Born in Port Said in 2001, Yoanna Soliman ‘19 spent the first eight years of her life in her native country of Egypt. However, she and her family were essentially forced to migrate to California.
Soliman explained that the main reason her family decided to migrate to the United States concerned religious oppression, which often exposed her to danger and violence. She, as well as her family, are members of the Coptic Orthodox church.
“Recently, two churches were bombed,” she said when referring to an incident that occurred earlier this year in Egypt. “It’s not safe over there for the Coptic Orthodox.”
However, she mentioned that freedom of religion does exist in Egypt. The religious oppression is enforced by different groups of people rather than the law, so “people take it upon their own hands to say ‘No, this is not OK.’”
This religious persecution caused Soliman to have a brush with death, and she proceeded to explain how she was “almost murdered.”
“So we were stopped to get gas and the guy at the gas station […] he had a long beard, so you know right away he’s a Muslim,” she said. “And then he just stopped and he’s like ‘What’s your name?’ And he knew that I must have been a Christian because I didn’t have my head covered.”
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“And I said ‘I’m not telling you’ because you know, little third grader, stranger danger, and he [said] ‘Tell me your name’ and I’m like ‘No.’ And so the boy in the car with me, he was a Muslim, he said ‘Her name is Yoanna.’ And [the man said] ‘Oh, Yoanna…you know, I’m gonna find you and I’m going to murder you,’…so that was terrifying. And my driver was like ‘Oh, he’s just kidding,’ but it’s like no, he really wasn’t,” she explained.
Unfortunately, that was not the only traumatizing incident Soliman would face. Her father, who still lives in Egypt, was once attacked on his way to work.
“Gasoline was spilled on him and military equipment, and so he got really sick after that and thousands of dollars were stolen from him,” she said. “He was going to go pay his workers, he’s a civil engineer.”
The hardships that Soliman endured came to a halt when she and her family finally decided to migrate to the United States. However, the trip over to California was by no means an easy one. The journey consisted of a lengthy 23 hour flight, which Soliman described as “intense.”
Although it was unfamiliar to her, Soliman adjusted well to the majority of American culture and ways of life, because the cultures are “pretty similar.” She was able to grasp the foundations and concepts of the English language “pretty quick.” However, she still speaks Arabic (her native language) at home with her mother, who is not as fluent in English.
But for Soliman, other aspects of the American society were harder to get used to. For one, she explained that in Port Said, the night came to a close much later than in America.
“Here everyone is in bed by nine,” she said. “Over there at nine o’clock at night, you’re like, ‘Hmmm, what should I wear because I’m going out.’ And so it’s very fun to live over there.”
Soliman was also surprised when she discovered playgrounds in an American grade school, being that the customs of the Egyptian culture tend to be “very focused on academics.”
“So I go to elementary school, and they have playgrounds,” she said. “And in Egypt, at the end of kindergarten you don’t have any more playgrounds. And so I’m like ‘Woah, wait I can play on that?’”
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Despite all of the difficult adjustments and changes, Soliman chose to mention the most important difference of all: her safety in America.
“I do feel safer here,” she said. “Like I know no one is going to tell if I’m a Muslim or a Christian by my name or by my hair, so I like that; I like the people here.”
Part of her sense of security comes from the atmosphere at Foothill, according to Soliman. She believes Foothill is “definitely” accepting for people of diverse cultures.
“I mean, I used to get bullied but [at Foothill] no one bullies me, everyone is cool,” Soliman said.
At Foothill, Soliman believes she has settled in nicely. She is currently a sophomore, taking a variety of honors classes. In addition, she is a frequent member of the Renaissance program and part of Bioscience’s Cohort 11.
Through all of the positive experiences she has had so far in America, Soliman still has a place in her heart for her native country. She mentioned that “I always feel homesick around the holidays like Christmas and Easter because my family is over there.”
“My mom’s sister and my mom’s brother [are in Egypt], but my mom’s other sister is here and her other brother is in Florida,” Soliman said.
Concerning religious holidays, Soliman and her family have always followed those of the Coptic Orthodox Church, whether it be in Port Said or in California.
“We have Christmas and we go to church Christmas Eve, and then we have Easter,” she said. “And sometimes our Easter falls on American Easter, like this year did, but other times it’s in May and then we go on Easter Eve to church as well. Those are the two main holidays.”
To this day, Soliman still practices the religion of Coptic Orthodox. She attends a church solely dedicated to this religion located here in California. Although her surroundings have improved by migrating to the United States, she will never forget where she came from. Port Said will always remind Soliman of the cherished Egyptian culture and how her experiences made her a “stronger person.”
Correction: A previous version of this article falsely stated that Soliman was Catholic Orthodox. The article was corrected on July 11, 2017 at 6:28 p.m. to change “Catholic Orthodox” to “Coptic Orthodox.”