Grief is often experienced with a reflection on the moments shared with the person whom you lost. In my case, remembering Mounia means remembering the spaces we shared, the spaces where we celebrated our queerness, explored its difficult relationship with our cultural background, and attempted to reconcile the two. Grief also comes with the destructive but inevitable question that comes to mind after we are affected by such a loss: Why?
In many cases, the answer does not come naturally. Suicide is complex, and the reasons behind it are intricate—often hard to grasp for those who have never experienced severe anxiety or depression. However, in this case, while reflecting on the conversations that I had with Mounia, answers came flooding to my mind.
Why do queer Arab people die?
We die because our lives are a series of traumas. Every time we come out, there is one heartbeat that makes our souls shake, one moment when we are so vulnerable, one instant when we do not know if our lives are at risk. The police in our countries do not protect queer people, but criminalize them—rejection can mean the end of us.
Everything we learn about ourselves and our queerness on this campus we need to unlearn in our countries. This makes going home a burden, and we can never have a “relaxing break,” because once we are with our families, we are back in the closet, and our time with them becomes only a reminder of why we left in the first place. So we sigh with relief when we finally board our planes back to New York City. We rewire our brains to English and change our mannerisms: We become more us. But we are reminded, as we get our passports stamped, that when our visas expire, our safety expires with it.
Our names are enigmatic; our faiths are perplexing; our heritages are confusing. We are the children of rich cultures that we are urged to suppress for our safety, by mispronouncing our names, for example. Gradually, English starts coming to us more naturally than our mother tongues. It is surprisingly easy for us to lose such a big part of our identity: our language. It feels like we are losing ourselves, and it hurts, not only us but our parents too. Yet there is no one to share the pain with. We feel alone in our countries since we cannot tell our parents about the times we've been called a sinner or a deviant. On campus, we are seen as outsiders and foreigners, but when we are told to “go home,” we refrain from sharing the pain with our friends who will not understand how it feels to miss a place where your mere existence is persecuted.
We die because post-Orlando, this is who we have become: the shooter and the shot, the culprit and the victim. This is why we take our own lives. Every day is a choice—to embrace our Arabness or to embrace our queerness. Because both cannot exist in one body, and this body cannot exist in one home. We are loved as much as we are hated; celebrated as much as we are condemned; in different places, at different times.
This burden becomes impossible to share. Most Arab students on this campus plan on going home after their studies. This is in some part due to a sense of Arab pride, a sense that Mounia and I did not always feel. On the contrary, we were doing everything we could to stay in this country. We imagined creating a home here, with our friends and loved ones, building a family and raising our children here so that they never have to hear the sound of a bomb or see a dead body like we did. I would never want my child to feel like they have to leave their own country to have a decent life. Those dreams unfortunately come with the realization that our children will only know the Middle East through the stories that we tell them. They may never visit our motherland with us, and they may never learn to speak our language. After all, our children will probably be American, the sons and daughters of immigrants. I guess our children will just … not be like us. But more than that, they will be foreign to us, and we will be foreign to them.
It seems like all my life I dreamed of someplace where I could be happy, not knowing if I would ever find it. When I stepped foot on this campus, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of belonging that I had never felt before. Seeing President Trump lead this country into a dystopian future, however, makes me question the belief that I could ever belong here.
International students joke about how Trump is literally not our president, but I do realize that for some of us, our future is completely in his hands.The United States might not be my country, but it is my home, and while the movement to resist might not be mine to join, I will march with those fighting his extreme measures. I know Mounia would have too. Because it is only when we fight that we stop feeling like we are broken.
Karim Nader is a Columbia College senior studying philosophy and mathematics. He is an international student from Beirut, Lebanon. Alt-Fact Fridays runs alternate Fridays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.