This is What America Looks Like

We landed at JFK Airport on a sweltering August day twenty-seven years ago.  Me, my two younger brothers, and my parents – arriving to stay with a relative in Staten Island until my engineer dad could find a job.  From Pakistan my parents had migrated to Saudi Arabia, and at the end of the 1980s decided to shift to the US.  We stood exhausted as the conveyor belt slowly spit out our suitcases and boxes.  I was jolted out of my daze as my father’s hand landed on my shoulder.

He leaned down and whispered in my ear.  “Mariam, remember this day. In Saudi Arabia there were no opportunities for you kids, for girls, but this place is different.  This is the beginning of our new life, in a place where anyone can do anything and be anything.  That’s why we have brought you here.  Never forget.”

I was nine years old, but I knew I would remember.


Six years later we all became citizens.  We stood in a crowded auditorium in downtown Chicago and held small flags as we took the citizenship oath.  We had survived some terrible years of my dad being jobless and our savings dwindling to nothing, more than a dozen different moves between homes in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis.   I had suffered from bullying as I shifted from school to school, my English awkward and my fashion sense non-existent.

Somehow though, in the middle of all the changes and the bewilderment of a re-planted child, the roots of something American had sunk into my chest.   A belief in America’s exceptionalism and the opportunities it generously provided to so many of its residents.  My dad had found a job, and he rapidly progressed within the company in a way that would have been impossible in Saudi Arabia.  He was paid fairly for his work, unlike the wages he received in Saudi.  He was able to buy a car and a house in a nice suburb with good schools.

One winter night in Chicago my parents bought me a second-hand desk.  They settled it into the corner of the room I shared with my brothers, and I sat at it for the first time and glowed with pleasure.   I spent thousands of hours at that desk, bent over projects, worksheets, and book reports, and dreamed about my future.

Then one day I carefully placed an LSAT-prep book at that desk.  I didn’t know a single lawyer, but I believed that if I just worked hard enough I could achieve anything.


I gave one of the valedictory speeches at the graduation from college.  It was nine months after 9/11, and I stood silently behind the lectern looking at the faces of my classmates and teachers.  Our entire senior year in college was spent trying to understand the catastrophic events of 9/11, and what it meant for our lives and futures.  During that year I had decided that I would do what I could to speak out and never allow myself to be silenced by others who sought to speak for my faith.

“We all know that there is a lot of diversity in our school, that there are people of different cultures, religions and ethnicities learning together here. Coming from a community in which people from these diverse backgrounds intermingle and discuss and grow together, we should be particularly alarmed when the world begins to murmur about the “clash of civilizations.”

“We here at Benedictine are unique because, for the most part, there is no “other” here. All the “others” are one: they are, simply, the Benedictine community. Instead of clashing civilizations I see bridges here and we must all recognize that such bridges need to be built on a global scale…”

I ended my speech to silence, and then as I stepped off the stage and began walking back to my seat, to a standing ovation.  I passed under an American flag hanging overhead, and my eyes blurred.  I was so grateful.


I stood in front of the ivy-covered front door of my law school as a first-year law student, and my heart rattled against my ribs in terror.  I had discovered during orientation that many of my classmates came from backgrounds very different from mine.  Some were from famous political and business families.  Some came from generations of lawyers, and most had attended Ivy League universities.

Then there was me – here on the strength of my grades and test scores from an average university in the suburbs, from a middle-class immigrant family with no connections, one without a single lawyer.

I was overwhelmed with doubt, and convinced that in this class of 250 people, I would be number 250 in everything.  I spent days and nights studying, and even in my dreams I thought about jurisdiction, mens rea, and torts.

When I felt too stressed I would sit at my dorm window, overlooking the frozen shards of Lake Michigan, and ask why I had chosen to put myself in this hell.  One day I pulled out my copy of the Quran, and my hands trembled as the sun rose in the distance and I read over and over again the description of the end of the universe:

When the sun loses its light and is overthrown.  And when the stars shall fall; And when the mountains shall made to pass away; And when the pregnant she-camels shall be neglected; And when the wild beasts shall be gathered together; And when the seas shall become as blazing Fire or shall overflow; And when the souls shall be joined with their bodies; And when the female infant buried alive shall be questioned. For what sin she was killed? . . . (Then) every person will know what he has brought (of good and evil).

The God I loved, the One who led me here, had elevated the murder of one girl child with the ending of the universe.  I had come to this country from that land where girl children were buried alive before Islam.  Even fourteen hundred years after women were guaranteed basic rights under Islam, women in my two previous homelands (Saudi and Pakistan) were deeply oppressed.  And here I was studying the law of a country that stood as a beacon of hope and justice for girls and women around the world.  This law school had produced some of America’s finest lawyers, and here I sat.

That day I went to law school with a steadier footstep, firm in my belief that God had brought me here, and He would get me through.

I managed to survive the first year of law school and was, to my amazement, in the top quarter of my class.   After that my real law school experience began.


Children in America are detained if their immigration status cannot be confirmed.   I discovered this when I joined my law school’s clinical program focused on refugee women and children.  The horror of that discovery galvanized me.  Finally, I felt purposeful and focused on something more important than grades.

The first time I visited a detention center housing undocumented children in Chicago, I had to keep swallowing past the lump in my throat.  Two of the children were infants.  We would conduct interviews with the new children to determine if any of them had a credible story which could qualify them for asylum.

One day I walked in and met a skinny young teenager from Pakistan.  His hair stuck up in spikes and his face was covered in angry red acne.  His eyes announced that he was lost.

I spent hundreds of hours with that child.  “Now Yusuf*, tell me again what happened when you walked into that room.”   He would put his head into his arms and mutter “then I found them holding down my sister and raping her.”

So it went, for a whole year, as we prepared him for his asylum hearing.  We would torture him by making him practice how he would convey his entire horrific story during direct examination, and how he would defend himself during cross examination by the government lawyer.  My Urdu skills came in handy, and he taught me new curse words in Punjabi which I would mutter while working on the brief for his asylum application.

That experience of sitting in a room and making people reveal and repeat the painful details of their past trauma was repeated many times during law school, as I continued working on asylum cases.  A Muslim mother escaping persecution in Iran for her political beliefs, a Mauritanian woman who was born a slave and tortured her whole life, a tattooed child fleeing the Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Salvador, a tiny Chinese girl who was trafficked into the country.  Each case required hundreds of hours of legal work, took numerous twists and turns in the overwhelmed immigration courts, and stretched out into agonizing years for our clients.  Tears were shed, many of them my own, as I did the legal work needed to protect these vulnerable human beings.

Most of the cases we worked on led to the grant of asylum for our clients, and I would feel fierce elation that America was a place of fairness and law, where even the most broken people could be given a place to put themselves together again.  Every case reminded me of the great privilege given to me – to be a multilingual Muslim woman and American and a lawyer, in a country that was seen as a place of refuge by so many.


I stood in a billowing graduation gown and looked for my parents in the crowd.  I had graduated from law school and I stood there with a law degree in my hand.

I finally found my mom and wrapped my arms around her.  My mother had not finished college in Pakistan because she was married at 19 and gave birth to me at the age of 20.  She safeguarded my education like a lioness, making sure that nothing ever distracted me from studying.  Her stories of her childhood desire for an education, cups of steaming chai at my elbow as I studied, her loving presence at my side, all had brought me here.  She didn’t say a word as she held me, but she squeezed me tight.  She ran her work-worn hands down the sleeves of my graduation gown and brushed away invisible dust.

She passed me to my dad.  He cried and then laughed with delight.  It was a purely American sound, an immigrant sound, the sound of belief in the American promise.


I joined a large law firm in the city after graduation, and passed the bar exam.  I stood in a new suit as I raised my right hand and stated in a hall full of new lawyers: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of Illinois, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of attorney and counselor at law to the best of my ability.”

Goosebumps covered my arms.  I was now licensed to support and defend the oldest living Constitution in the world.

My work at the firm kept me busy, but I kept up my asylum work pro bono.  I began representing women seeking protection from violent partners under the Violence Against Women Act.    I volunteered to work on an ACLU test case to promote the parental rights of homosexual parents in Illinois.  Someone asked me why I was interested in the case, and I replied, “because I’m a lawyer and an American.  What other reason do you need to care about the rights of other Americans?”


I sat frozen on the night of November 8, 2016 as America elected Donald Trump.  My children played in the living room and looked with worry as tears dripped from my chin.  A man who was the worst of America was going to be its President, and he and his constituents believed that there was no place in America for people like me and my family.

I watch his Inauguration, and when the National Anthem played I felt dead inside.  “And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”  Normally those words make me smile, but on that day I just felt contempt.  We had just elected a sexist bigot to be the leader of the free world, we the free and the brave.   The depression that had settled over me when Trump was nominated the Republican candidate seemed complete now, and I felt myself wondering if all my patriotism and belief in America had always been misplaced.


The months since Election Day have passed in a blur, and just in the first few weeks of this Administration it has become clear that immigrants and Muslims are not welcomed.  Walls are being constructed, doors closing, bridges burning.

Yet through it all I feel myself refocusing on something that reminds me of why I love America.  Those chills I did not feel when I heard the National Anthem have come back.  I felt them tickling my arms as I watched the explosion of pink-clad protesters fill the streets of cities across America, the day after the Inauguration.  The chants of protesters standing at airports screaming “Let them in!” make me cry.  So many of my lawyer friends are in the streets, in the airports, demanding justice and fighting for the legal rights of Muslims, immigrants and refugees.

I take it all in and I think that there is no need to feel cowed, or to explain myself to anyone who thinks that my family members and I are less American or patriotic or less human.  What Donald Trump doesn’t understand is that there is no one more American than an immigrant.  We were not born here, but we chose to come.  We were unafraid of change or people different from us or new languages, cultures, or religions.  We came and struggled and we took the best parts of America and we believed so deeply in them. We made them ours, we were the American promise made manifest.

Trump may ban us or require us to register or make people look at us with suspicion.  But he cannot take our American story away from us.  He cannot change our lived experiences as American patriots who feel privileged to be a part of this country, and who have given back to it in myriad ways.  Our blood, sweat, tears, dreams, tax money and the future of our children are all invested here.

Today I listen to protesters chanting “tell me what America looks like?  This is what America looks like!” and I think of my parents.  They are the best of what America looks like.

Uzma Mariam Ahmed is a lawyer and the chair of AltMuslimah’s Advisory Board.

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