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Immigrant Heritage Month: Bring Your Identity With You

1969. That’s that year I emigrated from Egypt to the United States.

I married my husband in 1970, and we are blessed with three grown children and 15 grandchildren. When I came to America I didn't speak a word of English, but knew I would learn it. Not only because this was my new home, but because I wanted to be a part of my new country and not feel like I was a tourist that really didn’t understand how things worked or what was really happening around me.

Any person who tries to learn a new language knows that it is easier said than done, and it took a few years for my dreams to start becoming a reality. I remember when my eldest daughter started school, she came home with a Back to School Night flyer and told me that her teacher said I should attend. Shocked, I asked my daughter what she did wrong! You see, in my native country of Egypt, parents didn’t report to school unless their child misbehaved. I didn’t understand what a Back to School Night or the PTA was about. However, I was fortunate enough to have a great neighbor who explained what both were and offered to take me to my daughter's school to participate.

Excited, I dressed up and dressed in my best clothes, because in Egypt this would have been the way to show respect for my child’s teachers and administrators. When my neighbor came to pick me up, she said that I looked like I was going to a party and maybe I should change. I didn’t. To me, it would have been showing disrespect to my child’s teacher, and I had an intense desire as an immigrant to maintain my identity and traditions while at the same time becoming involved and integrated into my new community. Immigrants can assimilate without losing their identity. I learned that then and know it even better now.

I sat through the entire Back to School Night presentation and didn’t really understand most of what was said. However, when my child’s teacher asked for volunteers, I understood that, and I knew I wanted to help. America was a dream for me and my family, and I wanted to become involved. I waited until everyone left and I told the teacher I wanted to volunteer. She mentioned the Valentine’s Day and Halloween parties as opportunities (I wasn’t familiar with those traditions) and asked me if I could bake treats for them. Enthusiastically, I responded that I make the best baklava they have ever had, and being Greek, the teacher understood and was thrilled. I may not have spoken English well then, but the teacher and I connected through the universal language of food. In that moment, I learned an important lesson about how to make connections when welcoming immigrant families into our communities--one that I would carry with me into the future

We need to find areas of common ground and always promote a warm, friendly, and welcoming environment. By doing so, immigrant families will feel comfortable enough to become fully engaged. My baklava was my entry into the PTA, which resulted in my involvement over the next decade in various school activities, committees, the ESOL (English as a Second Language) program, and greater civic involvement. In fact, years later I received the Lifetime PTA Achievement award for all of my volunteering.

As my children grew up, simply being involved in their school was no longer enough for me, so I started learning about the American political process and elections. Over the years, I learned about the importance of civic involvement, especially the value of serving on boards and commissions, which has become one of my favorite parts of our political system.

By serving on boards and commissions, I am now able to provide advice to others interested in getting politically involved. My key piece of advice is to always find an issue you are passionate about and support those organizations that share your passion. One of my personal highlights along my journey was graduating from Emerge Maryland in 2012. The program taught me how to run for elected office, which led me to run for and win a seat on the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee of Maryland. This year, I am running unopposed for reelection (my friends joke that the strength of my candidacy scared everyone else off!). I don’t know about that. It's certainly been a long journey, but I'm proud of my accomplishments.

My message to all new immigrants is don’t be afraid to learn about your new home. Do your civic duty and become involved in your community. You don't have to lose your identity to have a seat at the table. You can bring it with you.

Mimi Hassanein serves on the Montgomery County Democrats Central Committee, Executive Committee, and as the Middle Eastern senior fellow and laison. In addition, Mimi a board member of Leadership Montgomery, the Sandy Spring Museum, Hospice, and Emerge Maryland.

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