Amal walks us through her journey from being a young Muslim-Moroccan girl in France towards growing into her identity. She shares her observations, from her family being discriminated because of their religious practices, to the complexities of heritage and belonging. She is an Instructor at Future Founders. In this role, she leads high energy entrepreneurship activities for middle and high school students in Chicago. Chicago became home for Amal a few years ago when she moved from Europe to settle in the United States to pursue her master’s research on the intersection of tech and international politics in US-Middle East relations. This story was produced through a community partnership with MALA and StoryCorps.
“I was born in one of the suburbs of Paris. I need to specify that, in France, “suburb” doesn’t have the same meaning that it has here in the US. It doesn’t have the affluence, and wealthy vibes that you guys associate with it here. So I grew up in a house project in the suburbs of Paris in France. Both of my parents are Moroccan, and they are proud to remain Moroccan with French resident cards.
So, my school was quite integrated in the sense that all of the kids from my house project would go to this school. Many immigrant kids would go to this school, and at the same time, kids from the more wealthy neighborhoods would go to this school as well. So it was really integrated and diverse. Very early on I was in a diverse school system where my classmates would come from different social and cultural backgrounds. In high school I kept friendships from kindergarten and elementary school that I still have today. I also had the opportunity to meet new people and to bond new friendships.
High school was a very paradoxical time for me. Growing up as a young woman, trying to find myself in my faith, in my identity, in what would be my mission on this planet, what I would like to do, what are my passions, what was expected of me as well. So I really don’t keep a very happy and joyful memory of high school because I was very oppressed by a certain number of questions, and in my household I was dealing with very deep tensions that were tremendously distracting me from my school work and definitely sidetracked me from my school plans.
I went for an exchange program in the UK to complete my undergraduate, and then I came back and completed my graduate studies and this is how I managed to come back here in the US, because I pursued my research here while being supervised by my advisor in Paris.
The Muslim experience in the UK is definitely different from the Muslim experience in France. I was happily surprised to see how Muslim practices are democratized. They are definitely more democratized in the UK then they are in France. For instance, at work and university you had a Muslim prayer hall, which would never happen at university in France. It could in the future, but as long as I’m living, and I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.
Seeing many hijabi workers in the work landscape was very interesting too, that’s something that I don’t necessarily observe. A weakness in the French society. Indeed the niqab is banned, the hijab is banned from public function. However it is highly discriminated against in the private sector. So even though this is not inscribed in the law, hijabi women in France do experience discrimination when they are attempting to work in the private sector. In my family, most of the women wear the hijab, including my mother.
So growing up, and just being in the public space with my mother, I observed as a weakness many discriminations held against her. Against my grandmother, against my aunt. I would say growing up, I don’t wear the hijab, and I was “white passing” because even though I have an afro now, I wasn’t courageous enough to wear my hair naturally growing up. So I was definitely white passing and I didn’t experience as much discrimination as someone of a similar ethnicity would. I would say that in Europe in general, racism is more blatant face to face. Where as here, people will not necessarily tell you racist slurs to your face but, racism is built within the system.
I work with an organization called Future Founders, and at Future Founders we believe that every youth can become an entrepreneur. Through that mission, we empower and teach young students in Chicago Public schools, middle school and high schools, the basics and the fundamentals of business and then we coach them to build prototypes of apps.
We are developing other programs that would help them to develop other business that are non-tech, but we do believe that it is important for them to have a great introduction into the tech world as well as being able to come up with different business ideas in other fields as well. I would say, to a younger Amal, that things will come into place. Don’t rush it, let it go. Things will come into place when they are meant to come into place, you will see.”