Discover more from The International Correspondent
Overcoming American Cynicism
One thing I know is focusing only on the negative helps perpetuate a victimhood mentality that is helpful to no one, most notably to those who are actually victims of injustice.
In 2013 I left my home in Iraq to seek refuge in the United States. Iraq was in the midst of a sectarian civil war that was wreaking havoc in the region and resulted in myself and others losing family members and many friends. I came to America seeking safety and a peaceful life. A life in which I wouldn't have to constantly look over my shoulder in fear whenever I uttered the truth.
Only a few months after my arrival, I was invited to attend an American Atheists Conference in Austin, Texas. I was settled in Houston at the time, and this was an excellent opportunity for me to make new friends and familiarize myself with the dynamics of the atheist movement. I was eager to meet some of the most prominent atheist thinkers and activists at the time. Thanks to a generous friend who drove me and offered me a place to stay in Austin, I was able to make it to the conference. I arrived donned in my NASA Houston hoodie and newly purchased t-shirt from Old Navy, full of excitement.
I was still trying to figure out what my new life in America would be like. So much was still unknown to me. Like most new immigrants to this country, my biggest worry was if I would be able to "make it" and that my new life would be just as chaotic and uncomfortable as the one I had just left. Little did I know that groups of hardcore cynics and activists were infiltrating the atheist community at the time. They were more interested in warning me about all of the horrible things wrong with this country and how I had made a big mistake by coming here than they were in discussing atheism.
One individual went as far as to tell me that due to the color of my skin, I had a 50% chance of being shot by the police in the United States, to which I jokingly replied, "I have pretty low standards for safety, 50% still sounds better than what I left back in Iraq."
Although I met many wonderful people at that conference, I will never forget the more negative encounters, those who seemed to think that the United States was a terrible place to live. That had not been my experience in the few months I had been here, and I began to feel uneasy and doubt my decision. Maybe I had made a mistake?
What intrigued me about some of the people I talked to was that most of them didn't have any idea what was happening within their own zip codes, much less what was happening outside of the United States. This ignorance caused me to grow skeptical of their cynicism. I couldn't take them very seriously, which was surprising because this was supposed to be a community of people that prides themselves on being "intellectual" and having strong, informed opinions about everything. Unfortunately, their strong opinions didn't seem to be backed up by my experience or the facts, and I am so thankful for that.
I didn't let this experience curtail my curiosity to know more about the country that was my new home away from home. I could see through the Taliban and Al Qaeda's extremist ways of thinking at a very young age, so seeing through these entitled intellectuals' opinions was relatively easy.
A week after that conference, I landed my first job working remotely for a telecommunications company based in Sweden. This allowed me to generate income and discover more about the United States. I met as many people as possible, and some of those remain my close friends and chosen family in this vast country. I logged in to Facebook and made a post asking my new friends where I should celebrate my first Fourth of July in America. To my surprise, I received a message from an American family that lived near Washington DC. They asked if I would like to celebrate my first Fourth of July with them in the National Mall of the US Capital. They also offered to buy me a flight ticket and host me at their home while I was there. I thought this was likely too good to be true. However, they quickly sent me an itinerary complete with a plane ticket. To my surprise, when I contacted the airline, they confirmed that the ticket was indeed valid.
At the beginning of July, I hopped on a plane to Ronald Reagan airport. When I touched down in DC, they were already at the airport waiting for me! This was one of my first experiences with how kind and generous American families can be. We clicked immediately, and a few months later they offered for me to stay in their house in the DC suburbs. They provided me with an opportunity to live a better life and continue to pursue my dreams. The love and positive support I received from them has shaped my life in ways I will always be thankful for.
Less than a year later, I landed my dream job working on a project funded by Google Idea. This allowed me to move to New York City, where I still currently live to this day. My experience in the United States has been both atypical and typical of many immigrants who come here with nothing but grit and determination to pursue a better life.
I have gotten to know a lot of immigrants to the United States in my 8 years here and have heard many stories, both positive and negative. I am not in denial about the current missteps and issues in this country. From political polarization to economic inequality, there are many problems that need to be addressed. Many immigrants face intolerance, racism, and many hardships upon moving here. It is hard to move to a new country, but as millions before me have proven, it is well worth it. The idea that the United States is a horrible, racist place to live is an idea that elite institutions all too often propagate. However, it doesn't seem to have deterred people from continuing to immigrate here. Perhaps people like me can see the country from a more realistic and grounded perspective, having traveled here from countries that face problems many Americans have no concept or understanding of.
To this day, I always ask myself, what if I had listened to the cynics I met at the conference? What if I only focused on the negative and not the positive aspects of America? What if an immigrant has a negative experience and then goes down the rabbit hole that confirms this negative outlook in the same way I was able to see my dreams come to fruition? Is my success here the result of my upbringing and natural curiosity?
I still don't have clear answers to these questions. Still, one thing I do know is focusing only on the negative helps perpetuate a victimhood mentality that is helpful to no one, most notably to those who are actually victims of injustice. I will go even further and say that this kind of victimhood mentality is the mother of extremism. If you listen to some of the racial supremacists, mass shooters, and other extremists, including the ones I dealt with back in Iraq, what they all have in common is the perception of themselves and people like them as victims in opposition to a powerful enemy. When positioning themselves as victims, the next logical step is that there is a need for a savior from this oppression– enter the extremist.
Had I listened to the naysayers and cynics, my life might look very different than it does today. I might never have started Ideas Beyond Borders, or become friends with some of the most prominent intellectuals in the country. Instead, I held my head high and relentlessly pursued the success and life that was available to me here, and I am better for it. Americans who consider themselves activists should think twice before painting this country as such a terrible place to live.
They could unknowingly be thwarting a new immigrant's hopes and dreams before they even have a chance to try to make it here. I am so glad I didn't listen to them.