The first time we went back to the United States after Sept. 11, it was May of 2002. I was a nervous wreck, but maybe not for the reasons you'd think. I remember getting off the flight in Detroit, exhausted and impatient with my two little boys and my 5-month-old, who were equally exhausted after our 24-hour trip from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
When it was our turn to go through immigration, I walked up to the counter, terrified. I handed over five passports - four American and one Saudi, belonging to my husband. For weeks I'd been agonizing over this moment. Would they suspect him of something? Would they interrogate him? Would they lock him up somewhere?
What I found on the other side of the immigration desk completely surprised me. A very kind and sympathetic immigration officer took the passports and began to inspect them. He smiled at my two older sons, Abdullah and Abdulaziz, who were lying down on our carry-on luggage, almost too tired to move. When he came to my husband's passport, he checked the visa and asked the normal questions. The whole process took less than five minutes, and then we were on our way to pick up our luggage and meet a very anxious grandmother who would drive us to Ohio.
My husband left that June to return to work here in Riyadh while the boys and I enjoyed a relaxing summer with my family. During the month he was there, nothing unusual happened. We had been fearful, waiting for someone to say something to us, to confront my husband with his very Arab features. But it never happened. After all the stories we had read in the papers about harassment of Middle Easterners, we were never victims of it.
Flash forward to August. I decided at the last minute to enroll Abdullah, my then-5-year-old, in the local schools. I found a preschool for 3-year-old Abdulaziz. I called the director of a Lutheran- affiliated preschool to discuss his enrollment. I was so pleased with the way she responded when I told her that Abdulaziz is Muslim. We talked about the religious instruction at the school and what would be appropriate for him.
The first day of kindergarten, Abdullah was thrilled because he was going to ride the big, yellow school bus. I, on the other hand, was once again besieged with worry. Would the children think his name was funny? Would the parents of his classmates be concerned about a Saudi in the class? I had the same concerns for Abdulaziz. Would parents be afraid of us?
I am happy to report that despite my fears, not only did nothing bad ever happen, but both of my sons were warmly welcomed at their schools. They attended until November, when we were scheduled to return to Riyadh. All of the teachers at the preschool were wonderful - caring, involved, and dedicated. They went above and beyond the call of duty by taking Abdulaziz out of class and assigning him the role of "helper" to one of the teachers when religious lessons were being taught that they thought might confuse him. He never felt different or excluded, just special.
Abdullah loved his kindergarten class and his teacher as well, and she was instrumental in helping him to overcome his shyness. His last day of school, she presented him with a beautiful "memory book" filled with pictures and a page from each classmate that included a photo, a drawing they'd made, and the reason why he would be missed. It was obvious a lot of work had gone into preparing it.
I was so touched that I cried when I found it in his book bag and opened it for the first time. He, too, was overwhelmed. He took it to bed with his flashlight every night and examined it over and over.
Since we've been back in Riyadh, we've kept in touch with the boys' classes in the US. They've written letters (with Mom's help, of course), describing their lives here. Each boy also sent his class an alphabet book called "A is for Arabia." Abdulaziz was thrilled recently to get a beautiful red valentine signed by his classmates and teacher.
I feel we are so blessed. Soon we will be back in the States again for what we hope will be another happy summer.
I'm not afraid anymore; I know that for every person who will prejudge my Arab-American family for being different, there are many more who will appreciate them and love them for who they are. And I hope that when the boys' classmates are older, they will remember having had an Arab classmate who was, believe it or not, just like them.