Rayan Itani is interviewed by Elen Austin.
Podcast by John Cleary.
Rayan Itani grew up in a house bursting with different languages. Her mother is Lebanese and her father is Mexican. She grew up speaking Arabic, French, Spanish and English. It was a linguistic whirlwind.
“It is good to know other languages of course, but growing up, I began to mix English and Spanish and Arabic and French all together,” she says, remembering backwhen she was interviewed by Elen Austin for Prof. Joseph Entin’s American Studies class. “That’s why I stopped learning Spanish and why my Spanish isn’t that good.”
But those different languages have served her well. She works as a dance instructor with little kids over the summer. “I love it,” she says. “They don’t speak English or their parents don’t speak English so I translate. They feel more comfortable with me.” Now a senior, she plans to go to graduate school at Brooklyn College and become an early childhood teacher and work with special education children.
Itani was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts but the family moved to Dyker Heights, Brooklyn after her father, a pastry chef couldn’t find work up there. He now works in a bakery here. While she spoke some English at home, when she got to 3rd and 4th grade, she was put into an ESL class for a few years to help her on her writing. “That’s when my love of writing grew—when I learned English,” she said. She’s graduating with a major in English.
The family has traveled to both Mexico and Lebanon. “Both are beautiful,” she said. “They are different, but so great—music-wise, food-wise, the way people act, dress and think. My mom’s family is very old school: marriage and tradition. My father’s family is very laid back—everything is OK. ‘Don’t worry about it, have a drink, why stress over it?’ My mom’s family is ‘You have to dress this way, with pearls.’ You have to sit down and drink tea—and make sure your pinkie is out. It’s very different! I love it!”
Both her father’s family in Mexico and her mother’s family in Lebanon dream about coming to the U.S. “They think it is so easy to live here. Money grows on trees. Everything is cheap. You get everything you want, that everyone can get a big car—a Ferrari. I’m serious,” she said. “I always tell them it is not like that. My parents struggled a lot to raise us. I used to live in a one-bed room apartment and get hand- me-downs from my cousins. When I tell them that, they say, ‘We see the American TV shows. It’s so beautiful and easy.’”
Her mother came to the U.S. on a student visa and eventually got her green card and became a citizen. Her father waited 10 years to become legal. “My father tried for 10 years to get his papers, get his social security card,” she said. “We hired a lawyer and he finally got his papers out of it. His kids are American and his wife is an American. It was very stressful for them.”
Her father’s own struggles as an immigrant have had impact on who he is today. “During the holiday season—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter—he bakes bread, lots and lots of bread. He gives it to shelters. He gives it to a lot of Spanish people who wait outside for jobs. He gives hot tea, bread, cookies. He feels for them because he knows he was there too. “
She is very concerned about the current attacks on immigrants by President Trump and his administration. “It’s separating families, fathers and mothers and uncles and aunts,” she said recently. “It’s very unfair and heartbreaking….I’m not optimistic about the way immigrants are being treated now. Immigrants have to stay positive and stay together.”
When asked by Elen Austin, who is from Brazil, whether she considered herself an immigrant, she said, “I think we are all immigrants because we come from different countries. I consider myself both an American and an immigrant.”