Salma Echahly is a member of the 2018-19 MALA Young Leaders Fellowship. Fellows participate in monthly digital seminars, dinner discussions, and other MALA events. As part of the program, Fellows reflect on their multiple layers of identities – as daughters, sons, professionals, athletes, and so much more – and share those reflections into the MALA story collection. Personal stories can be a powerful catalyst for change – challenging stereotypes, building bridges, and inspiring action. In a country as diverse and complex as the United States, the identities of Muslim Americans remain layered and contested. We all have stories to tell: stories that deserve to be collected, conserved, and celebrated. We are honored to share the stories of our Fellows here.
Throughout college, I often chose to define myself in opposition to where I was from and who raised me.
I was not my parents, I was not my friends, and I did not share the same social, political and religious values as everyone else. I was in the U.S. to escape the misogynist country that I was born into. I was growing to be an ultra-liberal feminist, and that was surely the opposite of where I was from.
But through all these oppositions, I was missing crucial parts of what made me who I was. As I got older, I realized it was unproductive to think of myself as ‘other,’ because there was no way that others didn’t share the same experiences and pains I had shared. I fully came to this conclusion when it was time to tell my parents about my significant other. To me, they would never understand my situation and choice to be with someone who was not Moroccan and not Muslim. But, to my surprise, they were open, happy and willing to listen to my experiences and support my choices. I was the one who was shutting down my past and judging my predecessors. I was the one who lacked the ability to open up to those I believed were my oppressors.
I was raised by incredibly loving, smart, and nurturing parents who valued education despite not having a high school degree. My parents worked hard and instilled that work ethic in me. I am who I am because of where I grew up. My parents had always allowed me to challenge myself and pursue my dreams, but I was too angry as a teenager to clearly see that. The country I was born into taught me to value family and the struggles from my past have made me a more resilient person.
Today I no longer cringe whenever someone asks me what it was like to grow up in Morocco. My identity is a melting pot of a childhood in Morocco, seven years in New York City, an undergraduate experience at the most liberal school in the U.S., and a diverse community of people from all the around the country and world.
One of the most painful days in my early adult life was getting kicked out of the U.S. after having spent five and a half years in a country I learned to call home.
I was unfortunately not selected for the H1B lottery, and had to leave my friends, job, and partner behind. My relationship with freedom in the U.S. has always been complicated. On one hand, I have never felt freer to be who I want to be without judgment. On the other hand, my status as an F1 student meant that I did not have the same job opportunities as everyone else, and that I had to fight to navigate this “free” and open society.
But, despite my challenges, I have always been confident that if I fought hard enough, I could still pursue a life in this country. More importantly, I had so many people fighting by my side, for my right to be in this country and work in this country. I came back because my network in the U.S. mobilized and raised enough money to put me through the first year of graduate school.
Through this incredible support, America has taught me that freedom means fighting not just for what is right for me, but what is right for the broader society. Freedom is the ability to give a voice to those that cannot be heard and challenge the very institutions that threaten those freedoms.