“You don’t know anybody in Spain. Aren’t you scared? ” a college friend of mine asks. She looks at me with concern as she carefully picks up the last roll of shrimp tempura with her chopsticks. “I’ll be fine!” I reply, feigning a confident smile.
The truth was that, although I had researched about moving to Spain for a year, prepped how I would present my plan to my parents, and gotten their approval after months of tears–a small part of me was scared. What was I thinking? A Muslim-American with an African background. I had so much to be afraid of. However, I was very excited for the possible adventures, learning a new language, meeting different people, and finally getting to try the one and only churros con chocolate.
On the day of my move, I waved fervently to my family while I tried to hold back tears as they watched me go past the security check-in. My parents didn’t understand why I wanted to take this path, but they trusted in my vision. I left the U.S. hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
Two years later, I would have to say that was the best decision I have made in my life, and I can’t wait to see where the next chapter takes me. But I must tell you it was not all merry and rosy as the images on my Instagram portray. My time in Spain was full of many ups and downs. Now let’s rewind a bit and I’ll tell you the full gist.
The majority of Americans living in Spain are either Erasmus (study abroad) students or teaching English. I was on the later end of that spectrum. Being a native English speaker in Spain is gold, and there are always job opportunities falling on your feet.
I arrived in Madrid, Spain in September during the peak hiring season. I got accepted into a teaching program where I had the worst experience. At first the coordinator who happened to be American seemed nice, but started acting a bit condescending towards me after I asked for a day off to celebrate EID (A Muslim holiday).
“Where are you really from?” He started questioning my American-ness.
I worked from 9am- 5pm; and when I taught private lessons, I worked until 9pm. Because it is obligatory for Muslims to pray 5 times a day at specific hours, I became worried that I had to pay back all my prayers at a later time. I contemplated if I should ask him or not, I finally decided to go ahead. After all, I planned to pray during the long break that we had.
“Would it be possible that I have an empty room to pray?” I finally mustered up the courage to ask.
“Of course! Here is the key to an empty room” he replied handing me the key, “I just hope you wouldn’t pray in front of the school,” he sarcastically added.
I chuckled at his ignorance. Every minute in the school felt like hell. It was as if I had to suppress my Islamic identity to be fully accepted. I finally left the program and was in search for another teaching job. This was the moment I faced some of my ugliest experiences in Spain.
On average, it takes a native English speaker two days, and worst case scenario a week to find a job. However, it took me a month. I had to put five times the effort even though I was qualified to work since English is my mother tongue. I started considering applying for jobs in Korea and sent my CV with my image. I didn’t get one response. Later, I sent my CV without my image, and they’d respond. However, after a video camera Skype meeting, I never heard back from them.
Back in Spain, employers would respond with, “ Sorry, we aren’t looking for anybody now,” but a week later they’d post that same position in search of a teacher. An employer made me realize what the deal really was. “Is the pañuelo (headscarf) you are wearing temporary, or you plan on going to work like that?” I wondered why she thought I would be playing dress up on my CV.
In Spain and Europe, in general (except for the UK) there are unwritten laws that don’t allow Muslim women to wear the hijab (headscarf) in the workplace. The EU is in the process of making this law official. You can read about it here. So then I understood why I wasn’t getting hired.
But after a month of grueling job search. I finally found a job.
Due to my job change, I got to teach all sorts of individuals, from two year old kindergarten kids to 50 year old executives in a top Spanish company. The adults were just fascinated with the fact that I could speak Spanish as an American, and of course that there was another city of Toledo in the U.S. The kids were the most interesting as they said what was on their minds without any filter. “Are you from Morocco? Do you have a husband? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have children? What animals in Africa do you like?” Their genuine inquiries, albeit very misguided perceptions, made me laugh out loud. However, I made sure to correct their misconceptions. The salient one being from Morocco.
Although Spain has a rich Islamic history, Spaniards have little to no knowledge about Muslims today. Except, of course, from what they see on T.V. (which we all know is not a good image). The consistent Spanish misconception of a person appearing Muslim was that he or she was from Morocco from both adults and kids alike. I always get this shocked response after letting them know I’m American. “But how can it be that you are Muslim and American?” I always remind them that America is a land for all, and one can be Muslim and be from any nationality. I think that in the back of their minds, they know this to be true. However, with the heavy media bombardment of Americans with blonde hair and blue eyes, people’s image of a “real” American is just that.
Traveling While Muslim
My unpleasant experiences while abroad were mostly from job searching, but traveling around Europe and Africa, was more of an enlightening experience for both me and the people I came across. Many of the individuals I traveled with had never met a Muslim, and I was the perfect person to answer their burning questions–although I have to admit, having to answer all questions concerning Islam is not something I enjoy doing. However, I’d rather have them hear the truth than believe lies from other sources.
During my travels I made friends and met strangers who opened their homes to me. For example: the Spanish family whom I gave private lessons to have showered me with gifts and food; the Valencian man who volunteered to show me around his beautiful city; the Catalan family who welcomed me in their home during my visit to Barcelona after a fun weekend with their daughter; and a Basque lady who kissed me on the cheek and called me “hija” (daughter). The Spanish, in general, are kind and helpful. My neighbors, most of whom were elderly, were always knocking on my door to check up on me. The list goes on.
The point is, wherever you are in this world, there is the bad, the good, and the ugly. I focus on the good.
Advice to Muslim Travelers
My story might encourage anyone who is different than “societal norms” and who may want to hide, cower or stay in. I beg you to do the opposite. Although I had some few negative experiences, the positive ones far out-weigh them. My move to Spain was the best decision I have ever made. I got to know more about myself, met like-minded people, went to places I had only dreamt of, learned a new language, and grew tougher skin.
To my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters: don’t let fear influence your decisions in life. We need to get out there! We need to get out of our comfort zone. Travel to places not many Muslims are. Apply for jobs even if there are not people like you there. People need to know our story. You never know how your service or presence might impact someone for the better. It could change you for the better as well 🙂