From Syria to America: Friendship is the key to peace

Each week, Friendship and Faith shares a fresh, real-life story about cross-cultural relationships. Since our book, “Friendship and Faith,” was published in the spring of 2010—dozens of new stories by women have appeared in this ongoing website. We’d like to hear your story, too, and we’ve made that easier by providing the link (at right) labeled “We’d Like to Publish Your Story / How to share your story.”

This week, Dima El-Gamal—who is an accomplished civil engineer, a mother, a Muslim and an activist for diversity—shares her story. When most Americans hear the name of Syria, they recall headlines in recent years about international political conflict. But, Syria also is one of the oldest centers of civilization, home to a number of World Heritage Sites, including ancient Palmyra. The beautiful ruins, shown in today’s two photographs, make Palmyra a global destination for many. Here is Dima’s story …


By Dima El-Gamal

I was born in Syria, but I fell in love with America before I hit 8 years old. Why you ask? Because it is the home of my beloved relatives from my Mom’s side, including my uncles and grandmother. My oldest uncle migrated to America in the early 1960’s when he was only 18 and the family followed, except Mom. My family migrated in the late 1970’s with me as an only child. I entered second grade in an elementary school in metro-Detroit and made many friends whose families had come from places like Greece, Italy, China, Iraq and Egypt. I had lots of Christian friends, but I knew very few Muslims.

Soon, my parents began to suspect that I might lose my cultural and religious connections, if we stayed here. So after one year in Michigan we went back to Syria to continue our lives. Dad was a CPA and Mom was a senior educator in the Syrian school system.

Even as we returned to Syria, though, my brilliant mother could see the sparks in my eyes and my enthusiasm about America, because “my beloved ones live there.”

Mom told me: “God willing, we will be back some day.” She followed through, too, by enrolling me in private schools run by Christian nuns who taught both English as well as Arabic. Mom also made sure that we kept coming back for summer vacations to visit family in Michigan.


In Syria I grew up in a huge social circle of Muslim and Christian friends from many backgrounds. I remember that I used to help decorate the school for both Eid and Christmas. During the time I was growing up, most Muslim girls did not wear a head covering, but my choice was to wear the hijab when I turned 15. At that time, Dad told me, “I think you are too young, but it is your choice. The only thing I ask of you is that, if you decide to take on this action, I want you to respect the hijab and adhere to the responsibility.” And, I did.

After high school, I went on to study civil engineering. Once I had earned my bachelor’s degree, I told my parents: “It is time. I want to go back.”

Amazingly, they agreed. In fact, they came with me to help hold our family together. Mom, Dad and my two brothers migrated to the United States in the early 1990s. Once again, I comfortably blended into America’s diversity and continued my studies until I completed a doctorate in civil engineering, got married and had two children of my own.


In the late 1990s, when I began working for an engineering firm, one of the department managers asked, “What is this on your head, Dima?”

“This is called the hijab,” I answered, “and it is part of my religion.”

With a smile, he said, “We will have you take it off in no time.”

I smiled back. “That is Mission Impossible.”

Of course, I was not happy when I heard such remarks, but it is the kind of exchange I experienced in the workplace, at first. Ten years later, the same person told me over lunch: “Dima, we have been working together for a long time, and I admire how you handle yourself, making sure that you adhere to your religion while you perfectly blend in.”

He had noticed that I never drink alcoholic beverages and he had realized that this also is part of Muslim life. “I choose not to drink, either,” he said, but our conversation did not stop there. He brought up the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in 2001 and told me that he admired the way I moved through such a difficult time while still trying to “clear the misconceptions from friends and colleagues.”

Of course, that is how I live my life. Never should hatred be spread in the name of Islam. And, more time passed. One day, this same person proudly told me about his son graduating from dental school—and he also proudly described how his son’s graduating class included two sisters who wore the hijab. It’s amazing how far these exchanges had come over the years.


We must keep leading by example. People do change their attitudes. I have seen this happen so many times. A woman who also was a professional colleague over the years used to enjoy chatting with me, after our work was finished, about our children, our families and the values we share. We would talk about things that so many parents experience—like the kids’ piano lessons, holiday observances or TV shows we may choose to allow or restrict at home. As we did this, we began to see how much we shared.

I will never forget the day she said to me: “I’ve observed you through your work and through our conversations. I’ve learned your political views, how you raise your kids and your religious beliefs. I did not know a lot about Muslims before I met you, but I found out that the difference between your family and mine lies within a very thin gray line. We are not so different after all.”

As Muslims, I don’t think we need to be defensive. We need to lead by example. Friendships are built by celebrating our similarities. That is as true for Muslims as it is for all people. Making a good friend and learning about each other is a key to peace.

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