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On Being a Young Muslim American Abroad

by Kareemah Ashiru Jan 12, 2017

As a young girl, I had the opportunity to travel over deserts and seas with my family. My parents encouraged me to be open minded in regards to different cultures and ways around the world.

The day I told my parents I wanted to live in Spain, their ideology changed. “Focus on your studies,” “It is not safe out there,” and “We have shielded you from a lot of things” was their answer. I was baffled by this response because they led me to believe that they were open to me doing different things. I later came to realize that it was just fear. Fear of the unknown.

After 4 years of introducing them to the idea, which took many tears, being proactive, and finally getting my parents on board; I was then able to move to the country of my dreams.

Prior to my move to Spain, I had one thing on my mind. “How were the people going to perceive me as a Muslim with my hijab?” Unlike the United States, I was aware that many European countries did not allow women to work with a hijab on. I searched vigorously on the internet on Muslims in Spain but the only story that popped up was from 2002 and about a Moroccan girl banned from school because of her hijab.

Another concern of mine was the Spanish’s perception of Muslims. Post 9/11, Islam has been a hot topic in the United States and worldwide. Some exposure has been positive, but most of it has been negative. I did not know what to expect moving to Spain.

So I left for Spain, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

Upon landing in the Madrid Barajas Airport, I could not help but show my excitement. I was eager to speak Spanish. I decided that if I could be able to find a job and a place to stay, it would all be good, and I could handle the rest.

Now, I have lived in Spain for nearly 2 years. My experience has been two layered.

As a Muslim: The city I live in, Madrid, is an international hub. One would find people from all walks of life here. The reaction from the Spanish people has been generally positive. People are kind and helpful. In rural cities, I get some daring stares but that has been the worst of it.

A majority of the Muslims in Spain are from Morocco. I always get “Eres de Maruecos, verdad?” (You are from Morocco, right?) And then they get genuinely baffled when I say I am not. In Spain, the young and the old are friendly. However the former are interested in understanding differences while the latter are curious as to why one cannot do things their way.

As an American: “Where are you from?” is the most common question travelers, expats, or immigrants get. In Spain, saying that you are from the United State of America covers the Spanish’s entire perception of a person. They always saw me as the American and then later as the Muslim. This has greatly influenced my experience here.

The Spanish generally have a good perception of America. America is seen as a model country for progress, although this has changed a bit after the 2016 election.

After the 2008 global economic crisis which hit Spain particularly hard, the Spanish have been making considerable efforts to improve their careers by learning English. With English, Spanish citizens can have better opportunities at home and abroad.

When some Spanish see Americans, they look forward to practising their English with them and also to showcase their knowledge of the United States.

As an American, the Spanish are always eager to know my story and if life in America is like the movies. They get excited when I tell them I am from Toledo, Ohio. “You know we also have a Toledo here in Spain” is the response I usually get from them. Many have never heard of Ohio and find the name funny. I always have to say it is almost close to New York. Other times during family events, once a Spanish local knows I am from the United States, they will drag their children and nudge them to demonstrate to me how much English they know.

Living in Spain has given me the opportunity to explore other parts of the world. In all the places I have been to, I have experienced hospitality that I could never have imagined. Regardless of my background and religion, people accommodated me and made me feel the most comfortable in their city.

During my travels, I got to speak to people from all over and even the locals in cities I visited. I made sure I was open to questions they had about me. In many of the encounters, I always got “You are the first Muslim friend I have ever had.” This allowed for dialogue about our similarities and differences. I believed it changed their perception of Muslims and Americans.

Traveling has also changed my perception of people. In the hustle and bustle of the United States, it is sometimes hard to trust people. My occasional adventures allowed me to be vulnerable and more willing to help people. It made me understand I did not always have to agree with the ways or views of others. I also had to remind myself not to try to change people based on my American mentality.

Fear of the unknown is what stops people from truly getting to know others. It is also what stops others from achieving great things.

Based on my experience living in Spain and traveling around the world, there was a common theme: many people knew very little about Muslims and many more never had a Muslim friend. It was hard for the people I met (Spanish and Non-Spanish) to imagine that someone could be Muslim and American.

My years abroad have exposed them to a perspective different from what is shown on television. It taught me to be patient with people because everyone’s opinion is based on what they grew up with. Finally, I learnt that there is not one way of doing something or solving a problem. Traveling helps you see the different ways people handle the same problems in life.

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