Living in Fear: The Life of an Arab-American


For those of you who won’t know, my name is Särah Nour and I am the new admin of this blog. In light of the tragedy in Boston, I assembled a collaborative poem in order to send a positive message to those suffering the aftermath of the bombings: not only physical injuries but the psychological trauma as well.


Yet there is another category of people who suffer indirectly from such acts of violence; a category that is stigmatized due to the actions of a bunch of radicals. Those people are Arab and Muslim Americans (and no, they are not one and the same).


Before the real culprits were identified, one of the suspects was 17-year-old Salah Barhoun. He was a Moroccan-American high school student who found out he was a “person of interest” when he saw Facebook pictures of alleged suspects. To my knowledge, there was no reason given in any news source as to why the FBI would suspect him. So I’m left to surmise that it was solely due to his race.



I’m the American-born daughter of Lebanese immigrants, and I grew up in a small Midwestern town, which unfortunately was small-minded as well. Being the lone Arab girl in a sea of Scandinavians made me the target of bullies from grades K through 12. And of course, 9/11 only made it worse. I was only 11 years old when it happened, and I remember my classmates starting to shun me even more than they did before. When they did speak to me, they’d asked me invasive questions about my heritage and my parents.


Never mind that my family wasn’t even Muslim. Never mind that they were hard-working, respected members of their community. Never mind that I was born and raised in Minnesota and had only been to Lebanon once in my life at that point (and it was just for a summer). I was the black-haired, brown-eyed girl who had parents with funny accents. I was the outsider.


As an adult, I’m still struggling to overcome the bullying and stigmatization I faced in school. I’ve since moved to a more diverse, open-minded town, and as far as the lives of Arab women go, I’m pretty damn lucky. I have a father who sent me to school, helped me with my homework, and expected me to have a good career and support myself. I know not every girl/woman in the Arab world is given the opportunities.



But taking stock of my privilege does not help the long-term psychological damage that discrimination has caused. When I was 13, I became a cutter. By the time I was 18, I had attempted suicide twice. When I was 20, I finally sought the psychiatric help I needed, and admittedly, it hasn’t been easy. While other Arab people are dealing with PTSD from living in war zones, I’m dealing with PTSD symptoms from being bullied.


Also, every time I hear anything about a bomb plot in the news, I hope and pray that the people responsible are not Arab or Muslim. (And if they are, my thoughts are among the lines of “Stop making us look bad, asshole.”) Although I’ve never faced job discrimination or been singled out at an airport, those things remain cause for anxiety for me.



When I read about Salah Barhoun’s horrified mother defending her son against these accusations, I thought, “That could be me someday.” It could be me defending my teenage son against baseless accusations made on account of his race. It could be me worrying constantly about my son being the target of bullies or hate crimes. It’s also crossed my mind that if my hypothetical child was ever kidnapped, chances are law enforcement may not lift a finger, because (let’s be honest) an Arab kid is not exactly Natalee Holloway.


So this is what racism does: it creates lonely children, suicidal teenagers, struggling-to-be-sane adults, and neurotic mothers. Or at least it does in my case.


I won’t deny that there’s plenty wrong with Arab culture. In fact, I know that better than anyone. Yes, we have our terrorists, our misogynists, our dirty politics, etc. But we are also mothers and fathers, doctors and lawyers, artists and activists. We are mostly Muslim, but there are also Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, and atheists among us.


It took two decades to amass a truckload of psychological trauma, and sometimes I fear it may take two more decades to fully recover. But in the meantime, I will stand up against bullying and racism, and I will declare that I’m not a terrorist, nor am I an oppressed woman, nor will I be silenced by anyone’s imperialistic ideology. I will not live in fear, and nor should anyone else.

About writingforrecovery

Sarah is a writer and poet who speaks out about issues that make people uncomfortable. Sarah advocates for causes such a sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and mental illness, and often speaks openly about her own experiences. She is determined to abolish the stigma associated with these issues and believes that it starts with people telling their stories, so she started a blog called Writing for Recovery where people can do just that. She is the author of three volumes of poetry and is currently at work on her fourth. She is convinced that there's a novel somewhere in her, and occasionally picks at the chapters so far. View all posts by writingforrecovery

One response to “Living in Fear: The Life of an Arab-American

  • Privilege and Peace of Mind | Writing for Recovery

    […] I have written before about my Middle Eastern heritage and the psychological torment it caused me. I have also touched upon the fact that, compared to women in the Middle East, I live a pretty privileged life. I have never lived in an Islamic country, thus I have never experienced the everyday struggles of Arab women and female tourists in that region. But of course, that doesn’t make me immune to the rage, horror, and feeling of helplessness I experience when I see a victimized woman being persecuted. […]

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