Eldest Immigrant Daughters: My Friendship with Rowa Mohammed
This love letter is inspired by my lived experiences and revolutionary teachings of bell hooks. Black Feminists like Rowa and bell shape the woman I’m proud to be.
Content Note: The following essay covers themes of racism, anti-blackness, islamophobia, and police brutality. Exercising self-care is advised.
“Sarah, promise me you’ll hold me to sticking out the campaign even if I feel like backing out,” Rowa said on January 1st 2018.
“If this is what you want, I promise I’ll support you to see it through,” I responded.
Rowa and I spent New Years day at the Ripley’s Aquarium. We spent the day in the big city to kick-off a new chapter. We were 5 months away from launching her campaign for municipal elections.
We were turning 25 that year.
Rowa and I met in Sunday school when we were in the third grade. We later became classmates in the fifth grade when my parents transferred me out of French Immersion School and into Islamic School. Arab favouritism and anti-blackness prevailed in our school environment. The Arab girls excluded us. The teachers were softer on me because of my keener tendencies; or, perhaps because I was half Arab. They were always harsher on Rowa.
As eldest immigrant daughters, we had a mutual understanding of parentified childhoods. We were born into intergenerational poverty. We were the first in our families to navigate Canadian institutions. That said, my parents were both scholarship students who left home for school. Mak studied in the US and Baba studied at the University of Khartoum in Sudan. Rowa was the first in her family to attend university, an additional generational gap I didn’t experience.
We intimately knew what it meant to wrestle with classism, sexisms, racisms (ethnocentrism for me, anti-blackness for her) and Muslimness in a post 9/11 world — we wanted better for our siblings.
Baba’s cancer diagnosis set the precedent of my parentification which cultivated my freeze and fawn trauma responses. I prefer the French word for lawyer, avocat, because that was what I was: the family advocate. When faced with conflict, I default to playing diplomat.
I remember Rowa’s Sagittarius energy since we were kids. Rowa was quick to call-out mistreatment. I admired her courage as I worked through my internalized sexism and never-ending compromises.
My Tiger Mom had a temper. I grew up with a deep fear of authority; hence my freezing and fawning tendencies.
Rowa’s courage and fighting spirit is an ongoing source of inspiration. I grew up being scared of expressing anger. Rowa taught me to re-evaluate my relationship to the emotion. I now see anger as an emotion that identifies pain and injustice – an emotion that speaks to the absence of love. The courage I found to write “Alhamdullilah, I left London” was channeled by grief and anger but birthed out of love for how we deserved better treatment in a city that didn’t love us back.
I moved into her apartment on 9 Evergreen on June 2018 after a catastrophic fight with my Tiger Mom. Rowa welcomed me into her home knowing the unattainable gendered expectations placed on eldest daughters — our need to have space for self-advocacy as we were raised to be self-sacrificing. In a state of emergency, I didn’t have money saved up for rent. Rowa and I agreed my labour on the campaign would cover rent and boarding until we had enough donations to pay the team.
Growing up in anti-pet households, we got our first pet together — a kitten she named: Cardi Beyonce Mohammed.
On the first week of August, our campaign manager opened our meeting by saying she was terminating her role effectively immediately and walked out of the apartment. After abandonments and false promises from faugressives, liperservice liberals, and white feminists, this moment was the catalyst in our campaign operations. Rowa began hyperventilating as the rug was pulled from underneath us. She was ready to quit the campaign.
I held her hands, looked at her in the eyes, and said tenderly: “Remember what you said to me on New Years? I promised I wouldn’t let you quit. I’ll learn the ropes, we can do this.”
And that I did.
I summoned the courage to rise to the occasion and see the campaign to election day. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into but I believed in her because I loved her. I believed in us.
We brought beloved Marie on to the team as a strategist, rebranded the paraphernalia with beloved Noor’s graphic design skills, mobilized youth from the Sudanese community — where I first befriend Raghad, and did open calls for volunteers where I also got acquainted with Yasmin. The Aunties used Whatsapp to circulate our Get Out the Vote messaging and the Ammos took shifts driving voters to the polls for accessibility. Together, we mobilized the most active number of volunteers that campaign season even among mayoral campaigns.
Post-campaign was a dark period for both of us. A looming depression that I don’t have words to describe but a period that fundamentally shook our spirts. 9 Evergreen was our place of refuge. Our home where we raised Cardi and where we navigated existential heartache and young adulthood.
For two muslim women with no role models, it was our safe place we cultivated together.
My Toronto roommates and I identified a pest problem on late August 2021. Our slimy Toronto landlord was too cheap to pay for a proper fumigation which led to a landlord dispute. The dispute cascaded to us breaking our lease.
Once again, I was in a crisis with no backup plan. I had just started my position with the Reel Asian Film Festival and did not have enough saved up to pay first, last, and a deposit for a new apartment. I also couldn’t stay in London in the interim because I needed to be in downtown for meetings. I called Rowa and asked if I could stay with her during my displacement. Hamilton, unlike London, was accessible by Go-Train.
For 10 weeks I bounced between cities. CTV wanted to film footage at Baba’s store so I took the Go-Train from Hamilton to Union station and the VIA Rail to London. In 5 days, I rode 4 trains and travelled between 3 cities.
My period of displacement was the peak of my precarity.
I juggled my paid work, Racialized Leaders obligations, and CTV’s Voters Viewpoint panel preparations while averaging one meal a day. I channelled the mental and emotional fortitude I grew up developing while fasting for Ramadan.
Wallahi, before this I thought I knew hardship. This was a survival mode I didn’t have the foresight to imagine.
Rowa’s home in Hamilton was once again my place of refuge. I was reunited with Cardi-cat and a familial love I needed in a time of heightened insecurity. Rowa made sure I was eating regularly. She sent me additional funds for mental health services. I thanked her profusely.
“Sarah, you’re family,” she responded.
Rowa was the first person out of two people to call me after the CTV panel.
My family didn’t check in.
After checking out of the hotel, I reverted back to couch-surfing. My body collapsed with one of the worst period cramps I experienced in the pandemic. I graciously accepted Gina’s offer to crash on her couch because I didn’t have the energy to commute to Hamilton.
I’m still finding the words to describe this period of extremes and alienation. On the one hand, I had one of my greatest accomplishments — being the youngest panelist to speak on the first televised BIPOC Youth Panel on election night in Canadian televised history. On the other, I was houseless and making judgement calls by the hour — a dichotomy that embodies the millennial struggle.
This period of alienation was met with deep disappointment. In the peak of crisis, very few of my longterm friends checked in or even congratulated me. The intimate sensory experience of receiving a voicenote or phone call would have been grounding in this period of insecurity and alienation. I was particularly disappointed in my Western friends who were racialized, knew of Baba’s store and had proximity to the London tragedy.
Classism was our differentiating reality.
I realized for the first time, these friends were mostly model minorities. Perhaps they didn’t realize my socioeconomic status made my accomplishment a statistical anomaly — or, they simply didn’t care.
As eldest immigrant daughters, Rowa and I intimately knew the importance of celebrating and showing up for each other beyond #girlbossfeminism. We were the hypewomen for our siblings knowing our parents weren’t equipped to uplift us in world that systemically neglected us and consistently told us we don’t matter.
Much of my Mashallahs I learned from Rowa.
I carried this principle into my friendships. I assumed as racialized folks we rarely got the TLC and recognition we deserved. I often initiated group chats to organize care packages, get-togethers, and cause for celebrations. I supported these friends through career and life transitions over the course of pandemic (and long before) but in the peak of precarity when I was unable to carry the carework, they didn’t take initiative.
In the peak of precarity, I realized most of my friendships relied on my initiation.
It was then I learned: my friendship with Rowa wasn’t the standard — it was the exception.
This period of precarity felt like the flooding scene out of Bong-Joon Ho’s Parasite. I was drowning in an effort to survive. My white collar friends were on the path of garden of edens and gated communities. We were operating on different plains of realities. Heternormativity encouraged them to singularize romantic love above communal or familial love — decolonized love.
I wasn’t disappointed because the lack of ‘attention’. No. I was disappointed because I felt unseen. And I wondered if classism will always stand as a barrier of understanding shared humanity.
Rowa and I share a telescopic view of a white collar world while being situated in a blue collar reality. Our ivory tower education masks the harshness of our day to day and the never-ending exhaustion that came with ‘keeping up’.
Poor women with a rich man’s vernacular.
We have a code of exchange that our white collar friends didn’t comprehend. We intimately understood the the shame that came with feeling ‘needy’ and not having enough money.
Our love lives in micro-intimacies and effortless exchanges — invisible to the untrained eye.
Our Muslim mannerisms mixed with our eldest daughterhood, we know to offer before being asked.
Alas, we, eldest immigrant daughters, are in a constant state of decision fatigue.
Two weeks after I settled into my new apartment, I was struck with images that shook my spirit. The compounded collective traumas: George Floyd, Atlanta Shootings, Sheikh Jarrah, London tragedy, Afghanistan and Islamophobia, Sudan and a myrad of global atrocities terrorized this pandemic. Suddenly, I saw my childhood friend, beloved sister, being brutalized by Hamilton police.
My fingers trembled upon seeing the pig’s knee on Rowa’s neck.
I became hypervigilant.
I waited anxiously for her text replys.
I actively sent out the go-fund me campaign to raise money for lawyer fees.
I asked beloved Noor to draft a solidarity statement on our Racialized Leaders account because I was in too much shock to string words together.
I carefully curated a care package with food sourced from Kensington Market. I made a big batch of Gusto 101s truffle mushroom pasta and made sure not to chince out on the ingredients. I packed apricot jam, fresh bread, fancy cheese, duck-orange paté from Global Cheese, and tiramisu from Eataly. It was important to me that the comfort food was opulent to counter this dark time.
I brought my jade prayer beads on the Go-Train to ground me on my journey to Hamilton.
When Rowa answered the door, we held each other in a long embrace and kissed each others’ cheeks with tears in our eyes.
“Where’s your heart at?” I asked as I unpacked the care package.
Rowa gave me the rundown. She mirrored the deep disappointment I had with our connections. We spoke about the commodification of casualty.
Did she have to die for people to take initiative?
Did she have to die for people to care?
The silence from Muslim leadership affirmed the anti-blackness pervasive in Muslim communities.
“There’s a pathological lack of care I just don’t understand, like am I over-reacting, Sarah?” she said sincerely.
“You’re not. I feel the same way…The conclusion I’ve come to is we’re operating on different understandings of love, living on different plains of reality,” I replied.
Different resolution rates. Different depths of fields.
“To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients — care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.” — bell hooks
Indeed, love is a noble practice.
Love requires نِيَّةٌ, intentionality.
In the words of beloved bell: “Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
I wonder: Would there be a word for ‘allyship’ if we all chose to love and care with intentionality? Would there be a word for ‘allyship’ if we re-evaluated our understandings of ‘friendship’?
There is a special sense of safety that comes with feeling seen — a rare intimacy and manifestation of love.
Rowa is one of the few people in my life who’s “I love you” carries the weight of its words.
Rowa inspires courage.
Rowa affirms my definition of sisterhood.
Rowa affirms my understandings of love and loyalty.
Happy belated 28th birthday, Rowa.
With all my love: In Sisterhood & Solidarity,