Where I Belong

Through my nomadic childhood, I thought of Syria as home. Now I find myself protesting in the U.S.—and fitting right in

illustration of woman with placards

I left Syria when I was 3, long before the current conflict. Because my father worked with the United Nations, I lived in Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by the time I turned 17. I finished high school in the United Arab Emirates and came to Boston for college, but I always thought I would return to the land of my birth.

Syria was the place of family visits and midnight ice cream runs by Aleppo’s ancient citadel. It was also a place of fear. After more than four decades of the Assad regime’s authoritarian rule, Syrians abroad and at home did not discuss politics in public. I learned at a young age that the mukhabarat (the secret police) and their informants were everywhere.

When the Arab Spring erupted, I watched events unfold from my dorm room at Northeastern University. I was excited for Tunisia and Egypt. But when Syrians took to the streets in March 2011, demanding democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners, I was conflicted. Bashar al-Assad is a reformer, I remember thinking. He is much better than his father. It was only after Syrian security forces opened fire on those protesters that I realized the regime was not open to change.

In April 2012, I participated in my first anti-Assad protest, in Boston’s Copley Square. I was terrified. I did not want my participation to affect my relatives in Syria. However, as I began to raise my voice and really feel the words I was chanting, I realized that for the first time in my life, I was free to speak my mind.

When I graduated from Northeastern that May, it was no longer safe to return to Damascus. I was thrown into limbo, but I knew I was lucky. Unlike the hundreds of thousands who have been killed in Syria or risked their lives fleeing, I was safe in the United States. I filed for asylum. For four years, I could not travel outside the U.S. I did not know if I would be allowed to stay, and if I was forced to leave, I didn’t know where I would go. No one wants a Syrian these days.

And yet I felt welcomed in Boston. Growing up, I was always treated as an outsider. That’s not true here. Even though my name, nationality and religion might mark me as different, here you can be different and still belong. You might think that’s because I “sound American” (as people tell me), but even my mother, who wears a hijab and speaks English with an accent, says she feels more at home when visiting Boston than she does in the Middle East.

I got my green card in December, and I’m now considered a permanent resident of the United States. I’ve lived here almost a decade, more than twice as long as I have lived anywhere else.

Unfortunately, my travel document has not been renewed, and I don’t think it will be for a while because of the Trump administration’s attempts to restrict travel by Syrians. But even with the hateful rhetoric of a “Muslim ban,” I can see myself becoming an American citizen, gaining the right to vote and participating in what I hope will remain an open society. Once I am able to, I expect to travel the world again to work in humanitarian aid and development.

I see repressive trends building in the U.S., but at least here I’m able to speak up. I joined the Women’s March in January as well as protests against the travel restrictions. My voice matters here, and that makes me feel at home.

Basma Alloush, F16, is the advocacy and communication officer at the Norwegian Refugee Council’s office in Washington, D.C. This essay grew out of a talk she gave on campus as part of the Fletcher Ideas Exchange.

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