By Mary Lahaj
Everyone has an opinion about immigrants living in America. To keep America great, some insist that immigrants must change immediately, to fit in. Others insist that immigrants should not change, but be free to retain their identity, because Americans value freedom and diversity.
The insistence that refugees change immediately, so that they look and sound like “us” has a long history in this country. I heard a story recently about the residents of a town in Minnesota, complaining about resettled Somali refugees: “Their food is strange, clothing outlandish, religion is violent, and language odd-sounding.”
Some will remember that the Irish were accused of being “unmixable.” And today, this same view of immigrants begs the question: What if “those” people don’t change? What if we are expected to change and become like them? As one resident stated, “We do not want our values or our children’s values to change or be changed by these immigrants.”
As a second generation American-born Muslim woman, whose parents were born here, and grandparents came from Syria at the turn of the 20th Century, I am an expert on change. For more than 100 years of living in America, change has played a critical role in my family’s history. It is an inevitable, imperceptible process, and like the sun, it touches everyone and everything.
It might be helpful to look closely at the relationship between new immigrants and indigenous Americans. For example, when my mother needed help with the housework, she hired a new immigrant from Finland. One day, she observed the young woman ironing. First, she would spit on the clothes, and then press them with the hot iron. Even after explaining that this practice (and a few others) was unacceptable, the young woman continued to do things her way. That was early on in the process of assimilation. But since the young woman would not change, my mother had to let her go. For many immigrants, change is about survival and keeping a job.
Change has also played an important role in America, when it comes to food. I remember asking my grandfather (of the immigrant generation) why our “Syrian” food had changed and became “Lebanese” food? To get a comprehensive explanation, I had to take a history course about the Middle East; another subject for another essay.
Significantly, our American cuisine has undergone the slow process of change. Take some of our favorite foods, such as Chinese, Italian, barbecue, cinnamon, and chili peppers − all brought to us by immigrants, and changing our indigenous taste buds forever. Maybe it’s our hubristic self-regard, but we have taken ownership of these foods, accepted them hungrily into our American family cuisine, and forgotten all the immigrants who gave them to us.
Food changes from the very first day an immigrant arrives. The process continues, as each new American generation tries to recreate the food of its parents. If my grandfather was still alive to taste my baklava, he would ask me why it changed; and that, after only two generations.
As Americans, not only do we have a unique cuisine, we also fashion our own religions. Dr. Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, has pioneered an emerging field that documents the transformation of religions brought to America by immigrants, including the “new” religions of Islam, Hinduism, Jain, Christianity, and Judaism, each being practiced uniquely in America.
Sadly, fear of change has been directed at immigrants, Muslims, people who look like Muslims, and people of color. Blinded by fear, xenophobes have lost faith in our values and strengths. America transforms people, food, and religion and presents unparalleled opportunity for people to actualize their potential. America is not a melting pot that sits on the back burner, waiting to boil down. America is a transforming power.
In my Syrian American Muslim family, my grandparents had to change in order to survive. In the second generation, my parents had to change in order to succeed. Each generation gets to choose what it wants to carry forward in its American life and what it wants to leave behind. As the third generation, I have chosen to practice American Islam. From my family, I also inherited the burning desire to be a good American (a passion that never skips a generation). I passed love of country to my child and demonstrated the value of change.
To me, that torch held by the Statue of Liberty symbolizes the burning desire to be a part of what makes America great. It also represents the eternal faith that immigrants have in America. And by the way, the first Somali (a woman) just won the privilege of representing the state of Minnesota.