Can I Find My Home in the West?
Yasmine Mahmoud Fakhry
“I whispered to myself that although I am not European like them they are my real brothers and sisters; they are my fellow human beings.”
I grew up to believe that there has always been discrimination against people of different race, color, and religion throughout all ages. History lessons teach us that people have always invented all sorts of rationales for mass killings and wars. There is a general tendency not to accept someone who is not “one of us.” Differences in religion, culture, race, social class still nowadays justify discrimination, mistreatment of people, and sometimes even genocide in many parts of the world. Growing up in the Middle East I heard many stories about Muslims discriminated in the West because of their religion, and in recent years Islamophobia emerged due to false attribution of terrorism and political ideologies to Islam. However, in Muslim countries, Westerners are not discriminated for being non-Muslims, and although throughout history, differences in religion, culture, language, race, social class, etc. have been the basis for discrimination and oppression, in Egypt being different can actually be a reason for more privileges and better treatment.
Whereas all around the World you might be discriminated for being ‘different,’ in Egypt you might be discriminated for not being different. Egyptians are mistreated and discriminated in their own country for being Egyptian citizens, whereas people of different race, color, and religion (especially from the West) have more privileges, respect, and access to better services. The Egyptian movie, Asal Eswed (Black Honey), for instance, shows how Americans are better treated in Egypt than Egyptian citizens. Masry, the star of the movie, whose name means Egyptian, returns to Egypt with naive enthusiasm after twenty years of his childhood abroad and is treated badly when he uses his Egyptian passport. As the movie progresses, he starts using his American passport in order to get more respect and better treatment. For this reason, holding another nationality has become the pursuit of happiness for many people, because it would at least give them more privileges when they return to their home countries. The dire need for a dignified life and better humane conditions has compelled families from different classes and backgrounds to leave their homes and their Muslim communities and migrate to the non-Muslim communities in the West, caring less about discrimination or Islamophobic attitudes. Besides people came to believe that if they can access job opportunities, proper education, social security, medical care, and healthy environment, then discrimination against Muslims in the West does not represent any threat, or at least seems superficial when compared to the degrading life in one’s own homeland.
I am one of those who said many goodbyes to many friends and family members who are increasingly traveling, leaving me behind feeling lonely, as if I am the one who lives away from home and family. I have also been one of those who thought that if I lived in the West I would be discriminated and looked down upon for being a Muslim. However, the lack of respect, dignity, human rights, equality, democracy, and deteriorating conditions in Egypt have become intolerable.
If living in Egypt or in the Arab countries I will be discriminated as a human being, and in the West I will be looked down upon for being a Muslim, then “Where is my home?” I have been in an inner conflict for the last few years for wanting to leave my country and pursue my happiness and human rights somewhere else. I have been searching for a place where I can call home. I feared to take any action to run away to the West like many of my relatives because I wasn’t sure if living in the West would be the end of my misery and the beginning of a new, peaceful life. I have been particularly intimidated by stories such as the attack on the 32-year-old pharmacist Marwa El-Sheribin, who was stabbed 18 times in the Dresden courtroom in Germany by a Russian stock controller who insulted her earlier for wearing hijab. Marwa – who has been named the “headscarf martyr” – has become a national symbol of persecution and her death has been recruited to channel resentment of the West.
Even though I have met many Americans and Europeans in conferences and youth events and I have been to Europe before, people always told me that being a visitor for a short time is different from living there. I have been even been in a Euromed cultural exchange in Italy, where I spent the best days of my life, and my best friends are Italians, Portuguese, and Americans, yet I still had doubts that it is always greener on the other side, and that I might not have access to equal opportunities, equality, and respect if I live in Europe. However, it was only last month when I went to Geneva and Barcelona to attend two different trainings that my life changed. Whereas in Italy and in Malta I was always in a group, I walked down the streets of Geneva and Barcelona all by myself and got to experience daily life by getting on and off the bus and the tram; strolling along the streets; sitting in the parks; eating in restaurants; shopping and asking people for directions; etc. Not only I felt safe and enjoyed every breath that I took, but I was also overwhelmed by the kindness and friendliness of people. I am used to the exceptional hospitality and kindness of Europeans when I am invited by an organization to attend training or events, and since I usually work with peacebuilders, everyone is usually nice and open-minded, but I still didn’t know if ordinary people were also like that. However, I didn’t feel that anyone was judging me. I didn’t even feel I was a stranger. It even felt better than home!
Although I have been told that many people in Europe hate Muslims, I also knew that there were many angels in Europe. But I didn’t know that I was going to run into all of them when I walked down the streets of Geneva and Barcelona. As I arrived at Geneva, I was completely lost and I started to ask for directions. Although I don’t speak French, many people tried to help. It even struck me that when I was asking this nice gentleman for directions he ran to the other side to buy me a tram ticket and he said, as he was helping me to get on the tram with my bag, “Please keep your money. Consider it a welcome to Switzerland.”
Recalling also as I was leaving from Geneva to Barcelona, I was struggling my way with the bags when this kind gentleman, who is originally German, insisted to carry the heavy bag for me all the way from the train station to the airport. Arriving at Barcelona, I was not only stunned by Barcelona’s beauty but also by the friendliness and sociability of people. In Barcelona, I even had the opportunity to talk to many people because on the last day of the training – which was on ‘nonviolent strategies on social movements in the MENA region’ – we were asked to go out and interview people in the streets of Vilanova i la Geltrú as part of training on field research. To my surprise, many people not only knew a lot about the Arab movements but they also have shown great sympathy and expressed their pity for the deteriorating conditions in Egypt.
During my stay in Barcelona and Geneva, all I could think of is ‘Who said that Europeans hate Muslims?’ and how can a very few cases of Muslims exposed to Islamophobic acts and attitudes be attributed to all Westerners, whereas their acts of love, empathy, and respect for human rights even towards Muslims are not so much spoken about? Claiming that Westerners hate or discriminate Muslims sounds to me like arguing that all Muslims are terrorists and Islam is a religion of hatred. For the two weeks, I only felt an atmosphere of friendliness, warmth, and love. Every day I became more attached to the European lifestyle, feeling that this is the dignified life that I have been looking for where there is freedom, respect for human rights, security, and above all friendly attitude. As I walked down the streets of Geneva, I recalled how life has become unbearable in Egypt lately due to the lack of order and people have started to become more hostile and violent towards each other, then I looked around me and as some people would look at me and smile, I whispered to myself that although I am not European like them, they are my real brothers and sisters; they are my fellow human beings.
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