A Bittersweet Homecoming | Sumayyah Meehan

THERE’S NO PLACE like home. There’s no place like home.” Those are the magical words uttered by Dorothy in the iconic movie The Wizard of Oz as she found her way back to Kansas, with just a couple of clicks of her ruby slippers.

Like Dorothy, I too longed for home and struggled to get back there. As an American living in Kuwait for a decade and a half now, I have fought an inner battle to build a life here while longing for a slice of hometown America. The rolling pastures, cloud bedazzled skies, and the serenity of suburbia are just a few of the things I missed most over the years. I worried that perhaps my children too were missing out on the best parts of America.

Despite the longing for my homeland, it’s not easy to simply drop everything and fly thousands of miles away to a country you barely know anymore and a family that you’ve only been able to communicate with electronically. The family business, the stressful school years, and countless illnesses and injuries made it nearly impossible for me to plan a family getaway to the States for almost 10 years—not to mention the lifestyle in Kuwait, which is heartwarming to say the least. The friendships I have made here, the sense of community, and the overwhelming spirit of Islam are other reasons why my trip back home kept getting delayed.

Back in the USA

This past May, after many emotional phone calls and emails back home, I finally sat down and devised a plan. It was hard, given that we would be traveling during the Holy Month of Ramadan, but I was determined to make it work. We bought our tickets and set out on a 15-hour journey, complete with a lengthy layover in London and one airplane change. We landed at JFK airport in New York City at 8 p.m.

I thought silently to myself, this daughter is home, as we bundled into a hired car that drove us to my aunt’s house in Connecticut. We opened the door to her condo and were met with the smiling faces of my aunt, sister, cousins, and nieces.

My family has grown quite small over the years, mostly due to death. However, my mother chose not to be there since her biggest gripe with me is my unwavering faith in Islam.

I must say that Allah is the Best of Planners because I should have been comfortable in the environment of my family, but for some reason I wasn’t. My guard was definitely up, and I felt a sense of unease, which twisted my stomach into a series of knots.

Our first day in the USA was telling. Gone were the idyllic memories engraved in my brain since childhood of neighborly friendship and the kindness of strangers. As we moved through the day doing things like shopping for groceries and showing my children a few of my favorite places, I no longer recognized my hometown.

The people I saw, driving their cars or simply walking around, weren’t happy. In fact, they looked troubled and even angry. Blame it on the economy or the effects of America’s wars—something was taking a toll.

Here we had just arrived, and I found myself wanting to stay in the condo instead of going out. That’s a hard conclusion to come to especially when you have four children wanting to fit as many activities into their vacation as possible.

With renewed determination and several tear drenched du¢â’s to Allah Almighty, my husband and I decided to focus on family since that is why we had come in the first place and would keep the tourist activities to a minimum. But I soon learned that the distance that had separated me from my family for so many years wasn’t nearly as big as the cataclysmic shift in mindset.

A Whole New World

As a convert to Islam, I always counted myself lucky that I hadn’t faced much resistance to my conversion from my Christian family members, with the exception of my mother. That’s what made my summer trip so ‘eye-opening’ for me, or, perhaps, ‘heart-rending’ is the better word. Not only did I discover that almost all of my family members hold a deep-seated hatred for Islam, but I experienced the ugliness of Islamophobia up close and personally.  It started out with small, somewhat cloaked insults.

On a trip to the mall, a family member pointed out a heavyset Muslim sister on the street and said: “She really looks like she needs to be fasting for Ramadan.” Another incident was more inflammatory. I entered a room full of my niece’s teenage friends, and a close relative asked me in front of them whether I had “banged my head on the floor that day,” a blatant stab at the Islamic prayer.

Nor were my children spared either. My teenage son was consistently asked whether he had a girlfriend. Moreover, every conversation with my kids was peppered with “Jesus” this and “Jesus” that. This occurred repeatedly despite my best efforts to engage in da‘wah regarding Jesus in Islam.  Clearly, the intention was to create doubt in my children’s minds regarding their faith.

The intense emotions I felt and sheer distress engulfed my heart in searing flames. The tears I shed were blinding, and the guilt I felt for bringing my little family into this situation was choking. It felt to me almost as if my inner turmoil was manifesting itself into reality as a hurricane hit the area hard leaving us without electricity for days and in a state of absolute pandemonium. I looked at the broken boats washed ashore, the towering trees that had been ripped from the earth right down to the roots, and the hundreds of thousands of leaves that littered the landscape.

Fly Away Home

Something changed that day, and I can only thank Allah for it. As we drove our car through street after street of disaster and devastation, we looked to see if there was anything we could do to help those who had just lost everything in the time-span of a morning.

All of a sudden, the air took on an indescribable scent that was as surprising as it was divine. The air was thick with the scent of musk intertwined with notes of fresh pine and crushed grass. I breathed in deeply inhaling the scent until I was almost light-headed. I felt a sense of hope, and my tortured heart found peace.

Later that day, my husband and I took the kids to a local restaurant for lunch. It was packed with people trying to cope with the aftermath of the storm, everyone was sharing their own story over plates of hot food.

We met an elderly man and his wife while standing in line. His name was Tom and he was intensely interested in our story. Tom could not believe we were visiting from Kuwait and had gotten stranded in a hurricane. Over the course of a mere matter of moments, we learned that not only was this his third hurricane evacuation but also that he is dying from advanced lung cancer.

I mentioned to this complete stranger that my homecoming was not what I expected in terms of my family’s reception of the only Muslim member of the family, although my problems certainly were not as bad as his. With a hearty grin he replied: “Well, maybe, just maybe, you belong somewhere else.” And with that we bade farewell to him and his wife.

It wasn’t until we were sitting on the plane bound for Kuwait that the magnitude of Tom’s words hit me. My heart was bursting with anticipation. I was going home to Kuwait! I realized that the tiny Muslim country is my real home.

No one judges my faith here. I can hear the adhan beautifully pronounced five times a day and the holy city of Makkah is only a day’s road trip away.

It no longer mattered what my family thought or how they behaved. What mattered most is that my real homecoming, as a daughter of Adam, was ahead of me.

When we arrived at Kuwait International Airport, I shifted my shirt as the heat began to hit me. I looked up at the cloudless dusty sky and whispered: “It’s good to be home.”

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11 Comments

  • The struggle of a convert is something else, but I didn’t realize Kuwait gives you citizenship. It can never be “home” unless you are a citizen of a country.

  • The struggle of a convert is something else, but I didn’t realize Kuwait gives you citizenship. It can never be “home” unless you are a citizen of a country.

  • The struggle of a convert is something else, but I didn’t realize Kuwait gives you citizenship. It can never be “home” unless you are a citizen of a country.

  • Home is where you feel comfortable and safe. And home does change as we grow. As a revert, I definitely understand Sumayyah’s situation and feelings. It took a long time for my family to even speak to me after I took my shahadah. And they often still send “reminders” from my previous faith. I understand why they do this and why they feel as they do. Despite my explanations and the example of my husband, they are still very influenced by media portrayals and news priming concerning Muslims.

    If Sumayyah considers Kuwait home, then it is her home, despite her ethnicity and heritage. This is the age of great migration and freedom of locality and oftentimes, making a new country our home becomes like moving to a new house. It soon becomes familiar, warm, and finally, home.

  • Home is where you feel comfortable and safe. And home does change as we grow. As a revert, I definitely understand Sumayyah’s situation and feelings. It took a long time for my family to even speak to me after I took my shahadah. And they often still send “reminders” from my previous faith. I understand why they do this and why they feel as they do. Despite my explanations and the example of my husband, they are still very influenced by media portrayals and news priming concerning Muslims.

    If Sumayyah considers Kuwait home, then it is her home, despite her ethnicity and heritage. This is the age of great migration and freedom of locality and oftentimes, making a new country our home becomes like moving to a new house. It soon becomes familiar, warm, and finally, home.

  • Home is where you feel comfortable and safe. And home does change as we grow. As a revert, I definitely understand Sumayyah’s situation and feelings. It took a long time for my family to even speak to me after I took my shahadah. And they often still send “reminders” from my previous faith. I understand why they do this and why they feel as they do. Despite my explanations and the example of my husband, they are still very influenced by media portrayals and news priming concerning Muslims.

    If Sumayyah considers Kuwait home, then it is her home, despite her ethnicity and heritage. This is the age of great migration and freedom of locality and oftentimes, making a new country our home becomes like moving to a new house. It soon becomes familiar, warm, and finally, home.

  • Me, too. I feel most at peace in an Islamic setting. The discomforts brought on by being a muslim are minor inconveniences compared to the real comforts within leading an Islamic lifestyle and looking forward to the immediate benefits as well as the promised rewards.

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