Muslim cadet clear on identity
When Zakaria E. Dafaallah left his home in Orange County to live in his father's native Sudan for four years, he knew that his life as he knew it would change radically.
He adjusted to the blackouts and lack of running water at his uncle's house in Omdurman. But the loss of basic freedoms, like speaking frankly, bothered Dafaallah to his core.
So much so, that when he returned in 2004 to his parent's house in Mission Viejo he made a life-changing decision to apply to West Point's military academy in New York.
"It was very important for me to go there because it shaped who I am today, and it made me appreciate lots of things that people might take for granted," says Dafaallah, 18. "Over there you can't necessarily say what you want as freely as you would be able to here. That's actually part of the reason why I wanted to serve because I wanted to defend that freedom."
His four years in Sudan, however, also transformed Dafaallah in another way. His father, Ahmed Zakaria Dafaallah, a Sunni Muslim, had always tried to instill in Dafaallah a pride in his heritage by teaching him how to speak Arabic, and taking him to Saturday Arabic school and their local mosque for religious services.
But growing up, Dafaallah says, he resisted learning about his culture, language and religion because he wanted to "fit in" with other American children.
"Other people aren't speaking Arabic. Why am I speaking Arabic?" he'd tell his dad and stepmom, Marisol Rexach. It's a phase, Dafaallah says, that ended when he went to Sudan.
"I'm proud to be an American citizen. This is my country, but I'm also proud to be of Sudanese heritage," says Dafaallah. "I mix the two well. Not one or the other. Both."
Today, Dafaallah is not only a West Point cadet in the class of 2010, but also is one of about 50 Muslim cadets that he estimates are at the academy. He also is learning how to survive as a Muslim in the military.
Since the U.S. war on terrorism began, there have been heated debates about patriotism in this country. There are some who argue that multiculturalism divides a person's allegiance – that to be a true American you must assimilate and shed your ties to other countries.
But what is the definition of American? Is it hot dogs and apple pie (both immigrant imports)? Or is it someone who is willing to sacrifice their life to defend the freedoms we have to practice any religion, speak freely and celebrate our many cultures?
It was precisely Dafaallah's experience as the son of an immigrant that inspired him to change his life course.
I met Dafaallah last week while he was on his holiday break from West Point, just a few days before Eid al-Adha, the Islamic Feast of the Sacrifice. As we spoke in the kitchen, Rexach and Dafaallah's father hurried back and forth preparing for the celebration they were hosting. In the living room stood the family Christmas tree and all the decorations that Marisol, who is Puerto Rican and Catholic, had hung for the holiday.
The dual religious celebrations reflect the way Dafaallah was raised. His room at home was decorated with American flags and pictures of U.S. presidents, but he wasn't shy about showing his Sudanese heritage either. He'd wear his white Jalabiya, a traditional Sudanese robe, to class at Capistrano Valley High School, to the public library and on public buses.
"I was never ashamed or afraid to express my culture at all," he recently told the Sudanese youth at the SANAD Foundation's Saturday immersion school that his parents started in September.
Now at West Point, Dafaallah says it's a challenge to juggle his responsibilities as a cadet with his religious obligations. For instance, during the month of Ramadan he may not drink water during physical training.
The academy, he says, has been supportive. During Ramadan, the kitchen staff prepared food for the Muslim cadets at 4:45 a.m. so they could eat before sunrise, and they were excused from regular meals so they could fast during the day. They were also excused from regular duties to attend prayers in a room designated as their "mosque."
"You don't feel like you're cut off and you don't belong," he says. "You know that somewhere people are still doing this, and it comforts you. You say, 'I'm bettering myself.' "
He predicts that he'll be deployed to Iraq when he graduates and hopes that with his cultural, linguistic and religious background as a Sunni Muslim he'll be able to save lives. Ultimately, he says, he is fighting for peace, the very foundation of Islam that he's always admired.
He cites a Muslim proverb that says to get the beautiful scent of incense you must first burn it.
"In order to bring peace, which is that beautiful scent, you have to first burn it, which means going out and fighting," he says. "If killing one insurgent will save the lives of so many hundreds of people from getting blown up, I'll do it because it's for the greater good of the whole. That's why I'm willing to die for my country."
Contact the writer: Contact Yvette Cabrera at [email protected] or 714-796-3649.