Courtesy of Raghda Al-Hmeyrat
Originally from Karbala, Iraq, a young Raghda Al-Hmeyrat sat in her third-grade classroom for the first time in Spokane. Looking around, she noticed many things: No one else was wearing a hijab, no one else spoke Arabic and everyone else was white.
Her twin brother, Saif Al-Hmeyrat, had to be in a different classroom to prevent the two from speaking Arabic to each other. Neither of them knew much English– just how to count to 10.
Their mother, Hanaa Alwan, would work all day. She might have missed Iraq sometimes, but there was no future for her kids there. That’s why they spent three years in Lebanon waiting for the United Nations to grant them immigration status. When they finally got a host family to take them in, she knew Spokane would be their new home.
The strength shown by her mom helped Raghda Al-Hmeyrat stay strong when things were hard. She struggled with waiting three years before making a friend in school, spending all week on English homework and all weekend on Arabic homework, translating for her mom, and always being a part of after-school clubs.
It wasn’t long before Al-Hmeyrat fell in love with the English language. She would constantly read books and loved learning more English. Only six months after moving to the U.S., she passed the English for Speakers of Other Languages test.
“Since I was little, it doesn’t matter what language it is [in], I really loved school,” Al-Hmeyrat said. “With English, it opened new doors and new ways to explore life.”
It was this love for English that led Al-Hmeyrat to eventually major in English as a second language. She wanted to volunteer at the same facility her mother learned English at, but after her first day, she realized it would be too emotional. Instead, she worked as a graduate teaching assistant for EWU’s English department while earning her master’s degree.
Al-Hmeyrat said she has a deep love for both Arabic and English, and she wouldn’t want to know just one of the languages. But living with both cultures brought difficulties she wasn’t expecting. In high school, people would either assume that she knew nothing or that she knew everything. She said there was never an in-between.
As she got older, Al-Hmeyrat continued to see people judging her based on her appearance.
“Especially with the way I dress, people would assume that I’m not educated or that I don’t know anything,” Al-Hmeyrat said. “But how you dress has nothing to do with your human rights or who you are as a person.”
She encouraged that people make an effort to learn about other cultures and meet people with different backgrounds. Instead of clumping together all Middle Eastern people, Al-Hmeyrat said to learn about the vast amounts of cultures within Middle Eastern countries.
While being Muslim in America has brought difficulties, Al-Hmeyrat realized she’s lucky for many reasons. She’s never had anyone try to touch or take off her hijab, as she knows many Muslim people have been harassed in those ways. She feels fortunate that it hasn’t been too bad for her.
However, when there was high tension between America and Iran, Al-Hmeyrat recalls things being especially bad. Walking around Spokane, she would hear comments from people telling her to go back home, to go to jail or to leave this country.
“I’m not from Iran,” Al-Hmeyrat said. “But people just assumed I was from Iran because I wear the hijab.”
But Al-Hmeyrat doesn’t blame the people who were rude to her. She said that it isn’t their fault that they don’t know.
Now, she is grateful for her two cultures despite challenges they may have brought. For a while, Al-Hmeyrat contemplated whether she belonged. She felt like she didn’t belong in the United States because she was Iraqi. But she also felt like she wouldn’t belong in Iraq because she had become accustomed to American culture.
“When you look at me, you see Iraqi culture, but when you sit down and you talk to me, you hear American culture,” Al-Hmeyrat said. “If I go back there [to Iraq], people will not really understand where I come from.”
Whenever she struggles, she remembers how much her mom sacrificed for her and her brother. “I’m glad that my mom brought us here,” Al-Hmeyrat said. “Especially with what’s going on over there now; I’m grateful.”
Al-Hmeyrat also thinks back on the time she spent living with a host family, the Evans. Their first several months in the U.S. was spent living with the Evans. Her host mother, Sheri Evans, recalled picking up the family from the airport. The plane was full of servicemen returning home, and Hanaa Alwan seemed frightened by all of the men, according to Evans.
“I knew that in their culture, the women were not comfortable with men,” Evans said. “And here was tiny Hanaa with two little 8-year-old kids and all these men.”
But they were quick to adjust and eager to learn, according to Evans. The family had never seen golden retrievers before, or hot dogs or snow. The Evans were there for many firsts of the family, which Al-Hmeyrat is thankful for.
Mark Evans, their host father, expressed how extremely proud he was of Al-Hmeyrat. Growing from an extremely shy kid to teaching classes at EWU as a graduate student is remarkable to him.
“She had a hard time with wearing the head-coverings and everything when everyone else didn’t,” Mark Evans said. “She just kept going right through it and we’re just so proud of her for standing up and doing what she knew.”
In fact, Al-Hmeyrat didn’t meet anyone her age that wore the hijab until she came to EWU. She’s very grateful for EWU’s diverse student body.
Al-Hmeyrat received her bachelor’s in English as a second language from EWU in 2018. Her mother pushed her to continue her education and get her master’s degree, since there might not be many job opportunities for English as a second language.
Al-Hmeyrat was unsure, as a master’s degree was never really in her plans. But she applied for a scholarship at EWU for continuing her studies and got accepted.
“I didn’t know if I was going to get in,” Al-Hmeyrat said. “But when I got in, I was like ‘OK, this is what God wants me to do.’”
Getting a master’s degree in rhetoric and technical communication proved to be harder than expected. She said the entire first year she felt like quitting, but now she’s almost at the finish line, all thanks to her mom supporting and pushing her to continue her education.
For the future, Al-Hmeyrat is eager to branch out. She’s never left the PNW, which she loves, but she’s ready to see other states. Her only employer has been EWU, which she loves, but she’s ready to try new job dynamics. She doesn’t want to plan her next few steps, but wants to experience whatever comes her way.