faith in action

EYA Experiences: Mariam Zaki

Mariam Zaki interned with the National Disability Rights Network as part of Church and Society's Ethnic Young Adult internship program. She reflects on a trip the EYA interns made to New York City during the summer.

Picture of Mariam Zaki

New York City is definitely a unique place. The fast pace, the flashing lights and the crowds of people from all over. It’s a lot to take in in such a short time. Aside from the wonders we were able to see and experience, it was interesting to see the history that has molded not only New York, but the rest of the United States as well. We went on a walking tour after the first day of the seminar, which focused on immigration. For me, this walking tour had a great impact on my understanding of our country. I’ve taken so many U.S. history classes, read the books and heard stories, but being in those places allowed me to see the tragedy so many faced when they came into this country.

To make it even more realistic, it was raining the whole time. Personally, I don’t enjoy being stuck in the rain, but I think I’m glad I was able to experience the discomfort of it so I could feel even a fraction of how difficult some peoples’ journeys must have been. One moment which really struck a chord with me was seeing the four sculptures located in front of the main entrance to the former United States Custom House at One Bowling Green. Each statue is different, and from afar it’s hard to tell what the different interpretations of each statue are. I noticed the one to the far right first because I saw the head of a sphinx and it seemed to represent Egypt. At first, I was so excited and happy to see a piece of me in a statue at such a beautiful, historic building. Even a few other interns pointed to the statue and were excited with me. This mood quickly changed as our tour guide led us by each statue and informed us of the interpretation the artist intended to convey. She began by telling us that the statues were commissioned to portray what America was and hoped to be in the context of the other world powers.

Of the four statues, one represented America which was alert, leaning forward and represented a progressive and powerful country that is leading the world. Another represented Europe, an alert woman, leaning back with one hand over a mapped globe to symbolize the work Europe has done in the past to colonize the globe. Another represented Asia, consisting of different symbols pertaining to religion, slavery and power around a woman who was alert but had her eyes closed. The final statue represented Africa, an asleep half-naked woman, resting her arm on a withering sphinx with a lion beside her, and a covered figure behind her with only eyes visible when looking toward the other statues. This statue was unique from the other three in that it was intentionally worn. This was to symbolize that Africa was not progressing, or asleep, and had lost control of its power. At the time, the Americans viewed Africa as the “dark continent” full of untapped resources. The woman was sitting on a throne surrounded by ruins symbolizing a failing nation with a once powerful past.

After hearing these things about how my culture was portrayed, I am sad to admit I was a little embarrassed at first. I felt personally offended that a statue made over a century ago could portray such a false narrative of my people and the people of 53 other countries which were so easily grouped into a degrading message. What made me even sadder was that the statue is still standing, meaning that message is still being conveyed and projected to the American people. No wonder racism still exists. No wonder the color of your skin still determines so much in this time and age. Our country still sees the world from that same lens of white supremacy and manipulation. It made me wonder why anyone would want to come to a place like this. It made me wonder why my own parents chose to come to a place like this.

We continued on the walking tour and saw how so many people risked their lives to enter this country only to be met with corruption and suffering. We saw the Statue of Liberty, or as Jaylon called it, the “statute of limitation.” I think he’s right. In this country, we are forced to limit ourselves and others. I wish this wasn’t our history, but it is, and it’s not something that will ever go away. The roots of oppression in our country are so deep and secure that we are still feeling their effects today.

Maybe it is a good thing that statues like those still exist. I’d rather be reminded of the pain than live in ignorant bliss. I’d rather feel empowered to fight for our rights than feel comfortable sitting back and watching injustice occur. I hope our country can be reminded of the work left to be done to make sure we are not only making progress, but more authentic progress that includes all people. I will always remember the feeling I had that day, and I hope I will never ignore my role in correcting those who choose to degrade my culture and the culture of so many others.

I feel so blessed to be surrounded by a group of people that share this same passion. They inspire me to think deeper and ask hard questions of myself and others. I feel lucky to be a part of a community that is a true representation of our future as a nation.

Being in New York was such a beautiful experience because we were all able to be together. This was the last weekend we will all be together since some have to leave for conferences. Knowing they would be some of the last moments we shared together made me cherish them even more. We had so much fun being together. I will never forget running around Old Navy in Times Square trying not to get tagged, trying so hard not to laugh at the wrong times, the endless vlog footage that’s filling up my phone storage, playing Heads Up on the floor of the huge room Shannon and I shared, getting yelled at by security guards and just being surrounded by people I feel like I have known much longer than six weeks. I really had a taste of how much I’m going to miss everyone when both Shannon and Jared had to leave the group to attend their conferences. Even though it was only for a few days, it was so sad to lose a piece of us, but I think it just shows how much I value each person here. For me, this week reiterated how incredibly grateful I am for this experience and how thankful I am to have met such beautiful people.

Editor’s note: This reflection first appeared on the Ethnic Young Adult program’s blog. It has been edited slightly for publication here.