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Citizens of Two Worlds: A podcast to identity issues among first-generation Arab-Americans in Tucson

The DW presents Citizens of Two Worlds a limited podcast series, produced by Randa Samih Abdu, that looks to identity issues among first generation Arab-Americans in Tucson. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and anywhere you stream.
Pascal Albright
The DW presents Citizens of Two Worlds a limited podcast series, produced by Randa Samih Abdu, that looks to identity issues among first generation Arab-Americans in Tucson. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and anywhere you stream.

This limited podcast series, produced by Randa Samih Abdu, looks to identity issues among first generation Arab-Americans in Tucson. After talking with experts in both landscapes, Abdu identifies problems and solutions that first generation Arab Americans face and what resources are available for them. 

Episode 1:   Citizens of Two Worlds: Identifying Issues


Randa Abdu: Identity and belonging are all about developing a positive sense of who we are and what we perceive and feel about ourselves, our families and communities. In my first episode, I laid out the issues of identity and belonging with first generation Arab-Americans in Tucson, Arizona, a city that witnessed the fastest growing Arab population in the state of Arizona, whose rank is 14 by Arab-American population in the country. 

After speaking with dozens of first-generation Arabs, as well as Arab-American immigrant parents and hearing different perspectives from them, I figured that it is important to dig deeper and draw on expert perspectives to figure out the roots of why so many first-generation Arab-Americans feel isolated from American society. I found that their perspectives align with the existing body of research that has investigated issues of identity and belonging among Arab households and first generation Arabs in the U.S. In many Arab and Arab-American households in the U.S., culture and traditions are inseparable from family and community values. 

On her study on the patterns of interactions among our parents and their children, as well as their roles, relationships and the various factors that shape these patterns, Yasmine bin Ghaleb holds that these same values embraced in other regions of the world also are applied in households adapting to U.S. culture. Using Arab mentality, however, contributes baggage for many Arab children here. Those whom I interviewed for this podcast told me they feel different from others. 

In this episode, we look at experts perspectives on what makes some Arab immigrant parents so strict when raising their children in the U.S. We also zoom in on the impact of those restrictions on their children and kids’ reaction towards their parents for the way they raise them in the U.S. We ask experts whether religion is a factor. 

Let’s start by talking about culture and traditions and Arab and Arab-American households in the U.S. Dr. Leila Hudson, an associate professor of critical Middle East studies at the University of Arizona, says that culture and traditions are crucial to many Middle Eastern families. They are deeply rooted in the first socialization within the family, and family members depend on one another.

Leila Hudson: On the one hand, there’s the lure and the attraction and the peer pressure to be a unique individual and to be constantly expressing your freedom of association, your freedom of behavior, your control of your own body. And still, that comes in conflict, sometimes with the family expectations, the expectations of parents, which of course, are heightened. If there’s a perception that American society is corrupting and challenging in a way that say, being back in the old country isn’t.

Randa Abdu: As noted in the earlier episode, parents often tell their children that breaking with culture and tradition could lead to reputation, damage or dent the family image. Dr. Hudson noted this double identity predicament that intersects with parents fears that children’s behaviors would reflect poorly on their families and their Arab community. She points out this sometimes leads children to have double lives with two sets of standards.

Leila Hudson: There is one set of standards for home and family and even the community around it that sort of maintains a facade of propriety that is very conscious of what other people in the community think and say and Judge

Randa Abdu: Dr. Hudson says Arab-American kids often hide their social lives from their parents. They are outliving a virgin of American teenage life or they might have social media accounts that are hidden from their parents, who may not have the technological or pop culture skills to figure out what is going on, living according to Arab family values, as well as living a virgin of American life results and multiple identities, according to Dr. Hudson.

Leila Hudson: That can be challenging to reconcile. Having a double life where you’re working hard to fulfill your parents expectations and not let a word go out about your lifestyle or anything like that while living the life that you know that conforms to mainstream American youth culture if there is any such thing.

Randa Abdu: Similarly, Dr. Maha Nassar, an associate professor of modern Middle East history and Islamic studies at the University of Arizona, said that many Arab-Americans have concerns when raising their children in the U.S. Nassar, a first generation Arab American and parent, noted

Maha Nassar: So I don’t think it’s unique to Arab parents, to Arab immigrant parents. I think a lot of immigrants from different parts of the world have similar fears about their children becoming too, quote unquote Americanized.

Randa Abdu: Three factors are bundled into identity, language, culture and religion, whether it is Islam or Christianity or other faiths or non-faith orientations. Some thought groups religion under culture. When Arab citizens migrate to the U.S., they find fewer people who share these values with them. That said, Pew Research Center shows that the Arabic language is the fastest growing language in the U.S. This is important because it reflects both the fears by parents and the demand by heritage learners those who were born, raised and got their education in the target culture to learn the native language of their parents. Often, though, even with efforts to learn Arabic by kids, parents find it challenging to find that their kids start having strong ties to their native culture, language and religion. The results Children need to find their way through these layers to be able to adapt to belonging in two worlds,

Maha Nassar: So the kids then have to navigate well. I may not speak Arabic very well, but I identify with my parents’ religion very strongly, and so they may see themselves as actually having strong ties to their parents’ home country. But the parents might not recognize it as such.

Randa Abdu: Then there are the expectations that Arab American immigrant parents tend to have towards their children, quote unquote good children mean staying away from taboos such as dating, drinking, partying and staying out late. These types of norms apparently are not something tied to Arab immigrant parents. Specifically, Dr. Nassar mentioned that many immigrants who come to the U.S. in general tend to have similar perspectives. Much of it comes down to fear of the unknown.

Maha Nassar: Immigrants who come to this country from wherever in the world are doing so because they are seeking out a better life for them in their kids. And they often have sacrificed a lot to do so and to get to this country, and they don’t want to see their kids in their minds. At least they don’t want to see their kids wasting an opportunity.

Randa Abdu: Interestingly, in many cases, when first generation Arab-Americans grow older or they become parents, some of them realize that there was a wisdom about not drinking, being out late and sleeping around or partying, even if they felt miserable, constricted and constrained as kids. 

Randa Abdu: Some of what is considered every day U.S. culture here is considered taboo for many Arab immigrant parents. Dr. Samira Farwaneh, who is an expert in language acquisitions and linguistics in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona, noted that many Arab and Arab-American parents tend to raise their children in a way that may disturb a child’s psyche and overall well-being.

Samira Farwaneh: They raised them in a way where they want them to be integrated as far as the language goes, but they want them to be isolated as far as behavior goes. So you have this kind of duality of kind of schizophrenic existence.

Randa Abdu: Language is clearly not the entire picture. Religion also plays into this mosaic of identity. Religious identity is crucial to many Arab-American parents, however. Dr. Farwaneh frames this concern as more cultural than spiritual and notes it is directly tied to individuality

Samira Farwaneh: It is more culture because what Muslims and Christians have in common is this Middle Eastern culture, which I consider a tribalist culture. It’s a conformist culture. We are against individuality.

Randa Abdu: Open conversations with parents facilitate a smooth understanding of the target culture. Research shows that perceived cultural differences and social pressure may play a role in parents accepting their children’s relationships with individuals from other cultures. A child’s relationship with parents is among the most crucial factors that contributes to the development of identity. I talked with Dr. Christine Sheikh, an associate professor of sociology of religion, race, ethnicity and gender at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. A sociologist, Dr. Sheikh, is author of the book titled The American Ummah: Identity and Adoption among Second Generation Muslim Americans. She said that youth do the best with navigating and negotiating issues related to belonging identity and struggles with their parents when they are able to have open conversation with an adult family figure in their lives. Youth or young adults need space, Dr Sheikh added. They need to express their struggles freely without the fear of judgment throughout the journey of navigating their identity. Pew Research Center’s report on the identity of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. noted that Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. embrace both the American and Arab Muslim identities.

Christine Sheikh: Questioning and struggling doesn’t mean that a young person is going to throw out Arab heritage or throw out Muslim identity or Muslim faith. It just means that they’re going through really a very normal set of developmental challenges that any, especially adolescent or younger adult will go through where they’re trying to understand, Who am I?

Randa Abdu: When children are able to establish their own understanding of culture without the pressure of their parents, they tend to find it easier to belong to it. Steering away from culture, however, comes when the child experiences their family as oppressive. In the same respect, Dr. Sheikh emphasized that children may reject their religious or ethnic background for fear of their pressures and may opt for the double life. 

Thank you for listening. This has been citizens of two worlds. On this episode, we discussed experts perspectives on the issue of identity among first generation Arab-Americans in Tucson. This is Randa Samih Abdu, reporting for the Daily Wildcat and this is citizens of two worlds.

Episode 2:   Citizens of Two Worlds: Solutions

Randa Abdu: Many first generation Arab-Americans go through inner conflicts when it comes to identity and belonging. Often this is in their teenage years. After I moved to the U.S. from Jordan, I realized that it didn’t matter whether young Arabs were born and raised here in Tucson or they are first generation Arabs. What matters is that they seem to hide parts of who they are and who they want to be. 

This was certainly true for me and several Arab friends here. The focus of my podcast is about issues first generation Arab Americans experience being raised by their Arab parents in an Arab household. The podcast is born of my own experience, months of research, and dozens of interviews with families and academics with expertise in where this inner struggle among Arab children comes from. Throughout my interviews with first generation Arab-Americans and Arab-American parents or immigrant Arab-American parents, I noticed that many Arab parents aim for perfectionism. They have high expectations on their children, even as adults. The way they dress, speak, behave, manage their lives and even the field they pick in college is either planned for them or they are expected to master it all. Obedience is the main aspect that some of the Arab children have to acclimate to and have throughout all their phases, as parents know best, according to what some Arab parents think. This is Randa Samih Abdu reporting from Tucson, Arizona, for the Daily Wildcat, and this as Citizens of Two Worlds, a podcast that highlights identity issues among first generation Arab-Americans in Tucson, a city that witnessed the fastest growing Arab population in the state of Arizona, whose rank is 14 by Arab-American population in the country. In my interview with Ehab Jalal, co-host of the Amreekies Podcast, a podcast that discusses the nuances of both Arab and American identities, it has been apparent that he is preoccupied with all these issues shaping young first generation Arab-Americans.

Ehab Jalal: My parents want me to be a specific kind of person versus like the more I would say, westernized idea of we just want you to be happy. This is not a readily available idea, and I think a lot of parents is mentalities growing up, even though, yes, of course, our parents want us to be happy. But I think they want us to be happy in a very specific form. They want us to do the things that they want us to do, get the degree, find the wife, have the children and be happy.

Randa Abdu: Claudia Youakim, professor of sociology at the University of Florida, mentioned in her research on Arab-Americans in the Chicagoland area that the Arabic culturally centered mentality of parents, as well as their conservative behavior towards their children and the restrictions they impose, might leave some first-generation Arab-Americans with a struggle to belong. However, we hear from our guests more about where does that leave first generation Arab-Americans? Maryam Hawatmeh, program director at Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, shares what her parents expect from their children.

Maryam Hawatmeh: What your family expects of you, to have an education. Do these certain things follow these certain rules. Those are difficult and also very difficult to explain to people that are that aren’t part of our culture.

Randa Abdu: Following family values and rules are difficult to explain to people different from the Arab society. As Maryam Hawatmeh puts it, as a result, children might develop different identities. Back to Ehab Jalal, the co-host of the Amreekies Podcast, a podcast that discusses both Arab and American identities, shares a personal experience about these issues

Ehab Jalal: As the child grows up, we form two different identities, one of them that is out in the open with people who are not our family that will always most likely differ from the personality that remains within the family so that you can kind of go along with what the family wants. You know, not cause a lot of disturbance, a lot of instability.

Randa Abdu: There are some topics in the Arab household that are not okay to be discussed. Many Arab parents raise their children in a way in which they steer them away from certain things and discussing certain topics. In other words, there are things that should be unapproachable by their children. These are taboos that their children need to stay away from discussing in their personal lives and also at home, Edward Said in his book Orientalism talks about Arab culture as the culture of honor and shame. Those taboos or what’s known as shame do not always make sense to children. They revolve around dating, drinking sleep over, and staying out late. Many Arab children stay away from doing these activities because they were told to or because they don’t want to disappoint their parents. These serious issues are clearly expressed in a dissenting voice by Jasmin Mufarreh, enrollment counselor at the Global Center at the University of Arizona.

Jasmin Mufarreh: I wanted to go to the mall with friends, and I couldn’t and I couldn’t sleep over at a friend’s fouse, they had always sleep at my house, and I think I just wanted to feel like everybody else and I was being held back. I couldn’t hug a guy if they were male, I couldn’t, even if they were younger, older, a guy couldn’t. And I remember that was always so strange to me. And when I did one time, I actually cried because I thought I was doing something really wrong.

Randa Abdu: From Jasmine’s words, we know that sleeping over at friends’ houses, hugging the opposite sex, etc. those things are not acceptable to some parents. Mohammad Abaji, senior business development manager who is also a co-host on the Amreekies podcast, differentiates between what is “Eib” or shameful and what is “haram”, which is religiously prohibited. In his point of view, this culture of shame does not make any sense.

Mohammad Abaji Actually, I have this very heavy, heavy, loaded word for me because I also doesn’t have a religious context to it like Haram does or something like that is extremely impermissible by the religion. “Eib” is just like a cultural don’t do that. It doesn’t fit within our, you know, societal norms or agreements.

Randa Abdu: The things that many Arab parents consider as taboos are even more strictly applied to their daughters than sons, according to my interviews with Jasmin Mufarreh, Alla Frefer and Mohammad Abaji, co-hosts of the Amreekies podcast, it is apparent that some parents put dress restrictions on their daughters more than their sons, in their compliance to the Arab culture of honor and shame and their commitment to the Arab traditions. Parents tend to remind their children to dress modestly and comply to the Arab culture and the Arab traditions. What I have been told by many young Arab Americans in Tucson is that there’s always the voice of their parents in the back of their head, making them feel that they are doing something wrong or what they’re doing is not OK. A woman is a woman and a man is a man. Society will forgive him, but the judgment on women is much harsher. Mohammad Abaji, co-host of the Amreekies Podcast, a podcast that discusses topics related to Arab and American identity, frankly states that he has a privilege as a male.

Mohammad Abaji: I had a privilege, I have to admit, as the eldest son of being able to get away with things my sister were able were able to get away with. You know, they couldn’t stay up with their friends out too late compared to me as I grew older. They could not spend the night in anyone’s house. I could. Even me spending the night at someone else’s house, you know, it was it was very specific people and it was like, you know, very rare.

Randa Abdu: This was one male’s input on the privileges sons have. Do females agree or disagree? And what are the restrictions parents impose on their lifestyles? Alla Frefer, senior business analyst and the co-host of the Amreekies podcast shares a personal experience on how she used to exercise at the gym. For example, she used to change out of her gym clothes in the car before going into her family’s house.

Alla Frefer: As long as my parents don’t see me, though, see, because I still have that one piece like I can’t like, just walk out of my house in my gym clothes and be okay with that. So I do change. When I was in Tucson, I would change at the gym or in my car. I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud, but it’s true, at thirty eight, I was doing that.

Randa Abdu: Similarly, Jasmin Mufarreh could not wear gym shorts in middle school.

Jasmin Mufarreh: When I was in middle school, I couldn’t wear shorts, gym shorts like everybody else. I had to wear track pants and then when I played soccer again, I’d have to wear tights and I think it made me feel a little isolated.

Randa Abdu: Many first generation Arabs noticed differences between themselves and their non-Arab peers when it comes to parenting style and the way they were raised in the U.S.Clearly, methods of parenting differ from one culture to another. Arab parenting in most cases tends to adhere to Arab culture and traditions, ignoring the geo cultural component, namely, kids are raised in the U.S. not in the Middle East. With that in mind Wessam Jerdi, CVS account manager for health plans, speaks about the special ways some Arab parents raise their children and compares it with some of the non-Arab parents. And he also described it as a limbo.

Wessam Jerdi: Arab parents have a special way of they like the way they raise kids. It’s very straightforward. They’re not. They don’t sugarcoat much. I mean, it’s hard love and you don’t see that from your other friends, your other American friends who parents tend to have patience and just kind of let their kids do whatever they want to do.

Randa Abdu: Switching back and forth between two identities is something that some of the first generation Arab Americans have mastered doing. One personality at school with a non-Arab peers and another one at home with their parents can be overwhelming as young children and children of Arab parents noted in interviews. Some of the first generation Arab Americans grow up with two identities, especially in their teenage years and young adulthood years. The more they realize the pressure and how different they are from their surroundings, the more they develop these multiple identities. From what I have established, the journey to some of the first generation Arab Americans was exhausting in that exhausting journey. Alla Frefer, the co-host of the Amreekies podcast, expresses her feelings about her parents expectations and how she embraced her own culture and response.

Alla Frefer: To have that like expectation put on you has always been difficult growing up, but as of recent, as of the last couple of years, I’d say probably last 10 years or so, and I’m thirty nine now, I’ve just fully embraced it and it’s the same with my Libyan side. Like, I’m proud to be Libyan. I’m proud of my heritage. I enjoy our food. I enjoy some of the cultural practices like weddings and things like that. The outfits and the language and the dialect. And, you know, I embrace all that as well.

Randa Abdu: When I asked many Arab American children in Tucson what exactly it is about culture, religion or reputation that makes some Arab parents impose certain rules on their children. I was told it is mainly about parents concern for their reputation. They are mostly concerned what other Arabs or Arab-Americans may think of them. In other words, Arab parents are concerned about their image because they come from an unashamed culture. In addition, I let free fair comment on how many Arab American parents are fixated on what other people say.

Alla Frefer: I’ll bet you money on this. Most Arab parents, if they were living in, let’s say, an island on their own and nobody was there and their kid came, well, I mean, I guess, except for maybe none. Likely they were the only Arabs, let me say it that way. They are the only Arabs on the island and their kids came and they’re like, oh, I want to go do this or I got pregnant or I got somebody pregnant, or, you know, I want a drink or I have a girlfriend. Like, I’m sure it would be hard on them, but it would still be easier because there’s no other Arabs around. Nobody else knows we are so fixated on what are people going to say? What are they going to think that I think it just takes over?

Randa Abdu: Some parents talk about their perspectives raising their children in the U.S., they have their perspectives on why they raise their children the way they do, in which there are more restrictions applied when raising them in the U.S. than their country of origin. Some reasons include keeping their culture embedded within their children and thinking that those offspring are not mature enough to behave in a new culture. Fadwa Nabulsi, Arab mother of four children, elaborates more on the obstacles of raising her children in the US.

Fadwa Nabulsi: Since I was super young when I got married and I came here at a younger age, I wasn’t fully mature to understand how I how I would raise my kids here in the USA, as like multi culture, a product of two cultures, language barrier, culture barrier and push them to my culture when they start going to school, going to the community, push them to the American culture. I didn’t know at that time how to become, like, mature enough to understand that I tried my best to base with them, like the manners, the value, the religion, the culture to be protected by it, you know, to keep it

Randa Abdu: In the same vein, Bushra and Rehab Hawatmeh parents expressed their thoughts on raising their children in the US

Randa Abdu: They said that their kids attend American schools in a different life with different people around them that are completely different than their country of origin. When a parent migrates to the U.S., which is an open culture, they said, as an adult, they tend to have fear when it comes to raising their children in this culture. Unlike when they migrate at a young age

Randa Abdu: Similarly, Fadwa Nabulsi, a parent, talks about the many fears that parents are concerned with when they raise their children in the U.S. These include hanging out with different friends, being out late, consuming alcohol, and so on.

Fadwa Nabulsi: Oh, we are in America, you don’t talk to me like this was like they want to become more American. And when they start hanging out with different friends that I don’t agree with and they feel like we are okay to do that. Also, when they get to like, for example, they’re going to go out late, even though they’re going to go watch a movie out late, it was a challenge for me to be out late or I was also worried from drugs, from physical relationship, from alcohol. 

Randa Abdu: Rehab, mother of five children added this U.S. culture is very new to them, Arab parents, it took them some time to adapt to it, and yet they did not fully adapt. 

I asked the first generation Arabs whom I interviewed one question if there were one or two things they would want to change about the way their parents raise them. What would they be? I was told it would be to have their parents listen to them to their needs and not just listen, but try to understand where they come from and their points of view. 

After interviewing some first-generation Arab-Americans and some parents and listening to them, it seems that the first generation Arab-American children and their parents interactions are some of the most interesting phenomena that needs to be spotted and highlighted by content makers, psychologists, experts and researchers. 

Thank you for listening. This has been Citizens of Two Worlds, a podcast that highlights identity issues among first generation Arab Americans in Tucson, Arizona. This is Randa Samih Abdu reporting for the daily Wildcat. On this episode of Citizens of Two Worlds, we looked at the perspectives of the first generation Arabs whom I interviewed, as well as some parents. On my second episode, I will be discussing experts perspectives on the issue. 

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