This story appeared in the February 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
"Miss . . . Khan?”
The customs official stops, looks up at me, looks back down at my passport, and hesitates. That’s always how it starts.
I am an Australian citizen of mixed Turkish and Pakistani descent. I have brown skin and non-Anglo-European features. I’m also Muslim, and when I was younger, I wore a hijab. As a result, I’ve experienced all the usual kinds of Islamophobic bigotry and ignorance—the yelled death threats from strangers driving past me, the “go back to where you came from” chants as I walk down the street, the “jokes” about me being a terrorist, the questions about arranged marriages and dowries of camels (for some reason, it’s always camels). Part of the reason I chose to stop wearing the hijab was that I was tired of not being able to walk through a shopping center without people either whispering behind my back or yelling in my face.
I was eleven years old when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. The world changed for countless people like me permanently because twenty men we had never met and to whom we had no connection did a terrible thing supposedly in our name.
I feel like it’s important to mention that I was only eleven because perhaps it will remind you that I was just as helpless as anyone else was to stop the attacks from happening. People seem to forget that.
“Miss . . . Khan.” Perhaps she thinks saying it again will make it less scary.
The customs official this time around—my third visit to the United States—is a woman not much older than me. She’s probably a perfectly nice person in her everyday life. I doubt she would give me a second glance on the street, dressed as I am in a miniskirt, boots, and a thick sweater, my long-distance-flight comfort outfit of choice. But here and now, in the customs line at an airport where she is holding my passport and can see the name printed on it—Miss Aaminah I Khan—she sees me the way she’s been taught to see me: as a potential threat.
She avoids eye contact as she asks me all the usual questions, choosing instead to riffle through my passport and visa documents repeatedly as though something within them will make me somehow less of a problem. I watch her look at my passport, then at that paperwork, then at my passport again. I recite prayers in Arabic without moving my lips because I want to calm myself but I don’t want to make her even more suspicious of me.
When I do talk, however, I answer her questions in my crisp, careful Australian accent—the product of thirteen years of excellent Catholic school education and five years of competitive public speaking—and she relaxes a little. They—white folks—always do that when they hear me speak. The accent helps. The clothes help. They mitigate the effect of the name, the skin color. They help the nice lady behind the desk ignore the nose I inherited from my father, the angular face I inherited from my mother, the air of intangible foreignness I inherited from both.
She finally stops riffling through my papers and makes eye contact. I tell her I’m here to marry my fiancé and she actually smiles and congratulates me. I send Allah a silent prayer of thanks for my second grade teacher, who drummed into me the importance of crisp elocution and made me pronounce the “wh” in “whom.” I calm my trembling hands and accept back my passport, now marked with the required stamp of approval. My heart is racing and I feel a little faint, but the ordeal is, at least for now, over.
A couple of years ago, a cousin of mine in Pakistan decided that he wanted to do his MBA in America. After months of fruitless appointments with consular officials and high commissioners, he was refused. He decided not to appeal the decision.
“It wasn’t even the fact that I was refused that hurt,” he told me, “but the way in which they refused me. Their behavior was rude. They treated us like slaves.”
My cousin speaks fluent English, has a professional degree and has traveled abroad before—but his skin is too brown, his accent too thick, his mannerisms too foreign. I can’t get over those words of his: they treated us like slaves.
It is eminently confusing to me that someone can be treated like property and still be seen as a threat.
Part of the permanent residency application process is a series of interviews and biometrics appointments. The USCIS field office in New Orleans is relatively small, and the staff are a little more relaxed than they are in bigger offices. I’m allowed to keep my cell phone when I enter the building. My belongings have to go through the security scanner only twice.
In this part of the country, most of my fellow applicants are of Mexican or other Central American descent. Some of them have been here for years. Bear in mind that the stated processing time for a green card application according to current USCIS information is currently four months. They are slogging their way through reams of paperwork to get a (possible) guarantee that they will not be dragged from their homes and away from their families in the middle of the night and taken to detention centers to be deported. Those ones are a little like me—they’ve learned to hide their accents, to mimic American mannerisms, to do all the little things brown people do in the presence of antsy white folks to make them feel less threatened.
But some of them haven’t been here for very long. They speak broken English or none at all. Some of them have come with support workers to translate and advocate for them, but most of them have not been made aware that this is an option that is available to them, and so they are here alone. They are scared because they know they will almost certainly be told—for the first time or the fourth time or the fortieth—that whatever they’ve done so far isn’t good enough, that America isn’t ready to accept them yet, that America may never be ready to accept them.
My name—or someone’s idea of my name, but I’m used to listening for variations—is called. I walk up to the glass-shielded counter holding my appointment notice with its boldface print across the top: THIS NOTICE DOES NOT GRANT ANY IMMIGRATION STATUS OR BENEFIT.
This process has already taken me months and cost me thousands of dollars and I am no closer to becoming a resident, to making a home here with my husband.
A briskly efficient woman wearing latex-free gloves (I had to ask for those—I’m allergic) takes my fingerprints and my signature. I sit in a chair and a light flashes in my eyes and another photo of my brown face is added to a growing database of them. She asks me why I moved here. I tell her in my careful Australian accent about my recent marriage and she smiles and congratulates me. After almost six months, I know how to appease people. This lady isn’t nearly as edgy as the woman at the airport was. But my hands are still trembling, so they have to take one of my sets of fingerprints twice.
"Spell your name for me?”
“Khan. K-H-A-N. My first name is Aaminah. A-A-M-I-N-A-H.”
“Aaminah. There’s an M in there.”
(I am on the phone with USCIS customer service because my application is taking longer than the stated average processing time. You, dear reader, may draw whatever conclusions you like as to the reasons for the delay.)
“According to our information, the processing time for this application should be ninety days. Your application has taken longer than the stated processing time. I can submit a request for further information regarding your application.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I say in my careful Australian accent. “I appreciate your help.”
“Thank you for calling USCIS, and have a wonderful day.”
I hang up the phone. I look down at the hand that holds it. It is still trembling. It is still too brown.
My experiences are not unique. In fact, they have been on the whole rather less traumatic than they are for many of the thousands of foreign immigrants who move to the United States every year. I have the benefit of being raised in a Western country by fluent English-speakers who, although they both have accents themselves, were able to send me to schools staffed by teachers who didn’t. I no longer wear the hijab. I use my married name on paperwork whenever I can these days. I’m able, to some extent, to make myself seem like less of a threat.
I’ve spoken to people who have not been so lucky. N., a Bosnian immigrant fleeing genocide with her family who spoke to me under the condition of anonymity, related to me her experiences flying back to Bosnia to visit her ill grandmother. N. and her mother, a hijabi woman, were pulled aside for a “random inspection” and asked questions about affiliations with terrorist groups. Their persons and belongings were searched. Other passengers began to call out the usual insults. One middle-aged American man asked N.’s mother—the one wearing a hijab—if she was carrying a bomb underneath it. Customs officials, too busy profiling these two innocent women, did not think to intervene and stop this harassment.
More recently, after a three-week visit to Istanbul and Sarajevo, N. was stopped at the airport in Chicago, taken into a room and asked several questions. Why had she decided to take that trip? Whom had she gone to see? What did they talk about? Did she have ties to any political organizations in those countries?
N. was questioned for three hours and almost missed her connecting flight as a result. USCIS insisted the inspection was “random.”
“It makes you feel unsafe,” she told me, “when people look like they’re ready to kill you just because you’re at the airport.”
I feel like I need to be reminded again who exactly here is meant to be the threat—the innocent woman being patted down and asked about terrorist affiliations as other passengers yell insults at her, or the USCIS officials who make her feel like her life might be in danger every time she needs to catch a flight?
On November 28, 2014, I celebrated six months of temporary residency in the United States by being unable to get a Social Security number and unable to get a driver’s license, things I should have been able to apply for three months after entry. I’m told that the delays are entirely bureaucratic in nature. I have made more phone calls. I have spelled and respelled my name for call-center workers countless times. I have complied with requests for more documentation. I’ll be notified by mail when they reach a decision, I’m told. I check the mail daily, even on weekends and holidays.
When we talk, my cousin tells me jokingly that at least I was able to get in, even if I don’t know whether or not I’ll be able to stay. My family members were born in the wrong countries, but I was lucky enough to be born in one of the right ones. I, at least, have a chance—not at acceptance, never at that, but a chance at grudging tolerance: a chance that one day, I might be seen as less of a threat.
I pray in Arabic—silently, lips unmoving—and I check the mail again.
Aaminah Khan (jaythenerdkid) is an Australian-born queer Muslim writer and activist currently adjusting to life in the United States. When she’s not writing, tweeting, tumbl-ing, blogging, or arguing with conservatives on Facebook, Aaminah enjoys fantasy novels, video games, science fiction and long rants about the lack of diverse representation in all of the above.