For 19-year-old Mariam Elmohtasseb, Canada is not what she hoped it to be when she came to Ottawa in August, 2016.
Elmohtasseb was born in Dubai and lived in Egypt for eight years, then moved back to Dubai with her family.
Her sister Jasmine, 25, her brother Mahmoud, 26, her mother, Omneya and father, Ayman, immigrated to Dubai from their native country of Egypt.
She says Dubai is very nationalistic.
“If you weren’t from Dubai you were treated like a second class citizen.”
She said some people act like they own Dubai because their families are originally from there, and feel they have a right to tell people they don’t belong in the country- even children feel like they have this authority.
Mariam, her brother Mahmoud her sister Jasmine in Egypt
“An 8 year-old told me to leave the country once, imagine the ideology of the parents that put that idea into their child.”
Foreigners were not the only ones made to feel like inferiors. Elmohtasseb says that women were also scrutinized compared to their male counterparts.
The official national religion in Dubai is Islam, a religion that often practices the segregation of sexes in public settings. Each country uses this practice according their own values and culture, and governs it to their own discretion. (that last part might sound weird but something along those lines.
Despite these public segregations, Elmohtasseb said she still spent a lot of time around boys.
Although the government required schools to divided male and female students, Elmohtasseb’s school disregarded the rule, allowing both genders to learn and play in the same classrooms.
“My school told the government that our classes were separated but they were mixed.”
The school would fool the government by only separating them during annual check ups.
“We were put into different lines and separated by a curtain so the boys couldn’t see us.”
These restrictions only pushed Elmohtasseb to oppose expectations on her as young girl and was strong-minded as she grew up.
When she was only thirteen years old she decided she wanted to wear the scarf. Both her mother and sister told her to wait, saying that she was still young.
“I went to my mom and I told her I wanted to wear the scarf, my mom laughed and said no.” said Elmohtasseb.
“She said to live my life a little bit, ‘do some crazy stuff with your hair and then there will come a time when you are a bit older and I will give you the choice and I will sit down with you and tell you the meaning of the scarf’.”
Elmohtasseb says she was stubborn and refused to go to school without one. Instead of taking her mom’s word of advice, she took her scarf instead, wearing it to class the next day.
Mariam shortly after she started wearing the scarf
Elmohtasseb says she got her independence from her mom and looks up to her for defying gender expectations in Dubai.
Since her father travelled for work as a Project Manager, her mother took on a lot of responsibility.
She went with her mother everywhere, even to fix the car which is a task a male usually does in Dubai.
“It would be just me and my mother, and we would be the only females and my mom was not shy. Before I was embarrassed that we were the only females in most places but as I grew up it made me feel stronger.”
Mariam and her mother Omneya at her high school graduation
She said the majority of females in Dubai do not have responsibilities.
“They stay at home or go shopping with their friends while their husbands or maids do everything for them.”
Elmohtasseb wants a different future for herself than what most of the women in Dubai have.
“I want to be independent and I feel like we have equal potential to do something for this world, I have a voice I want to speak.”
That is why she came to Ottawa with her mother in August and is currently studying biotechnology and biochemistry at Carleton University.
She was initially excited to come to Canada, she thought it symbolized freedom.
“People are more comfortable with who they are, which is something that really interested me when I first came to Carleton.”
“When I first came here it was a bit different because the first time in my life I was a minority, it is very different, I’m very aware of my surroundings and the way people look at me, I feel like people are watching because I look different. I look like something that represents something bad in the media.”
She said she silenced her alarm on her phone, for the call to prayer.
“I started getting scared because I didn’t want to stand out.”
However, she started noticing the different ways people expressed themselves and eventually felt comfortable wearing her scarf.
“I saw very different people, I saw people with piercings and bright orange hair. You see everything. I told my family it makes me feel happy, I am free to cover up because people are free to express themselves.”
Mariam on her 19th birthday
She was happy she saw a contrast between Canada in Dubai.
“You can’t express yourself freely in Dubai.”
Since Trump’s travel ban issued Jan. 27 against seven Muslim Majority countries, she has thought about taking her scarf off.
“At first when I heard about Trump’s travel ban, I wasn’t scared because everyone on the internet supported diversity and were against the ban and then the Quebec shooting happened and I was very scared. I didn’t want to go to university that day.”
She questions Trumps actions saying, “How can you ban people from a land you stole?”
Her father was very worried about her and her mother was angry.
Fortunately, since her Father travels only in Arab countries for work he hasn’t faced any issues.
“My father called me and said ‘Are you okay, does anyone look at you weird, does anyone do anything to you? Don’t walk home alone, walk with friends when you are entering and leaving the university’.”
Elmohtasseb is worried for her mother.
“My mom is scared about me but I’m scared about her because my mother wears a long scarf its even more modest and I don’t want anyone to hurt my mom or say anything to her.”
Mariam one-years- old with her family
The Friday after the Mosque shooting Elmohtasseb and her mother didn’t go to their mosque for Friday prayer.
“I begged my mom not to go because it was a gathering, a lot of people go, there is a great chance for someone to do something again, I was very scared.”
Elmohtasseb carries pepper spray to feel safe, which she had to carry when she spent her summers in Egypt.
“We had to carry some type of weapon with us because Egypt was a little unsafe after the revolution.”
Carrying pepper spray is a measure she thought she’d never have to take in Canada.
“I felt like everyone was staring at me, I felt very claustrophobic. Even though my country wasn’t on the travel ban, it’s still the way I look. We all look the same to them, whether we are from Saudi Arabia or Egypt we are all the same but we are all different we have different accents, different languages, and different cultures. But people from outside don’t get that they just see us as one.”
She draws comparisons between Trump and Hitler.
“I felt like Muslims were the new Jews. You take one group of people, exclude them, they are the reason for all of your problems and everything is on them. A lot of people say Trump has reasons, well I’m sorry Hitler had reasons too. Hitler started slowly with speeches.”
She said when they learned about the Holocaust in history, the students in her class didn’t understand how people followed Hitler.
“While we study it we think ‘What kind of people are these Germans? What were they thinking? Were they stupid?’, but we are seeing it in front of us now.”
Trump was open about excluding Muslims during the election.
“But people still voted for him. He wasn’t even hiding it, he was so open about it just like how Hitler was very opened about the Jews.”
She believes that Trump is influencing the world to hate each other.
“Now one of the teachings of Hitler and Trump is that it is okay to crush a small group of people for the greater good. “
She doesn’t know how far Trump will go but she believes that he will inspire individuals to act.
“I think there will be individual incidents which in the end that when people study us in the future it will be something major.”
“Some people have feelings inside them that they can’t express but when they see someone powerful express those feelings they feel like they can say whatever they want.”
She believes the bomb threat at Concordia University on on March 1, was inspired by Trump.
The threat was targeted towards Muslim students with a plan to injure them.
She is getting more worried as the Muslim targeted attacks are getting closer to home.
“It’s horrible, It’s very scary because I don’t know when someone is going to attack me.”
An incident happened in her building lobby when her neighbour yelled at a woman wearing a Niqab.
“Our neighbour came up to her and started screaming, ‘What is this you are wearing, go back to your country, we don’t want you here’.”
She thought she would never hear of this behaviour when she left nationalists in Dubai, but it’s not the first time she’s heard of someone saying that to someone who appears to be Muslim.
“That’s a comeback for people who are weak.”
She feels like she can’t express herself the same way she did when she first came to Ottawa and has thought about taking off her scarf.
“I don’t know if I should go as far as to take off my scarf to not bring attention to myself because I am a walking symbol. No one knows anything about me except for my religion, if I take my scarf off I can keep my head down and walk between the people and not try to stand out. It’s scary and sad because when you think about the western world, you think freedom because they always talk about it so we thought it was going to be different from where I’m from, but it is the same.”
She said that she wishes Canada was more like Egypt.
“In Egypt, Muslims and Christians live together. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference because Christians cover up. Once I saw a Muslim girl with shorts and a Christian woman with a long dress and a cross. Their religion doesn’t define them.”
She loves that the Ottawa airport has a chapel for Christians and prayer space for Muslims.
“It is a symbol that we can live together, I love this idea. I wish this sample could expand everywhere.”
She would like if people got to know her before making assumptions about her because she wears a scarf.
“If you get to know someone you will learn that we are the same as you. People see us as outsiders.”
Elmohtasseb is very fortunate that nothing has happened to her or her family, but she is disappointed that Canada is becoming a place where she cannot express herself without feeling vulnerable to a potential attack motivated by hate because of what her scarf symbolizes to others.