We first met Ms. Ayat Amin (she/her/hers) when she spoke eloquently at the 2020 International Women’s Day rally that took place at Cleveland City Hall in March.
At that time, we spoke to Ayat and learned that she is a “Marketing and Customer Success Lead” for The Opportunity Exchange where her duties include supporting city, county, and state economic development offices.
Perhaps one of the reasons for her eloquence was that she grew up well-versed in pertinent issues having been raised by parents, both of whom from Iraq, was that politics was always discussed at dinnertime, especially Middle Eastern and Iraqi politics. The joke was that the best dinnertime discussion was how to solve the Israel Palenstine conflict.
It didn’t matter that her dad, Raad, served as an interpreter for the U.S. Armed Forces; it was recognized that the Middle East was a very complicated matter, and all options were explored.
Due to restrictions imposed by Covid-19, we were unable to meet with Ayat in person, but we had an engaging conversation with her via telephone wherein she told us that Raad, earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Baghdad and traveled to Southern California to earn a Masters from a California university in the 1980’s when he was twenty-eight.
Raad decided he wanted to remain in the United States but wanted to marry a person from his own background and culture. Fortunately, family and friends were able to connect him with an attractive young mechanical engineer named Zina who had spent most of her life in Kuwait although she was initially from Iraq. Unlike Raad, Zina was a graduate of the University of Kuwait. In 1993, Zina came to the United States and she and Raad were married.
They settled in El Paso, Texas a year later, in 1994, Ayat was born followed by her brother, Haydar, in 1995. While in Texas, Raad worked as an entrepreneur and soon became the owner of several car washes. After 9/11, however, he joined the U.S. Department of Defense as a military interpreter for arabic and was often gone for six months at a time while his wife and two children remained in El Paso.
Ayat has lived in five US states throughout her lifetime, but El Paso in Texas was by far the most diverse. As Muslims in the city, the family felt welcomed and respected. This was not the case a few years later when the family moved to a town in Indiana with a population of 40,000 people. In this small Indiana town, Zina felt isolated and Haydar faced some discrimination at school. The family stayed there for a couple of years before moving to Michigan to be in closer proximity to her grandmother and other family members, and the large Arab American community. Now the family was only 30 minutes from Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest population of Muslims in American and the largest Mosque in North America.
Later, Ayat enrolled at the University of California in San Diego where she majored in Physics with a minor in Computer Science. Ayat was inspired to do this by her mother, her grandmother, and several aunts who were all engineers in various fields. Due to her Middle Eastern background, Ayat grew up surrounded by women in STEM fields because in Iraq there was no stigma against studying science if you were a women. Ayat was surprised to learn that many of her peers in Physics, especially the females, never met a female in STEM.
In 2016, Ayat graduated from the University and took a job as a data scientist with an A.I. start-up. A short time later, Ayat became involved with Venture for America which is a fellowship program for recent college graduates who want to become start-up leaders and/or entrepreneurs just like Raad.
Venture for America directed her to The Opportunity Exchange in Cleveland, Ohio whose “platform helps facilitate collaborative execution of impactful economic development projects.” The company was founded in 2018, and was recently voted as a top five start-up in Cleveland.
To be sure, Ayat appreciates the opportunity to live not-too-far from her family and to engage in meaningful work.
When we discussed immigration matters, Ayat has only visited Iraq once when she was five years old. Despite a strong desire to go and visit her father’s family who still live in Iraq, Ayat had not been back largely due to the ongoing unrest in the region. In January 2020, Ayat had a plane ticket to go to Iraq but that changed when the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani of Iran led to all flights to be cancelled due to the possibility of a proxy war breaking out. It was a disheartening way to start 2020.
As others have also said, Ayat believes that an immigrant is often a person with two identities, and he/she does not fully belong to either his country of origin or to his/her adopted land. As Edward Said once said, to be an immigrant is to live in exile between two worlds. To Ayat, the search for reconciliation between these two worlds defines what being an immigrant is, and that journey is different for everyone.
In addition, to her duties at her job, Ayat is passionate about the environment. She volunteers a lot of her time to social justice organizations like “Black Environmental Leaders” that encourage a dialogue about racial justice and environmental matters. This group is very important considering the lack of resources directed to communities of color resulting in much environmental disparity.
The incoming administration in Washington, D.C. came up during our conversation and Ayat told us that she believes it is unwise to put too much hope on one individual, but she is quite heartened by the diversity of President-Elect Biden’s staff and cabinet and his outreach to the organizations like the Sunrise Movement which stress the need to address climate issues.
“What motivates me,” says Ayat, “is the responsibility to create the world you want to see and not to let others decide this for you.”