I've heard far worse things than "go back to your country."
A classmate told me I looked like Osama bin Laden's wife when I dressed up in my mother's traditional Sudanese garb for Halloween (no, Anthony from fourth grade, I will never forget that). My white neighbor once yelled over me to berate my father for supposedly not understanding English, a language he speaks fluently. I was even called a "sand (expletive)" (Hint: The expletive starts with the letter "n") in response to one of my MySpace messages back in my teen years.
All of which served the same purpose as "go back to your country" — to remind me of my otherness. To remind me that even though Mama had emigrated from Sudan with 6-year-old me to California in pursuit of the American dream that was loudly advertised by the United States, I was still not welcome.
To remind me that even though my family and I had done everything according to the stipulations of the American dream: got off welfare; Dad started his own business and bought a home in the suburbs; 6-year-old Rasha went on to get her bachelor's and then a master's degree, we did not belong.
All of that did not exempt me from being talked down to at doctor's offices, being dubbed "oreo" (black on the outside, white on the inside), receiving horrible service due to my complexion or being asked whether I got into college because of a quota.
When the American dream went bust
Being a black, Muslim, woman with roots in East Africa, I quickly learned the American dream was a myth, only reserved for a special class of people, ones who did not look anything like me. And that was OK. It was never mine to have.
I found comfort in immersing myself in communities with shared experiences and hashing out frustrations within the confines of group chats and bottomless brunches.
But the day I saw voters in a majority white Midwestern state elect a black, Muslim, Somali American woman to represent them, I couldn't help but feel hopeful. It wasn't blind "wow, racism has been eradicated" type hope, but the kind that made me feel seen and welcomed. Like all the "go back to your country" remarks didn't matter and I deserved to call this country home as much as anyone else.
I saw myself in Ilhan Abdullahi Omar.
Here she was with the same story line as mine. She and her family fled Somalia because of civil war and ended up as refugees in the United States ready to embrace their new home with all its opportunities, and now she's serving as a member of Congress.
On Instagram, Omar's father wrote:
"I had heard about the promise of America, prosperity for all and hope for a better tomorrow. I could never have dreamed that 23 years later I would return to the same airport with my daughter Ilhan by my side, the day before she is to be sworn in as the first Somali-American elected to the United States Congress."
Hey, Ilhan’s dad here: Twenty three years ago, my family and I arrived at an airport in Washington DC. We were newly arrived refugees in this country, from a refugee camp in Kenya. I had heard about the promise of America, prosperity for all and hope for a better tomorrow. I could never have dreamed that twenty three years later I would return to the same airport with my daughter Ilhan by my side, the day before she is to be sworn in as the first Somali-American elected to the United States Congress. You, of course, can imagine how emotional this is and why I am incredibly proud of her. It’s an honor to have her represent me and our family is so humbled that Ilhan has the opportunity to serve in our democracy. I wish Ilhan's grandfather could be here to witness this historic moment. He will be here in spirit as Ilhan will place her hand on his Quran for the ceremonial swearing in. Tomorrow, members of Ilhan's team will be covering the events of the day. We all hope you will follow along and share in our excitement for what the New Year will bring. As Ilhan would say, forward together. Nur Mohamed #Hope #ilhan
A post shared by Ilhan Omar (@ilhanmn) on Jan 2, 2019 at 3:02pm PST
My mother could've very well written the same note Omar's dad did. The only notable differences between the congresswoman and myself is that my family did not endure refugee camps and I don't wear a hijab, but other than that ... What's up, Sis!
Trump's tweets a jolt of reality
You could see how crushing it was to see President Donald Trump, the man who holds the highest and most powerful office of the land, tweet his racist comments:
....and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
Trump may have been directing his racist comments toward Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, but I heard it loud and clear.
Then came the rally in Greenville, North Carolina. Trump's supporters may have been targeting their "send her back" chants toward Omar, but they hit me, too.
Being told to "go back" by the president of the United States, the leader of a nation that publicizes itself as the land of the American dream where all things are possible through hard work and perseverance, it's disheartening to say the least.
Every immigrant's life: Bullies told me to go back to my country. At first it silenced me, now it spurs me on.
Omar did all of the above, checked off all the boxes on the list of "things to do to achieve the American dream," got herself elected into Congress, and she still does not belong here.
Whenever I go back to visit Sudan, one of the first questions everyone asks me is: "What's America like?" Then they share their dreams of longing to come live in the United States. My cousin said she'd up and leave her husband if the opportunity ever came. If anyone thinks of a nice way to tell them they're not wanted here, let me know.
Trump's racist tweets. The rallying chants in North Carolina. Both served as a sobering reminder. A reminder that regardless of your place in society, whether you're a journalist at USA TODAY or fulfilled your ancestors' wildest dreams and are governing over the United States, you will never be seen as an American.
So thanks, America, for the reminder, I was starting to get a little too comfortable anyway.
Rasha Ali is a lifestyle reporter for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @RashaFierce
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump's racist tweets: America won't accept Ilhan Omar, or me