I walked to U.S. Customs in Chicago with my Jordanian passport clutched in my hand and my backpack over my shoulder. The man at the Customs window was dressed in a sophisticated black suit with badges all over his top pocket and a .45 caliber pistol. When I handed him my passport, he began questioning me as if I were from another planet.
The first question made me feel unwelcome: “Why are you coming here?” Can’t I visit other countries? In Jordan they would say, “Welcome to Jordan.” He continued questioning me, almost to the point where I wanted to catch a return flight home. After a long conversation, he wrote a code on my Customs paper.
As I walked away, I felt relieved. However, after my third step, a security guard with a night stick and a gun approached me and asked for my passport. From this moment on, I knew I would be treated differently from other arrivals. He read my code and ordered me to follow him. Everyone else seemed to be having a great time, talking and laughing. However, when they glanced at me they would get a funny look.
The security officers led me to an office where they emptied my bags, and, as before, questioned me about everything. They asked why I had nail clippers. I wondered if it was a joke. Why does anyone have nail clippers? But since I am from Jordan maybe he thought we had other uses for them. I gave the only answer that made sense: “To cut my nails.” Finally after a long time, I was released.
At last I saw the Culver sign and headed toward it. I boarded the bus and thought about home and how I was going to face big differences in culture and habits. I felt excited to come here, but realizing I would have to struggle made me less eager.
I worried that the airport would be an indicator of my entire experience. The Customs and security personnel treated me like a terrorist, as if I was the reason for their sons and daughters dying in Iraq or in the Twin Towers.
Although I grew up thousands of miles from New York City, after September 11th, my life changed. My brother told me that America no longer trusted Middle Easterners. The Middle East was in a state of chaos, hatred, and tyranny. Even though Jordan was the calmest country in the area, Jordanians were becoming frustrated with what was happening in their region. This is when events started to reel out of control. Numerous terrorist acts harmed the reputation of the country and the region.
As a Catholic in a predominantly Islamic state, I am familiar with Muslim beliefs. True Muslims do not believe in terrorism; in fact, they oppose it. Just because some terrorists are Muslims does not mean the majority supports this, yet anyone who is a Muslim is likely to be labeled a terrorist. As my father used to say, “Do not judge people by their looks – judge them by their actions.”
Coming to the U.S. for my high school education has been an experience of a lifetime, and although I struggled at first with some students calling me a terrorist, I stood up for myself and explained the nature of the conflict. Since most of my peers were not familiar with what was going on, I do not blame them.
Now, I feel I am a mature person, and I like to put myself in the position of a judge presiding over a trial between the U.S. and the Middle East. I have a clear advantage in this case because I have learned the beliefs of both cultures and would be able to resolve the conflict fairly. If more people from the Middle East were able to take the risk and do what I have done by coming to the U.S. to study, these issues would be much closer to resolution.