Isra Omar describes her journey being born and raised in Abu Dhabi as a Somalian native. She came to the United States at the age of 11. In her candid story, Isra shares her journey in assimilating and integrating as an American, as well as holding onto her faith and values. She recounts how balancing her Muslim and American identity has now led her to pursue a career in the fashion industry.
This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps. This story was produced by Sydney Jarol at StoryCorps Chicago.
I’m originally from Somaliland. It’s a breakaway region in the Northwest side of Somalia and we were born and raised in Abu Dhabi, then came here, moved to Chicago permanently in 2002. So when I came here, I was eleven years old. It was very hard coming into this country; culturally it was very different being a Muslim, especially after the unfortunate Twin Towers attack in New York. I was looked at differently. I wasn’t exactly sure whether I should be a practicing Muslim or just fit in with the other kids, so it was just very hard to assimilate, I was just lost. There was this situation where I was in class and my teacher asked me where I was from and I told her I was born and raised in Abu Dhabi and then she was like “Oh, so you were born in a desert” and the kids were laughing and I just felt like should I hide where I’m from? Everyone was laughing at me because everyone actually thought Abu Dhabi was a desert, but it’s a country, you know, and there are inhabitants of people, so I kind of started talking like my peers. I guess I was sort of, trying to be American, but in reality, I lost my Muslim identity.
My mom is very spiritual, she’s a devout Muslim and she always wanted me to wear a hijab, but I always told her that I wasn’t ready and in Islam, no one can force you to wear a hijab, it’s something that you wear for God. So, it’s intention based. I started wearing the hijab when I was a junior in high school; that’s when I started reconnecting with my Muslim faith. A lot of people were taken by surprise because when you put on a hijab, you act different, you’re modest. My clothes were very different, my attitude and my character changed, so a lot of people were taken aback because it was a transformation.
My dream is actually to be a fashion designer one day and to make modest clothing for Muslim women. I know, I have a situation where I’ll find a really nice dress, but it’s sleeveless, so I’ll have to find a sweater. So, something that covers your body, but is fashionable at the same time. I think fashion is an art and we – as hijabis and Muslim women – express ourselves differently, so it’s just another way of expressing ourselves; just giving us a voice. I’m trying to balance a life being Muslim and also being American.