Neighbors or Enemies? > Living with Hate


Mai Kakish

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Executive Committee, AFSC–Great Lakes Region

After two years I realized there were many Arab families around here [in the Chicago suburbs], but they don’t know each other.  We have no meeting place, no place for community activities. The center of the Arab community is on the South Side, that’s where most things happen.

I’ve stayed connected through AFSC and North Park University. My Iraqi neighbor has no idea where to look for help.

On 9/11 we were devastated. We were glued to the television. My husband is Jordanian, I grew up Palestinian. We knew the blame would be shifted to us, not by our neighbors but by the media. If we said anything about who we were when we went out, I knew we would be targeted.

I was so sorry for people when it happened, it was so terrible. I only hoped I wouldn’t be blamed. When I found out none of the hijackers were Palestinian, a stone was lifted from my heart.

My neighbor knows I’m Palestinian but we don’t talk about the war or the occupation. I don’t want to open the subject because I don’t want to disturb our peace as neighbors. When I was a student I was more aggressive, I wouldn’t be silent. But I don’t live just as an individual any more. I have a family, and I have to look out for them. After 9/11 it feels risky.

We had a bumper sticker on our car about the children of Iraq. We would be honked at, people would give us the finger. After 9/11 we removed it, we didn’t want the risk.

On the South Side, there is a concentrated Arab area, with stores on Kedzie. Out here we don’t have a visible presence.

To be Christian and Palestinian is doubly hard. To Jews, we’re Palestinian. To Muslims, we’re Christian. We see the issue as political, not religious. The tensions are not religious. Only when I came to the US did I begin to see things that way.

All my life here in the US I am explaining myself, who I am, where I come from. I get tired and want to lead a normal life, not constantly fighting to say who I am. Wherever I go I have to explain myself.

When I was single, I lived in Chicago and I was more involved in Arab community. I had a mission to educate people in the American community. At North Park University, where I went to school, I was president of the Middle East Association. Since I graduated I’ve been less involved. I have so little time, with my studies, my family – what time I have goes into peace work.

I came here looking for opportunities I wouldn’t have overseas. I wanted to raise a family, finish my education. Ultimately I want to go back and make a contribution – right now I want to take advantage of the opportunity to have an education.

I want my daughter to be raised in a culture where she is respected for who she is, not to have to keep explaining what a Palestinian is, that there are Christians in Palestine. Among Arabs, the first question is, where are you from? People never ask about your religion.

With other Arabs out here in the suburbs, people are reluctant to open up, to talk about politics. I don’t know if people are afraid, if they will eventually open up. I never noticed it before September 11. Politics was always the common currency of conversation, because we’ve all been through wars, and so on.

There are two categories of Palestinians . People who grew up here will love and defend Palestine, but in reality they would not go back – although their parents would want to go back. Then there are people who came here to study, who have families there and deep connections – they are more oriented to going back.

For ’48 refugees, it’s too painful to think about going back. It’s easier to live in this country.

Before I came to America I thought, I’m going to the land of the free, where I can express my opinion. After 9/11 I’m back to where I was, talking with our own little circle, afraid to speak out publicly because people put you in a framework and think you are someone you are not.

I’m always explaining myself, always on the defensive. One classmate —  I think she wanted to put our relationship at ease — said to me, “we’re always taught to see Palestinians as bombers, but you don’t seem like that. No one would bomb without a strong reason. Why would people do that?” But she declined to discuss the war on Iraq. Her feeling was, “my opinion doesn’t count”; she was afraid to talk politics.

Friends of ours had to leave after 9/11. They are in limbo now, in Canada. He is Syrian, and his wife is Palestinian. They have a little daughter. He can’t live in Israel and she can’t live in Syria. He worked for Fed Ex at the airport. After 9/11 he went to work – he’d been in the country for 20 years. His ID was invalidated and he was told “you can’t work here any more.”

For 20 years, they had built a life for themselves in the US — now everything was lost. He had a good future at FedEx. Now they don’t know if they will be able to live together as a family.

My husband works for a computer company. His company stopped shipments to anyone with Arabic names, so that the company could verify who the person was the shipment was addressed to.

It is hard to live this way – first as a Palestinian living under occupation, then the intifada, then the first Gulf War, the second intifada, 9/11, and now the second Gulf War.

We need a public voice for the Arab community. I send e-mails to the media all the time, but they are almost never published.  I write letters and make phone calls, to speak up against attacks on Arabs, on mosques. We’ve tried that route, but we’ve been ignored.