Updated: Feb 24, 2021
I was raised in a small city in Central Florida with very little diversity and almost no exposure to people of various cultures or beliefs. So what’s the story behind my decision to pack up my belongings into 6 suitcases and move abroad with two small children and little idea of what to expect?
After my conversion to Islam in 2007 (full story here), I eagerly became involved in my local Muslim community and began making friends from all over the globe. I was intrigued by their various cultural beliefs and practices, and even more so by the amazing cuisine they’d prepare during our Holy month of Ramadan. Growing up, I always knew there was so much more to the world than what I could even imagine, and now I was finally able to explore it through the friendships I was forming with others from every corner of the world.
For most of my 20's, my traveling was limited to the US. My (now ex) husband and I took a two- to three-week vacation at least once a year, even after becoming parents, exploring at least a dozen different states. I traveled frequently with my young children, often making the 8-hour drive to Florida to visit my family and eagerly scoping out places in Central Florida to explore. My international trips were limited to visiting my (now ex) husband’s family in Damascus, Syria every year until the start of the war.
After becoming a mother, one of the most important things I wanted to provide my children was the opportunity to not only explore the beautiful diversity in the world, but to afford them the opportunity to immerse themselves in it and adopt the positive aspects of various cultures while observing and learning from the negative ones. There were numerous things within my own culture in America that I wanted them to adopt, but there were aspects of it I wanted to protect them from as well. Similarly, there were aspects of other cultures that I truly admired, and others I did not.
Having made so many friends of Arab decent, I appreciated the importance they placed on family ties and socializing, for example, which was often undervalued in American culture. I also noticed how respectful the children of my Arab and Pakistani friend often were to their teachers and parents, which became even more enticing after my son began kindergarten and brought home shocking words and habits from his classmates at school. Suffice it to say, my observations are definitely limited and certainly don’t reflect the values or behaviors of all people of a certain race or nationality.
I had also grown tired of constantly feeling ostracized after moving to a city with a small Muslim community and few covered Muslim women like myself. More concerning than this was the fact that my oldest son was approaching school age and was also becoming increasingly aware of how “different” he was, being from an interracial Muslim family. And though I am confident that my children will eventually embrace their identities whole-heartedly, I constantly worried about how this may affect my children in their early years when children are so naturally driven to fit in. I wanted to provide my children a sense of belonging, where they could feel just as comfortable being Muslim as they feel being American.
This was made even more difficult by the fact that I was the only Muslim in my family, and their father was the only practicing Muslim in his family. Yes, I was determined to explore and embrace the diversity that surrounded me, but not at the expense of watering down my own beliefs and identity. The lack of support and community that my children were being raised in was of fair concern. For years, I tried my best to make our celebrations in Islam as memorable as possible, but they seemed to always pale in comparison to those that we only took a limited part in, like Christmas and Halloween. I feared my children would grow up resenting Islam, feeling as though it prevented them from fitting in and “being normal,” which isn’t as much a concern for those living in a sizeable, active Muslim community.
I was also adamant about them learning the Arabic language, the mother tongue of their father and the language of our Holy Quran, and knew that the chances of them becoming fluent in a second language while immersed in an English-speaking environment was slim to none, even with their father speaking Arabic with them at home. Although not impossible, I was the perfect example of how difficult it was to learn a language without being immersed in it daily. Before I became a mother, I spent years learning Arabic, but could hardly make it through a greeting. Yet, after just a few months of living abroad, I began speaking enough to get by.
Another driving force behind my decision to raise my children abroad was the desire to expose them to the reality of life outside of the bubble we inadvertently lived in. God blessed us with a nice home in a gorgeous subdivision, and I often toted them around in my mini-van to their private preschool and extracurricular activities like music class and karate. Yet, I was also a passionate activist and volunteer, and often had them join me during my volunteering and interfaith events. We also talked about the plight of people around the globe, and ways we may be able to help them. However, I wanted more for them than this limited exposure from the comfort of our home. Although they were young, I wanted them to truly grasp the wildly different levels of comfort and privilege experienced by people around the world, and felt that life in a third-world or developing country would provide that.
There is no perfect way to raise children, and you can undoubtedly raise amazing children of any faith or ethnicity in America. Yet, for me, personally, I felt called to explore life abroad, and knew that if I didn’t take the plunge, I would likely always wonder what if I had.
So, how have things worked out for us in the three years we’ve lived outside of the US? Has it been everything we dreamed, a total and utter nightmare, or something in between? Find out soon in the second part of this blog post, coming soon!