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Who am I? A Muslim American Account

I’m Roaya Jannatipour and I’m a fourth year at UC Berkeley, majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology and minoring in Global Poverty and Practice. I am Moroccan and Persian and grew up in Southern California before moving to the Bay Area for school. I’m involved in multiple cultural and academic organizations, including the Middle Eastern and North African Retention and Recruitment Center (MENARRC). I also co-founded the organization “Camp Alima”, which is a female empowerment/STEM program that allows young girls to run experiments, participate in team-building exercises, and plan for life after high school.

Were there boundaries to getting where you are, because of your intersectional identity?

I grew up in Southern California, and as one of the only MENA-identifying students at my high school, I was used to explaining my cultural and religious practices to my friends, and defending my identity as a Muslim when faced with ignorant and assuming judgments of my ideals and values.

Moving to the Bay Area, however, I suddenly realized that I would need to interact with my identity on a much deeper level, including how I presented myself as both an Arab and Middle Eastern. Being both Moroccan and Persian landed me in an unfamiliar territory, where I was being asked to choose which side I identified with “more”. As my first years progressed, however, I quickly noticed that my inability to speak Arabic nor Farsi made me feel invalidated in both of my identities, and suddenly unable to fully relate to either of my cultural backgrounds.

It felt that everyone around me knew more about each of my identities than I did, making social settings a bit anxiety-provoking. I was used to being singled out in family gatherings when I was constantly having to be translated for, however experiencing the same feeling of cluelessness in an environment with my peers proved to be even more unsettling.

Throughout my years at Cal, I took the time to explore my identity and dive deeper into who I was and what I hoped to gain from my cultural backgrounds. I learned to become more vulnerable, and found a community of people who had experienced similar situations. I soon found my place within the MENA community, and was later given the opportunity to alleviate that stress for other students.

Are there pressures you have noticed as a result of your intersectionalities that may affect you differently than your peers because of your culture?

Most glaringly, I definitely felt imposter syndrome in my identity as a Muslim, because I felt as though I didn’t have the opportunity to fully explore it growing up without a community that shared my religious beliefs. When I came to college and was finally able to befriend other Muslims, it became an insecurity because I didn’t feel as though I had a clear idea of what Islam meant to me.

Combined with my inability to speak Arabic fluently, I felt increasing dissonant within my various intersectionalities, and pressured to clearly define myself across all of these different identities. I quickly realized I needed to explore my identity and my religion on my own terms, before trying to place different labels upon myself.

As a young Muslim-American woman how do you view mental health?

I think mental health is a topic that used to be very taboo and difficult to discuss, but in recent years, with different outlets including social media, it’s allowed people to be more vulnerable and share their experiences with the world. I also believe, however, that social media has done a great deal in amplifying many mental-health related issues.

I immediately think of my little sister’s generation, and how she grew up in an era surrounded by technology, and the effect that has had on the development of their self-image. Trying to navigate who you are at a young age is hard enough without having an unrealistic standard to constantly compare yourself to- it’s as if they weren’t given the opportunity to be kids.

I am very excited about the potential that different platforms, like AYANA, have in creating a culture of acceptance and providing help for those who are struggling to find a community to discuss their own mental health struggles with.

How does your family view mental health, do you discuss it a lot?

Due to the nature of the age we live in, and the experiences my sister and I have had (losing close friends to suicide) my family and I definitely talk about mental health and mental illness much more than we did a couple of years ago. My parents have grown to be my biggest support system- their first questions to me are always “Are you okay?” “Are you doing things that make you happy?”.

However, we’ve also had our differences. In high school, when I was just beginning to deal with academic stress, it was hard for me to talk to my parents about some of my stress because it was difficult for them to relate to me. Their struggles at my age were just very different from my own, as they were preoccupied with meeting basic financial needs, and didn’t have the time to think about their own mental health . I think these differences are often experienced by children of immigrant families, as our parents endured very difficult circumstances to be able to give us the opportunities that they were not afforded.

As I’ve grown up and especially after I left for college, we’ve been able to understand each other more, grow to have open discussions, and see the other’s point of view.

Do you view mental health as a priority?

Absolutely. I think I have always put a lot of pressure on myself to strive to be the best version of myself, academically and otherwise. My first year of college was a huge trial and error phase of my life, and I learned that it’s okay when it doesn’t work out.

I used to think of my mental health and my drive as two completely separate aspects of myself, but as I progressed through undergrad, I quickly realized how connected the two were. I found out that I needed to give myself space to breathe and understand how I felt in order to be successful.

Although, I’ve never been to therapy I probably could’ve benefited from seeing someone my freshman year of college, but I was lucky enough to have a very strong support system through my family.

While spending most of the summer in Morocco did you notice any different approaches to mental health?

During Camp Alima, the STEM camp in Morocco for young girls, we asked the girls what struggles they were facing and if they felt they had people to talk to about these struggles. A lot of responses were that these girls were feeling the stress of school and grades, but did not want to tell their parents about the stress they were facing.

In Moroccan culture, it is common to not discuss topics like stress with one’s parents, so as not to worry them, and it’s completely done out of respect for them. These kids respect how much their parents have done all their lives and feel as though they do not want to burden them with their own personal struggles. During the camp, we discussed different ways in which the girls believed they could relieve stress and support one another throughout their academic and personal journeys.

Could mental health be addressed better to honor both your health and your culture?

At Cal we have programs like the Muslim Mental Health Initiative, which is great because I do think it is important that people who are seeking therapists are met with someone who understand them and all of their identity.

We don’t really hear about interactions regarding mental health between first and second generations Muslim Americans because of the circumstantial differences I talked about earlier. I think it is important that we find a balance in starting the conversations without imposing our own western ideals and expectations, and remaining culturally aware of differences in upbringing. There needs to be a mutual understanding of the relative nature of the struggles children of immigrant families face, as well as where each side is coming from.

AYANA and the Muslim American Community

Roaya has mentioned some relatable concepts above, as the child of an immigrant people face very different challenges than their parents, and it is important to have someone who understands you throughout those times. AYANA is here to provide accessible mental health services online to people who have previously have found it hard to find someone who understands them and their circumstances. From anxiety to depression to discrimination AYANA will match you with a therapist who is culturally competent.

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