As-Salaam-Alaikum. Hello, my name is Khaled Elsayed.In Arabic it’s actually “Hell-ed” Elsayed, but I came to know that the Arabic letter is a little bit difficult in Texas. So, I ask everybody now to call me “Khal-id” to avoid being spit on.
Eight years ago, I was an undergrad student in a city called Mansoura which is two hours away from Cairo, Egypt, under the oppressive regime of Hosni Mubarak. I was one of the millions protesting in the streets against the oppressive regime. We were calling for three things: عيش حرية عدالة اجتماعية Bread, freedom and social justice. And if you remember, that came to be called the Arab Spring.
During the protests and a military coup, people were sprayed with teargas, wounded in the streets and even killed. One of my best friends, Muhammed – he was sent to 25 years in jail just for being politically active. That was a wake up call for me. I knew I had to leave Egypt.
In the span of a month, I took two exams required for grad school, applied to two universities in the U.K. and applied to four universities in Texas. I got a letter from a school called UT Tyler that said, “Congratulations, you got accepted into our electrical engineering program.” And after checking the weather and comparing between Tyler and Sunderland, England, Texas was way sunnier. So, I decided to come here.
Within two days, I received my visa and my passport, and I bought a one-way ticket to the U.S., carrying my suitcase filled with my books, my clothes and my mom’s tears.
My first encounter with Tyler, Texas, was actually at DFW Airport. My brother arranged a ride for me from the airport to Tyler using a company called East Texas Shuttle Bus. The driver was in his late 40s, a native Texan.
Once he saw me, he glanced at my Middle Eastern face and he looked back and asked, “Where are you from?”
I said, “Egypt.”
He said, “Where is that?”
Uh-oh what is this city called Tyler where I’m gonna be starting my new life?
So, I wanted to make a joke and I knew that Texans are mostly Christian. So I told him, “You know, the place where Jesus, stopped by – remember?”
And silence. He didn’t say anything for the rest of the road.
Because my visa was late, the semester was already a month underway. I received numerous emails from the grad school saying, “Don’t come, just wait for the next semester. It’s gonna be easier for you.” But, I knew I had to leave.
Thanks to Dr. Alecia Wolf and Dr. Hassan El-Kishky, who is the head of the engineering department at UT Tyler, I started my classes that very day.
Even though I could read English and understand specialized engineering vocabulary, I had a little bit of difficulty understanding my fellow Texans. Phrases, like “Have a good one” or “Howdy” – stuff like that – was really hard for me to understand.
My first experience in Tyler was at Chili’s. I went there with one of my friends to have dinner, and I tried to order water to drink.
I told the waiter with my heavy accent, “I would like some “wah-taa,” please.
He leaned over and said, “Do what?”
I told him, “Don’t do anything. I just want water to drink.”
When I was leaving the restaurant, the waiter waved and said, “You guys take it easy.” So I stopped and looked back and I told him, “We are taking it easy.”
He said, “No, no, I’m just saying, ‘have a good night.’”
And I was like, “Oh, okay, thank you.”
Within a semester of time at UT Tyler, I became aware that there were a lot of misconceptions about my religion, Islam, especially when I was praying on campus. People started looking and asking what I am doing.
And, I also saw a need for an organization to take care and help other international students to be welcomed.
At UT Tyler through East Texas Islamic Society, I met a lot of Muslim students and also international students who were just like me. So together, we decided to start an organization. We called it the Muslim Student Association. Our main goals were first, to correct the misconceptions about Islam. And second, to help international students on campus at UT Tyler.
I was attending a Muslim Student Association conference at Texas A&M University. One of the speakers mentioned a very interesting statistic. He said that 56% of Americans have never met a Muslim in their life. I wanted to change that.
The Muslim Student Association started giving free classes in Arabic and in the Qur’an on campus. We also started the practice of visiting other churches and synagogues, like Green Acres Baptist Church and also Tyler Christian Fellowship. Also, Beth-El synagogue.
We invited their members to come visit our mosque with the intention of knowing each other and also to show them that we are not to be feared.
I have completed my grad school at UT Tyler, and now I’m working as an IT engineer for the City of Tyler.
As I make Tyler my home, I cannot forget that I came here because of the oppression in my home country. When I see a certain group of people or religion being dehumanized, I know where that can lead, and I know how quickly things can change.
I wanted to do my part and to make Tyler come face to face with people like me, so we can remain fully human to each other.
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