I landed at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., in March 1999.
The air was humid and the landscape drowned in fern green trees. For the first time, I saw people wearing shorts and T-shirts as they walked about. I knew virtually nothing about the United States, except the fact that its president had cheated on his wife.
I was puzzled by American culture, having grown up in Saudi Arabia.
My sense of confusion was compounded by the fact that I wasn’t sure where I really belonged. My Saudi classmates saw me as Sudanese but I had only visited my native country two times as a child.
In a matter of days, I went from memorizing the Quran to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. In a span of years, I went from being a confused member of a monarchic state to an engaged member of a democracy.
Yesterday, I cast my first ballot as a newly naturalized citizen of the United States.
In 2010, I was one of 619,913 people who were naturalized in the United States. The majority of us came from Mexico, India, the Philippines, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam and Colombia. Although this country was, at one point, foreign to us, we vowed our allegiance to her as citizens.
But the idea of the United States as a melting pot is in jeopardy. I realized this as I campaigned for President Barack Obama in Virginia this weekend.
“I refuse to vote for a Muslim or a Mormon,” yelled one Republican voter I encountered over the phone as I called homes during the final campaign push.
Another voter called Obama a “liar and a racist,” and went on to explain: “He attended that black church and would not admit it.” One person I encountered on the street wore a T-shirt with a clever slogan: “Time to put the white back in the White House.”
These episodes made me feel like the Republican Party was seeking to exclude and suppress groups, rather than unite them. But what I saw were but minute examples of party rhetoric. Republicans have been pushing for voter identification laws that target minorities. Many reduce Colin Powell’s support for Obama to one that is dictated by race. Others, like Herman Cain, vow to exclude Muslims from the cabinet in the unlikely event they were elected president.
History has shown that the politics of antagonism does not fare well. The modern-day Republican Party came out of the Whig Party of the 1800s, which fought endlessly against the idea of allowing landless white men to vote. Their opponents, led by Andrew Jackson, advocated to expand voter participation.
It took less than a century for women and blacks to gain their right to vote and destroy the monopoly built by the elite.
In 2012, the same political battles have played out over the presidential election. Romney lost because he relied too heavily on gaining an overwhelming majority of the white vote.
But elections reveal the worst in both parties. Let’s not forget that the Democratic Party also has a laundry list of woes ranging from Obama’s drone warfare to the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay.
While I’m technically a citizen, I can’t help but feel as though my place in this country is constantly under attack — just like it had been in Saudi Arabia. I even had doubts about whether it was my place to volunteer for the Obama campaign. But memories of my early years in the United States convinced me to go forward.
I remember being accepted by a community of military families, despite the storm of hate surrounding Muslims in the wake of 9/11. I remember the middle schoolers who embraced me into their friendship circles — even though my English was questionable at best.
I didn’t know whether my friends came from Republican or Democratic households. All I knew was that they came from communities that were deemed second-class at one point in American history.
My story is a story of a girl who grew to find a place in this country. Like millions of others who have experienced the same thing, my story is nothing short of an American dream that extends beyond allegiance to a single party.
But this inclusivity is a narrative that Democrats have successfully sewn into the fabric of this country — it’s about time the Republicans learn to do the same.
Aya Saed is a College senior from Washington, D.C. Her email address is email@example.com. “Seeds of Reason” appears every other Friday. Follow her on Twitter @_AyaS