My Iraqi immigrant grandfather used to have a small novelty shop where he sold hair accessories, lipstick-shaped erasers and noisy, battery-operated toys. He soon learned enough English phrases to complete a business transaction. All other communication he handled with gestures and the warmest smile.
During his many hospital stays in the last years of his life, his nurses would always tell me he was their favorite patient. They’d pat his hand and say he was just the sweetest. They understood this about a man who said no more to them than “How are you” and “Thank you.”
Last week, Sean Hannity posed a question to Donald Trump about how to vet the hearts of Muslims coming to the United States. Trump replied: “Assimilation has been very hard. It’s almost, I won’t say nonexistent, but it gets to be pretty close. And I’m talking about second and third generation — for some reason there’s no real assimilation.” (Maybe this explains Trump’s support for profiling Muslim, which, on Sunday, he called “common sense.”)
Assimilation is a contentious concept among those who study immigration. (How does one measure assimilation, especially when most of the qualities associated with being assimilated have more to do with assuming aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture than with actual social integration?) Sociological considerations aside, the suggestion that Muslims in the United States have not assimilated is simply not correct.
Trump’s statement ignores a number of facts, perhaps most importantly that there were Muslims in this country even prior to our nation’s founding. Sources say a quarter to a third of the slaves brought to America were Muslims. It also treats Muslims who have immigrated here as a monolithic bloc and assumes that the experience of all Muslims in the United States is the same, regardless of where in our vast world they came from. There are an estimated 2.75 million Muslims in the United States, and of the 63 percent who are immigrants, the majority not only want to adopt American customs and ways of life but also naturalize at a higher rate than other immigrant groups.
On the outside, my grandfather’s inability to master English might have pegged him as someone who failed to assimilate, but he loved pizza even if he pronounced it “beeza.” He brought it home Thursday evenings to reward us for sitting through the prayers he’d recite for us. He loved Christmas. Every year, he reminded my mother to pull out her fake tree and decorate it with lights, and then he made sure to have a gift waiting for each one of us underneath its plastic limbs.
So much of what it means to assimilate happens not only inside our homes and behind closed doors, but also within a person’s mind. My grandfather died grateful to this country. Before arriving in the United States, he lived in exile in a Persian Gulf country that would not grant him a passport. The United States gave him the dignity of citizenship.
But it did not come without a price. When my grandfather arrived in California in 1988, my siblings and I were between the ages of 5 and 14. We’d all been born in the United States, our parents having immigrated more than a decade previously. Contrary to what Donald Trump seems to think about second- and third-generation immigrants, my siblings and I spoke very little Arabic, and this sentenced my grandfather to a life of relative isolation. Our conversations with him were simple, mere pleasantries. I rarely attempted to say more for fear of making a mistake, and his enthusiasm when I did try to venture into a deeper conversation in Arabic embarrassed rather than encouraged me.
At my grandfather’s funeral, I couldn’t even read an entire chapter from the Koran in his memory. In the days after he died, my mother cried not just for her loss but also because she feared a future where her own children wouldn’t be able to read the Koran in her memory.
To console her, I enrolled my family in Koran lessons, and that’s how I found myself as a mother of three in her 30s, reading from the same first-grade primer as my children. Part of me was ashamed, but another part of me was also resigned. If I learned one thing from American history, it’s that my story is not a new one. This country’s soil holds generations of grandparents who died with no more than a few words of English on their tongues, and it has borne countless generations just like mine, who look back with barely a memory of the lands and the languages they lost.