Tag Archives: immigration

The Fall: a True Story




I woke up in a room filled to the ceiling with colorful balloons and flower arrangements and a beautiful bandaged girl sitting up in the bed across mine. Both of her legs were up in slings and she was surrounded by family and friends. I looked over at my mom and asked “where’s the hundred dollars you promised me?”*  Then the girl told me her story. She broke both arms and legs as a result of pushing her little brother out of the way of a speeding truck. He only suffered a small scratch. She was lucky to be alive. 

“How’d you break your arm?” The hero asked, sincerely interested and attentive. I felt heat rise to my face as everyone’s eyes turned to my cast, reminding me of my clumsiness.

“Oh. I just tripped”.


The summer of ’92, I tripped over an exposed tree root and broke my elbow. In school, the kids with broken bones got the best of everything: they got to leave class early, got to be first in the hot lunch line, and best of all, they were always surrounded by other students oohing and aaaahing at their story. Then we went on summer vacation.

We had just immigrated to the United States following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, my birth place, and after a series of serendipitous events, my grandmother, mother, and I landed in the town of Johnston. People assumed I was a native speaker even though I had only been here for a year. When a classmate described a math problem as “a piece of cake”, I took it literally and demanded loudly, “where’s the cake?” 

My mom was incredulous- I had the tendency towards dramatics as a child. Breaking a bone is searing rawness. The pain took my breath away, for that long moment of silence my lungs stretched to catch up with my body, my mom thought I was still playing a game. Once the air was released, my throat squeezed out an animalistic guttural sound reverberating throughout the parking lot. My mom ran over to where I stood and demanded answers.To her, I was disturbing the peace of a quiet suburban park on a sunny afternoon. 



“I broke it” I stammered.

“You didn’t break anything, let me see”, she demanded, forcing me to let go of what was once my intact limb. After seeing the unnatural fall and bend of my arm, her face turned white. We rushed to the emergency room less than a mile away. My mother, who a year previous confidently kidnapped me from my father during a war, defying her family, was now so panicked, she forgot which direction to drive to the urgent care. The waiting area was a dimly lit room lined with empty chairs, save a few moms shielding sniffly children. The seen-it all-before woman at the window responded to our pleas by flatly asking us to find a seat and wait. After the x-rays confirmed the obvious, I was sent home with a temporary cast and instructions to get myself to a real hospital. Once back at the house we shared with my grandmother, aunt, uncle, and baby cousin, I leapt through the house showcasing my temporary cast, nearly tripping over myself in excitement. I heard a loud thud as my mother fainted, the weight of our fall catching up with her. 


The summer before, bombs were falling on Kuwait City, and I just happened to be at my mom’s house. My parents divorced when I was too young to remember, the details of domestic unrest and emotional abuse still hidden from me, but I went back and forth to their houses. My dad’s house was fun, but the best part of being at my mom’s house was the nearby toy store and my favorite art supply shop, both of which were damaged when the bombs fell.


A few months into our new life in Rhode Island, my mom found me in the kitchen feverishly dialing random numbers into the phone.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling baba” I snapped, pounding away numbers while pressing the receiver even harder into my ear.

“What? Why?”

“I am ready to go home now”

  “Going back? Why do you want to go back?”

“I want to see Baba! All the other kids have their Baba but I don’t, I want my Baba!”

This must be some misunderstanding. To me, America was a cold place with mean kids that I was just visiting, the fact that this was my home now went against everything I believed. After all of my struggles with learning a new language; bundling up in the snow, coloring with crayons instead of markers, I was supposed to be rewarded with going home. If I could’ve formed words in that moment, I would’ve said that it wasn’t just about my dad, but about my grandmother, who was particular about how a girl is supposed to act, my grandfather, that would look the other way when I cut off all my barbie’s hair in protest. You know what mama?  I snooped in the cupboard and there was a brand new art set that grandma said she was saving for my birthday…and it had watercolors…I know it’s still waiting for me.


That night, my aunt and uncle were called down to my bedside. My uncle is so tall he needed to drop down on to his knees to face me. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said “I can be your Baba habibti, please don’t cry.”

When the bombs fell, that was the end of family picnics at the beach at dusk, the end of sharing chocolate bars with friends outside of class that were half melted from the midday heat, the end of playing outside our high rise apartment building with the children of neighbors my mom grew up with. This dank basement of my uncle’s house couldn’t possibly be where we stay. 


The journey out of Kuwait took place after weeks of driving through desert check points, navigating armed guards, waiting in endless lines at embassies, staying at beat down hotels, the homes of friends or extended family. The only routine being the lack of routine, each night laying in a different bed, beside my mom or other children, surrounded by mosquito netting in compete darkness, hungry buzzing at my ears lulling me to sleep. I remember feeling the distinct sensations of vertigo, falling and floating upside down while my body lay still, spinning while falling, falling, falling. 


Jasmines were in bloom in Amman during our journey

I needed surgery to set my elbow. The break was millimeters away from being a compound fracture. Compound fractures are terrible, bloody affairs when the bone breaks and also exits the skin….so close. That summer passed slowly with an itchy cast up my left arm, covering everything from knuckle to shoulder. I wasn’t allowed to get it wet, because the fancy water proof cast was for people who could afford it, and I was a recent immigrant whose tourist visa ran out with a mom who worked under the table. My developing swimming skills put on hold as my arm lazily floated around in my uncle’s pool while tightly wrapped in a plastic stop and shop bag. The weeks turned into months of sponge baths and my grandmother tightly braiding my hair. I fell backwards into a more helpless version of myself.


That summer, I learned that when expectations, families, or bones fall apart, they won’t ever go back together the same way. There are three bones that form the elbow joint: the humerus of the upper arm, the paired radius and ulna bones of the forearm. I needed three thick metal pins to hold my bones together while it set back in place. When I finally got the cast taken off, my skin was pale and wrinkly. My arm, thin and limp. The doctor said the procedure was called a realignment; when extra cells are sent to the site of the break to actually make it a denser area of bone. Stronger.


Although my cast had been off by the time school started up again, I had a raised scar in the shape of an L marking where my forearm and upper arm meet.There is also a cluster of scars at the base of my elbow where the metal pins once were. Over the years the scar shrank and flattened out, eventually becoming another part of my skin’s landscape.


  • According to my mom, I was nervous about going under for surgery so she reassured me by saying “when you wake up, I’ll give you a hundred dollars”. She assumed I would be too drugged up to remember. The first thing I asked for when I came to was “where’s my hundred dollars?” 

We Are Providence: Featured Essay!


Learn more about Devon, the “Lonely” tagger and support his campaign: https://life.indiegogo.com/fundraisers/lonely-as-i-have-ever-been-providence/x/12087612

One of my essays has recently been featured in Frequency Providence’s first ever anthology, Missing Providence.

Order the Missing Providence Anthology Here! It’s chock full of local talent and great writing:



art and the post-industrial city

art and the post-industrial city

“She came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island Where the old world shadows hang heavy in the air She packed her hopes and dreams like a refugee Just as her father came across the sea “

– The Eagles, “The Last Resort”

He lives downtown...

He lives downtown…


We Are Providence

Each section of the city of Providence holds magic for me. Mount Pleasant is home to some of the only old growth oaks in the city, Federal Hill’s original Narragansett name is Nocabulabet, which means place between the ancient waters, and Fox Point was a major international shipping center, with slave ships and all. While the sycamores, forgotten bridges, and the layers of history are fair game for any artist searching for inspiration, Providence has burrowed her way into my dislodged center, setting it right again. She has made me feel at home against all odds.

Growing up Palestinian in Rhode Island, my need for relevance and connection was fierce. While undoubtedly this is connected to Palestine’s longing for statehood and international recognition, its also because Rhode Island is not an easy place to immigrate to. Directions are impossible to deal with unless you happen to know “where the old Dunkin Donuts used to be.” Sometimes the same road has several different route numbers and locations are referred to by their “unofficial” name. No, South county is not an actual county. I never set foot in Palestine, but with my Teta’s grandmother stories I at least got to feel like I did. I know the fishermen and orange groves in Yaffa well enough to imagine the sights and sounds of our ancestral land. I remember her countless retellings of that ill fated spring in 1948, with it’s thunderous bombings and dismembered bodies vividly enough to feel as though I witnessed them myself. While my grandmother’s stories were already seeding my identity, my own experience with fleeing Kuwait as a six year old added to the entanglement of roots.

My mother and I fled Kuwait a few weeks after the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Despite the whirlwind of narrowly escaping plundering soldiers, intense dessert heat, and a custody battle that included a thumb-less kidnapper hired by my father’s family, (a story for another day), I was thrown into this new world without so much as a guidebook. In elementary school while my classmates ate peanut butter jelly sandwiches, I ate Zaet and Zaatar pita my mom packed. In second grade you could easily spot me in the school cafeteria. I was that girl with the frizzy braids and thick rimmed pink glasses, (before they were cool) patiently explaining in broken English that no, I wasn’t eating bird poop, just herbs mixed with olive oil. My mother, finally freed from stifling gender norms could raise me without fear. Since she was divorced, it was law that I would only be with her till age eleven, after which my father-a distant but not wholly unpleasant accountant, would have been my legal guardian. Had my mother remarried or was caught out on a date, she would be deemed an unfit mother, losing custody even sooner, perhaps even securing my fate as a math whiz instead of a writer.

       As the months grew into years, the novelty of Rhode Island faded. I hungered after stability in people and places. I envied my classmates for the simple routines that involved sport practices or family vacations. While they went along their seasonal routines, in my family there was still talk of moving away, of new schools, new relationships, and yet another world to get accustomed to. I ached for a predictable life. I still find myself in awe of people who have the notion that life will unfold in exactly the same way it had for generations. I knew the comfort was an illusion. I understood that friends had some flavor of childhood trauma or economic insecurity rippling beneath the placid surface of their day to day lives, but I envied the illusion. My experiences were too raw to be hidden. They had marked me with a discordant vibration; amplified by the cadence of my mispronounced name. I recognize this discordance is others, in fact, Providence is abuzz with it; all those layers of old world muck latticed through downtown’s polished center. You can see it in people and places like the half collapsed Moshassuck bridge; centuries old, dark in the shadow of newly constructed luxury condominiums. My insecurities mirrored by the city itself. I might not have fit in where I wanted to, but at least Providence understands.

I could never experience home in the same way my Teta did but I could lean on Providence for support. Like so many before me, I have been seduced by this haven for those “distressed for conscience” and I’ld like to think that it’t no mere coincidence. While researching the history of State Pier One’s role in immigration for a story idea, I came across some surprising information.

The Fabre Line, a fleet of steamships, supplied Providence with immigrants well into the twentieth century. Immigration quotas threatened to put the Fabre Line out of business, but they decided to redirect the routes and pick up immigrants and visitors from cities like Beirut, Alexandria and Yaffa. Yaffa! The same city my family was forced to flee in 1948. This steamship came from Providence and went to Yaffa as part of it’s journey, to pick up goods and people way back before my disoriented self ever stood on that Providence pier.

Fabre Line

      Could it be that after several years of defining myself as a misplaced and misunderstood outcast, that I actually been home in Providence after all? Do I have ancestors floating around having a good laugh; chuckling ‘oh silly girl! nothing is random.’ ? I remember downtown before the mall, before Water Place Park and well before those luxury towering condos. The tourism council will have you thinking that Providence always had a glowing face of fancy restaurants and Waterfire, but I knew her before the Botox injections. Before she tried to hide her puffy post-industrial eyes and walk in Boston’s high healed pumps. Maybe if we sit by the Providence River at dusk and look down toward the smoke stacks and consider the gentle lapping of its briny water we could hear the voices that came before us. If we hold still and listen closely we might even hear H. P. Lovecraft famously proclaim, I am Providence. To which we can now respond: “No Mr. Lovecraft. We are Providence”.

misty Providence River

misty Providence River

Fabre Steamship in Providence Hatbor

Fabre Steamship in Providence Hatbor


***PUT PROVIDENCE ON THE LITERARY MAP!!   Support Frequency, order the anthology, check out the featured workshops: http://frequencywriters.org

*** SUPPORT Devon and the pursuit of accessable art: https://life.indiegogo.com/fundraisers/lonely-as-i-have-ever-been-providence/x/12087612



Frequency: Tuning into What Works for my Writing


Creating and balancing a writing life is one of the most challenging part of being a writer in the world.  Now that its been about 2 years post-MFA, I have some reflection space to think about my writing life and how it has changed since MFA:  During my time in graduate school, I was familiar with a certain sense of frequency-  just write, write, write, produce! oh! and know that you will suck cause your new/young, you may as well give up now…I recognize that the high intensity structure of a low residency MFA might not have been the best option for how I learn and develop as a writer.


It was still a valuable experience! I learned so much and still feel connected to the community I built there, but I couldn’t help but feel as though it was this frantic, drop everything and step out of your life thing (where we gathered for 10 days of work-shopping, reading and seminar).

It was wonderfully all-consuming in that it felt like a writing vacation, but once returning to my normal life, it was difficult to bridge those realities. I know that a huge piece was the fact that I was very recently divorced, single mother of a one year old.  I struggled through the emotional ups and downs and financial difficulties. In one way this made my writing residencies super important as they served as my constant, my time to shift my focus back to the big picture of my life as a creative being.  But, on the downside, it felt like a huge shift post MFA, I started a  new middle school teaching job where it felt close to impossible to maintain a writing flow (other than my blog, and even that was scant).  At that point, I felt strongly about shifting my awareness  towards rebuilding  my personal and emotional life.  Writing most certainly was still at the cornerstones of that, but I simply no longer jived with the culture of guilt I built around myself for not meeting accountability deadlines.


I became my worse enemy, would feel badly if I didn’t complete a project or submit to a million places that way fellow grads might have been doing.  Thankfully, after a hard, but necessary dry summer (dry, as in lack of writing production), I found that I needed that time to slow down and listen to  my new life frequency. Jobs and ideas shifted, schedules changed, priories reordered.  Recently, I found a local community based writing course that fits perfectly with my schedule and needs.  I get to be back to work-shopping peers, producing writing, all in a more realistic time frame.


The name of that community organization is (of course) Frequency.  I didn’t read into the name and what it might represent to me till just recently, when I felt like I was finally tuning into what works best for me and my writing now. For example, one of our in class writing exercises was making a list of life moments or events that we either experienced or witnessed that held a lot of weight for us and managed to stay with us or define us over the years.  I began like I normally would listing:  immigration, war, transitioning to life in the US, learning English, changing schools….Then remembering my current writing project ( which is based on what I would want to read and holds tons of inspiration for me) I stopped and made a new list right next to it:

The time the Providence River Cove was uncovered: http://www.urbanophile.com/2012/04/10/providence-the-rust-belts-most-northeasterly-point-by-nicholas-cataldo/


When police discovered a secret apartment illegally built in the mall: http://consumerist.com/2007/10/03/man-builds-secret-apartment-at-mall-gets-away-with-it-for-four-years/


living under the mall...

living under the mall…

The gator released into the Providence River:   http://www.ibtimes.com/alligator-living-river-and-four-foot-alligator-found-home-819269


hmmm? a gator?

hmmm? a gator?

and so on… I know it might not seem like a big deal to others, but for years, my life has been defined by these huge life events I had no control over as a child.  Now for the first time, I have allowed myself to tune into to other frequencies…


Check out and support Frequency:  http://frequencywriters.org

The Poem that Made me Want to Write: On Inspiration


I love reading and learning about those moments that inspired artists to commit to themselves and their art.

It reminds me to keep on, keeping on, that writing has been and will always be my path in the world

What sustains you?

What sustains you?

The following is an article that appears in The Atlantic titled “The Poem That Made Sherman Alexie Want to Drop Everything and Be a Poet” –


His words reminded me of those days in college when I was taking any non-western or post-colonial literature class I could.  This was a time I was grasping at straws, hoping desperately to see myself and my experiences reflected in works of literature.  More than that, I needed an affirmation that pursuing a career in writing was not a fantasy for an Arab American woman-That ( thankfully) seems so silly to me now- as evidenced by the ever growing literary presence of amazing Arab American writers, poets, film makers and artists of all stripes- but this was a time when it felt that the entire world, family included- thought I was better off waking up and smelling the teaching degree, aka: a ‘real’ job.

The art of writing sometimes means the art of taking your dreams seriously...

The art of writing sometimes means the art of taking your dreams seriously…

Most, if not all, writers can undoubtedly relate to some sort of economic strain, social acceptance, and lack of self confidence- and this is doubly true of women of color from refugee/immigrant families…

There were many authors/artists that helped spark that inspiration for me; Randa Jarrar, Suhair Hammad, and Joseph Geha to name a few.  But the poem below by Naomi Shihab Nye was undoubtedly that drop-everything-and-write- moment for me:

Making A Fist

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

‘How do you know if you are going to die?’
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
‘When you can no longer make a fist.’

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

Naomi Shihab Nye

nothing but road...

nothing but road…

Of course I related to this first and foremost for the ‘journey out’.  Having fled Kuwait during the Gulf War with my mom as a 6 year old that feeling of ‘traveling for days’ and  ‘watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass’ resonated with me.  As did the ill feeling due to a scarce supply of water and endless hours in the back of a car. I still joke that must be why I love tiny Rhode Island because I get car sick after less than an hour in a moving vehicle!

I write about our great escape here:


But most importantly, it was that very specific stubborn tenacity that pushes us to ‘make a fist’ that hit closest to home.  This was how I had experienced being Palestinian in the world, spot on.


“clenching and opening one small hand”       YES.

So readers, drop me a line.  What inspires you? What reminds you of your purpose? Was it a single piece of art/writing/movie/conversation? Or a series of events?

How do you return to your source?

How do you return to your source?

Middle School teacher confessions: Parent Night


One of the things I appreciate about my teaching job is location, location, location.  It’s one my neighborhood middle schools and since I live only 5 minutes away from where I work, I often run into my students.  They are often much more surprised than I and I can’t blame them.  I remember the very few moments I ran into my teachers and feeling really confused and out of place while I thought ‘what? This person has a life outside the school?’  I am sure it is much the same for them, especially when they see me with my son, Ali.


This week alone, I ran into my students at the public library down the street and on the way to school at the bus stop.  I am sure the school year will be filled with these run-in’s, or at least I hope so.  I think it’s really important that young people get to see and interact with role models who are like them; who went through similar life circumstances and struggles.   I know it was very important for me to see myself in others as a young person.  This was for many reasons; I was an only child, an immigrant to the middle class burbs, a female of color in a mostly white town, one of very few Muslims in the fear ridden era of 9/11…the list goes on and on.  I still remember the first time I ever came face to face with another Palestinian woman artist.  I was 21 and recently returned from my study abroad in Cairo.  I left Egypt reluctantly ( the first time in 14 years I got to interact with fellow Arab-Americans) and I came back to a rough and lonely RI winter. Brown University hosted Suhair Hammad, a Palestinian spoken word performer/ poet/ writer/ artist.  I cried after every piece she performed. I felt like she was talking to only me.  When I approached her at the end of the performance, I was in total awe that I was in the presence of someone who ‘got’ me, who understood what it was like to live in my skin.  Of course she wasn’t as enamored with me… she was a seasoned performer who meets with and interacts with tons of other arabs all the time. Not to mention she grew up in Brooklyn, home to a pretty large Arab American population, not my lil ol’ Johnston RI. So, I am pretty sure meeting a fellow Arab wasn’t as life changing to her at that point…

Time goes on, but that is something I remain sensitive about; the realistic role model…the relevancy to a young person.  This takes on an entirely different level when I start to talk about teachers of color in a mostly minority community…where over 90% of the teachers are middle class and white, most do not live in this hood, and most do not have English as a second language… although most are great, understanding, kind teachers, they remain rather untouchable as living, breathing examples of role models to these students who are growing up in a much different (and constantly changing) world.  Although slow, I am seeing the shift; more and more teachers are emerging from these very communities and it’s making a difference.


Tonight was Parent-Teacher night at my school and it turned out that it was parent night for everyone…even the teachers.  Nothing like bringing a three year old to work to bring everyone feel a little cozier!  Thank goodness for one of my students who, as a big brother himself, jumped right in and took over for me when I needed to speak to parents.   As soon as we arrived, Ali decided this particular 12 year old was going to be his new best friend. This student was one of three boys, raised much like Ali by a young single mother.  I knew I liked this mother before I met her because he started off the school year by complaining to me about how much his mother makes him read and write.  He is one of my better readers because of it. I saw myself reflected in her and I hoped she saw the same.

We are all so, so connected…

Twas the Night Before Occupy…


Leave it to a mass protest movement to make me feel reconnected…

So lately I have been back on that cant -wait -to-leave- Providence- and everything- sucks- mindset; which happens frequently when the following factors are in play:

-full moon

-that time in my cycle where my hormones turn on whatever rationality I might have

-a long time secret crush doesn’t return the adoration…(aaahhh unrequited love….)

-disrupted sleep due to nightmares/my son peeing his bed/my cat Mimi’s late night bobbie pin hunting ( she was a treasure seeking pirate in a past life)

-no time to write leading me to send in my submission late…again ( I am a bad, bad grad student, but there’s Mimi trying to help…)

-general sense of  Ugk and Eeek and especially @#$*&##%#$!

With times like this its easy to melt down into adolescent emo-ramblings about how nothing seems to fit…how I dont belong here… and how in fact my existence in this place and time  is actually the result of an unfortunate slip into a black hole ( aka the Gulf War) that spit me out in an alternative reality ( aka Rhode Island) where nothing, no matter how hard I try will ever feel quite right…

As a result of my suspected parallel world jumping, I have been thinking a lot about my need to be back in the Middle East and actually emailed my resume to a school in Palestine.  Returning to the Middle East to teach has always been on my radar, not so much as a permenant relocating …or in my case a re-re-locating… but a nice option for a summer or year long experience.

While there is still no word on that one, it did make me feel a whole lot better that I turned my dissatisfaction into some sort of  action instead of my usual bitchy moping and complaining to whoever will listen…sorry Mimi.

So come Saturday evening, my need to get out of the house resulted in stopping over at Burnside Park downtown to check out the Occupy Providence crowd ( most of which are close friends).

I will admit that I was driven there more out of my need to connect with friends and simply hang out rather than protest…(Sorry. I am a Palestinian woman. My entire existence in this country has been a protest. I need to pace myself.)

I was actually caught off guard by how powerful it was to stand in this outdoor public space, surrounded by so many people, many of which I knew from various contexts (different schools I worked at, friends of friends, family, old college friends, my yoga instructor, ect….)

All chanting, drumming, singing, waving strongly worded signs condemning corporate greed, military campaigns, an ever-growing gap between rich and poor…all promoting the 99%’s voices to be heard…freedom…all contributing to my feeling


*A special thank you to my beautiful friend Julianne for the pictures.