Five letters, one meaning: peace.
Yet, her life had been anything but.
The Middle East
The first scream echoed through the halls of her Saudi Arabian school. She ran. Sprinting as fast as an 8-year-old child could, she raced for any exit she could find as the shooter entered the building. Everyone was on their own. Heart racing, tears streaming down her face, it was all about survival, her survival. Yet, if she died, she felt it’d mean nothing. She was just another Palestinian.
It would only be her first school shooting of three, even with her school being one of the most prestigious in the area. That said, even with the fear and threat of violence, she was still living a life of luxury compared to her the rest of her family. Before her, her father had endured child labor and been shot at for fun. Yet before even him, her grandfather walked barefoot from Palestine to Jordan, as bombs dropped around him, to escape the war and return to the family he had already saved. With such great family sacrifices and struggle, junior Salam Abouchleih knew only to be grateful for her life in Saudi Arabia.
With so much movement, Salam has very culturally diverse roots. She is a Palestinian girl, raised in Saudi Arabia. Her father is from Lebanon. Her mother is from Saudi Arabia. Her grandparents are from Palestine but moved through Jordan, displacing her family.
This first time was in 1948 when Salam’s grandparents fled Palestine to escape the Arab-Israeli War. This war resulted from the Arabs rejecting the UN Partition Plan to split Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, to decrease conflict over who was to occupy specific land. After the Arabs rejected the plan, riots, bombings and massacres began and escalated to a full war, leaving over 720,000 Palestinian refugees.
After decades of conflict since, there are still hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, many enduring severe poverty, racial discrimination and rampant unemployment in refugee camps. Yet, while the refugees struggle on, the conflict is still unresolved, with Israelis and Palestinians unable to come to an agreement on the land.
“[Palestinians] don’t care where you are from,” Salam said. “Just don’t treat us like we are dogs. We are literally treated like we are animals everywhere, everywhere we go. The thing that hurts the most is that wherever we go, we’re never going to have a country. We are never going to fit in, and that breaks my heart. My kids, when they grow up, they are never going to have a place to call home, ever.”
Coming to America
Living in a world of prejudice, Salam and her family couldn’t stay in Saudi. At age 12, Salam, her mother and her two brothers moved to the United States, leaving their father behind. He had sent them to the U.S. for a better life, staying back to work until he could join them two years later.
Even though she lives in a new house, Salam still feels like she has no home. No home country to identify at least; yet she could identify with many. With so many cultures clashing in her history, Salam cannot choose one. However, she knows she is a Middle Eastern woman and a Muslim. Constants within a world of shifting cultures, identities, countries and ideals.
While crucial to escape the injustices in the Middle East, the largest shift- moving to the the United States from Saudi- was no breeze. Moving to the U.S. meant leaving everything Salam knew and almost everyone she loved. To make matters more difficult, she felt invisible with Palestine still not recognized by the United States. She began to lose her identity. She lied about not being Palestinian to fit in. She avoided speaking Arabic. She just wished she was a white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed American girl.
Yet, she knew she had to stay positive about her situation. She still had a life beyond compare to many others, even with the hardship of her journey.
“My mom left everything,” Salam said. “She sacrificed her life for us, and I’m so thankful. They want you to have a better life, so they leave everything behind. Immigrant parents leave everything for you. My mom left her family, her sister, her mom, her dad when he was sick. She left him to come over here for us so we could have a better life. She left everything for us.”
Leaving everything behind makes for a hard transition to a new life. For Salam, it meant learning a new culture and educational system, making new friends and connections and overcoming discrimination and prejudice. She had to transition from a school of 450 people who spoke the same language to a school of 1,700 people speaking a second language. Not to mention shifting from an environment with terror to one where she was called a terrorist. It was a new world in the U.S.
“The first thing people think when they see me is that I’m dangerous or that I don’t like to have fun or that I’m very close-minded or don’t know what I’m talking about,” Salam said. “A lot of people think that I’m dangerous, and that really bothers me because I’m the opposite of that. I love peace. My name actually means peace in Arabic.”
False stereotyping, perceptions and terrorist “jokes” are not the only challenges Salam and her family face. Although they were able to immigrate to the U.S., Salam’s father still helps provide for his family overseas in the Middle East, causing him to send half his income away. Regardless, Salam still maintains a positive attitude and hopes to spread her enthusiastic, grateful mentality.
“Think about the people in the world that don’t have the opportunity to have anything or have never had anything. Be thankful for everything you have and be optimistic, because there are kids that have never even had the opportunity to have education in general.”
Not only does Salam stay grateful, but she also focuses attention on her peers and their experiences, aspiring to negate the harsh words they hear from others by spreading hope and building connections among those with similar backgrounds.
“[Her positivity] helps her personally, but I think that helped her be successful at school and hopefully also successful in life,” ESOL teacher Anne Freeman said. “She’s caring, she’s a leader, she’s passionate and she’s very vocal in a positive way…I think other students look up to her because she’s full gold. She’s passionate. She is successful. I think others look up to her in that way.”
Whether leading by optimism or leading by example, Salam inspires not only her classmates, but her nearest friends. Willing to speak out about her stories or on injustices to Palestinian people by attending protests, Salam works to connect and bond to those around her. To further connect with others, she even helped begin the Delta Club, which is a club that embraces diversity of all kinds.
“There’s a lot of kids in our school like Salam who don’t get to share their stories for many different reasons,” fellow immigrant and friend Adriana Jimenez said. “So I think it’s very important for people to listen to her. It’s a very inspiring story that a lot of us need to listen to because a lot of things have happened to her that none of us would even think of, you know, happening to us. So the fact that she’s gone through it, we need to respect that, and we need to acknowledge it.”
Connecting with students like her in the United States, both through the Delta Club and in conversation, is how she’s able to overcome adversity and shift perspectives towards positivity and spread change.
“There’s a lot of Syrian refugees that I’ve been seeing for the past days, and it breaks my heart because I know what they feel like,” Salam said. “I know what it feels like to be Arab and Middle Eastern to be rejected… I know what they feel like, so I want to help them.”
Trying to aid other students, refugees and people by sharing her story and learning others’ stories, Salam continues to spread a positive outlook and promising initiative for change, all while remembering her roots along the way.
“I’m just so thankful that my dad had the opportunity to become an American citizen and has had the opportunity to bring us here and start a better life for us,” Salam said. “If he never did that, I would still be in Saudi Arabia, still getting discriminated against, and now that I’m older, I would have no no rights at all. Even now [in the United States], we’re still really lucky because there’s a lot of refugees who moved here to America, and they live in really, really bad areas… I just thank God every single day for the position that I’m in because I am so lucky compared to my family, or compared to the Palestinian refugees all over the world. I’m so so lucky.”