Cireen + Lara
1992 | Amman, Jordan | Age: 15 + 14
Cireen: My grandmother gave this vase to our mom when she married our dad in 1974. It represents the journey of our family. It has moved with us from Jordan to Honduras, back to Jordan, and to the United States. Even when I was in Canada, my mom brought it when she came to stay with me. It’s been with us through everything - from losing my dad to the uncertainty of immigrating here as four women from the Middle East. It was a rough journey, but it was an incredible one.
Lara: Our dad’s family is from Bethlehem, Palestine and our mom is Jordanian.
Cireen: Our dad’s family had been in Honduras for a very long time. My uncle had brought our entire family there, but less than a year later my father passed away. Then my uncle went missing in El Salvador. They never found his body. So the family moved back to Jordan.
In Arabic culture, a widowed woman can’t live alone. So our mom had us move in with her parents back in Jordan. When my grandfather passed away, I became the head of the family. It was actually my decision to move us to the U.S. I was 14 at the time and finishing 9th grade. I thought, “I’m smart. I have dreams to go to the university and do great things. If I stay here, that won’t happen.” My grandfather had been our provider, and when he passed away, we lost his income. I didn’t have the option of working while studying. In the U.S. the government provided help for single moms, and good free public education. And both our mom and I could work to support the family.
And that’s exactly what happened. We moved to Fresno, CA because my mom had family there. At 16 I started working. My sister and I put ourselves through school, got married, life happened. We each managed to get our second master’s while putting my niece through Columbia University. It has been a great journey and a great blessing.
Lara: Our story is a little bit different from those of many immigrants. We didn’t struggle when it came to education. We had studied English from first grade in Jordan and didn’t need ESL classes here. She actually ended up being the valedictorian here. She’s stupidly smart!
Cireen: We struggled with our life path though. In our culture the best thing that parents could do was to get their daughters married off and pass the responsibility to someone else. And that’s kind of what happened to us. We both struggled in our marriages. As Arab Christians, divorce was not in our vocabulary.
Lara: Not for me!
Cireen: The struggles we went through culturally and religiously were especially difficult for our mom; both of her daughters got divorced. And my sister had a kid.
Cireen: August 2, 1990 was either a Thursday or a Friday. My cousin came to take the 4 of us to the airport. I remember sitting in the back of his truck with our stuff. He had his radio on, and at exactly 8am we heard the news that Saddam had just invaded Kuwait. I think it was a blessing that we left when we did. By the time we got to the U.S. about 20 hours later, news about what had happened was everywhere. It was interesting; on the one hand, we felt that we were part of the experience; on the other hand, we were gone.
Jordan was affected economically by what happened in Iraq. It has suffered a lot in the various refugee crises. We’re the closest to Iraq, to Syria, to Lebanon. The weight of carrying the refugees for the past 20-30 years has brought down Jordan’s economy badly. And the current crisis with the Syrian refugees is the worst because of the magnitude and the timing. When we left in 1990 the population was 3 million; now it’s 10 million. Jordan has taken in 10 times the number that some of the European countries have. Yet the Arabic countries - Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia - have not stepped up. All of the aid has been from the EU and the US. Jordan doesn’t have oil or natural resources. Amman is a very expensive city. The Jordanians are suffering. They’re very open and welcoming, but I fear that the toll on the economy is moving them toward extremism. The Jordanian government has to be very careful.
Cireen: I consider myself Jordanian because I was born and raised there. Now, I’m an American and also a Canadian. So I’m multicultural. But in my heart, I think I’m a Jordanian.
Lara: In the past 27 years, I’ve been to Jordan maybe 3 times. But I love the U.S. I really do. I don’t see myself ever moving back. I don’t see myself in that culture anymore. I’m in the right place here.
Cireen: It took me a long time to become an American. I actually just got my citizenship recently. It was a really tough journey, but I feel blessed about where we are right now. It was worth it.