Hello! My name is Maya Shamari and I am a junior at Weston High School in Weston, Massachusetts. Both of my parents are from Iraq, although they met in America. Since I was very young, Arab culture has constantly surrounded my life. Whether it is my Sunday dinners with my grandparents with homemade meals, or meeting new friends, adults, cousins, family, or simply people who speak my dialect of Arabic in elevators, there is no escaping my ethnicity. It is literally in my blood. Growing up, I attended weekly classes at the Islamic Center of Boston, as well as the Center of Arabic Culture. Here, the Arabic language was taught to me, as well as the practice of Islam. I met many people here from surrounding areas that have become extremely close family friends today.

Maya Shamari

Today, I have worked hard to fill my days with the things I love. While currently engaging in athletics and community service, I want to take the time to do the activities and clubs that I am passionate about and am interested in. Throughout the year, I play a series of sports, such as soccer, swimming, diving, lacrosse, and golf, as well as being a part of my school’s math and debate team, American Sign Language Club, and Weston’s Rotary club. However, one of the most sentimental hobbies for me is the Middle Eastern Student Union that I founded at Weston. As my high school career is racing towards the end of its time, my plans for the future and college are beginning to fill my thoughts. Although I do not know exactly which school I would like to attend, I know that I want to go to a school that is united, diverse, and academically challenging. I hope to find a college with at least a minor in Middle Eastern studies or take courses that will educate students, including myself, and will help any economic, political, or social crisis of my nationality. Currently, I do not have one college that I am set on attending, as I still have quite some time until I am forced to make that one decision. It is no doubt that the stress is there for college!

Middle Eastern Student Union at Weston High School

Most of the members have family who are currently living somewhere in the Middle East. Although communication is easily accessible through modern electronics and utilities to the Middle East, life is separated. Our main goal for this year is to help children in low poverty areas gain access to a safer way of living with the current pandemic and to foster better technological advancements to promote learning. As a UNICEF MENA survey reports, “around 95% of the respondents stated that their children were negatively affected by the consequences of the pandemic,” and “many children were not able to benefit from remote learning due to lack in resources, lack of support from adult members, and difficulties to be in direct contact with teachers.” 53% reported that either they or their families have been “struggling mentally and emotionally.” In addition to UNICEF, we are also working with the KARAM Foundation, where they are helping Syrian refugees gain a stronger sense of life. With these foundations, we plan to donate money and goods, assist in packaging boxes, learn more about these causes, and work closely with these companies to better support the needs of those in less privileged areas.

In addition to assisting these foundations, a trip to Jordan was planned this past summer to aid the refugee crisis and build, donate, and support many needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, tutoring, and healthcare to those negatively affected. The cost for this trip was raised single-handedly by myself through community work, although it has been postponed. I hope to be fortunate enough to visit this summer if it is safe to do so. However, for now, there are many ways to help out ‘from a distance.’

Memories from a Middle Eastern Journey

I have traveled to Lebanon, Egypt, U.A.E., and Turkey. Also, this past year, I planned to visit Jordan and help refugees in camps with less utilities and materials. Although many may complain about the heat, I loved it. People always associate war, dry deserts, and the idea of poverty with the South West Asian and North African (SWANA) countries, however the Middle East is far from that. Not only is it beautiful, but it is impressive. For example, contrary to popular belief, the pyramids in Egypt are not in the middle of the Sahara desert, but the Pyramids of Giza are actually less than a mile away from urban life and only 5 miles from the capital of Cairo. Every single Middle Eastern country has some form of city life and symbolic architecture, beauty, and history along with it. Some cities, such as Dubai, are even more ‘futuristic’ than many in America, despite popular belief.

Life moves fast there; people are constantly speaking, cars are always honking in the cities, and citizens of this area are eager to learn and hear about the cultures of visiting travelers. Their customs, such as head scarves in certain mosques, as well as their strength in hospitality for foreigners is something that distinguishes my travels to the Middle East. The often-negative stereotypes people have for the Middle East robs it of its true beauty and history. Did you know there are ice skating rinks and movie theaters inside of malls in the Middle East? Out of all the countries across the world that I have traveled to, the Middle East surprised me the most, due to what is displayed on the news and even in school.

Middle Eastern Identity, Culture, and Tradition

When I was younger, I was passionate about being Middle Eastern in private, but I never told anyone publicly. I was embarrassed and somewhat nervous when someone asked me where I was from. Half of the time I lied, the other half of the time I would deflect the question or pretend not to hear it. Maybe I was brainwashed by the hatred among society. Maybe it was the stereotypical negative connotation associated with being Middle Eastern. Or maybe it was the names they would call me when they discovered I was Iraqi. Instructing my parents to never speak Arabic when my friends were over, I completely rejected my ethnicity for years. With this, I lost most of my tongue for the language and forgot all the prayers I spent every Sunday memorizing.

Actually, it was not until this year that I found my love for my culture and my passion for the traditions, music, and the language. This new confidence led me to creating the Middle Eastern Student Union at my school. Every Sunday, I am able to help out in the kitchen at my grandparents’ house because I am eager to learn more about the preparation of the dishes. On the holiday of Eid, I am proud to go to the mosque only 3 miles from my house. In my free-time, I love listening to the music of my parents’ time. Later in life, I want my kids to learn Arabic, the names of my favorite dishes, the history of their culture, and be appreciative and proud of what my parents did to supply me with a safe, beautiful and supportive life. In my past, every time I would hear some form of a racist comment or some inconsiderate phrase, I would blend my reaction with those of others. But now, I am happy to say I am proud of my heritage, culture, and Middle Eastern ethnicity. My nationality truly makes me who I am today; this is not because it is literally in my DNA, but due to my respect and devotion for the culture of my family.

Taking Arabic Courses

When I was growing up, Arabic classes and Islam lectures were how I spent my Sundays. On Sundays, I would take three classes at two different places: Islamic Center of Boston mosque and Center of Arabic Culture at Mount Ida College. Starting out at age 4 until about age 12, this was a large part of my life. I met many friends, people, families, and teachers who taught me life lessons, in addition to the language and lectures of the Qur’an. However, in middle school, I was bullied because of my ethnicity and forced my parents to make me quit attending these schools. That was probably the largest mistake I made.

Today, this opinion has changed greatly. My change in beliefs has allowed me to regain my lost knowledge. I am currently taking an online course in Middle Eastern studies. This history course has taught me the foundations of the customs of the countries, as well as the past of the places that make up my nationality. It is taught online by a college professor and historian with readings, videos, and tests that I must complete. In addition, I am taking online Arabic classes as well. It is a simple course that progressively gets more advanced as I continue. Overall, this is a subject that truly fascinates me and I hope to become more educated on topics like this. My educational work online will help me be able to help others when I travel to the Middle East and when I am able to go to Jordan to help the refugees, as mentioned previously. It will also assist me to pave the way for my focus with certain foundations that the Middle Eastern Student Union sector at Weston chooses to work with, as well as my future as a whole.

What’s Next?

Although I do not have a distinct focus for a path in life yet, I hope to continue to give back and help the Middle East. The idea of a doctor or medical specialist who works in less privileged areas is something I would love to do. As I am taking French and Spanish in school and learning Arabic and American sign language outside of school, my focus on language would allow me to assist a larger audience. I work within the dentistry field currently and hope to be able to do something with this aspect. In the future, I believe social media and the online fields will dominate, so this would be a great way to spread ideas and my aspirations. With whatever I do, I know I will always find time to continue with my favorite activities, such as community service, learning and helping. Some people think this is all for college or a step-up in life, but those closest to me know it truly is my passion.


References

Amman UNICEF. “UNICEF Middle East and North Africa.” UNICEF, 7 Dec. 2020, www.unicef.org/mena/.

Darkhabani, Ruba. “Homepage.” Karam Foundation, 10 Nov. 2020, www.karamfoundation.org/.

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