I am Palestinian. This statement in itself is one with which I have a lot of conflict. Over time, I have learned to become a bit more comfortable saying it out loud, but I still feel a strange uneasiness every time someone asks me where I am from, as if I am voicing a guilty confession, a deep dark secret that I can tell only to those I trust. It is an uneasiness born of seeing sympathetic looks and flashes of discomfort at the name “Palestine,” uneasiness that turns my identity into a political statement, uneasiness that the Israel-Palestine conflict defines my entire culture.
For all these reasons, I didn’t start calling myself Palestinian until about four years ago. Before, I would explain that my family is from Jerusalem — an ambiguous middle ground — or Middle Eastern, to avoid the taboo of my identity. Slowly, the Palestinian side of me became a kind of secret identity that only my family knew.
In school, I didn’t talk about ethnicity to avoid becoming defined by the conflict. I don’t blame my friends for their responses — many of them have only learned about Palestine or the Middle East in a single, political context.
At my school, I was one of two students of Middle Eastern descent, and the only Palestinian I knew apart from my family. There was no one I could talk to about the food, music and traditions of Palestine besides my father. I rarely got the chance to see relatives and learn from them, in part because they lived so far away. Anything I learned about the thousands of colorful facets that composed Palestinian or Middle Eastern culture was knowledge I stumbled upon miraculously, almost by accident. I treasured that knowledge, like a prized possession. Each newly discovered piece of my heritage felt foreign yet familiar, bringing me a little closer to the family that lived a world away. At Yale, I sought out more knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and met another Palestinian students for the first time. Over time, I met more and more people who shared my experience — it finally felt as if I had found a place to belong, a place where people knew that culture was more than conflict.
Community with other Middle Eastern students on campus has helped me become more comfortable with my identity, and for that, I am endlessly grateful. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to accept myself as I do now. All of this is thanks to the community I found, a community that I had a hard time finding.
My story is not unique in this aspect. While there are students who grow up surrounded by knowledge of their heritage, and students who share that heritage, there are also students like me who grew up on a cultural island, isolated from people of their culture and starved for knowledge of their heritage. No matter who we are or where we come from, we all crave the opportunity to experience our culture in community with others, to feel like we have a place that claims us as theirs. Having a chance to embrace your culture on campus is the final puzzle piece that turns a university from a school into a home.
I believe that no one deserves to have a difficult time seeking out cultural community, especially when they have been deprived of it. For this reason, I am helping the Middle East-North Africa initiative, known by its acronym MENA, to create a new cultural house here at Yale. Unlike the rest of the United States, Yale has an opportunity to recognize students of Middle Eastern and North African descent as more than just a subcategory to Caucasian or White, and acknowledge that people from this geographical region have the right to celebrate their culture and take pride in their heritage.
While working on this initiative, I have had the opportunity to discover more about the Middle Eastern experience on campus. Conversations with students, leaders, faculty and the Yale College Council have left me amazed by the amount of support I have seen for this cultural center. People from every corner of campus have been willing to extend a hand, offering advice on how to navigate the making of a cultural house. The MENA initiative has also been working closely with the Yale College Council, in the hopes that the administration will commit to this cause without need for protest. Thus far, the administration’s response has given me hope, hope that I will see a Middle Eastern and North African Cultural House in my time here at Yale. I dream of a house where Middle Eastern and North African students are not afraid to take pride in their heritage, where they can celebrate their cultures and stories beyond politics and conflict.
I am Palestinian. My grandparents were born in the old city of Jerusalem, forced to flee as a result of the creation of Israel and the conflicts that followed. Years later, my father came to America to further his education. Throughout it all, my family continues to take pride in their heritage and their country — slowly, I am learning to as well.
Yasmin Alamdeen is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .