Written by Saif Kawash
Unlike the heartbreaking, unfathomable limitation of options for refugees – my family made a conscious, not-for-safety-reasons choice to pick up and move across the world. So, as I will never claim to relate to the tragic experiences of child refugees – it’s impossible and insulting to believe otherwise – I do know what it’s like after you land, to be filled with uncertainty and fear in a completely new world that is supposed to be your home, but doesn’t feel like it.
When I was 12-years-old, my parents made an executive decision to move from Jordan to the United States to provide me and my sister with a better quality of life filled with endless opportunities for a successful, better future. Unfortunately, all of those awesome things meant leaving behind my family, friends, culture, childhood home, my school – even my 1998 World Cup sticker book collection.
As a kid, I felt like I was forced to start my life over again from scratch. The thoughts running through my head were all over the place and I was nervous about all the things I had to do to fit in to my new “home.” I have to learn their language? Their traditions? Their culture? Even their sports? I have to learn to hit a oncoming fastball with a skinny stick?
The questions didn’t end there. Will I be different? How will I fit in? Will they like me? I seem darker than them. What if they don’t like me? My life is over.
Adapt to the culture, but don’t forget your roots.
Within a few short years after being the weird, non-English-speaking-kid, I was lucky enough to learn how to overcome these obstacles. I made friends. I graduated high school (on the same day I was granted American citizenship – for everyone who thinks our “vetting” system isn’t strict enough – it took a 12-year-old kid 6 years to get a blue passport). I graduated college. I now hold a respectable position at one of the largest Fortune 500 companies in the world. I did it. I learned how to fit in here. But it didn’t come so easily.
A few days ago – a good friend of mine texted me about a new student in her class that came from Jordan. She’s an 8th grade teacher. She told me how much he reminds her of me when I first moved here. Because he doesn’t speak English, he’s shy and is having a hard time making friends. It reminded me of my beginnings in this country, and how I wish someone sat me down and told me that everything would be OK – and that this new place could feel like home one day, too.
So, here is my 5 Step attempt at helping another kid, who is thousands of miles away from their home, transition into their new life a little bit smoother than I did…
1. Familiarize yourself with your new culture
When we moved here, my mother wanted us to fit in so badly so not to be looked at as “outsiders”. She asked her colleagues at work what their kids were watching “these days”, the activities they engaged in and the places where they would hang out after school. Because my mom is awesome and was dedicated to Americanizing us, we were encouraged (forced) to watch TRL on MTV – because that’s what the “cool” kids were doing – along with pop culture TV like Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Step by Step to pick up the slang. These things helped us to have things in common with our classmates and so could contribute to conversations. In short, Will Smith and Carson Daly taught me how to speak English.
Note: I do not suggest watching the shows I mentioned above for pop culture references, as kids in school nowadays will have no idea what you’re talking about. I do however, suggest that you just watch them anyway because they’re the greatest shows TV has ever seen.
2. Engage in activities
If it weren’t for sports – I wouldn’t be where I am today. By playing recreational sports and taking part in after school athletic teams, I was able to make friends, build close relationships with kids outside of class, and keep busy. I understand sports aren’t for everyone, but there are tons of other after school activities you can participate in where you can make friends and learn new things. You might just want to go home and nap (I did) but I promise, it’ll be worth it. So, sign up for that club/team tryout/play.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
In 8th grade – first period class, the teacher had a “Do Now” (sounds exactly like what it really is – work you do now) on the board. The task read, “Name 3 American icons.” I leaned over to the fellow next to me and said in my broken but quickly developing English, “Excuse me, I know Michael Jordan but I don’t know any others – can you help me?” Sure, he thought I was crazy (I know this because he told me so), but that’s how I learned who George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were. Oh, and the “fellow” that helped me out? We immediately became best friends – I think it’s because he felt bad for me – and still are until this day. I was the Best Man at his wedding over a year ago, and he will be my Best Man at my own wedding in a few short months. Sup, Zac.
4. Don’t be ashamed of who you are
Just because you moved to a different country, doesn’t mean you have to change who you are to fit in. Adapt to the culture, but don’t forget your roots. Your first language, your traditions and most importantly your culture all make you who you are. It saddens me to learn of people who have disassociated completely from their motherlands. Speaking multiple languages helped me in my career success. And coming from a different culture is often a nice ice breaker as most people are genuinely interested in learning about my religion and where I “come from”. Never forget who you are or where you come from! It’s up to you to keep your traditions and homeland alive in your new home.
5. Play to your strengths, don’t focus on your weaknesses
My English wasn’t good. Science wasn’t my strongest subject when I had to learn it in Arabic so imagine having to learn that in English. And as I mentioned before, I had no idea who George Washington was because for 12 years I learned the history of another country that didn’t matter in my new home – so that subject was out, too. However, the beauty of Math – is that it is a universal language. I was able to do math homework without a Scientific Calculator, and I was so good at it that my teacher thought I was cheating – but that’s another story for another day. I was also the weird kid that spoke French better than he spoke English, but as weird as I was, guess who my fellow classmates asked for help in math and French? (Me). After realizing that it was OK to ask for help, and seeing how comfortable my new friends were in asking me for it, I started asking for help in science and history classes. As far as English goes, to this day my wonderful fiancé helps me out. Her being an editor and the grammar police isn’t always fun, but I can’t deny that it’s not helpful!
So, did moving and starting over in life as a kid suck? In the beginning, yes. But at the end of the day, moving to The States and setting up our new home wasn’t all that bad. Sure, it was a drastic change, but it taught me a lot about myself and the things I am capable of. I learned a new language. I made new friends. I learned how to play new sports (that was baseball by the way for anyone who didn’t know what I was referring to in regards to hitting a ball with a skinny stick), and I assimilated into a new, completely different culture and fit in pretty damn well if I do say so myself (I do). And in the midst of all that, I still kept my culture and my traditions from my homeland alive – and made an effort to find someone with those same values as my own so that I could pass them on to my future children. If you can overcome the obstacles that come with starting over, obstacles that at times we create for ourselves – you can overcome anything. When things get tough, I remind myself of the struggles I had to go through to get to where I am today, and it makes it easier to cope. When things get tough for you, know that you are never alone. Because this immigrant kid knows how it feels to be an immigrant kid – and I promise you that one day, that feeling will be awesome.