Rajaa

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Salam! My name is Rajaa and I am from Michigan. I am currently entering my final undergraduate year, pursuing a degree in Nutrition and Food Science. I am passionate about the confluence of lifestyle and health & how our habits impact our wellbeing. This passion was sparked during my internship at a free clinic in Detroit, serving those with no insurance and lack of access to quality care. It was there that I came to understand what my professors and textbooks had tried to convey: healthcare is not a linear issue, it is multifaceted and embedded in a much larger web. Diseases are more than just a mere collection of symptoms, rather they tell a deeper store about inequities in housing, food deserts, employment discrimination, and more. My hope is to help patients break out of this vicious cycle.  I like to believe that the person I am today is a testament to the powerful women who raised me.

My Arabic felt too broken for my Syrian family, my hijab looked too foreign to my American friends. At some point along the way, I realized that I did not have to fit into either box – a very liberating feeling.

I am the child of Syrian immigrants and the eldest of 4 children. When I was younger, I struggled with navigating my identity as a first generation Arab American. There was a constant battle between the two sides and a slight disconnect from both. I am sure most children of immigrants can relate to this: the feeling of not quite fitting in with either faction. My Arabic felt too broken for my Syrian family, my hijab looked too foreign to my American friends. At some point along the way, I realized that I did not have to fit into either box – a very liberating feeling. I began to embrace both sides of my identity as one.

It’s said so often that some may call it a cliche, but there is a reason we are all so quick to cite our mothers as our role models. The study of developmental psychology emphasizes the importance of early childhood years, social learning, and the impact these decisive years have on our personality. My mother taught me love, compassion, and strength at a young age. My relationship with her provided the lens with which I view the world around me. I always admired my mother, but it was not until high school that I realized just how much I looked up to her. She married my dad after graduating college in Damascus, Syria, and moved across the world to the US – a foreign frontier where she did not speak the language or know the customs. Far from friends and family in a time before social media made this big world feel so much smaller. What I admire most about my mother is her silent benevolence. She works in quiet, without asking for praise. Her actions are authentic and genuine, never needing any compensation. She taught me to never shy away from my roots.

My mom used to volunteer there when I was really young, so she would take me with her. When I was in elementary school, I was finally old enough to join the program and continued until high school. Now, I work as a counselor for the very same program I attended as a kid – it’s really come full circle!

Growing up, culture and religion were an inseparable part of the fabric of our household. We spoke only Arabic at home, something that I found to be a nuisance at the time, but am ever grateful for now. Michigan has a large and diverse Muslim population. Community was always an integral part of my life. We had a weekly Muslim youth program at our community center on Saturdays. My mom used to volunteer there when I was really young, so she would take me with her. When I was in elementary school, I was finally old enough to join the program and continued until high school. Now, I work as a counselor for the very same program I attended as a kid – it’s really come full circle! This youth program fostered many of the closest friendships I hold today. The counselors I had as a young girl were some of my role models and mentors today.

After 2011, the unrest in Syria left many in diaspora – my grandparents among them. As unfortunate as this situation was, it brought my grandparents closer to us. They moved from Syria to Michigan. During this time, I grew closer to my grandmother. I always had an innate lover for her, but as I spent more days in her presence I began to really know her. Long hours were spent on her porch, listening to stories she would recount about the years she spent chasing lines along the maps of Syria with grandfather, as his work took him from one city to another. Constantly on the move, she learned to adapt quickly to her changing environments. She was an enchanting library, housing a myriad of stories I could not wait to explore. The more time I spent with her, the more I admired her resilience. Most of all, I was in awe at her constant ability to view any situation in a positive light. She was the manifestation of optimism.

I love this quote: “A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it, it just blooms.” My mother and grandmother exemplify this quote in their actions. I was raised in an environment that encourages women to uplift each other, cheer for each other’s success, and stand together in times of hardship.

I love this quote: “A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it, it just blooms.” My mother and grandmother exemplify this quote in their actions. I was raised in an environment that encourages women to uplift each other, cheer for each other’s success, and stand together in times of hardship. I believe the concept of women competing against each other is a very patriarchal mentality designed to keep us distracted from realizing our full potential.  How are we supposed to break glass ceilings if we are fighting on the ground floor?

Rupi Kaur once wrote in her poem Legacy, “I stand on the sacrifices of a million women before me thinking what can i do to make this mountain taller so the women after me can see farther.”  I hope that my legacy will be all about empowering the next generation of young girls. I am always mindful of the fact that my accomplishments are only possible because of the sacrifices of those who came before me. This is both humbling and emboldening at once.

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