” My great-grandmother, on the other hand, came from Ukraine. My father said, “She was less educated and was a working class farmer.”
Their reason for coming to the US was to leave their countries due to no religious freedom, arbitrary application of laws, and war. They believed in freedom of religion, and that all people were created equal. As my father told me, “That was their American creed. Arrive here and enjoy religious freedom unlike in Russia. Work hard, and treat others with equal respect.” My father’s grandparents never left their traditions behind, because the US gave them the freedom to do so. For example, many times they performed in public the Cossack dance, a cultural dance from southern Russia.
My father said, “My grandparents felt welcome in the US, and saw it as the land of unlimited opportunity without discrimination. They believed that their neighbors and co-workers all were equal.” My father still remembers “my grandparent’s huge vegetable garden, and how they shared its crop with the neighbors who represented many ethnic groups.”
My dad believes that things changed a lot since then. “Immigrants are more likely today to live in communities with people who speak the same language and come from similar geographic regions and ethnic cultures. Immigrants are not all equal, and are not integrated into diverse ethnic communities like my grandparents were.”
My mother had a very difficult entry to the US. She arrived only one year before a dark period began in the US. “A year after I arrived in the US, the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center happened.” It was a devastating time for everyone in America because it created so much prejudice against people from the Middle East and particularly, those of the Muslim faith. “I was stepping on eggshells when I shared with others that I grew up as a Muslim. While I was proud of my faith and beliefs, I was being judged and often labeled as a terrorist. Some people preferred to distance themselves from me. I was not treated with equality in this country. Things worsened over time as more attacks were attributed to the Islamic faith.” It took many years until activists, organizations, and church groups called for an “inclusive” America.”
In summary, my parents believe that immigration issues have become more contentious and divisive. Neither equality nor freedom of religion can be taken for granted. Today, immigration and discrimination are contentious issues in America. I have experienced discrimination multiple times. Accordingly, my beliefs in my American creed have been challenged by what I see, and especially by the challenges my mother has faced.
Nevertheless, I still believe in America. Religious freedom, equality, and interest in defending our country remain strong values for Americans. In addition, hard work and higher education contribute to achieving a better life. But I admit that the strength of convictions in my creed has been weakened by what I was told by my own family, and awareness of their past grievances. Life seems very difficult for those who are first-generation immigrants.