Reem Odeh: Learning to Embrace Dual Identities

Reem Odeh is a lawyer and an advocate for the Arab American community. While life hasn’t always been easy for Reem, both her Palestinian and American identities have shaped her, changed her and given her a unique opportunity to serve her children and clients. 

 

In my family, it was my maternal great-grandfather who first took the journey from Palestine to America.

After arriving at Ellis Island New York, he continued on to Maryland. I was born in America, and many years after my great-grandfather came to this country, I would make the reverse journey, traveling from America back to Palestine to visit my ancestors’ homeland for the first time.

I was four years old the summer we flew Air France to my grandparents’ village home in al-Bireh. I cried nonstop, greatly distressing the two elderly relatives who had been entrusted with my care. I was sad because I had never been away from my parents, and I was scared of going to a strange and unfamiliar land.

My ride from the airport to the village was unforgettable. We passed beautiful mountains and trees that were juxtaposed against trucks full of soldiers pointing machine guns at us. I had never experienced driving through checkpoints or being stopped randomly by soldiers who inspected vehicles and bags.

By the time I had acclimated to this new land and its people, we were preparing to board the return flight home. I never realized how different I was from my American peers until I returned from al-Bireh and started kindergarten. I was in elementary and secondary school when gaps between my Islamic teachings and my American cultural learnings became more apparent. Despite succeeding academically and even skipping a grade, I felt uncertain about my place at school and in the larger society. These feelings both concerned and confused me.

I felt like a child being forced to pick between two divorced parents. Growing up as a Muslim girl in America forced me to choose between two lifestyles and identities that both seemed natural to me. While I was taught in Islamic school that I could practice my faith anywhere, the American culture surrounding me gave me the impression that my religion didn’t have a place in it.

Many aspects of my home life did not reconcile with the cultural norms practiced by my classmates. For instance, I was forbidden to attend a birthday party at another girl’s home because of fears that she may have male family members who would pose a threat to me. Mixing with the opposite sex was culturally unacceptable to my parents, so co-ed events like high school football games, homecoming dances, long overnight trips and parties were off-limits — and dating was out of the question.

Despite not participating in some aspects of American culture, I experienced unexpected opportunities because of my Muslim Arab identity. Kids in my classes asked me questions about Islam, and in return I asked questions about Christianity and Hinduism. In this way, we learned from one another, and I helped counteract many of their cultural prejudices.

When we studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in my high school social studies class, I realized many of my fellow Americans perceive the conflict of extremist groups disrupting the peace of a democratic rival. I was compelled to share a different perspective with my classmates, and I summoned my childhood experiences in the West Bank to paint a picture of what life is like for the Palestinians there. I talked about attending Friday prayers at the Dome of the Rock and traveling to Bethlehem to visit the Church of Nativity. I described my extended family in al-Bireh whose hospitality and love continues to envelop me, even as we are thousands of miles apart.

My father often said he did not want his children to be like “…those Americans who don’t even know where they’re from.” I know he is grateful that my frequent trips to Palestine have helped me retain my culture. Yet I also know he would prefer that I hadn’t seen firsthand many of the hardships our family has endured.

Although I was taught to look beyond the war-torn society, my trips exposed me to the painful realities of war. Yet the peace and tranquility of my parents’ village taught me that war was only was aspect of Palestinian life. Those childhood visits to al-Bireh humanized the subjects of my social studies class, giving me a deeper understanding of Muslims outside the U.S.

During my visits to al-Bireh, I came to realize the Muslim world painted America as a country that was free and beautiful but lacked morals, while many of my fellow Americans perceived Islam as an antiquated, backwards religion full of conservatives and extremists. My firsthand knowledge and unique background enabled me to show my classmates a different side of the story.

At age 13, I was just starting to see myself as a whole person, just beginning to make sense of the culture and society in which I existed. Like my education, my life began skipping ahead, too. My identity split back into dualities as I experienced an entirely new form of societal isolation.

Soon after my 14th birthday, I got married.

I was a married 15-year-old high school student, and despite my intellectual maturity, it was obvious I had skipped more than just a grade this time. While I was convinced I was doing the right thing, I felt a constant disconnect between my body and my mind. Being a cheerleader, attending homecoming dances, listening to rock music and reading Young Miss Magazine seemed like natural choices at that age.

Three years later, while other girls were planning to go away to college, I was caring for my newborn son. Soon after his birth, my identity changed again: I became a divorced teenage mom.

As a single mother in the Muslim community, I began to realize my burdens. My divorce left me stigmatized and isolated within my own culture. It was during these years that my inner turmoil was the greatest. The community scorned me, and ultimately, my highly cherished honor had not been protected. I began to believe the modern Muslim male was infatuated with purity and virginity. Others viewed me as a lost soul and “used goods.” I had allowed Old World customs to harm my well-being. Yet I knew Islam’s teachings taught that women should be treated better.

I remembered my parents’ loving relationship. My father is a hard-working husband and father, and he never once abused my strong and independent mother. I had grown up during a time that saw women taking advantage of the previous generation’s liberation movement. My American upbringing had taught me that education would empower women to gain equality with men. I was told that I could not go to college. But I did. And then I was told that I could not go to law school. But I did that, too. I am thankful for my family’s support as I struggled through a second divorce and, later law school. My Islamic side guided me through rough times, and my American side gave me power I never imagined.

The proudest moments of my life trace back to my children. I have raised them with a strong sense of identity including cultural traditions from Palestine. We will continue to carry on the history of traditions that trace back centuries no matter wherever we are. I have taught my children to speak and write the Arabic language, practice our religious rituals, cook Arabic foods and have taken my children to travel to our home country. I have continued to raise my children to use the means of education and history to open minds beyond what most hear from political and propagandized opinions.

As I have matured, these two identities have solidly fused together, and I’m no longer choosing sides, no longer feeling isolated. The sense of duality is still present to me, but as a practicing lawyer, I now fight for the right of Muslims across the U.S., fueled by the confidence gained through my American education. On any given day, my office receives hundreds of phone calls and emails from people all over the globe who are seeking protection, help, and relief from persecution they have suffered at the hands of corrupt governments or abusive individuals. Our clients come to us to transfer their burdens onto our shoulders. For many of them, we are the first people to whom they tell their deepest, darkest stories of pain and loss.

I am not particular about the cases I take on because I know that the people who approach me for legal help specifically chose me because of my own struggle and perseverance. I have kept strong ties on maintaining cultural history. My inner turmoil is diminishing, and I can envision a future where I feel fully secure in being precisely who I am: an American Muslim, whose roots extend across the globe to a Palestinian village called al-Bireh.

 

Reem is the founder of the Law Offices of Reem Odeh, a leading litigation firm in Chicago, Illinois. Reem speaks and writes Arabic fluently and is a member of the Illinois State Bar Association, American Immigration Lawyer Association, a board member of the Arab American Bar Association, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, just to name a few. She has worked with Amnesty International and remains active in human rights causes and organizations, including the Arab In 2008 Reem was nominated as a Delegate for the Democratic National Convention to represent the 13th Congressional District. Reem has represented clients in high profile cases, including her vital role in the case of People v. Drew Peterson in Will County, Illinois.

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