Thursday, January 17, 2019
Aseel Elborno: "I grew up in the United States. I was born in Kuwait a Palestinian. When the Gulf War happened in 1990, Palestinians were kicked out of the country, and so many left as refugees to Jordan. But my family came under the sponsorship of my baby brother who was then two years old. Because he was American, the American consulate contacted my family and said, "We can evacuate this American citizen" They wanted to take him alone. My father said, "He's two years old, so you either take us a package or as a family, or you don't take him at all." And so the American government came back about a week later and said, "Okay, we are going to evacuate all American citizens who are minors with their families outside of Kuwait." We were then brought to Raleigh, North Carolina. I always joke that this is where the plane stopped, so that's where we got off. As an adult, I learned that it's premeditated to have relocation centers all over the United States for different groups of refugees. At the time, that's where they put the Palestinians.
I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I had been there since I was seven. I graduated college and met my husband through his cousin who was going to undergrad at North Carolina State University with me. Because of this friendship, we ended up going to Egypt together, my family and her family. When we went to Egypt, I met my husband. We ended up courting for quite some time. It was almost three years between just becoming friends and then finding out that we were interested in one another, and then going through all of the immigration stuff. I actually moved to Egypt and lived there for a year, and then we came back to Arlington where I had gone to grad school.
It's interesting because my year in Egypt really opened up my eyes to how fortunate we are in the United States to have such diversity among us. I think it make us smarter, more equipped, and better able to deal with different situations in our lives. That is different than if you are surrounded by people who all look like you, think like you, believe like you, and move like you. Your progress is a lot slower. I think that we're able to make so much more progress in the United States whether it's technology, whether it's education, whether it's the way that we run our businesses. The level of perfection, the level of comradeship that exists and coexists between the people, that happens in a place where you allow people to freely express and believe whatever they want. It was a wonderful learning experience to be in Egypt, though. Obviously, I got a husband out of it, so it was a great experience.
When we thought to come back to the United States, I didn't think to come back to North Carolina. I thought to come back to Arlington, Virginia where I had started my professional career and my grad school. I did my graduate work in political communication in Johns Hopkins University. I said “Let's go back to Arlington because I know it's diverse enough, I know that there's enough public transportation because my husband is legally blind and does not drive.” I knew that this is the area where we should really try and settle.
We were lucky. We came here, and right away my husband was able to find employment because he's in the IT field."
Omar Bassiouny: "I moved from Egypt to the US nine years ago, and we came straight this area. We’ve lived since then on the Pike. I was told that this area used to be not safe before. I was told that before that this area was not safe. There were gangs, and there were some members of drug cartels trying to sell drugs in this area, but it looks like things changed. As a citizen of this area who does not drive, I take public transportation, and I walk all the time from different places. I always feel safe. I never had issues at all walking around."
Aseel Elborno: "Living in the Columbia Pike community gives us hope. I think that Americans, or some Americans to be more clear, have this perception that America looks a certain way, and it's supposed to sound a certain way. We are living in a really big experiment here. Can you bring people who come from different backgrounds. different religions, different races, different ideological beliefs, bring them from all over the world, mix them up into this one place and say, "Can you govern yourselves where you can coexist peacefully and thrive?"
Especially in Arlington, you see that this is true. We've lived on Columbia Pike for nine years, and I've been Arlington for a total of 13 years. I came from North Carolina, a place that is not as diverse. I was in the capital, Raleigh, and I grew up among peers who were predominantly white, predominantly Christian. To come to a place like Arlington that is so diverse, where you see people from all walks of life coexisting peacefully and thriving professionally in their education, in their personal lives, it does make me feel really hopeful when we can prove to the world that, "Hey, you don't have to be homogenous to be harmonious.” You can be diverse and still coexist very peacefully, and not just peacefully, but actually appreciate the place that you live in.
When I was in high school people didn't know I was Muslim just by looking at me. I've always been very outspoken though about who I am and where I come from, the fact that I'm Palestinian, the fact that I'm Muslim. I've always been that way. They knew because I told them, and I surrounded myself with people who accepted that and were happy to be around someone who wasn't exactly like them. So my friends were very diverse as well. I had white friends, black friends, and Asian friends. So, it wasn't so difficult.
My father's father was born in Gaza, and my father was born in Gaza. And then after 1967 my grandfather left Gaza and went to Kuwait for a teaching post. He taught English I believe. My grandfather's brothers are still there in Gaza, but I don't know them, there's no direct communication
Our kids get religious training. They go to a Sunday school where they learn Arabic, Quran, and Islamic studies. It's part of the Muslim American Society, which is in Alexandria. There's actually no full service mosque in Arlington that functions from Monday to Sunday."
Omar Bassiouny: "I've never actually felt like I'm a minority in this area because there are all types of people right from all over the world. You see people from different places in Asia, or India, or Pakistan, or like from Africa, different places like Ghana, from Ethiopia, Arabs, Europeans. You just see everybody all the time, and there are all types of businesses here, shops, restaurants from all over the place. You see everybody, meet everybody. I feel like everybody knows how to talk to people from different backgrounds.
I was from Alexandria, Egypt. It's a Mediterranean city which usually has a specific little different character, because usually Mediterranean cities tend to be a little bit more laid back. And because of the economic situation, people look to people coming from the outside as if they are a source of money. There is no issue talking to different people, but it's just like maybe we can make some more business with them or something.
I moved here and then I started looking for a job. Less than a couple of months later I already had signed a contract, and then I started working, and then I moved from working as a contractor with the company to full-time and part-time with my previous company and then with another company. I had no gaps in my employment. At some points I was working two jobs full-time and doing consulting part-time on the side. There is so much work in the IT field in this area.
My bachelor's degree is in business administration. I did complete a little bit of graduate studies in information systems, but I have been working since I was in college in the IT field. I started doing help desk support, and then server work, and then system admin and system engineering. Now I'm getting more towards cyber security.
Our two boys, Walid and Zayed, were born in DC hospitals. I wish they were both born in Virginia Hospital Center, so we could say they were 100% Arlington."
Aseel Elborno: "Our boys both go to Arlington Traditional School. I think one of the things that is challenging about living in an urban community is that it is really hard to find your niche. It's hard to find the community and the support system that you need. I found it hard as a young mother because I went from working full-time to being a stay-at-home mom with two little kids. I didn't have a big support system. I don't have family that lives here. That was really difficult. Pre-school and childcare is extremely expensive in Arlington. As we all know, housing here is unaffordable, so to go from two incomes to one income was definitely challenging. One of the things that I'm really happy to see is that there is a childcare initiative going on in Arlington to look at pre-school prices, and to make sure that childcare becomes a lot more affordable, that there's more support for women who choose either to stay at home, or if that they want to go back to work, that it doesn't take their entire paycheck just to be able to get out of the house and to continue pursuing their career.
We were really lucky that our children got into Arlington Traditional School. It is a lottery school, and so that means that everybody puts their name in from all parts of Arlington; north, south, east, west. They got into this amazing school that is extremely diverse, where the teachers are very well-educated, very experienced, and the boys’ experience there has been phenomenal.
But, on the flip side, had my children not been lucky, had they not won the lottery to get into this very special school, are all Arlington schools on the same ranking as Arlington Traditional School? No, they're not. Most of Arlington schools are fantastic, but some of them aren't that great, it varies. We were lucky, and we're lucky that we were able to afford housing. We were lucky that our kids got into the lottery, but speaking of everybody with children living up and down the Pike, they may not be as lucky."
Omar Bassiouny: We were in a tough situation for a while when we were on single income because my income at the time wasn't low enough to qualify for affordable housing, and it was not obviously high enough to make it through the standard of living in Virginia…
Aseel Elborno: "In Arlington specifically."
Omar Bassiouny: "The minimum required income to live for a family of four, it was $108K. I wasn't earning in the six figures yet, but it wasn't low enough to qualify for affordable housing. We were stuck in a gap. A lot of people who were in my situation had to leave, although they were really upset. Every time I talk to people who used to live in Arlington and moved out, they say, "We would love to live in Arlington. We just couldn't afford it, especially when you start having kids. And then either you'll be in single income, or you have to deal with child support or childcare in the early ages of the children." It was very hard. When people move, it’s very hard for them to come back. They go to Centerville, or Sterling, to Woodbridge, they go to Ashburn, or they go to a different state. In general, they have to move because there is a breaking point for young childless professionals as to whether they'll be able to make it financially. But when they have kids, they either have to pay for childcare or they have to be on a single income. Childcare is very expensive here. You need at least on average $1,700 per child per month. If you have two, that's somebody's salary there. We're talking about $3,500 a month for childcare. That's a gross income of 60K of somebody, right? A single person can live on that.
We are renting because the cost of ownership in Arlington is higher than the cost of rent. A lot of people who rent out their units or homes already had bought them a while back. They still can rent them out for a reasonable price, probably $800 a month less than the cost of ownership. Because the area is expensive, a family of four needs to make $108 thousand to live, assuming they have no debt, no credit card payments, no car payments or anything. They just need this $108 thousand just to be able to live fine in the area. People tend to think, "Okay, I'll go to Ashburn, or I'm going to get something smaller or cheaper. I'm going to move there, and then childcare is slightly more affordable," and so, they leave. But the ones who make it through, they either struggle for a little while, or they already have very, very high paying jobs."
Aseel Elborno: "We really didn't have a choice because my husband is legally blind, and Arlington is the only county that we have heard of in the entire country which offers a program like the STAR Program."
Omar Bassiouny: "The STAR Program is a subsidized para-transit program for citizens with disabilities. The MetroAccess Program is obviously the umbrella that covers the greater Washington, DC metropolitan area, but it is not as not good as STAR. You can use MetroAccess, but if you have appointments, it makes your life hard. You have to leave like two to three hours before your appointment to make it on time, while in Arlington the STAR program is really the best in the whole entire United States. There is no restriction on how many trips per year you can take."
Aseel Elborno: "You get a taxi that's sent to your home. Your doctor has to send a note saying that you have some sort of disability, and then you become part of the program. You call or get online and book your rides like you would any other taxi service. Then they send you a taxi, and they will take you anywhere within the DMV. Pretty far out actually."
Omar Bassiouny: "The border is Rockville in Maryland, and on the other side Dulles Airport is the outer limit. I book straight from home to my doctor's office, doctor's office to work, work to home, or maybe some other place and then back home. There is a copay, but it's affordable. It's a wonderful well-managed system that works very, very well."
Aseel Elborno: "So, we stuck it out in Arlington despite all the costs and all the challenges. We said, "We're not going to find anywhere else that will give us so much more mobility, so much independence. We're going to stick it out." Thankfully, we made it over the hurdle, but it was a tough five years before my kids started school. My mother-in-law lives with us now, so she takes care of them after school. If she couldn’t, then I would put them in after-care at school or find a babysitter. These are issues with all families. It's harder in an expensive community."
Aseel Elborno: "I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, but in a different and less diverse generation than now. I think that area is becoming more urbanized and more diverse, but they've got about forty years to catch up to a place like Arlington, where it is a lot more diverse. When I lived in North Carolina, I was not visibly Muslim because I did not veil, and so I could pass off as a white person. I felt very safe, and I never felt discriminated against because I blended in. Had I not blended in, I would have felt very uncomfortable. When I do go back to visit now with hijab, I notice people are staring. people are looking. People might make a little comment because it's not something that they see every day."
Omar Bassiouny: "And that is in a diverse city like Raleigh. If you go twenty minutes outside Raleigh in any direction, it's very rural. If you are in a Southern state and if you're not in a diverse city that has a lot of opportunities like Raleigh and Charlotte, pretty much people are used to their own kind. I will tell you a funny story. If was talking to this lady who said she moved from Norfolk to this Northern Virginia, and she put her daughter in a middle school in Falls Church by the big mosque. Her daughter now feels like she's a minority. I was like, "Oh, that's funny enough.""
Aseel Elborno: "Even though she's white. Because her school is so diverse..."
Omar Bassiouny: "It's funny because she's a very white American, but in this area she's a minority.
Arlington is way ahead when it comes to diversity. I think the only issue in Arlington is that the land is limited. Obviously, you cannot expand the land because it is surrounded by Fairfax County and Falls Church City from all directions, so you cannot add more land to Arlington. It is a very appealing place, and there are a lot of companies that want to open their headquarters here, or already have a presence here, so there are a lot of job opportunities."
Aseel Elborno: "Housing is limited. There is a solution for this. If zoning laws were to change and single family homes were mandated that their properties had to have more than one unit, that they had to have multi-family units, the housing situation could improve. We've got a whole section of north Arlington that has not been tapped for its resources, but because they're zoned for only single family homes, there's only so much that you can build on them. We would have to change the zoning laws.
Omar Bassiouny: "One thing that I hope that I will be able to afford to do, if I bring my brother here, is that our families can live together in a big house or building but with separate living spaces, like co-housing. The kids would always have somebody to play with. The grandparents can oversee. Somebody is always there. Those kids will love it. They actually said they want to marry here.
Aseel Elborno: They want to get married, and bring their brides and just, "We're all going to live together.""
Omar Bassiouny: "I feel like this is how it should be anyway. People can still get to know each other and help each other. I tried when I moved here to invite our neighbors over and tell them, "Hey, come over and have some tea." I guess they didn't understand what I meant. They thought that was something weird because we cannot just knock on each other's door and come over for a chat and tea. You have to have an appointment. I learned my lesson.
There are other issues that now keep coming in our society now. Do you feel safe about your child? Back in the days, if there was an event where a child was molested, or attacked or something, it was kind of unusual. Now things happen more, so you cannot just feel like it's safe enough to send your kids to school. You always want to have that adult presence."
Aseel Elborno: "And also in traditional society you were raised in a village, so even the neighbors were taking care of the kids. The people on the street they all knew who you were and they would take care of you, and now everybody is a stranger.
Our boys attend an extremely diverse school, and so even when you look at their class photo, you see a little bit of everything, like many United Nations. Really, truly, it's kind of amazing. I don't know if these kids realize that's unusual. My kids are very, very outspoken, "Yeah, we don't celebrate Christmas, but we celebrate Eid. We say Merry Christmas." They know about these things, and their teachers are very comfortable speaking about it. The entire holiday season they went through all of the different faith traditions and all of the different holidays, and they even covered Eid even though Eid is not until June this year. They just went ahead and covered it because they wanted the kids to understand that there are different faith traditions and there are different celebrations."
Omar Bassiouny: "Actually, when it was Chanukah, somebody came-"
Aseel Elborno: "and brought in a Jewish menorah…"
Omar Bassiouny: "And talked about it. When it's Ramadan, I see sometimes they go and talk about it. Everybody goes to talk about something, so it's wonderful."
Aseel Elborno: "I think the kids understand that it's normal to be different, because everybody is different, and everyone's coming from their different backgrounds, and that that's okay, and that we can all be friends, and we can all get along, and we're all here to learn."
Omar Bassiouny: "If you think about it really, when you have a group of people and they have different backgrounds, different cultures, it doesn't only enrich people's experience, it actually helps create better solutions and it helps the economy, too. Like even in Chile, when they allowed immigrants in from all over, although they were under a very bad dictatorship, the economy was boosted. Not because of the dictatorship, but from having people coming from all over the world. They built businesses, they enriched their experience, and the economy improved."
Aseel Elborno: "We actually see that in the United States, too. Wherever refugees are relocated in these rural areas, they end up actually enriching those economies. I worked as a consultant or a humanitarian organization Islamic Relief USA, before I got my present job at APAH (Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing). One of the things I did then was to lobby the Hill about increasing the number of refugees that they were letting in. This current administration is letting in a much smaller percentage than what is actually normal, and even what is normal is way less than what other nations are doing, so one of the positive arguments is, "You're worried about these rural economies? Get some refugees in there. It will be boost their economies. It will enrich them.""
Interview and photography by Lloyd Wolf.