This might be the understatement of the century, but having to flee your country and leave your past, your life and your beloved ones behind is quite a hard experience. There are about one million people who immigrate every year in pursuit of a better life in the US. Having to fit in a new community while also trying to hold onto your beliefs and traditions is a challenging task that many people struggle with. Aya Kahlil tries to tackle this issue in her new book The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story.
Aya is a freelance journalist and blogger who holds her Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language. Her background as an immigrant and her love for teaching are what drove her into writing her book. She wanted to deliver a message that being different in culture or speaking a different language is something that makes you special and you should be proud of it.
She described her book saying: “An Egyptian American girl learns to appreciate her family’s language after a teacher encourages a classroom project.” The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story tells the story of Kanzi, whose family recently immigrated from Egypt to America, and on her first day in the new school, she is trying her best to fit in. She feels ashamed of her mother who wears a hijab and calls her Habibti (loved one) in front of everyone at school and she even doesn’t want to take any authentic food with her to school to avoid any teasing. She later learns, with the help of her teacher, to love her ethnicity and language and to appreciate her family and be proud of them.
When talking about her inspiration behind the book, Aya told us of her own experience growing up as an immigrant in the US and how one teacher helped her get through this and helped her appreciate her identity more. “I was in about third or fourth grade, I and my brother were the only Muslims in the school and my teacher knew that we were Egyptians and immigrants so she asked me to write my classmates’ names in Arabic and bring them to class. My mom helped me out in writing them and the next day, I handed out the cards with the Arabic names to each student and they each copied their names and the teacher hung them up. I remember it being hung up in the class and it made me feel welcome and that there is no hostility against immigrants and it made me feel so good and proud.”
After Aya decided to pursue teaching and work in the field, and after she wrote her book about the influence of a teacher in changing a student’s life, Aya was able to reconnect with her teacher from elementary school who was the inspiration behind the book, and she even gave her a copy of the book to thank her.
During our interview, Aya also touched on her motive behind the book and the message she wished to deliver, saying “It’s about representation. I want immigrant kids, marginalized kids, Arab kids, and people of color to see themselves in stories and to have them say I am worthy enough of being a character in a picture book.”
Immigrants and minority groups have been suffering from symbolic annihilation for quite some time and finding someone who truly represents them without any biases, stereotypes, or misrepresentation is a dream to many minorities. “Being heard and having the feeling that they matter and being able to embrace their culture, heritage, identity, language, and everything.” She continued.
Aya has always had a passion for teaching English, she discovered that passion when she was on a vacation and decided to pursue that passion. “When I would go back to Egypt in the summer, I would volunteer with a charity organization to teach English and I really liked it, so I came back that summer and enrolled in the Master’s degree in teaching,” Aya said.
“Persist, be authentic and always ask yourself who am I writing for, who do I want to empower through my book” were Aya’s words of advice to new writers. “Always write and get feedback from writers who are on a similar path. Publishers are always looking for diverse writers so I think this a really good time. Write, ask questions, decide your target audience, you might get rejections, but don’t give up.”
If a proper representation is wanted, then writers and actors from that background are who should represent themselves. Stories about minority groups should be told by minority groups themselves, not anyone else. That’s why Aya talked about persistency and authenticity, as they are strong tools for diverse writers to achieve fair representation for themselves and their communities.
Aya has also wanted to show that Muslims and Arabs can be anything they want so when she was asked what does she think Kanzi would be when she grows up her answer was: ” An athlete, she loves swimming, she would definitely want to become a swimmer. But she will also write on the side to express herself.”
In her book, Aya shows kids that embracing your language, identity, religion, and culture can seem intimidating at first, but everyone is unique in their own way and everyone’s background is what makes them unique.
We’re doing a giveaway of Aya’s book The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story on our Instagram, stay tuned and enter to win a copy!