I could hear my heart pounding out of my chest as I stood in front of my first-grade classroom. A few weeks earlier, our teacher assigned us to bring a traditional dish from our culture to share with the class — an exercise that I now realize was meant to foster tolerance and understanding of different cultures in my predominantly white school.
“This is,” my voice trembled, “mast-o-kheyar.” It is a dish made of plain yogurt mixed with dried herbs and diced cucumber that Iranians traditionally eat as a side dish. The deafening silence was suddenly pierced with a loud shriek of “Eww! This tastes so gross!” More classmates joined in, as kids that age normally do, and eventually the entire class was rushing to the classroom sink to wash the taste out of their mouths. I could see our teacher out of the corner of my eye, laughing and smiling along with the rest of my class.
That was just one example of the many times I felt I did not belong, growing up in suburban America. These experiences were seeds planted during my childhood, and were slowly nurtured into a lifelong pursuit of equality and justice. I eventually attended Florida A&M University College of Law and served on the legal team representing Trayvon Martin’s family, doing my small part to rally in defense of black lives.
In 2014, I ran for Congress in an effort to represent all the people of Florida’s 10th Congressional District, especially those who felt left out and left behind. Back in that elementary school classroom, I would have never in a million years guessed the turns my life would take.
I am now looking forward to another major life event, one that should be joyous but is stirring those old feelings of dread and rejection. I will be getting married this September, and my aunts, uncles and cousins in Iran won’t be able to come to my wedding because President Trump has banned them.
As devastating as this is, the consequences of the ban have been far worse for others. We have left refugees stranded overseas with no place to turn. Mothers have been separated from their sick children. Grandparents are unable to meet their grandchildren. And why? Because Trump wants to keep people out because of how they choose to pray and where they come from.
The administration was forced to change the ban twice following legal pressure, and now the Supreme Court will consider the legality of the third iteration, which places restrictions on travelers from seven countries, five of them predominantly Muslim. They are Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea and Venezuela. (An eighth, Chad, was recently dropped from the list.) Many of us will be watching the oral arguments in suspense, fearful that the land’s highest court will enshrine a policy that treats the families of certain Americans differently because of their national origin or religion.
The product of a diverse America is that Americans have very different life experiences and truths. But beneath the differences in skin color, nationality or religion, we all want the same thing: to feel welcome, to be treated equally, and to feel like we belong as Americans.
Celebrating our differences is what makes America great; the exploitation of our differences has always revealed the worst in humanity and led to bombs, barriers and bans.
The long list of moral failures in American history — the genocide of Native Americans, slavery and segregation, to name a few — have primarily been motivated by the exploitation of our differences. Indeed, Donald Trump won the presidency by appealing to the worst instincts of humans: to fear and view one another with suspicion; to see our fellow human beings as unequal and undeserving of dignity and respect.
We, as a country, have traveled down this road of self-destruction before and have seen the devastating consequences. True patriots stand for religious freedom for all in an inclusive, tolerant America.
I am holding out hope that I will walk down the aisle this fall and see my uncles, aunts and cousins in the crowd, wiping away their tears and holding up their phones to snap photos of my new wife and me. I still believe America is better than a Muslim ban, and maybe we will get this one right, even if it requires a favorable Supreme Court decision first.
Originally published in the Orlando SentinelBack to top