Zainab Dabbagh first came to the U.S. from the Middle East about a decade ago, when a private school in Maine offered her a full scholarship to attend.
In a narrative essay Dabbagh wrote for the news analysis site Vox, she said her fellow students asked what in hindsight might be considered rude or insensitive questions, but they did so out of an innocent lack of understanding about her home country of Iraq.
“While most of the people in my school were open-minded and knew a lot about the Middle East, I was still asked questions that, at the time, I found laughable,” Dabbagh wrote. “Questions like, ‘Do you ride a camel to school?’ and, ‘Are you related to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein?’
“I thought those questions were normal and it was my duty to educate these students on all things Arab,” she later continued, in part.
When Dabbagh later returned to America as a refugee fleeing from the terrorist group ISIS, she found that the innocent lack of understanding had evolved into “hatred.”
After Dabbagh graduated high school, she traveled, worked and studied in multiple places around the globe. Ultimately, she returned to her home city of Baghdad, but wrote that her “uncovered hair and outspoken … disposition made me a target” of religious fanatics becoming more powerful and dangerous in the country.
In 2014, after having narrowly avoided three suicide bomb attacks in two weeks, she came back to the U.S. as a refugee.
“The place that was once my home was tarnished,” she wrote, adding, “I packed my clothes, pocketed my passport, and folded my love for Iraq into a box and tucked it in the very back of my mind. I knew that if I had any hope at a life I would not be able to go back.”
But back in America, she said, the questions — and their tone — had changed.
“I was asked, ‘Why did the terrorists attack Paris?’ instead of, ‘Do you ride camels to school?’ and ‘Do you still think Islam has nothing to do with terrorism?’ instead of, ‘Are you related to Osama bin Laden?’ I was expected to apologize on behalf of ISIS and to prove that I deserve to be safe,” Dabbagh recalled in her essay.
“I did not understand why friends and strangers alike believed that ISIS represents me, why every conversation I had turned into an interrogation about ISIS and whether or not I deserved to live in the United States,” she continued.
Even well-meaning Facebook posts from friends who said they’d want to invite a refugee over, show him a good time and “change his mind about the United States, to stop him from becoming a terrorist” were, perhaps unintentionally, “racist and demeaning.”
Dabbagh wrote that while, through firsthand experience, she likely understands better than most Americans how much of a threat terrorists pose, she’s nonetheless lumped in with groups like ISIS because of her ethnicity.
“Hearing about those attacks placed me back in the danger of living in the shadow of ISIS,” she wrote, in part. “I could sympathize with the victims of the attack because I was struck by that same horror, and I understood the fear and apprehension that followed. Nevertheless, my sympathy was undermined due to my being Arab. I was painted with the same brush as ISIS while they were the reason I had to flee. Thus, me being asked to condemn these attacks presented a big problem in the fact that my own identity was put in the same category as that of ISIS.”
Dabbagh wrote that the ongoing U.S. political debate over Syrian refugees — many governors, including Maine Gov. Paul LePage, have opposed the relocation of Syrian refugees to their states out of fear terrorist operatives might be among them — dehumanizes the people fleeing for their lives.
“It is aggravating to see politicians take your humanity and either amplify it or reduce it to benefit their agenda,” she wrote. “All refugees have their own box of stories, lives, and unparalleled love. We are not just a statistic.”