THIS IS US by Kenan Mirou, Age 17, Damascus, syria

Kenan was a Delegate for the 2018 International Congress of Youth Voices.

Kenan was a Delegate for the 2018 International Congress of Youth Voices.

Kenan Mirou is originally from Damascus, Syria, and fled the country in 2012 with his family. He was able to seamlessly continue his education in the United States because he has been teaching himself English since the second grade by translating books and movies with subtitles. Mirou enjoys writing, and he has been published in various magazines and books, including If The World Only Knew, published by 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring program serving youth ages 6 to 18 in San Francisco.


When I first arrived to the U.S., my head was raised high with pride as a Syrian but I was struck by how people who looked like me were viewed by a number of groups here. One night, as my hijabi sister and I were waiting to get picked up after a school event, we were approached by a guy who was very intrusive and angry at the fact that we belonged to the Muslim religion and the Arab culture. He said, “I am gay, and you people hate that right? Why don’t you get up and try to attack me? Bet you can’t because you know that the police will get rid of you and your garbage bag wearing wife.”

There was not enough strength within me to fight the misinterpretation of my people’s habits and way of life. I have overheard plenty of classmates talk about my people being ignorant and not having the ability to understand basic human rights such as freedom of speech and religion. To them, we are forcing everyone into our religion just like we were forced into it ourselves, and we don’t understand these rights because we were not given any rights as youth. These misinterpretations made it impossible to relate to anything being said or done around me. So I decided to take an easy way out of my discomfort and loneliness and join a different social bubble, to erase who I was. I distanced myself from my own culture and tried to assimilate into the American mainstream society. I focused on details I never used to care about, like how people around me dressed or spoke and started practicing to sound and look like them. But not so much the look part, since I am not stupid enough to pay what they paid for their shoes or clothes. I brought some of their habits into my life, like dating. This was a very exciting new thing to me back then but now has become something I would never do, at least not publicly. I do realize now, that during my first years here, I tried to play the part and wear a mask to fit in with the rest. It felt good for a while to have that artificial feeling of belonging, but there was not any real satisfaction with my habits or new way of living.

Thankfully, however, I had a very strong base for my identity that pulled me back out of my confusion. I still remember the day: by coincidence, I was listening to a song in Arabic in class while working on an assignment on the laptop and one of my friends commented on the song’s picture and how special and new the melody sounded to his ears. The teacher questioned why we were talking and my friend asked him to listen to it and the teacher actually recognized the music. Soon enough, the whole class and the teacher were discussing the rich history of Arabic music and the many instruments that we made that are not available or known anywhere else in the world. And at that moment I felt empowered, strong, and genuinely happy to be who I am. It was amazing to feel that being different was not alien, but special. Peer pressure and the need to fit in is what everyone who is new to a country feels, and even some of the people who were born there may not have a desire to follow that place’s dominant culture.

It is shocking how easy it is for someone’s culture and identity to lose its importance and print on history while living in the U.S. The idea of the “melting pot” is, in my opinion one of the most harmful and accepted ideas in America today. We are not supposed to merge and reform into another category or group, forsaking the ones that we come from. In maintaining who we are, we make this country special by adding in our characteristics, habits, meals, dances, religions, and ways of life. There is no such thing as the American race, it is clearly a nationality that was given importance thanks to the people who raised its name, which were people just like him, her, you and me.

The reason why this generation is facing an epidemic of mimicry is because, in our current day, cool means right. For example, take a ninth grader has spent most of their first year in high school without any real friends to relate to and spend time with. They need to find a way to enter one of the circles around them, and unfortunately, there is always room for one more in the reckless school circles. So, this leads many of us to follow the easy path into acceptance, rather than let the differences within us shine and attract those around us who truly admire and appreciate our presence.

I want to thank those who have stayed true to what has been planted in them and their ancestors. Trust me, having a strong identity you are proud of will matter to you much more than you think when you are let out into the big world. I know this because I personally am a survivor of an attempted burial of my identity committed by this country but assisted by these very hands. For a moment, I slipped into another mindset that told me fitting in was all that mattered. For a moment, I forgot what it truly means to be from the oldest capital in the world. For a moment, I lost the drive I had for maintaining a blazing fire of pride for who I am. I snapped out of it and here I am, placing my hand on my chest and declaring that I am Kenan Osama Mirou from Damascus, Syria, the proudest person walking this earth with my identity carved on my chest for the world to see, and there is absolutely nothing that could change that. And you too should look up at the world with confidence and know that you are the best person you will ever know.