We have asked ourselves many times in our work and lives, “What does it mean to be American?” We drove across the country, lived in different cities, talked to many people, and when we looked in the mirror, we finally recognized the faces we were looking for. We are first generation Americans. We are the daughters of immigrants.
The beauty of this country is in the American dream. The American dream is a story of union. It is the eternally optimistic idea that no matter who you are or where you came from, this land, this place, will give your life and story the “happily ever after” that it deserves. Our identities are the products of the American mindset and the cultures that our parents passed down to us, through blood and tradition. Those traditions helped cultivate and inform not only our individual hopes and dreams, but also the greater goals of the nation.
“1stGen” is a photo series that concentrates on first generation Americans. These daughters of immigrants provide us with an inside look into our collective identity by recognizing the struggles and stories of brave immigrants, seeking a better life. As we take in the images of these women, we are celebrating the beauty of America and the ancestry emanating from each face. Supplementing the images are their stories, and their parents’ stories. Each person is an essential element, as we seek to understand their lives, their parents’ lives, and the value of our immigrant nation.
Intro: Name, age, place of birth?
My name is Maya Haddad. I’m 26, and I was born in Orange, California.
Where are your parents from, and why did they come to America?
My parents are both from Beirut, Lebanon. They left their country in 1985 to escape the Lebanese Civil War. My father had already lived in the United States before he met my mom, because he had completed multiple residencies as a physician in American cities. My parents, Nazih and Maha, flew out of Beirut on the last plane before the airport got bombed.
How did their choice to come here alter your life?
This question is something I think about all the time. I have two older brothers, and our whole family of five used to go every summer, and sometimes every winter, to Lebanon to visit our extended family. My parents were the only members of their families to leave to America, and my father always thought we would eventually move back. I realized how lonely it must have been for my parents, and really saw the sacrifice they made to give us the best life.
I think my brothers and I would not have had such an open-ended idea of our opportunities had we been born in Lebanon. People don’t realize how coveted something like an American passport is. Just by having that passport, we can dream of any future we want or any place we want to go. Sometimes I feel a bit of guilt when I think about how unfair it is that I was born in the United States with everything I need and want, and another girl, or woman, is just by chance born somewhere unstable and full of destruction. I could have been born anywhere else in the world, but here I am. That gives me the responsibility to do whatever I can for those less fortunate.
Growing up in America, our friends were so diverse, and I think that environment is what defines you as an American. You are open and adaptable. We got to taste and experience every culture, and see the world through so many perspectives: the Lebanese perspective, the American perspective, and the multi-cultural perspective of those who surrounded us.
What have your parents contributed to the United States?
My father is a physician and my mother is a professor, so in every aspect of what they do, they help people. They are both so passionate about their work, and are endlessly generous (which is a very Lebanese trait). After over thirty years as Americans, they have healed people, housed people, taught people and affected their communities for the better. Every person that encounters my mom or dad are immediately charmed by them. My parents are extremely intelligent, through traditional education and through their worldliness. They have done well, on paper, through their careers. But I think their greatest contribution has been their love, generosity, and tenderness. They passed down values to us, and to others by example, showing that although they’ve struggled in their lives, they constantly give to others and embrace others, unconditionally. They have always maintained an open-door policy.
What do you currently do and what are you dreams for the future?
I studied English in school, and focused on Journalism. Since graduating I have learned to create every aspect of media, and have fallen in love with video and photography. I co-founded ERAEM.COM, a site where I can fuse my knowledge of journalism with my skills and love for film, to create an immersive and educational experience. To be honest, and mildly cliché, I really want to change the world, or at least do my part to better it. I am not afraid of challenges and provocation. I want to touch on those things unsaid, and unexperienced. The darker things about human nature don’t frighten me, I think they go hand-in-hand with the beautiful things. I want to do justice to communities around the world, and tell stories. Luckily I found a partner, my best friend who co-founded the site, and together we create projects we truly believe in.
Dance has been one of the greatest loves and skills of my life. I studied dance very strictly from the age of about 3, and it is very much a part of who I am. I have had the joy of performing professionally, and studying many different styles from classical ballet to Afro-Brazilian dance. That creative side of me informs my multi-media work, and influences my desire to intellectually approach and document the world.
What does it mean to be American?
The answer to this question has changed for me with every age and stage of my life. When I was growing up, I saw more differences than similarities between me and my peers in terms of culture. I went to school smelling like onions, my parents would speak to us in Arabic, and I had different customs than the other kids. I thought, “They are American; I am Lebanese” (and in many ways I was ashamed of it). But as I grew older and wiser, I started to embrace my culture in a more active way, finding pride in the character values I had, such as my generosity and my fervent approach to life. It wasn’t just the food that made me proud of being Lebanese anymore.
When I felt that grown-up reverence for my parents and my culture, I also started to see more clearly that I was, in fact, also an American. I realized that being Lebanese and being American were not mutually exclusive. I also saw other people asking the same questions, many of whom were my friends. That’s when it hit me, we are all American. And, in being American, we can also be other things, it is a compatible combination, even if there is some tension. That tension makes for a more interesting identity and experience.
What does your culture mean to you? What has it taught you?
My culture is everything to me because my parents are everything to me. My parents, and my brothers, are my greatest loves. My parents are the two halves of my heart, I literally come from them, and they come from Lebanon. They are products of that place, that is in turn part of me. When I close my eyes, I can smell Lebanon. I can channel all my senses and memory to suddenly surround myself with the feeling of being there. It may technically be far away in distance, but it exists right here, wherever I am, because it is home. Home, to me, is with my parents and my family. It is all one interconnected feeling.
My culture has taught me love and perseverance. Lebanese people have been through so much tragedy, and yet they laugh. They have seen so much war, and yet they keep their doors open to not only neighbors and friends, but also strangers. If all they have to share is one loaf of bread, then they will give the entire loaf to their hungry guest without hesitation. They dance, they shout, they eat—they truly live. My culture has taught me community. That community has a nucleus which is my family, and from there it expands infinitely.
Why are you the face of America?
I am the face of America because I am part of the narrative that defines America. My parents risked everything to have a better life. They didn’t come to this country to simply find comfort for themselves, they did it to give us everything, and along the way, they gave all that they could to contribute back to their surroundings. My physical self is, by default, the face of America because America looks like, feels like, sounds like, everything. And that’s why I am so proud to be American. The political climate throughout my lifetime has created a negative image of Middle Eastern people, and some people have decided that my family is not the face of America. Even with that resistance, or the odd responses I get when I tell people that I am Lebanese, I stand by the fact that I am American, too. My mom is Muslim, my dad is Catholic, we speak Arabic, and I will never be ashamed of my origins or who I am.
The United States, frankly, has a complex reputation and history. It is not a well-liked country internationally for its corruption and arrogance (some of its destructive behavior is, ironically, what causes immigrants to leave their own countries to come to America for a new life), but I think beyond foreign policy, it is the people, the contents of the American population, that make it such a desired place to be. People see a canvas when they come here, and they add to it because they want to make it better—and they do make it better. My parents were some of those people, they were and are, great artists who inspired those around them. They created me, my brothers, our life, and it has been a masterpiece and a great great gift.