I was invited here today to share my experiences as a MENA identifying person. I could tell you about how I was born in Houston, Texas to an undocumented Algerian mother. I could tell you of a father who received a full scholarship from Algeria to be educated in Texas and his tumultuous professional journey afterwards. I could tell you how I became the oldest of six children in a home that valued education more than anything — even at the cost of forgetting our native tongue. I could tell you how my parents interweaved the desire for us to succeed academically with stories of our Algerian home, of a country that fought a remarkable independence war against French colonization, of grandfathers who were at the front lines, and grandmothers who were held prisoners of war. I could tell you how they let us know that we were the children of immigrants who sacrificed everything to come here, the grandchildren of warriors whose blood spilled on a land far from here. They spoke these stories until they embodied our existence, and we desired to do more in this world to make the sacrifices of the thousands before us worth it. I could delve into my experiences as an Algerian woman in medicine, talk about how I walk through hospital halls and treat patients with a hijab wrapped around my head. I could tell you of the countless amounts of stereotypes and microagressions I’ve had to continuously combat. I could even share with you my unconventional journey into humanities, and how, by virtue of my field, I walk into rooms oftentimes the only person to look like me.
Though it is supposed to be the content of my talk, there are people in this room who have similar, if not even more remarkable, stories than mine. I do not claim to have a unique narrative, nor do I wish to become the dominating one. There are themes here — the struggle of parents, the immigrant’s child, value placed in education, an inspiring legacy of ancestry and history — that belongs to all of us. Societies in North Africa and the Middle East have existed long before America, has contained our people longer than this land has known this country, and continues to run in our blood no matter how many oceans apart it courses through. When we stand here, we stand as a representation of the millions before us who have lived and labored to give us the semblance of privilege we contain today. As you sit here, at a transition point of your life, having completed a degree of education, think of your tribe, the people you come from, and how these roots unite us in a far grander scheme than the country we live in wishes to ever acknowledge. This is your strength.
Instead of a personal anecdote, I would like to share with you the pieces of wisdoms I’ve collected along the way.
It is imperative, no matter which field you are going into, that you not lose sight of the world in which you live - a world that continues to dangerously became focused on the liberal “I” instead of the “we”, that consumes without a fear of gluttony, and that will drown you with homogeneity of narratives if you allow it to. You must continue to nurture the critical discourse of your mind that will enable you to push discussions into uncomfortable spaces, spaces that will accept all of your being, and accept the people who will come after you. You must always bring other people into the room with you, no matter which room you enter, because our voices are still marginalized, and our voices need to be heard. You must use your voice to speak up against injustices, because if it can happen to others, it will happen to you, and you must embrace humility in acknowledging the injustices you have performed — in certain spheres we carry a privilege built on the backs of people of darker melanin than ours who should have been brothers and sisters in the struggle in order to resemble a whiteness which we thought was worth striving to.
You cannot remain silent to the diseases that plague society, nor can you allow anyone to co-opt your voice. Currently we are prime targets for tokenization and curated representation. We must be intelligent with the intentions of those who wish to use our bodies for their gain, and we must never allow any one person to silence us.
Acquiring knowledge must not stop once you graduate. This experience has merely been the laying of foundation, the building blocks upon which the habits for intellectual curiosity and growth should continue to propel you forward into this world. There will be no greater strength than the words and the pen that will arm your tongue and your wit, and you must fearlessly wield them. You must continue to educate yourself with the discourses of the world, and continuously counter them to find the truth.
We cannot ignore the legacy from which we come, or the shoulders for which we stand upon, and though we carry pride in our skin, it is easy to be swept away by erasure of our roots. We hold responsibility — for the country of our parent’s birth, for our families, for a history of ancestors, as children of sacrifices and wading in the diaspora — all things that are misunderstood and can never be forgotten. For those of you who have chosen careers based on ideas of obligations — I urge you — do not let go wholly of what drives you. There is time in this world to pursue what nourishes and nurtures you in parallel to obligation, and you should unabashedly create time for it. Fearlessly take claim that your upbringing bestows certain responsibilities upon you, and that neither burdens you nor is baggage you unwillingly carry.
Take a moment now to look around the room. Unless it’s a wedding, or a pan-Arab conference, this is the most of your tribe you will find existing in one space. The university atmosphere brings you together in a way that the world out there will make it very difficult to. Embrace your colleagues. They will understand and know, more than anyone else, of the land you come from. You must hold on to this village for as long as you can. You must seek this village, no matter where you go.
One last thing — graduation will be a grand day. You will hold a diploma in your hand in victory and wear the education you’ve received as a cape, ready to take on the world. I want to take a moment to talk about the day after.
You’ll wake up with remnants of elation, but now something else is scratching the back of your throat — sadness, perhaps fear. For the first time in a long time you may not know what’s next or what's in store for you. Some of you already know — job lined up, enthusiastically anticipating the first day, first paycheck, first promotion. Others are joining the ranks of higher education — pursuing masters, PhD, medical, dental, law school. Even then you may still find yourself thrusted into a world romanticized since childhood, a world you have been molded to enter as a contributing member but may not feel ready to join. When you do, it might not be what you imagined. Glorious adulthood, filled with responsibilities, bills, nine to fives with barely any free time. You’ll wonder why you were waiting for this for so long — how could this be the rest of happily-ever-after?
I want to say that’s okay. Right now the unknown may be vast, but it will be okay. You’ll fumble, make mistakes — that’s okay. You may feel like you don’t belong, like a child playing an adult, and that’s okay. It’s okay to not be okay, to be scared. That's natural. It happens to all of us.
Believe me when I say you’ll find your way, slowly but surely. Each fumble and mistake will make you stronger; don’t forget to stand. Be bold, be confident — you do belong. There are no magical equations, no such thing as being ready from day one, so don’t let anyone intimidate you into thinking otherwise. We grow, we learn, we get better with practice and experience.
You are still young, blindingly bright, and filled with naivety, so hold on.
Congratulation, graduates. Now onwards you go.