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Food at Home

Melody Nangle talks about food and fusion of identity

Melody Nangle was born in Flushing, New York, to parents who were immigrants from Caribbean islands. She grew up in a multigenerational household, surrounded by cultural foods at home. “As a teenager, I was like, c’mon!  I just want McDonalds for a change!” But once Melody moved to college, she developed the love and appreciation for her native Caribbean foods. 

Melody’s mother is from Jamaica, while the paternal side of her family hails from Trinidad. The couple moved to the United States in 1970s for Melody’s mother to attend nursing school in America. They lived in Queens, New York, in “an insulated community” of immigrants. “They really had to carve their own path, with this information that they had, with this very idealistic view of what life was gonna be like in America and then the shocking reality of the fact that it’s really tough once you get here,” said Melody, while commenting on her parents’ early time in their adopted homeland. 

In that “insulated community” home cooking was the norm, that dismissed the need of purchasing “American foods” from restaurants. Food choices made Melody a bit of an outcast in the African American community, as well. “As a Black American, it was found to be very funny when I got to high school that I had not had fried chicken,” said Melody who was not considered “Black enough” by her peers because of dietary preferences. 

Over the years, Melody has found belonging as a Black woman in America in unique ways by converging the Caribbean and American parts of her identity. Food has allowed her to express this identity by creating room for fusion. Melody gives the example of Juneteenth celebration  which is marked by red foods and drinks. “I do celebrate Juneteenth with my family but I infuse my Caribbean -American culture as well, so I serve instead of Strawberry Soda which is a tradition that started in Texas, I serve Sorrel, which is made out of hibiscus flower and that is a tradition we use in the Caribbean.” 

For Melody, food is a medium of expression. At the age of 14, she decided to stop eating meat. “It was especially challenging when I became a vegetarian, because my parents, my whole entire family was like, why wouldn’t you eat meat?” said Melody as she explained the relationship that many immigrant families have with food in America. In her Caribbean household, “meat was a sign of success and wealth” and, her family was “offended” that Melody decided to exclude it from her diet. Check out the video in which Melody talks about some of her favorite Caribbean foods and growing up in an immigrant family in America. 

A nurse practitioner by profession, Melody’s current work as the Medical Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Johns Hopkins Community Physicians is informed by her personal experience of growing up as part of a first-generation American family. It impacts the way she works and deals with other immigrants. 

Meet Melody in-person and hear the story of growing up in a vibrant food culture on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at Mera Kitchen Collective in Baltimore, MD. Tickets and details at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/449794987917

Written and Produced by Saima Adil Sitwat 

Funding provided by Maryland State Arts Council 

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Food at Home

Soo Koo talks about family, global citizenship and the creative power of food

Soo Koo serves as the Deputy Director for Maryland Governor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Originally from South Korea, Soo came to the United States in 2010 to attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She comes from a family where women cook exquisite meals with vegetables grown in their private gardens, but Soo had to adjust her palate during the first few years in America. In 2010, there were not many authentic Korean restaurants or grocery stores in downtown D.C. but according to Soo; “that was beginning of my life in the United States, so I really pushed myself to change myself, to adjust myself to assimilate.”

Soo and I spoke during the month of September, which marks the Mid-Autumn Festival for the Asian community. This 4-5-day festival is scheduled according to the lunar calendar and therefore, falls on a different date each year on the Gregorian calendar. In Soo’s native South Korea, the Mid-Autumn Festival is marked by celebratory foods, school holidays and family time. Pan-fried zucchini takes the center stage of South Korean Mid-Autumn Festival, while other Asian cultures such as, Chinese or Vietnamese celebrate the festival with different traditional foods. It is also a time to pay homage to the dead. According to Soo, “Sometimes with this zucchini dish, we visit the graves of our ancestors and host a ceremony over there.” 

Soo has vivid memories of waking up on the mornings of Mid-Autumn Festival. During this time of the year, she would get up to the sound of splattering oil as zucchini is being fried and its rich aroma wafting through the air. As Soo made home in the United States, it was important for her to bring the tastes of her original home to the adopted homeland. She takes me on a South Korean culinary journey with her, as she prepares various versions of fried zucchini with chef-like expertise. I invite you to check out the video and try creating zucchini dishes in South Korean style. 

“I love cooking, not only Korean food but American, Italian, French, whatever, and what I kind of like to do at home is to mix them together. The reason why I like cooking is because there is a really huge room for creation,” said Soo. She believes that technology and development of media channels has made us “borderless.” “The whole world has a lot more channels to connect with each other,” she said. 

Food at Home is produced by Saima Adil Sitwat.

Funding provided by Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC).

Please join us on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at Mera Kitchen Collective, for an evening of food and food stories. Tickets available at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/449794987917

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FOOD at HOME

Talking Food, Family and Pulao with Rabia Chaudry

Rabia Chaudry is an attorney, a New York Times best-selling author, documentary producer and podcaster. She is also a foodie. When I first joined the Facebook group DMV Halal Reviews, I was surprised to see rigorous critique of restaurants from someone I had only known as a passionate advocate of wrongfully incarcerated individuals. I had to do a double take on the name and then sneaked on the Facebook profile. Yes! It was Rabia Chaudry of Adnan’s Story sharing nuanced opinion and pictures of South Asian restaurants from across Washington DC, Maryland and Northern Virginia. 

Rabia’s family hails from Lahore, Pakistan. Lahoris, or people from Lahore, are known for their hearty appetites and fondness for culinary delicacies. During our chat, Rabia detailed her family’s experience of migrating to the United States as their indoctrination into the American fast-food culture. “They [Rabia’s parents] could not imagine that America would feed Americans unhealthy food”; said Rabia, while talking about her family’s adaptation of widely available menu choices at the US fast-food chains. 

But there was always “khana” at home when Rabia and her siblings came back from school, said Rabia, using the traditional word to describe a South Asian meal. Family dinner is an integral part of a Pakistani family’s lifestyle and Rabia’s mother made sure that they maintain this tradition in the new country. Rabia’s favorite was the “Pulao,” a rice and meat dish cooked in meat broth. 

However, it was not easy to find Zabiha Halal* meat or ingredients for the South Asian palate in the United States in 1975. There were times when the family had to travel for two hours in search of South Asian groceries or a place that served meat slaughtered according to Zabiha guidelines. According to Rabia, the food landscape of the United States is now starkly different. “There is much more representation of South Asian and Middle Eastern food,” said Rabia, while commenting on the presence of Kabab stops in small towns and food chains like Halal Guys with restaurants across America. 

In Rabia’s opinion, a food completes its journey of becoming American “when it becomes ubiquitous” and has been adapted to “the American palate.” Such a food does not need a description or explanation of its composition when mentioned in popular narrative. “So much food in America is adopted from other cultures,” said Rabia. She would count Naan and Chai, both with South Asian roots, as a food and drink that most people in America are now familiar with and enjoy. 

Rabia’s upcoming book, Fatty Fatty Boom Boom: A Memoir of Food, Fat and Familydetails her first-generation American family’s relationship with foods from Pakistan as well those that that became part of their lives in the United States. Check out Rabia’s video to hear about her family’s culinary journey in the United States and her incessant love for Pulao. 

*Zabiha Halal: Zabiha is the practice of slaughtering meat according to Islamic guidelines to make it permissible for consumption (halal) by Muslims. Halal refers to that which is permissible and lawful in Islam. 

Funding for Food at Home is provided by Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC).

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‘Becoming American’ Story # 10

Lana Shami

Lana Shami immigrated to the United States of America from Damascus, Syria, not once but twice in her life. Her family first moved to Maryland (Md.) USA in 1973 when Lana was 5 years old. She entered Kindergarten and learned to speak English at breakneck speed. “I was keen on losing my accent, so I won’t be identified as anything different. That’s very important as a child,” said Lana while talking about her earlier time in Md. Though Muslim by religion, the family was not devout and did not have a religious structure around them. “When we first came here, we were very dead set on assimilating,” shared Lana. 

However, after spending five years in America, Lana’s father decided to move their family back to Syria, to be with her grandmother. “It was tearing her heart [her grandmother’s] to have us here, so we finally decided to go back,” said Lana. Shortly after, her grandmother passed away, and the family was back in Rockville, Md. after spending a few years in Syria. By this time, Lana was in 8th grade. During the following years, she completed high school and graduated from the University of Maryland and Towson State University. She married and moved to California, spent a few years in Texas, Florida and then in Pittsburgh, Pa. She also divorced, remarried, and had four children. 

In Aug. 2018, Lana moved back to Md. to be close to her septuagenarian mother and the rest of her family. “We have to recreate our little families because we are so used to having extended families. It’s very precious for us to try to preserve what we can, when we can, however we can,” said Lana, while commenting on her eventual move to her home state. 

As Lana moved from one place to another, she also embarked on a spiritual journey. A Buddhist roommate in college inspired Lana to undertake the discovery of her own Muslim faith, a religion that she was born into but hadn’t practiced until then. In 1996, when Lana was newly divorced from her first husband, she established friendships with other Muslim women, who helped her on this path of self-discovery.

Initially, it was hard for Lana to start covering her head like many practicing Muslim women. The Sept. 11 attacks changed that. “The time when I decided to go on and put on a hijab was in 2001, after 9/11. I felt like everybody had abandoned Islam and I wanted to show the people around me that we are not the terrorists that they make us out to be,” said Lana. She also realized that her mannerism had to change, and she had to make an effort to be extra pleasant to people around her, when she had her scarf on. Speaking of her practice of taking headscarf and how it is received, Lana said: “I think I became really self-conscious about it [the headscarf].  Sometimes you can clearly tell that people are ruder when you have a hijab on, as if we are less entitled to exist than they are. But then, I have noticed in general that if you are wearing a hijab and you are smiling and friendly to everyone, everyone is friendly and smiley and nice to you. But we can’t always put on that front. I have to make that extra effort when I have the hijab on.” 

Check out the video for Lana’s speech on the importance of “standing united.” The speech was made in Mount Lebanon, Pa. in 2018.  

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat

Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council

Partners include: 

CityLit ProjectInstitute for Islamic, Christian, Jewish StudiesWelcoming America

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‘Becoming American’ Story # 9

Chef Emilienne

Nebie Zongo Sanmde Pawende Emilienne, known to people across Baltimore as Chef Emilienne, emigrated from Burkina Faso to the United States of America in 2017. U.S. Department of State’s Diversity Visa Program, commonly known as the visa lottery, paved way for her family’s residence in the United States. 

Despite the official recognition of Diversity Visa Program, Emilienne’s family had to encounter harsh scrutiny and unfavorable attitude of the US immigration officers of the Trump era. It costed them several trips to the US Embassy in Burkina Faso and a few thousand dollars, that they had to borrow from friends and family. 

Still, Emilienne and her family persisted in the face of red tape and processing delays at the US embassy in their country. Previously, her husband had lost his job at a local hotel as the business was struck down during riots in Burkina Faso. Her own income from administrative work at a local newspaper agency was meager. The couple started a café but failed to make any profit as most customers bought food items from them on credit and seldom paid back. Their friends and family wanted to support them but did not have the financial means to do so. “My husband said we cannot give up [the prospect of the move to USA] because this is such a big hope for us,” said Emilienne. 

Chef Emilienne in conversation with interpreter, Selina Doroshenko and Producer Saima Sitwat

In October 2017, Emilienne arrived in Baltimore, with her husband and their two older children who were 6 and 2 years old at that time. The couple’s third daughter, Mia, was born in Baltimore in 2019. They found a home in the city through an acquaintance. A nearby church helped provide camaraderie as well as English lessons for the French speaking family. Emilienne is proud of her partnership with Mera Kitchen Collective which allows her to bring West African flavors to Maryland. Most of the vegetables that she uses in her dishes are sourced from her backyard. 

Emilienne misses her family in Burkina Faso but is grateful for the educational and professional opportunities that the United States has afforded her family. “It was like the horizon was somber” she says, while talking of her home country. “Education is hard, there is no work to be found.” She, therefore, urges the American government and people to be more receptive of immigrants, especially those fleeing hardship and persecution. 

Check out the video for a glimpse into Emilienne’s story, her journey of finding friends and work in Baltimore. Interpretation is provided by Selina Doroshenko. 

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat

Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council

Partners include: 

CityLit ProjectInstitute for Islamic, Christian, Jewish StudiesWelcoming America

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‘Becoming American’ Story # 8

Stavroula Sofou

Stavroula Sofou came to the United States of America in 1995 to study Chemical Engineering at Columbia University in New York City. It was not easy for her to leave her close-knit family in Greece, but the promise of an American education, that allowed one to pursue interdisciplinary studies was alluring. “I graduated in chemical engineering, but I was into a more non-traditional, bio-related path. In Europe, that could not easily happen, whereas US was and still is a place where you can more easily switch directions, especially at the graduate level.” 

When people interact with immigrants they realize that “they are people like them.”

Stavroula’s first few days in the city as a graduate student from another country were rough. “It was loneliness. I was really lonely. I realized I was so far from my family. I hope it’s worth it!” said Stavroula while reminiscing about her earlier time in the United States. She added that it is only when one arrives in a new country as an immigrant that you realize that “you are really far from your comfort zone.” However, as the semester commenced and students trickled in, she felt more at ease. Columbia’s diverse student body and New York’s cosmopolitanism became Stavroula’s new comfort zone. Over the years, Stavroula graduated and started working. She met her husband, a Greek man who was a Math Professor at Princeton University. They had a daughter together and made home in New Jersey. 

“Hopkins brought us to Maryland,” said Stavroula who moved to Baltimore in 2017 and is currently faculty at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering. She lives in Roland Park and loves the convenience of living close to her place of work. 

Though Stavroula and her family have opportunity to visit each other across countries and continents, the travel restrictions during pandemic created tough choices for travelers. “Under normal circumstances” she was able to meet with her family every year. But, earlier in 2021, Stravoula’s mother had to cancel her trip to the United States from Greece, in the midst COVID-related fears and restrictions. “A few years back my dad passed away and now my mom is alone. Sometimes I think that my life is now here. It’s not there. But my heart is there many hours of the day. There is nothing I can do about it. My child is American, and I cannot go away. Even when I retire, I would like to live close to my daughter,” said Stavroula, while commenting on the existential dilemma that many immigrants go through in their lives.  

Stavroula believes that our salvation as a community and country lies in developing friendships and meeting each other across religions and cultures. When people meet folks outside of their bubble, they realize that “they are people like them.” 

Click on the attached audio to hear Stavroula’s thoughts on immigration and immigrants.  

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat

Author, American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council.

Partners include

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‘Becoming American’ Story # 7

DR. AZIZA SHAD

Dr. Aziza Shad MD serves as the Ellen W.P. Wasserman Chair in Pediatrics and Chief, Division of Pediatrics Hematology/Oncology at The Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. However, her medical journey started many moons ago during a turbulent year in South Asia. In 1971, then seventeen-year-old Aziza was the only woman selected in her native country, Pakistan to attend medical school through an exchange program in the Eastern wing of the country, called East Pakistan. It was the same year that the ongoing ethnic conflict in the region turned into a war and led to the separation of East Pakistan, which is today, Bangladesh. Aziza had to flee Bangladesh, fearing for her life. But there were people and friends who helped her along the way to arrive safely in Pakistan. The generosity of friends, at a time of vulnerability for her, taught her lifelong lesson in empathy.   

Aziza attended Dow University of Health Sciences in Pakistan. After completing two years at the college, she started wondering; “why are so many kids dying? They would all come with diarrhea and dehydration. In the midst of all that, we also had kids with cancer.” The plight of children led her to consider a career in Pediatrics. 

Once Aziza started practicing medicine in Pakistan, she had the opportunity to study cancer patients and research in greater detail. She realized that there was a 50-60 % survival rate of children with curable leukemias. “In Pakistan it was 0% at that time,” said Aziza. 

Inspired to change the lives of children with leukemia in Pakistan, Aziza went to England to further her training in pediatrics and cancer related ailments. Little did she know that a chance encounter in England would lead her to “Becoming American.” It was during her time in England when Aziza met her husband Tahir Shad who was a Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States. 

In 1985, Aziza moved to America with her husband. After a brief stay in Washington, the Shads made home in Pittsburgh, Pa. “The neighborhood we lived in was an old Italian neighborhood. We were the youngest people on the block. They were very suspicious of foreigners,” said Aziza while talking about her residence in Highland Park. Eventually, the neighbors came around and even took a liking to the Pakistani couple, whom they thought of as “Middle-Eastern.” The couple’s Muslim dietary restrictions for “halal” food were not easy to understand for their Italian neighbors who shared “meatballs” with them all the time. It was in the Highland Park community where Aziza found some of her first “American” friends, many of whom were immigrants themselves. One friend taught her to dress in appropriate Western clothing while another imparted instruction on the etiquette of eating pasta. She also met the first Jewish person in her life. “It started from eating bagels and lox together to really understanding what Judaism was all about.” 

 The next few years were some of the busiest of Aziza’s life. She moved to Hershey, Pa. to pursue residency training in Pediatrics at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. She also became a mother during this time and her first child was born with a chromosomal anomaly. “I also dealt with my own grief during those three years, “said Aziza. However, she persisted against all odds and held on to her dream of treating cancer patients. 

A fellowship opportunity in Hematology/Oncology with National Institute of Health (NIH) in 1989 brought Aziza and her family to the Washington Metropolitan Area. Here she was introduced to International Oncology and had the opportunity to travel to and work in many developing countries, including Pakistan, along with the NIH Team. 

Today, Aziza resides in Potomac, Md. “Did I miss what I had left behind? Of course!” She found a way to stick to her cultural roots and “became known as the person who came in Pakistani clothes [at formal events] with a ring in her nose.” Over the years, she has served in leadership roles and top positions across several hospitals in the region. She credits the American medical system with teaching her “the value of compassion and empathy.” She keeps the goodwill going by teaching the same to her students.” Still today, I teach communicating bad news. I teach how to talk to families,” said Aziza. 

Watch the attached video for Aziza’s reflections on building bridges across communities in America. 

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat 

Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC)

Partners include:

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Becoming American: Story # 6

Selina Doroshenko

In 2014, then twenty-four-year-old Selina Doroshenko left her hometown of Montreal, Canada to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, Md. “I really choose Baltimore because my dream since I was a young child was to study art and to study in the US. Even though there are so many things happening in Canada artistically, I always felt I was missing out on something, especially the New York art scene,” said Selina. She found New York to be too expensive and opted for Baltimore that is not too far from New York. MICA’s excellent reputation sealed the deal for Selina. 

Selina’s early days of navigating the City of Baltimore were a mixture of adventure and a sense of loss. She opted for “on campus” housing, which she later realized was situated in East Liberty, at 30-minute walking distance from the actual campus in Station North Arts District. Selina did not mind the walk and sometimes enjoyed biking as well. However, she had “interesting” experiences while commuting, which once included a group of teenage boys on bikes who tried to intimidate her. But she was most surprised at the lack of diversity in Baltimore. “It was very desolate when I was walking,” said Selina. As she would head out from her predominantly Black neighborhood, she would pass through “White pockets” and “Black pockets” of community. “I am missing Middle Eastern people, African people, Indian and Greek people in my neighborhood,” remarked Selina. “I didn’t see any small businesses along my route as compared to back home [in Montreal].” During those early days in Maryland, Selina felt “isolated.” She missed home. 

Over the years, Selina realized that Baltimore does not lack diversity. The problem lies in “geographical segregation.” She now knows that if she goes to the Patterson Park neighborhood, “there is a huge Mexican community over there. There is also Ukrainian community over there,” which has helped Selina connect with Ukrainian roots of her paternal family.

After completing her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree from MICA, Selina started teaching at Baltimore area schools. She has taught art intensives at public, parochial and independent schools in the area. She is also looking forward to college teaching opportunities. 

Though Selina could not find permanent employment at Baltimore-area schools, one of them could sponsor a work visa for her, because of her exceptional artistic talent. She loves working with children but feels that non-permanent employment opportunities and part-time work has taken her away from her goal of becoming a “professional artist.” “My goal and my dream were to come [to the US], complete my master’s degree in the States. Once you have a Master in Arts, you can get gallery shows, museum shows and that is how you become a professional artist, on paper. That was my big, big dream. But, when I finished school, I had to find a job because you have to be working in your field,” said Selina. She added that she was also was also required to work for an employer to maintain her visa status. 

Today, Selina lives in Waverly neighborhood of Baltimore with her husband, whom she met as a student at MICA. The couple loves to explore the great Maryland outdoors and goes on extensive hikes and bike rides. 

Selina feels that though the United States and Canada border each other, the two are culturally and socially very different. While commenting on differences, Selina mentioned that she always finds it amusing that “when you bump into someone [in the US] instead of saying sorry or excuse me, people say, you are good, or you are fine. But I wonder, how do you know I am good?” 

Selina recently became a permanent resident of the United States of America. Check out the linked video for Selina’s message for ideas on supporting new immigrants to the United States. 

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat 

Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC)

Partners include: 

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‘Becoming American’ Story # 5 Jay Polaki

Jay Polaki and I spoke on July 21, 2021, which was exactly twenty-three years from the time Jay had found the guiding principle of her life. It was a quote by William Shakespeare, which read: “The choices we make dictate the lives we lead.” 

The Bard’s words took Jay from Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), Ill. and eventually brought her to Maryland. 

Jay arrived in America in August 2001. Her initial days were not easy, but they put her on fast track to ‘Becoming American’. “I discovered a lot about myself; how resilient I am, as well as, how vulnerable I am,” said Jay while alluding to her first few months in the United States. She supplemented her graduate assistant stipend by working at the campus dining service, where she learned to cook foods, such as Philly Cheesestake Burgers, that she had never tasted in her life. She learned to navigate the American lifestyle, from doing her own laundry to paying for college.  She had arrived in Illinois in August, but Summers in the Midwest were too cold for a girl born and raised in an Indian coastal town. She bought a warm winter coat for herself and wore it all through her first semester in fall. “People were surprised” to see her in the big winter coat in September. 

After completing her master’s in Industrial Organizational Psychology (IOP) Jay wanted to stay and work in the United States. “After 9/11, it was very hard to find employment for immigrants, especially those who needed visa sponsorships,” noted Jay.  In 2004, she received an offer of employment from Maryland Department of Transportation. She relocated to Maryland and has since then, called it home. Her supervisor at the transportation department later shared with her details of opposition that Jay’s application faced, as she was a “foreign” candidate. 

Today, Jay is an entrepreneur, Founder and CEO of HR Geckos. Her company works at the intersection of technology and human resources, which she believes has gained prominence in today’s “hybrid workplace.” Jay also runs a nonprofit organization, “Global Indian Professional Network” which provides a networking space for the international South Asian diaspora. Though the organization is open to people of all ethnicities and genders, Jay is personally invested in the growth and development of immigrant women from India. She believes that most immigrants face hardship in establishing careers in the United States, but it is even harder for women. “Most women come as spouses and for them the opportunities are even lesser.” Added to it are intensive processes related to educational and professional credentialing in the United States, familial obligations of raising children, and keeping a house without a “support network.”

During our conversation, Jay talked about the importance of cultural competency, and looking beyond ethnic stereotypes and myths. Check out her message for all Americans at this link: https://youtu.be/sCmPzOXRNOE

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat @sitwatsaima

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ is provided by Maryland State Arts Council

Partners Include:

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‘Becoming American’ Story #4

Zeyneb Sayilgan

Zeyneb Sayilgan came to the United States of America in 2006 to further her studies in Islam and interreligious dialogue. Born and raised in Germany, to Kurdish parents from Turkey, Zeyneb saw herself as a bridge-builder; someone who can help build community connections and facilitate dialogue because of her “hybrid identity.”

As a Muslim by faith and daughter of Muslim parents who immigrated to Germany, Zeyneb is well-aware of the internal and external biases that haunt Muslim communities in the West. While growing up in Germany, she was constantly made aware of her “otherness” through curious glances and questions. While acknowledging “the challenges of living as a Muslim” in America, Zeyneb believes that “the secularism in the United States acknowledges your need to live out [according to] your religion.”  The fact that religious freedom is a constitutional provision, makes it one of the important aspects of the American democracy. 

Zeyneb choose to study Islam at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. “America always has this appeal to students,” said Zeyneb while speaking of her choice. United States provides one an opportunity to be “creative in their thinking.” 

Today, Zeyneb serves as the Muslim Scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies (ICJS) in Baltimore, Md. She has found home in Howard County, Md. but she continues to engage with the traditional notions of home through her work. According to her, home cannot be defined by territorial boundaries alone. “Home is where you have like-minded connection with people, which cultivates a sense of belonging,” said Zeyneb. She believes that human beings are far too “expansive” to “fit into one country or territory.” 

Zeyneb came to the United States of America with an “openness to engage and dialogue” but mentions that some American peculiarities can be hard for those born outside of the United States to embrace. One of them are bumper stickers. She finds it “interesting” that Americans do not hesitate to express everything from their political beliefs to emotional views and love for their pets on the back of their cars. “I think it speaks to the freedom [in the United States]. In some countries if you put these statements out there, they will not be well-received.” Another American peculiarity that Zeyneb finds hard to adapt to is ice-cold water. “There is always ice in the water. I always have to tell people, that I would like water, without ice, please.” 

Check out attached video message from Zeyneb on the evolving notions of home, and her opinion on the added value that new immigrants bring to America: https://youtu.be/0qv5FvDbrAs

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat  Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding forBecoming American has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC)

Partners include: