My dad is from Aleppo, Syria and he came to study engineering at Penn State University in the eighties. He was in his mid-twenties. He said all he knew of the U.S. was what he saw in James Bond movies. Now we have the internet and so many more resources to learn about other people and other cultures. We live in a place where everyone’s from somewhere, but it seems like people aren’t patient. My dad said when he came here, people were patient. They all wanted to know his story and were very open to hearing about it. It’s also just surprising to see how much hate there is now with how much access we have to learning about other people and learning about other religions.
Anyway, he met my mom at Penn State and they got married. My mom’s from central Pennsylvania, from Sunbury, which is kind of close to Harrisburg. Then three years into their marriage, they decided to go to Syria to live there. I guess my dad was kind of home sick, he’d been away for a while. My mom was adventurous and she had always wanted to get out of the States and try living somewhere else for a while. After three years, they came back and settled in Plymouth, outside of Philly. I ended up at Temple University, so now I’m where I want to be, which is in the city.
Syrians are pretty proud of where they’re from. His family, I’m sure, has been in the same city for generations and generations. It was also really important growing up that me and my sister went to visit as often as we could. We went every other summer for six weeks at a time so that we could get to know our family. It feels like a second home, going back. My family in Syria were so excited that we were there, they would always to introduce us as their “American cousins.” “These are our ‘American cousins’ and they love it here,” – because we did. We loved seeing our family. We loved getting to know what their culture and was like, what music they listened to, the food that they ate. Everything about their culture was something that they were proud to share with us and we were happy to learn about.
Since we went in the summers when there were weddings, celebrations, or graduations – there was this song that they always played that goes “mabrouk, mabrouk,” which means congratulations. For every occasion we sang this and everyone would sing and dance around. It was like a requirement, the family had to get up and dance around. You can’t just sit there, you have to get up – you have to clap. You have to be part of the party. My family in Syria never visited us though. They’ve never really left the Middle East. They’ve been to Lebanon and Jordan and Egypt, but not really farther than that. We just stay in touch the way we always have. Now it’s gotten a lot easier with apps like WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and Facebook. We just do digital communication.
I tried learning Arabic. I can understand most things in Arabic but I’m not very conversational. I went to Sunday school every week and that was important for my dad, but it didn’t really stick. I did learn a lot of the religious studies and I did have a very strong community of Muslim people, not only Syrians and not only Arabs but of people that came from all over Muslim countries and were living in the area. That was at Villanova, it has a pretty strong group of people. But smells, like jasmine, and tastes make me very nostalgic for Syria still. We were walking by some jasmine the other day and reminded me immediately of my cousins’ backyard. My uncle planted a jasmine tree for each of his daughters in their garden so the smell reminds me of sitting out on summer nights in the backyard with them. Also, double apple flavored hookah. There’s this yogurt drink called ayran, which is like a plain yogurt but it’s also pretty salty.
I think that people’s reaction to what’s happening in Syria is kind of limited, as though because they’re Muslims it’s almost expected that they’re going to behave the way that they are. Like itt’s just another radical Islamic group, similar to Al-Qaeda, so I think a lot of people are not even questioning that there are real people there. I don’t think people realize how it was a pretty secular country. Religion was not really an issue. There were a lot of Christians and there used to be a lot of Jews there. I think many of them moved back to Israel when that became it’s own state. I don’t think there were a lot of religious conflicts. You could dress however you wanted. There definitely were political issues. You couldn’t really speak out against the government, but it didn’t come down to religion or ethnic group. That’s all started because of ISIS, which who knows where that started from. That’s debatable.
My family is Italian, Polish, and as far back as you can go American. Not Native American – let me clarify. I have Italian and Polish background on my mom’s side. I have pilgrim heritage on my dad’s side of the family. Both sides of his family were pilgrims. His mom’s side of the family and his dad’s side of the family were here by 1635, lived two doors over from each other and founded the colony of Connecticut. I think they were just some of the earliest settlers. There’s this group of people who are the ancestors of the people who founded Connecticut – we’re the only people in this group who’s family lines are both settlers of Connecticut. There’s so many weird ties. Their last name is Post, that same Post family is of Post cereals and also of Merriweather Post Pavilion. They are a super philanthropist family. You have Merriweather Post Pavilion, you have American breakfast cereals, just super Americana blood on that side of my family.
I think I’ve always loved history. Part of it is because it’s easy for me to contextualize a lot of it because of my family lineage. I’ve had all sorts of connections that I’ve made over the years between my history classes and my family line because I have presidential blood. I am also related to the man who was the inspiration for the caricature of Uncle Sam. I think because of these kind of funny, interesting fun facts that I’ve found in my own family history, I find a certain connection to American history that a lot of other people might not necessarily feel. In particular, I love presidents. I think they’re really interesting characters to study. I think part of that is because of the connection I feel through my family history.
My mom’s dad arrived when he was a young, like in elementary school age, with his parents to Philadelphia. My whole Italian side of the family lives still here in Philadelphia, or in the surrounding areas. I think because I grew up coming here and knowing that it was where my mom grew up, I just always felt a connection to the city in that way. I still feel that connection now that I live here. As much as I know about my dad’s side of his ancestry, we’re not all that close with his side of the family because honestly, you get these Americans who are so true to…well they are conservative Americans who want to keep things the same. His side of the family, we kind of can’t connect with socially or politically. We’ve lost a lot of communication with them because we just don’t really see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. Whereas with my mom’s side of the family, the Italian side, we’ve always been super close with everyone. They’re kind of like your stereotypical Italian, good humored, loud, late for everything, family.
On the Italian-Polish side, everyone’s far more liberal, lives in urban settings, and many of them work for the government in the D.C. area. Everyone’s super political on that side of the family, whether it’s through their work or what they’re interested in outside of work. They’re all very much activists, advocating all sorts of legislative changes, whether immigration reform – which I think is also because they’re first generation and their parents had to immigrate here and deal with all sorts of issues. I think that’s where that sympathy comes from.
Whereas on my dad’s side of the family, many live in the Midwest in more rural areas where it tends to be more conservative. Many of them are members of, for instance, Daughters of the American Revolution, which I personally could be a member of as well, but I also just can’t stand behind their image. I think that these sort of differences amongst us have driven a wedge because – I don’t know. Your stereotypical conservative American is kind of like this person who’s like I’ve been here since the start and blah, blah, blah. We need to keep things the same. I think that some of my dad’s side of the family is really like that.
I definitely see myself as super patriotic because I think as a country, we have a lot to be proud of. I think the word patriotic has a conservative connotation, but I’m a super liberal patriot. Being someone who has pilgrim blood, plus more recently immigrated blood, has led me to be proud of everything that can come together in this country. It also makes me open minded – the population does change. I’m happy with the different backgrounds that brought me together. That’s kind of, to me, a typical American story.