Despite “talking like a white girl,” Heba Shiban ’21 was originally born in Latakia—a port city in Syria that she calls “the most beautiful place on earth.” And no,in answer to your next question, she is neither a refugee nor a Muslim.
Shortly after her second birthday, Shiban moved with her parents and older sister to Qatar. And shortly after that, with the help of an uncle who was already living in the U.S. at the time, Shiban’s family moved to Chandler, Ariz. on her father’s work visa, where she has since been living for 12 years.
“I remember not really understanding that we were moving permanently and having a … panic attack once we switched airplanes and having the language around me start changing from Arabic to English so quickly and so soon,” Shiban said. “I remember being so overwhelmed, and my mom calming me down and telling me that I will learn English really quickly, but it was so foreign to me.”
While she was in elementary school, Shiban’s parents took preparatory classes for the citizenship test at their local public library. After five years of living in the U.S., her parents took the test and passed, and she and her sister automatically received their paperwork. Shiban was ecstatic over becoming a citizen and, in particular, changing the spelling of her name so it would “make sense” in English.
“I remember telling all my teachers, raising my hand in the middle of class and saying, ‘My name is going to change. I’m a citizen now,’” Shiban said, laughing. “My friend said I was embarrassing myself, but I was just so excited to be a citizen. And I didn’t even realize I wasn’t a citizen before.”
It was 2011. Shiban was in seventh grade. The civil war in Syria had just begun.
Despite her jubilation over becoming an American citizen, immigration did not come without its challenges. Shiban has battled misconceptions about the Middle East from the moment she arrived in the U.S.
“On the escalator in the airport when we first came to America, a lady looked at my sister and said, ‘Is this the first time you’ve seen an escalator?’” Shiban explained. “And I’m like, ‘We have five-story malls that have an ice rink in the middle right next to the most beautiful shore on the Gulf.’”
Beyond these harmful stereotypes and gross generalizations, Shiban faced unique challenges as an immigrant from Syria. She grew up alongside Indian and Southeast Asian peers who had a home to visit in the summer with family there to greet them.
“Instead of hearing awesome stories about my hometown,” Shiban said, “I would hear stories of people I know dying, being bombed, shot down, being stabbed.”
Despite learning English in only three short months, Shiban struggled with cultural barriers and not “feeling” American—difficulties that continue well over a decade since her arrival.
“When I was younger, I correlated white Christianity with being American, and I remember saying to my mom when I was little, ‘When I’m older, I want to be a Christian’ and in reality, that meant, ‘When I’m older, I want to be white and American.’”
Shiban said her previous longing to be “white and American” has dissipated with age, and she is now deeply appreciative of her Middle Eastern culture and identity. Unfortunately, her sense of isolation has persisted; her quest for belonging has yet to be resolved.
“I’m in a minority, not just as a person of color, but because I literally don’t get to meet other Arabs,” Shiban said. “And when I do … for example, in middle school, this Muslim girl told me I wasn’t a real Arab because I wasn’t Muslim. I’ve always felt this distance—like I’ve never really found my people. And I feel like my feeling, that isolated feeling that I always have in the back of my mind, has probably contributed to that [cultural] barrier that I’ve always had.”
Like many first-year students, Shiban had high hopes for college—academically yes, but more importantly, socially. “Coming to college, I thought that I would be surrounded by Arab people, and I had this image in my head of … going around talking in Arabic with each other, trash-talking people behind their backs,” Shiban said.
However, CC was a disappointment in this regard. “You want to use college as a mode of finding yourself, and at CC, it’s so hard because it’s so predominantly white.”
Shiban has also continued battling both micro- and macro-level aggressions about her identity at CC. She said people often try to guess where she’s from and that 98 percent of the time, they guess India or Mexico. Shiban also said people frequently ask her if she eats pork—a sly way of asking if she’s a practicing Muslim. On a macro-level, Shiban said she is constantly contesting broad misconceptions about the Middle East. The primary culprit of this miseducation? The media.
“When you think of the Middle East, what do you see? A bunch of women in burkas and hijabs being oppressed, a bunch of people mindlessly praying five times a day,” Shiban said. “The American media specifically portrays the Middle East as full of oppressed beings. The other day, we had Hijab Day, and on Twitter, there was a USC page, and some girl was like, ‘Why are we encouraging the oppression of women?’ Well, it’s not her fault that she thinks that. She just opened Fox for too long.”
This summer, Shiban is going home to Syria for the first time since she was a baby, and she is beyond excited to be surrounded by her family once again—thousands of miles away from pervasive misconceptions and stereotypes about the Middle East.
“I’m so proud to be Syrian,” Shiban said, smiling. While she openly recognized that her home country is far from perfect, she adamantly maintains that it has so much “room to grow.” And she hopes eventually, others will begin to see Syria in this light too.