One of my favorite compliments to receive is when people tell me that I look exotic. Besides making me feel uniquely beautiful, this sentence holds a much deeper meaning to me. Although many people do not see the word “exotic” in this way, that mere adjective is a reminder of my family’s background that has molded me to be different from many of my peers, and I could not be more honored to belong to such a heritage.
Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Rita Garabet, and in February I was privileged to have been chosen as Miss Southland 2015. I recently graduated with my Bachelor of Arts in Biology with minors in Chemistry and Psychology. I am also in the process of applying to Dental School for the fall of 2016. Most importantly, I am a first-generation Lebanese American, and this is why I feel so proud whenever people tell me I have a distinct look.
I did not always feel this way. When I was in my early teenage years, I always felt the struggle to fit in. All of the girls in my school dressed and looked similar, and I tried my best to be like the friends I had made. But no matter how hard I tried I would always stand out. I may not have ever admitted it out loud, but I knew deep down it was due to the fact that I was constantly one of the few in my class to be from the Middle East.
I struggled with trying to find my place within the two cultures for a while. I frequently questioned why my parents pushed me to speak Arabic, participate in cultural activities, and surround myself with Lebanese peers. I always trusted their judgment and followed their advice, but I never truly understood the benefits that would come out of this constant submersion into my culture. All it took was one visit back to the homeland for me to realize how beautiful it is to be Lebanese.
Even though I was nervous and fought against the trip that would remove me from my comfort zone, my parents somehow convinced me to go on a vacation back to Lebanon in July 2009. I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach that I felt waiting for my connection flight from Frankfurt to Beruit, and I remember realizing that I was too far from home to turn back. However, the second I stepped out of the airport and onto Lebanon’s soil, I fell in love. I knew all the stories that my parents had told me about living in such a country, but getting to experience it was something so extraordinary I can hardly put it into words. From that summer on, I was hooked.
All my parents’ efforts of keeping me close to my ethnicity finally made sense. I noticed that suddenly I was the one partaking in my cultural activities without anyone telling me to. I was the one craving hummus and tabboule, and would go out with my cultural friends in order to appease my stomach. I had a new found spring to my dabke (our folkloric dance) step. I found myself listening and singing along to Nancy Ajram in my spare time. During the school year, I would count down the days until it was time to go back. I then began to question why my family ever left one of the best countries in the world.
While the Lebanese have of one the most incredible cultures, our history is full of turmoil. I would hear my native cousins make jokes about how they may not live another day because they never knew what would happen in the future or when a bomb is about to strike. Fortunately for me, I never had to experience this fear. However, my parents had to experience the worst of it firsthand right before moving to the United States.
Sometimes, my mom talks about how it felt living in Ashrafieh, a city closer to southern Lebanon, which was considered a terrifying war zone in the 80’s when they were there. She can recall the fear she would experience walking down the street to a grocery store because there were men with machine guns sitting on rooftops that would shoot at anyone that would give them a second glance. My mom also tells me stories of how she could hear the screech of a bomb heading toward her apartment building. Her family sought escape in basements and in their summer home, but they never felt at peace. Complete safety was a luxury that my parents never got to experience growing up.
While my mom and dad were dating, something tragic happened that made them want to move far away from home to make safety their reality. My mom’s two closest cousins had struck by a bomb one day, critically injuring one and killing the other. This instance was enough for my parents to make the ultimate of sacrifices, and move away from the only land that they knew. My parents are the strongest people I know, and for this I have so much respect for them because I know they were indirectly doing what was best for their future family, which includes me.
Many people ask me why I love being Lebanese. Simply put, it is because of all the things that I have stated above. It gives me a sense of belonging that I could not have found elsewhere. I love that we are few and far between. I love that we have an amazing culture that has been able to stand the tests of time. But most of all, I love that after everything my people have gone through they continue to push farther to overcome their troubles and do not dwell on them.
Many people also ask me if I feel that I associate more with my Lebanese side or my American side. To me, it is not that black or white. While the two cultures are extremely different, I am happy to have found my perfect grey area. I am proud of where I come from, but I am also proud to be in a place where I can feel secure. I am able to have the best of both worlds. I am in a place where I can stay true to my roots, but have opportunities to experience new things that I may not have gotten to in another country. I am a Lebanese American, and I would not have it any other way. Thank you, and I hope you enjoyed learning a little about me and my family’s story!
With the utmost sincerity,