I Left My Heart in Syria


I Left My Heart in Syria

by Serena Mokatish, May 2015

The monarchic form of government that Syria uses relies on violence by police and military forces on protesters and innocent civilians to suppress demonstrations. Opposition militias began to from in 2011, and by 2012 the conflict had expanded into a full-fledged Civil War. Today, many Syrians fear being attacked by government forces and are forced to leave their homes. Since Syria is a heavily Islamic populated country, the remaining 8% of Christians in Syria also fear ISIS, which is a terrorist group. Like Steven, an eight-year-old boy who feared possible death in Syria, many other Syrians have escaped the war by migrating to other countries for liberty, life, and prosperity. Throughout the last few years of conflict, Steven and his family moved in and out of Syria multiple times. Steven’s family would stay in Syria when the Civil War conditions were calm, but when the war conditions were critical, his family would temporarily move to Lebanon. Finally, on August 13, 2014, Steven and his family decided to follow in the footsteps of his grandparents and move to the United States to live with them. Steven and his family landed on August 15, 2014, which was Steven’s birthday. During his first week in America, Steven began to feel homesick and felt like his culture was taken away from him. The sudden shift in culture, traumatic experiences, and his experiences as a refugee from the Syrian Civil War have made Steven experience trauma, which has disrupted his adaptation in America because he feels like he does not belong.

Being forced to a new country has been scary for Steven because he has not adapted to the American culture; therefore, Steven has felt isolated, forced, and discouraged, but despite his struggles, he has grown into a strong boy from his experiences. After the Syrian war, Steven and his family moved to America. Immigration was an obstacle that made Steven dislike the United Stated because he lost his friends, his home, and family members due to the Syrian war. Steven was forced to live in America. Steven felt fortunate he had escaped the tragedy of the war, but felt remorseful at the same time, as he states: “I felt really sad for the people in Syria. They killed half of Syria. It is all gone and half of Syria is dead.” The term “they” refers to the Syrian regime. The term “half of Syria” refers to the innocent Syrians that were killed by their own radical people. Steven holds a grudge against the extremists in Syria that killed the innocent half of his country. Steven and his family fled to America for protection and in the process lost their home, as Steven states: “I used to have more friends in Syria, more cousins; my house was bigger; I had two pools, four bathrooms, and two kitchens, and four bedrooms.” Currently, Steven lives in a small apartment and his family is barely making it. Their picture of the American Dream was not what they had hoped. In reality, they have been suffering in a country they did not want to be in and moved regretfully to America because they were trying to protect their lives from the Syrian government.

In addition, the war in Syria affected Steven emotionally because his feelings shift from feeling happy living in his homeland, to feeling threatened living in his homeland, to being scared and forcefully leaving his homeland in order to survive, thus causing confusion for the child. I asked Steven to describe three words on how he felt when he lived in Syria and Steven responded, “Happy, fun, and joy.” Then, I asked him to describe in three words of how he felt during the war and Steven responded, “Scared, sad, and worried.” Next, I asked him how he felt when his parents told him that they were moving to America and he would be living with his grandparents, and Steven replied, “Sad, excited, and scared.” Steven’s eighth birthday was a day he will never forget because it was the day he landed in America, and the moment he landed is when he felt estranged, confused, and shocked. The day before Steven’s eighth birthday, he left his home and traveled halfway across the world to escape from the destruction of the civil war in Syria. Upon his arrival, he met his grandma and grandpa at the airport, as he states: “I did not see them from when I was six. I ran to my grandma and grandpa and hugged them.” Steven was thrilled to reunite with his grandparents again, since he had not seen them in two years. The reunion between Steven’s grandparents and him brought joy and a sense of security because he felt like he had a part of his home back, which was his family. Although Steven was separated and reunited with his family again, the split and reconnection confused him and disrupted his normal childhood, thus causing severe trauma for him because Steven’s emotions changed simultaneously from being happy living in Syria, to feeling threatened living in Syria, to feeling sad after being forced to leave Syria.

Furthermore, as a refugee, even though Steven escaped the dangers of Syria and entered America, which was considered a safe land, instead of feeling a sense of belonging in the American culture, he has felt like a foreigner. After the death of his uncle, which occurred in America, Steven was furthermore traumatized and was confused about which country was a better place to live in. Steven faced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as Boris Drožđek, a researcher in psychology, connects: “They originate from the fields of systems theory, migrant mental health, and posttraumatic stress theory” (4). Frequent migration and traumatic experiences during one’s moving process can cause PTSD and effect one’s mental health. PTSD originated from the stress Steven faced in Syria, for he woke up every morning thanking God for being alive because he feared for his life. He developed migration PTSD because he was told that America would protect him and his family’s lives, but when his uncle came to America, he died in a car accident after landing from the airport. Steven felt betrayed by the country he supposedly trusted, thus causing confusing and psychological trauma for him.

Consequently, due to the extreme stress Steven faced in a short amount of time, he continues to remember bad memories, which in addition, makes him lose hope in the land that is supposed to protect the lives of refugees. Steven is facing cultural shock as Irina-Ana Drobot, a psychologist, illustrates: “He projects his fears on the surroundings. The description of nature is subjective, and it is the result of Rochester’s feelings of anxiety and of feeling overwhelmed by the foreign culture he finds himself in” (2). When one enters a country and experiences cultural differences in his/her surroundings, one starts to feel overwhelmed by the foreign culture and has a hard time adapting to his or her new environment, thus causing confusion and stress. This also makes Steven not want to live in America because he was forced to live here and has experienced the death of a family member. He also had a hard time adapting to a different culture because he does not have many family members in America to express his Syrian culture with; therefore, Steven feels restricted to the predominant American culture and does not like it. Family is what makes him feel like he belongs at home and since one family member was removed out of his life for good, he gave up on the hope that America once promised him, which was life over death.

Moreover, Steven faces cultural Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Cultural PTSD) due to cultural shock, experiencing the death of his uncle in America, and being a refugee, which disrupted his adaptation in America because he was overwhelmed by all traumatic experiences. Although being a refugee secured Steven’s life, it has also made him feel like an outsider and feel homesick, which has furthermore disrupted in his mental health because he went from feeling happy in Syria, to feeling threatened in Syria, to being sad when he forcefully left Syria from the unsafe government. Shifting cultures demandingly made it harder for him to have a sense of belonging and he had a hard time adapting to his new environment as Leah James, a psychologist and researcher in psychological treatments, states: “Children most commonly express frustration and anxiety associated with safety concerns or the whereabouts and well-being of missing family members” (2). When a children leave their home due to safety reasons, most project their fear and anger out onto the new place they are forced to stay in because they feel like they will never like their new home since they are forced to stay in it. Since Steven was forced to leave his home, friends, and family members, he has put all his anger on the country he was forced to stay in, though it has helped secure his life. He is eager to return back to his hometown as Steven shows: “I would ask my mom everyday saying mom when are we going back to Syria? Mom when are we going back to Syria?” He misses his old environment because that is where he belonged. Steven’s identity stayed back in Syria and since he was forced to escape to America, he left his old identity behind and struggls to find his new one because he is facing culture shock. Steven’s psychological trauma derives from being a refugee, experiencing the death of a loved one, and having a hard time adapting to the new American culture because he valued his Syrian culture excessively, and that was taken away from him.

In addition, Steven’s traumatic experiences of losing his loved ones, being a war refugee, and having a hard time adapting to the American culture dampened his hope for fitting into the American culture. Since Steven lost the majority of his family and friends, he relied on God as the last resort for comfort because he knows God will never leave him throughout his struggles. What kept Steven from missing his uncle, family, friends, and home in Syria was his faith, as Steven claims: “I thank God every day that I did not die in Syria and I ask God to help me make new friends and family so I can be happy again.” Steven’s faith helps him get through the tragic experiences of losing his family, friends, and home in Syria. He had to accept the fact that God had a different plan for him and it was by fate and for safety reasons that he had to move to America and leave his old life in Syria behind.  Though he accepts everything as fate, he never forgot about his cultural values. He learned to embrace his Syrian culture and only grasp on to the positive culture values from America. Steven’s family is very involved in church because they want Steven to be raised well and not pick up bad habits from the American culture, which also disrupts his adaptation in the American culture because he is forced to follow certain rules. His parents shelter him and protect him with the help of his new spiritual family. His spiritual family constantly lifts him up, welcomes him, and helps him get through his traumatic experiences because it severely affected his emotional health.

Similarly, while Steven is suffering from traumatic experiences and is having a hard time adapting to the American culture because his emotions are fluctuating between being happy, sad, and frustrated all at once, he is currently recovering with the help of loved ones. In order for Steven to adapt living in America and heal from the mental scarring he faced, he needs the support of friends and family. He finds comfort by trusting the people he loves the most and since he is only eight years old, he needs nurturing love in order to move on in life. For Steven to feel safe and secure, he needs the emotional support from his immediate family and his spiritual family. I asked Steven if he would miss the members of his church if he left back to Syria. He replied, “Yes, of course!” According to his response, if he left to return to Syria, he would be even more traumatized because he would be leaving more of his loved ones in America and gaining back the family members he lost in the past in Syria, which would cause more confusion for the child. Then, I asked Steven if he would dislike America even more if he did not have his grandma and grandpa with him and he replied, “Yeah.” Conferring to Steven’s response, family is what has helped him adjust to life in America after having his adaptation disrupted due to living among his family members in Syria, to forcefully leaving his family members in Syria, to meeting new friends in America and ending up loving his new spiritual family members in America.

Steven will most likely will never be able to adapt fully to America because he will always treasure the land that was forcefully taken away from him. He is not the type of boy that hides his identity; instead, he embraces and claims his identity as Syrian. Although his life was threatened in Syria, he still holds on to his Syrian identity. When Steven entered America, where his life is not threatened, again, he still holds on to his Syrian identity. He is very proud of his culture, but has a hard time embracing it in the United States because he does not have most of his family members to share it with. Steven cannot integrate his culture well with the American culture because there are too many differences. Steven also does not want to be so-called “Americanized” because he feels that some aspects of the American culture tend to be disrespectful, since respect is an important factor of the Syrian culture. I asked Steven, “What do you not like about the American culture?” Steven immediately replied, “I don’t like how the teenagers grow up to be. They think they can do whatever they want and then they get in so much trouble with their parents. If they do that they don’t respect their parents.” Steven bases his cultural value on the idea of respecting his parents. Syrian children honor their parents and grandparents so much that they would risk their own lives just to save them. Steven expresses his culture by showing respect to his parents. He wants to hold on to his Syrian culture because he does not want to grow up to be a typical American teenager and disrespect his parents, which is equivalent to disrespecting his culture.

Steven’s mental health transformed negatively and his adaptation was disturbed because his feelings have shifted from being happy living in his homeland, to feeling threatened living in his homeland, to being scared and forced leaving his homeland in order to survive, thus causing confusion for the child. Although being a war refugee saved his life, it also made him feel like he was forced to stay in a country where he felt like he did not belong due to cultural differences and to not having his cousins around him. Dangerous war conditions often force people to leave their homes for safety; when they escape for safety reasons, they often face cultural shock because they entered a country that they were forced to remain in. He had his culture taken away from him and has been forced to integrate it with a completely different culture, which also causes more bewilderment for him. Today, thousands of Syrian refugees are fleeing from Syria to other countries to protect their lives. When refugee children like Steven are forced to leave their home, it disrupts their normal healthy childhood because they are confused from the sudden change of their environment.

Works Cited

Drožđek, Boris. “Challenges in Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Refugees: Towards Integration of Evidence-based Treatments with Contextual and Culture-sensitive Perspectives.” European Journal of Psychotraumatology 6 (n.d.): 1-8. ESCOB. Web. 5May 2015.

Drobot, Irina-Ana. “Relationships and Culture Shock in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.” Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies 6 (n.d.): 1-3.ESCOB. Web. 5 May 2015.

James, Leah. “The Mental Health of Syrian Refugee Children and Adolescents.” Forced Migration Review 47 (n.d.): 42-44. ESCOB.


First Meeting:

Serena: “How do you like living in the United states?”

Steven: “Not that much.”

Serena: “Why?”

Steven: “Because I used to have more friends in Syria, more cousins, and a bunch of other stuff. My house was bigger, I had two pools, four bathrooms, two kitchens, and four bedrooms.”

Serena: “How did you feel about the war?”

Steven: “Really sad.”

Serena: “Why did you feel sad?”

Steven: “Half of Syria is gone. They killed it! So now there is half of Syria and half of the other Syria is dead. That is why I am sad.”

Serena: “But none of your family died?”

Steven: “None.”

Serena: “Okay, that is good. Why did you come to the United States?”

Steven: “From the war.”

Serena: “So you do not have to be in the war?”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “How do you feel about moving to the United States?”

Steven: “Sad.”

Serena: “Did you want to move to the United States?”

Steven: “Not that much.”

Serena: “So you were really sad when you left?”

Steven: “Yeah, until my mom told me that my grandma and grandpa were here. I became a bit happier.”

Serena: “So you see your grandpa and grandma a lot huh?”

Steven: “Yeah, I did not see them from when I was six. All the way to seven and when I had my eighth birthday year. On my eighth birthday year that’s when I came. For my birthday. And two weeks, so it was…Wait no, for two days…August 15th, that is when I came.”

Serena: “Mhm.”

Steven: “Do you have any more questions?”

Serena: “Where do you like going to school more, here or Syria?”

Steven: “Syria.”

Serena: “Why?”

Steven: “I have more friends, I have two cousins….”

Serena: “And you learned more?”

Steven: “Yeah, I learned five languages.”

Serena: “Wow!”

Steven: “I know that is a lot.”

Serena: “And you have more friends there?”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “Wait, so you speak all those languages fluently?”

Steven: “Like, two of them I do not know a lot, but three of them…”

Serena: “Fluent.”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “Describe what you did in Syria with family.”

Steven: “We would have family dinners, go to the mall, walk around, and go visit my cousins. I would go swimming. I would play with my cousins.”

Serena: “What games did you play?

Steven: “We played tag, hide and seek, soccer, we swam in the pool. A lot of stuff.”

Serena: “Did you have a lot of friends at school?”

Steven: “Yeah I had so many friends.”

Serena: “Do your friends speak Arabic and English or just Arabic?”

Steven: “Some do, some don’t. But most of them speak both English and Arabic because that is what they teach us in school.”

Serena: “Oh, that’s good.”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “Would you go back to Syria?”

Steven: “When the war stops, yes.”

Serena: “Do you want to go back to Syria, after the war?”

Steven: “Yes, every day I beg my mom. I tell her “When is the war going to stop? I want to go to Syria. When is the war going to stop? I want to go to Syria!””

Serena: “Aw!”

Steven: “Every single day, every single second.”

Serena: “Wow. Where do you consider home, here or Syria?”

Steven: “Syria.”

Serena: “Obviously, yeah. Describe the moving process, like describe how you moved from Syria to here.”

Steven: “Okay, so before the war in two days we were in Lebanon. We stayed there for a year and went we went back for two weeks and went back to Lebanon and stayed there. We got our stuff and went to the airplane. Two days from the airplane we went all the way to America. From Lebanon to America when you go it is two days.”

Serena: “Mhm.”

Steven: “I watched some movies on the airplane. I got ice cream.”

Serena: I know I got ice cream too when I traveled.”

Steven: “Let’s see, I met two of my friends.”

Serena: “On the plane?”

Steven: “Yeah. One was Kieran and one was Zach.”

Serena: “How did you feel when you first stepped in America? Your first step like when you came to the airport in America.”

Steven: “I was like, I got a bit scared, was a bit weird, out of place, and saw with my grandpa and grandma and friends. First, I ran to my grandma and grandpa. I hugged them. Then, I went to Kieran and Zach. We said hi, we shake hands, we hugged each other, we had lots of fun. That day we had a sleepover. They went to my house, or should I say my grandma’s house.”

Serena: “Oh wow! Do you love your grandma and grandpa a lot?”

Steven: “Yeah I love them a lot!”

Serena: “Aw!”

Steven: “Yeah, we had lots of fun! And we had a big feast.”

Serena: That’s good, that’s good!”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “So, if you went back to Syria, would you miss America?”

Steven: “Not that much.”

Serena: (laughs) “Okay.”

Steven: “But I would miss my friends and the people that I know.”

Serena: Church?

Steven: “Church!”

Serena: “Would you miss me?”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “Describe the last moment you had with your friend.”

Steven: “Okay. I told my friend not to eat chicken nuggets.”

Serena: “Why?”

Steven: “Because they are bad for you. My mom said so.”

Serena: “Yes, you are correct. They are bad for you. They crush baby chicks with the bones and guts inside and make chicken nuggets.”

Steven: “Yeah all the bones are in there. That is why I do not eat chicken nuggets. My friend did not believe me and thought I was crazy and weird.”

Serena: “Well, don’t worry, when he grows up and learns about it, he will remember you. You know my sister, Mira, loves chicken nuggets?”

Steven: Really?”

Serena: “Yeah. I hope she stops eating it.”

Steven: “Yeah they are bad for you. I will never eat them”

Serena: “Wait so is English your first or second language?”

Steven: “Second.”

Serena: “So you know how to read and write and speak Arabic?”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “Kol ishi (Means everything in Arabic)?”

Steven: “Kolshi (Means everything in Arabic).”

Serena: “You are so cute! I wish I get to have a son that turns out just like you.”

Steven: (Laughs).

Serena: “Oh by the way, I heard about you mom’s brother. I am so sorry for your loss. But he should be happy he is in heaven living with God now.”

Steven: “Thanks, I hope so too. I really miss my uncle. I thank God every day that I did not die in Syria and I ask God to help me make new friends and family so I can be happy again.”

Serena: “How old was he when he died?”

Steven “Twenty-four.”

Serena: “Wow, so young! How did it happen?”

Steven: “My Grandpa told him to escape from the war and to move. So when he did and got out of the airplane and went into car, he got into a car accident and died.”

Serena: “Oh, my gosh, that is so sad!”

Steven: “Yeah. He came to escape the war because he did not want to fight in it.”

Serena: “So he was a part of the Army?”

Steven: “Yeah. He left because he did not want to fight but when he came here he died anyways.”

Serena: “That means God wanted his child early. You will see your uncle again someday, don’t worry.”

Steven: “Yeah I know.” (Looking all sad).

Serena: “Give me a hug.”

(Serena and Steven hug)

Second Meeting:

Serena: “Do you have a lot of friends in your new school here?”

Steven: “Not as much as in Syria, but I’m starting to make new friends here.”

Serena: “How do you like living here so far?”

Steven: “I don’t like it that much. I miss my friends in Syria.”

Serena: “Would you hate America even more if you did not have your grandma and grandpa with you?”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “Do you like the kids in the church?”

Steven: “Yeah I like playing with them. Your little sister is so nice.”

Serena: “Yeah she is, but you should see her when she gets home. She acts crazy.”

Steven: “Really?”

Serena: “Yeah, and your little sister is so cute!”

Steven: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Everyone says oh your sister is so cute.”

Serena: “If you were president of Syria, how would you fix the war?”

Steven: “Murder is bad. I would tell people that God said no to kill anyone and that we should all love each other.”

Serena: “I would do the same thing. If there was such thing as a time machine, would you go back in time to experience living in Syria?”

Steven: “Yeah I wish I could go back.”

Serena: “Do you know what the Syrian War is about?”

Steven: “Yeah. The Syrian War is both sides fighting each other.”

Serena: “Were you living on the good side of Syria or the bad side of Syria?”

Steven: “The good side, but some people around us were bad.”

Serena: “So your family moved to America just in case the bad people come to the good side where you lived?”

Steven: “Yeah. My mom wanted us to be safe.”

Serena: “Do you feel forced that you left your home.”

Steven: “Yeah I had no choice. Syria is dangerous now.”

Serena: “What kind of house do you have now?”

Steven: “It’s not that big. I miss my old house, but I live with my grandma and grandpa. We don’t have our own house.”

Serena: “Do you like living with your grandma and grandpa?”

Steven: “Yeah, but i wish we all lived together in Syria.”

Serena: “Do you find it hard to fit in?”

Steven: “Not really.”

Serena: If someone were to ask you which are you more, Syrian or American, what would you say?”

Steven: “Syrian.”

Serena: “Are you proud to be Syrian?”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “What you like the most about Syria.”

Steven: “My friends and family.”

Serena: “What school do you like better, the one here or in Syria?”

Steven: “Syria.”

Serena: “Do you feel like your heart will always belong in Syria more?”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “Describe three words of how you felt when you lived in Syria before the war.”

Steven: “Happy, fun, good.”

Serena: “Now describe in three words how you felt during the war in Syria.”

Steven: “Sad, scared, and worried.”

Serena: “Now describe in three words how you felt when your parents told you that you were moving to America with your grandpa and grandma.”

Steven: “Sad, excited, and scared.”

Serena: “Since you have been in America for a while, in three words how would you describe your feelings now?”

Steven: “Better, miss my home and friends, and still sad.”

Serena: “How would you feel if you went back tomorrow to Syria and the war was magically over. Describe it in three words again.”

Steven: “Really happy, excited, joy.”

Serena: “Aw. Who do you miss more, your family or your friends.”

Steven: “My family. Especially my cousins because I love to play with them.”

Serena: “Of course. Nothing beats family.”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “What makes you feel at home when you are in a different place?”

Steven: “When you have a lot of friends and family.”

Serena: “Describe how you feel when you leave your friends.”

Steven: “When I leave my friends I get sad a little bit, but then I get over it.”

Serena: “Describe how you feel when your parents leave the house.”

Steven: “When my mom leaves the house I get mad.”

Serena: “Why do you get mad?”

Steven: “Because I want my mom.”

Serena: “You’re a mommy’s boy.”

Steven: “Yeah.”

Serena: “Describe a normal day with you and your family.”

Steven: “First, I get up in the morning and go to school, then I come home and do homework, eat dinner with my family, then play with my sister, and then I take a shower and go to sleep.”

Serena: “Do you spend more time with your mom or your grandparents.”

Steven: “Both because we all live together.”

Serena: “Do you consider yourself Syrian or American?”

Steven: “Syrian.”

Serena: “What makes you Syrian?”

Steven: “I grew up in Syria, my family is from Syria, I speak Arabic, and yeah.”

Serena: “Does your mom work?”

Steven: “No.”

Serena: “How about your dad?”

Steven: “Yeah my dad is a taxi driver.”

Serena: “Are you closer to your mom more than your dad?”

Steven: “Yeah, I think so.”

Serena: “Do you have dreams of the memories you had in Syria or dreams of you in America when you sleep?”

Steven: “I have dreams of me in Syria playing with my friends and family. With my friends I play with them at school and with family I play with them at home.”

Serena: “Describe the last dream you had when you were in Syria.”

Steven: “I dreamt that I was in Syria playing soccer with five of my friends. Then my mom called us into the house to have dinner, but we did not want to go into the house because we were having so much fun playing. Then my mom got mad we went back inside. We tried sneaking back out to play but all the doors were locked and we did not have the keys. Then I woke up.”

Serena: “Funny dream. Do you miss your school or friends in school more in Syria?”

Steven: “I miss my friends more.”

Serena: “What did you hear about America before you came here?”

Steven: “That America was the best country in the world and that it is pretty and nice and there is a lot of rich people.”

Serena: “After coming to the United States, do you think what you said was true?”

Steven: “It looks nice but it is boring.”

Serena: “What makes it boring?”

Steven: “There is no one in the streets, I don’t have a lot of family and friends here. I have a smaller house. My parents used to have more money and I bought more things in Syria.”

Serena: “Are there a lot of people in the streets in Syria.”

Steven: “Yeah there’s lots of people everywhere. It is like a shopping mall but everyone is outside. Everyone talks to each other in the streets. In America all you see outside are cars. It is like a dessert.”

Serena: “Do you think in Syria people talk more and are friendlier?”

Steven: “Yeah we all help each other.”

Serena: “Do you think the people in Syria are one big family?”

Steven: “Yeah they are all nice.”

Serena: “What don’t you like about the American culture?”

Steven: “I don’t like how the teenagers grow up to be. They think they can do whatever they want and then they get in so much trouble with their parents. If they do that they don’t respect their parents.”

Shayla’s Journey


Shayla’s Journey

by Karen Guinn, May 2015

Shayla is a woman of 29 years from the small yet wealthy country of Kuwait.  She grew up in a democratic country, yet there are restrictions and laws set forth by the government that citizens have to follow, just like any other country. Some of these restrictions, especially pertaining to women, seem a little oppressive.  Although Kuwaiti women are some of the most emancipated women in the Middle East, they have disadvantages such as, they are not permitted to vote, and the young local women’s dress codes are strict.  Even foreign women are expected to cover their hair when in public.  The desire for new experiences and change brought Shayla to three different countries before she arrived in the United States.  She has lived and studied in Great Britain, Scotland, and Egypt. During Shayla’s teenage years, her mother and father supported the family together, until her father’s passing seven years ago.  The responsibility of the family’s livelihood was then shifted to her mother.  Shayla’s mother has taken good care of her family since then.  Raising four children alone is a difficult task for any single mother.  She has been employed in the hotel/motel management field, and has done well.  As years pass, the relationship between Shayla and her mother grows strong.  Her mother has become more understanding of her desires.  She has given her permission to travel abroad to gain a higher education, when previously her father would not allow this.  While living in a country with strict regulations for women, it is especially difficult for a young girl trying to discover her potential.  Traveling and studying abroad in a modern, diverse world has proven to be a stimulating, and truly wonderful experience for Shayla.  Coming to the United States is helping her become the strong independent woman of her dreams; it has given Shayla freedom to express herself.  Her goal of obtaining a successful career is ultimately keeping her focused in the wake of her father’s death, as she maintains her dedication to her family.

Shayla’s journey abroad for higher education and the freedom to express herself has brought her to the United States from her home country of Kuwait.  Her ambition to develop a successful career is keeping her focused.  Upon completing high school in 2003, Shayla’s dream was to study in the States.  She illustrates, “Yeah, I was planning to come to the States since I was seventeen, actually, but I didn’t have a chance.  My father was totally against that.”  Like most fathers with daughters, Shayla’s Dad wanted to keep her close to home so he could protect her.  The man’s duty is to supervise his children and be aware of their activities.   A woman in Kuwait needs the permission of her parents to study abroad.  Sadly enough, Shayla’s father passed away when she was seventeen this tragic event resulted in her mother allowing her to take her studies abroad.  Shayla’s journey began as she ventured to countries like Great Britain, Scotland, Egypt, and now finally to The United States.  Her appetite for education and to create a solid career to support her mother is inspiring.  She explains, “My job is to get my degree and take care of her.”  Her plans are to settle somewhere close to Kuwait with a successful profession upon finishing her studies, and gaining at least a year of experience in her field.  Shayla stipulates, “At first I was like I don’t wanna major in something that in the future I can’t get a good job back home.”  Shayla’s goal to become a supportive daughter means everything to her, and the drive to succeed seems inbred.  In Kuwait, a broader opportunity for women to work became available in the 1960’s, but still today women are not allowed to work in the army, government sector, or police force.  Shayla’s dream is to help bring a new market to Kuwait, like pet care is also something she contemplates.  As of now her studies are majoring in hotel and restaurant management, like her mother.  Her mother built a successful career in this field which attracted Shayla’s attention.  After being exposed to new opportunities, she sees a chance to revise her profession selection, and admits she might look into animal care.

According to Shayla’s strong cultural beliefs, her main job in life is to make her mother happy, and provide her financial support.  Family and culture are very significant.  She values them greatly.  Shayla reveals that “Everything is about my mother, the only thing I’m sad about, if I’m here, and she’s there.”  Shayla reveals that since her father’s passing her mother has been amazing.  She has been taking care of the family providing unconditional love, and a stable home for her four children in a country where woman’s opportunities are limited.   Her mother understands Shayla’s need to become an independent, strong woman.  Shayla’s mother has allowed her to discover her identity as much as is allowed in Kuwait.  They have a healthy, solid relationship, and Shayla feels her mother deserves more than she could every supply or repay.  She affirms that, “Because she is spending money and taking care of me, and now it’s my job, that’s how it works.”  Shayla is very firm about her responsibilities and beliefs, these feeling are ingrained in her personality.  She states, “We have a belief, that if I take care of my mother, life will take care of me.”  It is important for her to do right by her mother.  She feels her American friends don’t share the same thoughts regarding their mothers, and doesn’t understand why.  Shayla’s culture in her own country has taught her to be very dedicated, with a sense of accountability for the well-being of her mother.

Even with her sentiment regarding her father’s passing, Shayla remains in search of independence and the ability to redefine her individuality, Shayla has also had the courage to venture out on her own, which has enabled her to blossom into a modern woman that is being created daily by her studies, and travel abroad.  She did not feel she could express her true heart in Kuwait under restrictions and somewhat oppression of women.  She explains that, I just cut my hair recently, and they started calling me Tomboy, I hate it!  The majority of people are very conservative, and judgmental in her country.  She says, “I’m kind of used to it here, people don’t get in your business.  There it’s like a cultural thing, people do get in your business.”   The scrutiny and intolerance of the Kuwaiti community play a big part in the sense of her belonging and acceptance.  Shayla’s determination to be an individual stands out, so she communicates that there they say something to you, because it’s a Muslim country.  People just blurt out what they think about the way you choose to dress or cut your hair, it’s acceptably in Kuwait.  In the United States we respect and even embrace other’s individuality.  Shayla loves her country and her culture, she just wishes it was a bit more modernized.  The Muslim religion in Kuwait is respected, and people do not encompass changes or even growth in that area very well.  There is a fear of losing the old ways and traditions, and it scares people.  Some of the younger Kuwaiti’s want to see change allowing more freedom in their country, and are hoping the respected community leaders will shift their perspectives.

Many female immigrants, who have lived in countries that have restrictions like Kuwait, find themselves desiring the chance to explore their uniqueness.  Women can be presumed to be bold and daring, and are a source of gossip for their communities.  A lot of Kuwait’s cultures and traditions remain the same as centuries ago, especially when it comes to religious customs pertaining to women, and how they should act or dress.  The religious police can actually stop a woman who appears in public that is dressed out of accordance to these customs.  Tight fitting, and revealing clothing is not only looked down on, but is restricted.  Marjorie Kelly, from the University of Kuwait, author of Clothes, culture, and context:  female dress in Kuwait, states that “Given the small size, great wealth, and conservative nature of Kuwaiti society, one dresses to impress in the knowledge that one will be scrutinized by one’s peers and any dress code violations will be widely noted.”  Society expects their women to dress appropriately to their rules in public.  The woman can wear outfits deemed unacceptable in the comfort of their homes, but are open to criticism if they proceed outdoors.  According to a survey of students about purchasing clothing abroad that parents would not allow them to wear, 60% would not.  The remaining 40% who said they bought clothing stated “that the garments were purchased and worn abroad but could not be worn back in Kuwait.”  They also added “people would talk or get the wrong idea about me. Hence, there seems to be a consensus that the clothes themselves are less of an issue than who is present to pass judgment on the person wearing them.  A young girl wanting to express herself through clothing would definitely be suppressed in this society.  The fact that people are concerned with what others are wearing is astonishing to me.  It is surprising when “you” realize how different countries, and cultures really are.  Here in the United States, we tend to take our civil rights for granted.

Shayla’s thirst for new experiences and education since the age of seventeen has finally resulted in her travels abroad, which has resulted in her reshaping and redefining herself constantly.  Her experiences in London, and Scotland helped her discovery that these countries were not for her.  Shayla has a sister who studies in Aberdeen, Scotland, and that is why she decided to go there for her studies.  She lived and studied for a bit in Egypt, but the revolution broke out, and she had to evacuate the country.  Shayla is currently studying in San Francisco at City College, she likes the diversity of America, and feels a sense of acceptance and belonging here.  In the article “Going and Staying! Abroad,” produced by Jessica Tomer, the Director of International Programs at Linfield College, regarding the benefits of studying in another country states, “Not only do students return with a better sense of the world’s cultures and their own, by comparison, but they gain more confidence, tolerance, flexibility, and understanding of different values and lifestyles.”  All the traveling, and experiences Shayla has gained contribute to the strong woman she is today. Her choice to study abroad has developed skills that are life changing and will stay with her the rest of her life.   Tomer also reveals that benefits from study abroad include visiting new places and meeting new people, “They’re also largely intangible-but often life changing.” Some of these acquired skills are:

  • Learn foundational skills like adaptability, problem solving, communications
  • Develop networking and career connections
  • Experience a global marketplace
  • Gain confidence and self-awareness
  • Expand comfort zone
  • Explore cultural/family background
  • Broaden perspective
  • Earn credit, particularly in foreign culture classes
  • Boost future resume

All of the benefits that expand a person’s perception and personality are listed here and they are what Shayla is searching for.  She has gained confidence and self-awareness while traveling through different countries, networking and experiencing a global market all the while continuing her studies.  Her experience with different cultures has made her appreciate her own family traditions and the culture in Kuwait

Shayla’s decision, along with her mother’s permission to study abroad, has given her the opportunity to travel to different countries expanding her knowledge, and perspective of the global world.  Many people dwell in one country, city, or village all their lives, never wanting to see what is beyond the borders.  The accumulation of knowledge and experience create a better future for all people.  A Professor of International Affairs, Mary Ann Tetreault, explains in her article, “Pattern of Culture and Democratization in Kuwait” written for Business Source Premier that, “Women constitute a small but relatively high quality reserve labor army in Kuwait.”  Shayla’s worldly experience and education would assist in her country’s advancement.  Her country appreciates woman of high achievement to supplement their work force.  Shayla’s freedom to decide whether or not she wants to become part of this remains to be seen.  She has the opportunity to work where she chooses and still be the supportive daughter she dreams of becoming.

While in the end, Shayla’s opportunity to experience education, and diversity has enabled her to become an intelligent, understanding, and unique woman.  Her ability to live and thrive in different countries has given her a different view of opportunities available.   Some people thirst for enlightenment, and need more complexity in their lives to build their spirit.  Although, Shayla’s father wanted to keep her close and protect her, she has grown tremendously, due to her travels to other countries, she has grown tremendously.  Shayla’s father might be proud of the woman she is becoming.  Living in another country close to Kuwait, will inevitably help her to create the self-supporting and independent woman she wants to be.  Immigrants balance original culture and family along with their new found freedoms on a daily basis.  Their thirst for enlightenment and more complexity in their live helps to build their spirits so that they may become unique individuals.  Living in the global community continues to develop Shayla’s charisma, style, and potential for a bright future.

Works Cited

Kelly, Marjorie. “Clothes, culture, and context: female dress in Kuwait.” Fashion Theory 14.2 (2010): 215+. Academic OneFile. Web. 24 Apr. 2015

Tomer, Jessica. “Going And Staying! Abroad.” Collegexpress Magazine (2013): 10. MasterFILE. Premier. Web. 28 Apr. 2015

Tetreault, Mary Ann. “Patterns Of Culture And Decocratization In Kuwait.” Studies In Comparative International Development 30.2 (1995): Business Source Premier. Web. 4 May 2015.


Shayla:  My name is Shay I’ve been here for almost three years.

Karen Guinn:  How is it in your country?

Shayla:  It’s uh completely different.  Like we uh…the learning experience is completely     different.  It’s like over there um it’s kinda a little bit hard for us because they are so strict about everything.  They don’t give you a second chance.  You only have one chance.  Like for example let’s say if you did like really bad on your test.  That’s it.  No extra credit.  No help.  There are some professors that will give you a chance but it’s like rare.  It’s very rare.  Umm

Karen:  So you’re like allowed to go to school?  There’s no restrictions?

Shayla:  Yeah, I go to school.  I graduated from high school on 2003.  And then I went to study aboard uh I went to London, I went to Egypt for three years.  Uh I had to go back to my country because of the revolution.  The Egyptian revolution.  Yeah, I was planning to come to the states since I was seventeen, actually but I didn’t have a chance.  My father was totally against that.  Uh, but I made it uh the age of twenty five.

Karen:  Can I ask you how old you are?

Shayla:  I’m 29.

Karen:  Oh, you’re my daughter’s age!

Shayla:  So, yaeh it’s a different experience.  Oh! I like it here to be honest it’s. . .  life is much        easier here than over there.

Shay:  Yep!

Karen:  So you decided at 17 you wanted to come here?  So how was it?  Was it easy to like. . . your paperwork?

Shayla:  Not that easy because they were asking a lot of stuff like bank statements and stuff like    that at that time.  I had money but I didn’t have like a bank like a statement that show I have all the money right now.  You know what I mean?

Karen:  So what’s the money for?

Shayla:  Uh tuition, like rent, they money to come here to be a student here.

Karen: Oh.

Shayla:  Like a plan to have the money to be a student here.  It was not that east at first, but after I got accepted it was nothing.  Everything was like easy and fine actually yeh!

Karen:  When you got here?  What was your impression? How was it when you got here?

Shayla:  Ok, when I came here it was my first day here.  So in the states you know.  So, I always had that idea about America.  Before I came here, how it was, beautiful and I was like in my head, I’m gonna go to America!  I’m gonna see a lots of Americans and stuff like that.  When I came here I was like so chugged because it’s so diverse here.  People from different countries live in the same city.  Amazing because you can just come here and learn about other cultures and everything.  You don’t have to go travel the world.  So it is fun, it was actually fun.  That’s the thing, another thing I was kinda scared about the hills in San Francisco.  And then I was walking the other day down the hill and then I was like am I going to fall?  How do people walk like this.  So my country was like super flat, flat, flat, flat.  So when I came here I was scared I heard a lot of things about earthquakes and stuff like that.  I was scared the first year.  I was so scared.  I was like I don’t wanna stay here and you know during an earthquake.

Me:  Have you experienced any earthquake!

Shayla:  Yeah, but it was nothing.  Not here in the states.   I felt it, but in Kuwait I felt it.  The earthquake happened in Dubai and Iran but we felt it in Kuwait.  Because they are so close together.  Like California and Nevada let’s say something like that.  So I would say the weather actually.  I was confused about the weather.  Like one day I would wear everything in my closet and then in two hours, I would have to take off my clothes and stuff.  One hour it would be super-cold then the next hour it would be super-hot.  Am I going to like this weather?  I’m going to live here at least 4 or 5 years, I don’t know what’s gonna happen.  Then later, like last summer I went back to Kuwait, and I couldn’t handle the heat.  I was like I kinda like San Francisco weather. (laughs)  Even though I used to complain a lot about the weather here.  I feel in love with the city, the people, the weather, everything.  Actually the weather has a major role in me succeeding in my life.  The weather plays a big role in my life, not just mine but everybody’s, I am a much happier person here, I would say.

Me:  So what are your plans? Are you going back home?

Shayla:  No, I want experience here like a year or two, then I might go somewhere else.  Dubai or something like that.

Me:  What about your family?  Is your family all still in Kuwait?

Shayla:  Yes, they all live in Kuwait, two of my sisters are outside actually.  One is in London, and the other in Aberdeen, Scotland.  I tried to go and study over there but it was too much for me.  It’s just when you live somewhere where everybody’s nice you just wanna stay there.  When I went to London it was like everybody was like…people are not like here.  So, I couldn’t live there it was so boring.  It was not easy to make friends, but here people just want to make friends.  That’s why I love San Francisco.  I’ve been to Sacramento and it’s super-hot over there.

Me:  No boyfriend?

Shayla:  No!  Just study!  A couple years ago I just stopped being interested in education for I don’t know how many years, and then at 26 like 2011, I decided fun time was over.  I need to finish my education.  I need to focus and finish my degree.

Me:  Is English your first language?

Shayla:  We have to study English it’s not optional in school back home.  I practice my language with my friends, because when I was hanging out we had a lot of American people.  People who were in the army.  So I used to hand out a lot with them, and I came here I hung out with Native Americans, English speakers.  That’s what helped me understand.  I was good at understanding, but I didn’t speak very well.

Me:  What are you studying?  What kinda work do you want to do?

Shayla:  At first, I was interested in hotel management, but at the same time I realized, it’s not for me.  I’m a real sensitive person and this job requires a lot of people interaction.  I’m not good at that.  But, living here I realized I’m always passionate about dogs.  About animal control.  Here in this state people take care of animals a lot.  In Kuwait they are just not doing that.  So, I want to bring my experience back.  Now they just started that, someone already started that and I was like NO!  I wanted to do that!  So now that like taking care of that.  At first I was like I don’t wanna major in something that in the future I can’t get a good job back home.  So I didn’t want to get into something that I can’t get a good job.  Maybe now there’s a possibility I can start back n Kuwait and help people with dogs, but I wanted to get experience here or in another country first, and then maybe go back home.

Me:  What do you do in your free time?

Shayla:  I used to go out a lot with my friends, but I don’t do that anymore.  Even though I’m kinda interested in video games.  Well I’m just gonna play this stupid game, they don’t have video games in Kuwait.  Now after two years it’s kinda helped me, they way my brain works and the way I think.  Let’s say I play a game that I’m adding numbers, using numbers, memorization those type of things, now I’m better because of video games.  So, I thought about it even if people are arguing about it and getting in fights about it, I’m gonna take the best from it and learn.  I’m like, now I can go out or I can play video games and stay with my dog, and that’s what I do I stay inside my home actually instead of going out.  I just wanna stay home and stay with my dog, I never want to leave my dog.  I like that.

Me:  So where do you live?

Shayla:  Daly City, it’s foggy all the time, so it’s gotten normal.

Me:  So do you take public transportation?

Shayla:  Public transportation is terrible, OMG.  It was bad, I just got a car, but the thing about being late and late to my class even though I left in time.  You don’t know what’s gonna happen, the bus might stop and someone might have a problem with the bus driver and it’s always crowded.

Me:  How is it compared to Kuwait’s public transportation?

Shayla:  You have a car, you mostly have a car because you can’t walk in Kuwait.  It’s impossible to walk around.  Only immigrants use public transportation there.  Citizens never use public transportation.  Let’s say the government take care of the people so you don’t have to use public transportation.

Me:  How does the government take care of you?

Shayla:  Let’s say for example you are a man and you get married.  The government is gonna take help you support your wife and your family.  They give you money every month to take care of your family.  Money to build your house, but you have to pay them back.  So let’s say you need a car the government well not the government.  The government work with the bank even if you have bad credit they will fix it for you.

Me:  What if you don’t pay them back?  Do you go to jail?

Shayla:  If you don’t pay them back they’ll sue you they give you like 1,2,3,4,5 chances then you’re gonna go to jail.  They will give you like a year to come up with the money.

Me:  Anything else you wann talk about that’s different?

Shayla:  Just the learning experience.  So, I wanna support my mother.  It’s a cultural thing, my Mom takes care of all of us and there is four of us.  My job is to get my degree and take care of her.  Because she’s spending money and taking care of me, and now it’s my job, that’s how it works.  So it’s my turn.  I also wanna say being independent, for the first time now it’s a good experience, but I still wanna raise my kids the way my mother raised me.  I want them to make their decision and even if they want to be independent, I’m going to still support them.

Me:  What does your mother do?

Shayla:  My mother used to be a manager of hotels.  She used to be working at a couple of hotels, then she started her own company.  Just a small company, she made herself.  Mostly, I get help from the government, not from her.

Me:  Did your parents separate?  Or where is your Dad?

Shayla:  No, my Dad passed away when I was seventeen about twelve years ago?

Me:  Oh I’m sorry!

Shayla:  So after that my Mom is amazing, so now my goal is to help her.  I wanna help her.  I still feel this is not enough for my mother.  She’s done a lot for me.  She’s so amazing, and she never asks anything in return.  I love my mother!

Me: Aww, so it’s unconditional love?

Shayla:  Yes, I wish a lot of people see that here.  It’s just a really different experience here.  The girls that I know here, they don’t have the same thing.  I always ask why.  We have a belief that is I take care of my mother, life will take care of me.  If I’m going to be happy my mother should be happy.  Everything is about my mother.  The only thing I’m sad about, if I’m here and she’s there.  She completely understands me, I don’t feel like I fit in there, and even though I’m attached to my culture.  I just do it in a modern way.  I don’t know how to explain that.  People ask me if I’m muslin, I say yes.  They say you don’t look muslin.  Then I say ok.  It’s just like we act the way we like to act.  I do what I want to do and this is what I’m doing.  My relationship is between me and Ala!  People were like making fun, and I was like they see stuff from the media and think things.  I meet a lot of people who are educated, they know a lot of things about the world and people have different opinions.  So racism in the United States is big, we don’t have that back home.  Even though we have racism, it’s more about class.  So either you have money, and some people don’t have money.  That’s it color or where you’re from no, NO!  I’m a really honest person, so I want you to tell me about it.  Instead of behind my back, because I’m gonna know who you are!  So even if a person has something against me, I would rather be friends, just make friends of your enemies.  I believe people are good.  So when you have good and bad, good always wins.

Me:  So how was your trip here?

Shayla:  It was hard at first, it can be easier.  Now I love it, I’ve been living here three years now I can’t imagine going back and living there the rest of my life.  I’m kind of used to it here, people don’t get in your business.  There it’s like a cultural thing.  People do get in your business, let’s say I’m wearing shorts.  They’re gonna be like “She’s wearing short!” I just cut my hair recently and they started calling me Tomboy!  I hate it!  Don’t give me names!  Here they are like respect it.  They leave you alone.  There they say something to you because it’s a muslin country.  At the same time it’s democratic, and I don’t think that works.  It’s weird, so that’s why most of the time I don’t care.