I have been relatively sheltered for the majority of my life. I was born and raised in a suburb of Cleveland and when the time came for college, I commuted from home to a small private university in another suburb of Cleveland. Most of my non-Muslim friends were going away for college, but I didn’t mind staying. I didn’t have any responsibilities besides respecting my parents’ rules and doing well in school, both of which I had always done anyway. I came home to a delicious homemade meal every day, didn’t need to have a job, and relied on my parents to take care of pretty much everything. This is the case for a lot of Muslim/Arab girls. A girl moving out before marriage is almost unheard of unless it’s absolutely necessary. Many Muslim/Arab girls go from their parents’ house to their house with their husband, and never really spend much time on their own. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I saw no problem with it at all until I was forced to break the mold.
Two and a half years ago, I got my acceptance letter to medical school in New York. I was excited but terrified at the same time. After I finished jumping up and down and hugging my parents, I immediately felt a sense of dread overcome me. I went on my phone and Google mapped the driving distance between Cleveland and New York: 6 hours and 45 minutes. Whoa. I was 23 years old and about to be on my own for the first time in my life, and I had no idea what to expect. It hit me that I didn’t really know how to take care of myself. I didn’t understand anything about taxes or bills or loans or insurance. I had never done my own laundry or cooked my own food or done my own grocery shopping. It’s not that I was lazy, but I was used to having my parents take care of everything. I simply didn’t need to.
I had become so accustomed to what I now call “The Cleveland Bubble” that I couldn’t imagine what life would be like outside of it. My Cleveland Bubble consists of family plus the Arab community in Cleveland. It’s full of people who have grown up in similar conditions, with similar viewpoints and ideals. At the time, I didn’t know that popping this bubble and escaping would be the best and most life-altering thing to ever happen to me.
That June, I packed up my bags and headed to my new apartment in a strange town I knew nothing about. My parents and brothers helped move me in and eventually had to return to their lives in Cleveland. They drove away and I just stood there in the center of my apartment, looking around and listening to the deafening silence. What was I supposed to do now?
I knew that now, I could rely on no one but myself. If I wanted to open this tightly closed jar, I had to figure out a way to do it myself. If I wanted to hang a picture in my living room, I had to buy the necessary equipment and do it myself. If I was craving a certain meal, I had to go out and buy the ingredients and make it myself. If there was a bug crawling around in my apartment, I had to go to war with it myself. I had to go to school and study for ridiculously long hours and also find time to cook and clean and organize. I had to make sure to get the mail and not miss any deadlines. If I was bored and wanted to go somewhere, I couldn’t force one of my brothers to come with me; I was totally on my own. These things all seem so silly and trivial to most people, but they were real challenges to me in those first few weeks.
I didn’t know that popping this bubble and escaping would be the best and most life-altering thing to ever happen to me.
A few days after I moved in, some of the other medical students planned a get-together. It was Ramadan at the time, so I already felt like an outsider, since it appeared that I was the only semi-religious Muslim in my class. Everyone else ate snacks and drank and asked me why I wasn’t eating. We hiked and I felt like I was about to die of dehydration. They played football, which I know nothing about and do not care about, as I sat on the grass and watched. They played with the dogs, which I was terrified of. After maghrib (post sunset prayer), I could eat but everyone questioned why I didn’t want a beer. Despite the fact that these were some of the sweetest people I had ever met, I also never felt more out of place in my life. I realized that, although I had non-Muslim, non-Arab friends back home, I had never really been thrown into a world exclusively full of people with completely different views/lifestyles.
Over the past 2.5 years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to become very close with my classmates. Aside from the years of late nights, early mornings, long days, and inexplicable amounts of stress, we’ve also shared countless eye-opening conversations. I taught them about my life and they taught me about theirs. Before this experience, I had always felt like my way of life was the “correct” one. I didn’t realize it before, but I had been fairly close-minded. Being able to listen to my classmates’ stories, each one with his or her own unique experiences, has truly opened me up to a whole new world. I gained a family made up of all different kinds of people. I met Muslims who didn’t necessarily fit my previous definition of a Muslim and realized that deciding how someone should act based on their religious preferences, or lack thereof, is not my place or anyone else’s. I learned that what makes life truly beautiful is being able to speak with and understand people who are different from you, and in that context, you’re able to shape and define who you are and come to conclusions on your own. What a humbling journey it has been.
For the first time in my life, I could do what I wanted, when I wanted. I never really had any desire to drink or try out drugs. I’ve never even smoked hookah (I know, I’m an embarrassment to my people). I didn’t go to parties or clubs. I had never been in a setting where everyone around me was drunk. I had never been in a room full of people smoking marijuana. But being this way was easy and expected when I lived with my parents. You know that you eventually have to go home, and there’s no way of hiding anything. But if you’re able to hold on to your personal convictions, whatever they may be, despite ample peer pressure, that means that you’re doing it for yourself, not for fear of getting in trouble with parents. Being alone allows you to explore your relationship with your beliefs and decide for yourself how you want to live. Too often, people are passively forced into their family/community’s belief system with absolutely no say and no opportunity to question anything openly.
I taught them about my life and they taught me about theirs.
Growing up, my parents were always very protective of my brothers and I, but especially me, being the girl. I grew up with a slightly irrational fear of the world around me, by extension of my parents always being so worried about us. I know that the world can be a dangerous place, but I now also know that allowing fear to be debilitating and allowing it to stop me from living is unacceptable.
I live about an hour from NYC, so I try to go to the city every few weekends and just explore, usually on my own. Of course, my parents hate that I do this. “Be careful, Lara. Be aware of everything around you. Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t come home late on the bus. Don’t go on the subway. I don’t understand why you need to do this.”
As I write this, I’m sitting alone on a bench on the High Line in New York City, which has quickly become one of my favorite places to just sit and think. The Lara of a few years ago would never have taken a trip to a big city alone. She wouldn’t be sitting in a park alone with her laptop after spending hours going from coffee shop to restaurant to park, wandering around and eating just about everything. I would’ve been embarrassed and afraid. Being on my own has allowed me to become so much more comfortable with myself, and has allowed me to realize how strong I can be on my own. I don’t need someone to take care of me because I can take care of myself. When faced with obstacles, I know that I can come up with a solution on my own. I can go out and explore and question and learn about the world around me, and that allows me to grow and mature. I can force myself outside of my comfort zone because you need to do that in order to succeed on your own. I used to be incredibly timid and somewhat awkward. I was terrified of saying the wrong things and being rejected. I was obsessed with what people thought of me. I’ve become a completely different person than I was a few years ago, and I am forever grateful for that acceptance letter.
I’m not saying that you have to leave home in order to have maturing/humbling experiences, but I think it is important to step outside of your comfort zone. Go somewhere you wouldn’t normally go. Do something you wouldn’t normally do. Take a trip if you can. Go out alone. Question ideas you’ve grown up with. Take responsibility for yourself and do things for you. Read things that give you a glimpse into other people’s minds. Have conversations with people, whether it be in person or online, who have totally different worldviews. Discuss religion and politics and any controversial issue you can think of, but try to do it with a completely open mind. Truth is relative, and allowing yourself to discover all of the different truths in our world is an adventure that can be truly exhilarating.