I came to the US from Morocco in 1992 to pursue graduate studies in Linguistics. I earned a Master’s degree in Linguistics from Ohio University in Athens Ohio in 1995. After that I came to Boston to pursue a PhD in Applied Linguistics at Boston University. I chose the Boston area because my sister and her family lived in Cambridge and wanted to be close to them. While I was finishing my PhD program, I met my husband, Omar Baba, who also came for graduate studies from Lebanon. We both made the decision to stay in the US (a neutral place for both of us) to start a family. Because of the decision to live in the US, I decided to switch from linguistics to communication sciences and disorders. I attended the MGH-Institute of Health Professions from 1999–2001 and I became a licensed speech-language pathologist in 2002.

My husband and I lived in Arlington while I was attending school at the MGH-IHP. I started my first full-time professional job in 2001 at New England Rehab Hospital in Woburn and I used to drive through Winchester and I liked the town. When my husband and I decided to buy our first home, we looked at neighboring towns to Arlington where we can raise a family. Winchester was one of our top choices because of the reputation of its school system and that is how we ended up in Winchester in 2002. Both our sons Nadeem and Kaleem were born at Winchester Hospital.

As a newer member of American society, were there any challenges that you faced?

There are many challenges immigrants face in America. One of the challenges I personally faced when I was a student on an F1 Visa was the constraint of not being able to work, which would have allowed me to be financially more independent. As a foreigner, I was unable to apply for student loans either and I had only a few majors to choose from if I wanted to get merit scholarships. Without family support, both financially and emotionally, I would not have been able to pursue my studies in the US. When I met my husband, he was already working for an engineering company that was willing to sponsor him for a green card. After our immigration status changed to residents and then naturalized citizens, lots of doors were opened for us. For example, I was able to apply for student loans and choose a new major I really wanted to pursue.

What do you think are challenges that current immigrants to Winchester face?

I am afraid that immigrants get lumped into one class or group. We all have different stories to tell and we are all at different journeys of our lives. Because I cannot speak for all immigrants in Winchester, I will talk about my own story living in Winchester. I am pretty sure some of the immigrants in Winchester will relate to my experience/story.

Living in Winchester was a real eye-opener. I came to Winchester after living in the US for about 20 years. I thought I was well assimilated and integrated into mainstream America. In fact, I did not really feel any cultural shock when I first moved to the US. But I did feel homesick and I could not wait to go back to Morocco before I met my husband. I used to find it strange when people would ask me questions like “Living in the US must be a big cultural shock for you. It must be so different living now in the US compared to Morocco. As a woman, you should feel lucky living in the US because you have more freedom and you don’t have to wear a veil. Is it the first time you see snow?” Such questions used to puzzle me and I have to say used to make me mad at times. Then I started to ignore them and blamed it on people’s ignorance. During my first 20 years living in the US, I realized that I interacted primarily with people from diverse backgrounds, especially international graduate students. For family social events, we often used to hang out with our Arabic friends who came from different Arabic countries.

Raising our kids in Winchester forced us to live outside our bubble and unlike before when I used to ignore people’s comments about how they perceive immigrants, I found myself answering and/or objecting to their comments because I felt such comments are now negatively affecting my kids and their own judgment about immigrants and minority groups, especially Arabs and Muslims whom I relate to the most.

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What, if anything, can residents of Winchester (non-immigrant or otherwise) do to reduce these challenges and/or make our town more welcoming?

Get educated and interact with people outside your bubbles. That is how I am getting better at learning more about others and truly appreciate differences. Diversity and multiculturalism are buzz words that many people use these days but I am afraid these terms are defined and understood differently by various people. I believe the first thing we should do as a community is to make sure we speak the “same language.” We should agree on how we define words like diversity competency and we should learn to appreciate different perspectives.

Because of my interactions with people from Winchester, I learned a big deal about how local government works, how important to be civically engaged to ensure a strong democracy and how important to balance tradition with innovation. Demographics are changing rapidly in Winchester, especially with an increasing number of immigrants. What I learned in the last few years is that Winchester is rooted in lots of tradition and “we newcomers” sometimes ignore this history and want to change things very quickly. We need honest conversations to appreciate Winchester tradition while we introduce new ideas and perspectives.

How do you think that your experience as an immigrant has enriched the lives of others in Winchester?

Living outside my bubble and interacting with different people in the community empowered me to be more active in Winchester. My first big project was during the school redistricting process between 2010 and 2012. I was disappointed in the whole process and instead of just complaining, I decided to find a solution to the traditional map drawing. I was one of the authors of the Kindergarten Flex Plan (KG-Flex) that was recommended by the Superintendent because of its flexibility and sustainability. While working on the KG Flex plan, I was able to collaborate with many Winchester residents and I was able to connect many people based on the different skills and perspectives they were bringing to this project. I stayed connected with these talented residents and we all became more involved in how we elect our town officials, something I never did prior to the school redistricting. I used to get involved in general elections only.

Also, I became more involved with my kids’ schools by organizing cultural events like the International Festivals and by joining different committees.

When you came to Winchester, was there any opportunity you saw for yourself here that would fill a gap in our community and utilize a particular talent of yours?

Since I became involved in the community, I realized that American born and immigrant residents of Winchester have so much in common that if we combine forces we will be one of the strongest communities in this country. We are very diverse and we can provide different perspectives that will allow us to solve very complex problems. Working on the KG-Flex Plan did prove that to me.

I see myself as someone who can unite people by teaching everyone to speak the “same language.” Maybe my educational background in linguistic, my professional background as a speech language pathologist, and my cultural background as an immigrant gave me the tools to understand better how people’s different perspectives can potentially impact perceptions and understanding of the world. It is interesting how my experience in Winchester helped me appreciate and use my educational training at its max potential as I started to pay more attention to different perspectives when faced with complex problems to solve.

Believe it or not my civic engagement in Winchester made me a better healthcare professional. I now see the bigger picture when working with my clients/patients. I use my activism and rich diverse background to advocate for them and I teach my coworkers different ways to solve problems and manage complex patients. I specialize in the geriatric population. Any healthcare professional who works with this population knows what it takes to get satisfactory outcomes. I feel very proud to serve many of the elderly clients from Winchester and from neighboring towns. I believe I bring new ideas to my field of speech-language pathology.

When you started working in/with an activity—did you face any particular challenges? What have been some of the biggest highlights so far: What has felt like a success to you in your efforts, your contribution to Winchester?

I love to be challenged and that is how I improve. I now feel I kind of understand the traditional culture in Winchester and I try to build on what has been successful because of those traditions and at the same time I do challenge the bad practices, both intentional and unintentional.

I use the same plan I use professionally. I set long-term goals (LTGs) that I would like to achieve. Then I set my short-term goals (STGs) to be able to achieve my LTGs. I am aware that I have to be realistic and flexible at adjusting my STGs depending on external factors that I might not have control of.

One of my LTG is to unite as many people as possible to strengthen Winchester. I want to stay away from politics because it gets complicated because of years of implicit bias that we all developed and sometimes it is hard to change. I find music and cultural events are the best ways to bring people together. Music is a universal language that can unite us and hopefully will promote diversity by introducing different types of music from different countries, which could trigger curiosity and learning about different cultures, especially when targeting our young kids.

Do you think being a woman who emigrated has impacted how people view you?

My cultural shock 20 years post my arrival in the US is when I started my professional career as a speech-language pathologist and when my kids went to school. I quickly realized that I was one of the lucky women in this universe. I was given all the opportunities to succeed in life. As a little girl, I was always told that I was as strong as a boy. I was raised by amazing parents. They not only raised me to be strong, but they were great role models for me and for my siblings. My mom was an elementary school teacher who was well respected among her peers, especially her male coworkers. They used to call her the “judge” in case they have any conflict as she was fair and did not fear any authority. My dad helped my mom tremendously inside the house, including housework and cooking. I thought that was the norm. Earlier I said that I used to get upset when people in the US would assume that living in Morocco (primarily a Muslim country) meant oppression for women. I now know why I was asked those questions. After a deep analysis of the topic related to women’s oppression, which is a global problem, I realized that I did ignore this problem in the past because I was not directly affected.

I don’t feel I represent or I relate to the majority of women (immigrants and non-immigrants). Working in a field that is predominantly females and watching the K-12 educational system, also predominantly females, I cannot help but observe that a big number of these women were brainwashed from an early age not to speak up and not to confront conflicts. That is why I believe we have the status quo we have now. I do sometimes find myself the odd one when I speak up when things are not right. It can be tiring at times but I do hope that by speaking up, I am able to empower other women to do the same.

Since this is a month honoring women, who is one woman who’s inspired you and why?

Growing up in Morocco, I was fortunate to be surrounded by many strong women, including my grandmother, my mom, my aunts, and my sisters. Unfortunately, I thought it was the norm until I started my professional career here in the US and when I felt I had to interact with others outside the circle of friends and family members I am used to.

If I have to choose one woman who did inspire me, especially when I moved to the US, then I will choose my sister who was the first one in my family to come to the US and the first one to earn a college degree in my whole family. My sister came to the US in the early 80s at age 17 to attend college. She worked very hard and was able to attend top engineering schools in the US (Caltech and MIT). She did it all on her own as my parents were not familiar with the educational system in the US. My parents trusted her and believed in her and never objected to her leaving Morocco at a very young age. Because of her hard work and her achievements, she set the bar high for all of us. She also helped me and my other siblings to come here. Without her, it would have been hard for me to navigate the educational system in the US which I believe is the biggest challenge for lots of immigrants. Although we come from the same family, my sister’s “immigrant story” is different from mine.

My sister is a good example of “the American Dream” type of stories you hear about. Her hard work truly paid off. I also believe that her upbringing in Morocco opened doors for her to take advantage of the great opportunities she was given when she came to the US. Her ability to compete in the fields of math and sciences at her highest potential both in Morocco and in the US helped her earn higher degrees in the top schools in the world.

As for my story, I can claim I worked hard to earn two Masters degrees but I had many safety nets from my family, particularly from my sister and my husband who made that possible. Unfortunately, immigrants who major in the field of humanities, have very low chance to get sponsored for a green card and without family support, it is very hard to climb the economic ladder.

In my opinion a good predictor for a woman to succeed in this complex world we live in is when given opportunities very early on in her life to be able to compete at her maximum potential, regardless of which part of the world she comes from (East vs. West, Rich vs. Poor, Black vs. White, etc.)

Do you have any advice to share with other young women who immigrated to Winchester and may be reading this?

I advise any young immigrant woman immigrating to Winchester to get involved with the community so that she learns about the culture and tradition in Winchester for better “integration.” I prefer not to use the term “assimilation” because it means you have to belong and fit within a certain group. Instead I prefer to use the phrase “appreciate differences” to facilitate better integration.

Watch this space each Friday this March for another of our five Women’s History Month 2019 honoree.