Immigration and Society

Understanding the American Identity Means Listening to Immigrants

April 17, 2018  • Taif Jany

Americans are in the midst of a conversation about our national identity. Immigrants play an essential role in this discussion. To promote cultural and civic literacy around the country, the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program is sharing the stories of four immigrants living in the US. One participant, Taif Jany, agreed to answer some of our questions and provide a list of things every American should know.

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Taif Jany. I am an Iraqi Mandaean and a proud immigrant in the United States. I work at the Young Elected Officials Network, a program of People For the American Way Foundation, providing support to over 1,200 elected officials across the country from all levels of government. I’m also the founder of We the Habibis, an online space dedicated to bridging cultures and building community through food.

What was your journey to the US like? 

My journey to the United States has been long, sometimes rough, but incredibly rewarding. I was born and raised in Baghdad and lived there until late 2006. That year, when I was 16 years old, my father was kidnapped on his way home from work. I was forced to flee Iraq with my remaining family and seek refuge in Damascus, Syria, where I lived for almost two years. In 2008 I arrived in the United States as a student and went to Union College where I obtained my Bachelor degree in Sociology and French. This August marks my tenth anniversary living in the US, a country I couldn’t be more proud to call home.

Have you had a moment when you suddenly felt American? 

Yes, but interestingly it wasn’t in the United States. When I visited my family in Australia, after 12 years of separation, I felt like an American. Although I’m not a citizen yet, being in a different country made me realize how American I actually am. I believe that throughout my life here I have embodied and cherished this nation’s values of liberty, freedom of religion, justice for all, and the pursuit of happiness. I haven’t seen the diversity that I see in the US replicated anywhere else in the world. To be a representative of America’s diversity abroad always feels very American to me.

What do you wish other Americans understood about the immigrant experience?

It is crucial to keep in mind that many Americans who live in the United States today came to the country initially as immigrants and were able to obtain their citizenship through hard work, patience, and dedication to America’s core values. Those Americans, with their different and unique journeys, understand the immigrant experience in their own way.

I wish that more American citizens who might not be as familiar with the immigrant experience would be more open to sitting down and talking to immigrants, refugees, and asylees in their communities. I don’t want to generalize, but the majority of immigrants who come to the United States have fled their home countries due to some sort of harsh reality such as war, violence, gender discrimination, racism, economic difficulties, and more. Their stories need to be heard. At the same time, having those conversations is also crucial for immigrants to understand what it is like to be an American and what this country has to offer.

However, the immigrant experience in the United States is also very rewarding. The opportunities that I am able to find through hard work and supportive communities are incredibly fulfilling. This would not be my reality if I had stayed in Iraq.

What are 10 things that you think every American should know?
  1. The word “habibi”
  2. The US Invasion of Iraq
  3. Extreme vetting
  4. Native Americans
  5. Mandaeism
  6. The #MeToo movement
  7. Black Lives Matter
  8. Civil liberties
  9. Majority-minority
  10. Gun violence

What do you think every American should know? You can add your list at

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