On Jan. 27, 2017, Rowan Hussein’s phone lit up with a CNN breaking news notification. The 19-year-old Weinberg sophomore was walking back to her sorority house when she looked down at the screen and read, “Trump’s orders bar people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia entering US for 90 days.” On the list was her birthplace, Sudan, the home she left behind 12 years ago.
Rowan wasn’t exactly surprised. After all, Trump campaigned on a promise of the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
“It was more of shock like, ‘I can’t believe it actually happened, but I should’ve expected this,’” she says. “It just never crossed my mind that even though Sudan is a Muslim majority country it would be on the list.”
Almost immediately, the unsolicited apologies began. Vaguely familiar faces approached Rowan. Like remorseful friends at a funeral, they said they were sorry this was happening and asked if she was OK. “I think as great as Northwestern is, we have a tendency, when something bad happens, to victimize everyone who is in that group,” she says. “You don’t need to hold me up. I can hold myself up on my own.”
For many well-meaning Northwestern students, Jan. 27 was a staggering reminder that the United States has a long history of prejudice, and it’s constantly adding new chapters. For Rowan, Jan. 27 was “another thing on the list, but still, it’s a huge deal,” she says. “This was clearly Islamophobic. I think when the president of the United States does something like that there isn’t hiding or going around it.”
Rowan can only speak for her experiences. But since her family arrived in the U.S., she’s encountered the ways that American institutions force immigrants – especially Black and Muslim ones – to fight for inclusion. This has been true since long before the travel ban. It’s something no judicial stay can change.
Anti-Muslim hate crime incidents in the Chicago area so far in 2017, as reported by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
During 2015, the FBI reported a
surge in anti-Muslim hate crimes.
In 2016, the Huffington Post reported
anti-Muslim attacks, with half of them explicitly referencing Trump.
There are an estimated
international students in the U.S. from Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
of the total student body this school year are international students from over 80 countries.
Rowan was born in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to Khalid Hussein, an aerospace scientist, and Zoya Elhassan, a passionate women’s rights activist. Three years later, her only sister, Linda, was born. She grew up to be irritatingly taller than Rowan, with a quick wit to match. Rowan still remembers the huge gates of their home, which led to a yard where she played on intricately designed tile in the warmth of summer.
When she was three months old, her family moved to Gottingen, Germany. There Khalid earned his Ph.D. in remote sensing and Zoya got her master’s in women’s studies from the University of Gottingen. Rowan loved when her dad would take her to watch helicopters land at the Red Cross Hospital nearby. The family stayed in Gottingen for almost six years before bouncing among several European countries.
In 2000, Rowan’s father applied for a U.S. work visa. He wanted to move the family to Boulder, Colorado, a city with an abundance of opportunities in aerospace science. So he entered the lottery and waited.
Applying for a green card through the diversity lottery was a marathon process long before Trump’s inauguration, says Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of the Penn State Law Center for Immigrant Rights’ Clinic. “Even before or without the ban in place, [they] may be facing other types of security checks based on where they’re from, or because they’re from a country that has been identified as a possible national security threat,” she says. “If you’re from a country that is already oversubscribed, you might be dealing with a longer wait time.”
Rowan’s family had a different problem. After six months, Khalid won the lottery and got a green card to enter the U.S. and work. But Germany refused to issue Linda a passport because the family was no longer living there. Khalid bought himself a one-way ticket to Boulder and moved into an apartment alone. He knew it would be a while before his family could join him, but he had no idea just how long it would take to be reunited. In the meantime, Zoya took Rowan and Linda back to Sudan to live near their extended family while they worked to get Linda a passport to travel to the U.S. Two-and-a-half years later, they succeeded.
On April 20, 2005, one month before her eighth birthday, Rowan arrived in Boulder. She spoke Arabic and German. But even though she had taken English classes since she was five-and-a-half in a private American Catholic school in Sudan, her knowledge ended after the alphabet and numbers. Three days later, she started second grade at Whittier Elementary School.
On her first day of school, as Rowan sat by the playground, a round-faced classmate sporting a black velvet track suit and a wispy ponytail asked her, “Do you speak Spanish?”
She understood this was a yes or no question, but she couldn’t quite make out what any of the words meant. Her gut told her to go with yes, and suddenly her new friend unleashed a torrent of words in a new language she couldn’t understand. But it wasn’t much of a change for Rowan. She couldn’t understand her peers’ English either.
She spent the day copying words out of a picture book to improve her handwriting, only deciphering where to sit by watching her teacher’s hand gestures. For the next few months, Rowan lived in an English daze – picking up the language as quickly as she could over the summer.
“The typical student takes two to three years to learn basic interpersonal communicative skills,” says Dr. Lee Gunderson, chair of the department of education, counseling psychology and special education at the University of British Columbia. “On the other hand, there’s the kind of language that’s called cognitive academic language proficiency, and that’s the kind of language you need to have to be able to read a textbook … That takes an immigrant, on average, about five to seven years to acquire.”
When Rowan started third grade at High Peaks Elementary that fall, her teachers had to put her in remedial English. The school didn’t offer any ESL classes when Rowan and Linda arrived. The sisters were the first students at the school who needed them.
Rowan’s teachers also placed her in the lower level math class without testing her. They never sat down with her parents to inform them of the decision, nor did they explain it to Rowan. Little did they know, she loved math. “Regardless of where I lived, math was the same,” she says.
When the school year started, Rowan’s teachers sent her home with a week’s worth of math homework. She finished it in two days. “You’re going through this so fast,” Rowan remembers her teachers saying, “maybe you should move up.” They put her in advanced math classes, where she remained for the rest of her time in school. By fourth grade, she was in advanced reading classes, too.
Immigrant students often enter schools that set lower expectations for them through grouping practices that track students by race and language, Gunderson says. “If there’s an English language difficulty, often teachers assume that reflects intelligence, which it does not,” he says. These lower expectations, Gunderson says, lead to poorer curricula for immigrant students, which perpetuates inequalities.
In high school, Rowan’s mom made her join the debate team to overcome her shyness. “I just didn’t like talking to people,” she says, “because obviously English was a language I learned. I just never thought of myself as a good writer or a good speaker.”
She partnered up with Jessica Piper, an overachieving friend she made in middle school. Together, they worked on their strategy and developed their ability to confuse others in the middle of their arguments. “I like how it pushed me to think,” Rowan says. “I’m a really competitive person and it was a good place for me to put that energy every week.”
In her four years debating in Colorado, Rowan only met one other Black woman debater. But being the only Black woman in the room “was a space that I was used to,” she says. “It’s a really good driving force when someone expects you to fail and you succeed.”
Rowan and Jessica made it to the final round of the Colorado Mile High speech and debate tournament their senior year. As Rowan looked around the small, windowless classroom where she’d soon compete for the championship, she noticed she and Jessica were the only women. They were surrounded, she says, by “stereotypical, successful white men.” But while Rowan and Jessica had been underdogs for years, she realized that this time, these men were scared of them.
“It feels weird, but that’s how I had knew we had made it,” she says. “I’ve been in these rooms for so long. I’ve beat them before. I can do it again.”
When it came time to apply for college, Rowan had a lot going for her: her parents had over a decade of higher education between them and could afford to put her in SAT and ACT tutoring classes. Still, neither of them had any experience applying to schools in the U.S. and neither spoke English as a first language. Rowan says they did as much as they could, but there was only so much advice they could offer about navigating the application process and proofreading her essays.
“I’m a very independent person. I relied on myself,” she says. “Everything is new and the only person who can figure it out for you is you. So you become the adult and the child.”
"I am the beautiful intersection of four incredibly resilient identities. In my opinion, I am America."
- Rowan Hussein
Rowan says it wasn’t hard to adjust to the Northwestern community. She had come from Boulder where she and her sister were the only Black students in their elementary school; she was the only Black girl in her middle school and was one of six Black students at her high school, including her sister.
“Seeing more than two other Black people on Northwestern’s campus was already so much more than I could ask for, that for me diversity and assimilating and seeing so many people who didn’t look like me was never shocking,” she says. “I found it really exciting.”
Between taking DJing lessons from her friends in Dial Up and her hectic schedule as a pre-med student, she misses some of the cornerstones of her culture. Rowan craves the Arabic she speaks at home with her family and the Sudanese dishes her mom cooks that she can’t find in restaurants in Evanston. “There are small things that make a difference and people don’t always realize that,” she says.
Even time for leisure and conversation – which she notes is a key component of Arab culture – is a luxury Rowan says she often can’t afford at Northwestern. Still, it’s a habit she can’t seem to break. Rebecca Fudge, one of her sorority sisters and a close friend, says Rowan never fails to stop by her room each night to ask how she’s doing and talk about their days. “No matter how busy she is, she always makes time for other people,” Fudge says.
She sought out that same community on the night of the election. “I didn’t even want to be by myself that night,” Rowan says. “I slept over at one of my friends apartments and in the morning I talked to my mom.”
After Trump’s divisive campaign and unlikely victory, “It was just incredibly shocking to come to the realization that 50 percent of America thinks that way,” she says.
As the co-chair for Community Development in the Global Engagement Summit, the diversity and inclusion chair for her sorority, Pi Beta Phi, a member of the Model Arab League and an active member of McSA, Rowan is a leader on campus. So when news of the travel ban broke, Medha Imam*, a Medill senior helping organize the #NoMuslimBan Walkout, asked Rowan if she’d speak.
On Feb. 5, 20 minutes before she was supposed to speak, Rowan sat in the Multicultural Student Affairs building. She took out a sheet of paper to write her speech, then stopped for a minute to think about how she was feeling. She was angry, and she couldn’t stay collected.
When she finally stood out onto the deck of the MSA building, she was floored by the number of people spilling out onto Sheridan Road. Earlier she’d thought that if 30 or 40 students protested in solidarity she’d be happy. But when she looked out to the street, hundreds of faces stared back.
Holding a megaphone to her mouth, her voice came out in a yell. “You have no idea what it is like to lose home at the risk of never finding home again,” she told the crowd, “to have your entire life split between two lands and become the bridge between two countries.”
Suddenly Rowan was an Arabic speaking second-grader again, getting lost in translation. She was the only Black woman in the room at the state debate finals. She was Muslim in the face of a country that wants to erase her.
“I am the beautiful intersection of four incredibly resilient identities.” Her voice was shaky, but she kept yelling. “In my opinion, I am America.”
*Imam is a former contributor to North by Northwestern.