I Just Want to Be Seen: Roula AbiSamra excavates the trauma of her losses as a brown child of the Middle East in the American South
The Changemaker Authors Cohort, a partnership with the Unicorn Authors Club, is a new, yearlong intensive coaching program supporting full-time movement activists and social justice practitioners to complete books that create deep, durable narrative change, restructuring the way people feel, think, and respond to the world. This interview series features participants in the inaugural cohort.
Lebanese-American reproductive justice advocate, Roula AbiSamra is working on a graphic memoir about the traumatic losses she experienced through Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Israel’s bombing of Beirut in 2006. She reflects on what it means to be a young brown child of the Middle East, navigating the harsh Black-white racial binary of the American South. As a queer person of color who speaks multiple languages, Roula now serves as the State Campaign Director of Amplify Georgia, a collaborative organization that works with a coalition of reproductive justice groups.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Narrative Initiative: How does an Arab American and southerner find themselves working in reproductive justice?
Roula AbiSamra: The easy place to start is my first job out of college was at the Feminist Women’s Health Center, which is practically an institution here in Atlanta.
It is, I believe, the oldest still-operating provider of abortions in Georgia. It opened in 1976 – three years after Roe v. Wade allowed abortions to occur in every state. Before that, it was [available] on a state-by-state basis. And here in Georgia, you really only had access to abortions, if you were middle class to wealthy, well-connected, usually white, [and] usually living in a city that had a hospital where you could go get your care, if three different doctors confirmed you needed to have an abortion and the board of the hospital agreed. So it was really a process with an intense number of barriers…until 1973.
By the time I worked at the clinic – this was 2007 – it really opened my eyes because I didn’t really know anything about abortion. Everything I thought I knew I had learned from growing up in a Catholic school, in a Catholic city and state, among people [for whom] – whether it was because they were Catholic or because my family was Lebanese – there were things you didn’t talk about.
In both of the cultural baths that I was swimming in, this was something you didn’t really talk about. So, then I’m in the clinic and people are coming in day after day [and] they need some support in a very tangible way. And it’s very clear that, although this may not be the key to happiness in life, or I-have-99-problems-and-the-abortion-is-gonna-fix-all-of-them, abortion is not that. It’s just that people are dealing with so much and, [with] this on top of it, it can feel like a crisis. Not because abortion itself is a medically complicated procedure. The system has made it this way through anti-abortion restrictions and hoops you have to jump through, just like back in the sixties. While I was there, another law went into effect where you had to offer to show people the ultrasound and to tell them certain things about [the fetus] that may or may not even be true… as if people don’t know that they’re pregnant and you have to show them the ultrasound and try to manipulate their feelings by giving them that experience of like, “I’m at the doctor, cause I’m gonna have a baby.” People’s real situations were not being taken into account.
But how did I even get to work in an abortion clinic in the first place? Well, when I came out of high school and into college, I became a fierce advocate. [I felt] everybody should know more about sex and about birth control, and learn about these things in more non-stigmatizing, non-shaming ways than I did. And some of it was secondhand stuff. For example, all of the Catholic girls at my Catholic girls school dated boys from the one Catholic boys school. [And] their religion teacher, not even in sex-ed class, but their religion teacher [would say], “You know, guys, you really don’t want your girlfriend taking the birth control pill because you know how she is right before her period? Well, the pill makes her like that all of the time.”
It’s not true. And it’s nobody’s business. But it was just levels of misogyny and miseducation.
Narrative Initiative: I want to ask just really quickly, if that was the lesson from the religion teacher in the boys school, what was the lesson from the religion teacher in the girls school? Was it abstinence?
Roula AbiSamra: Yes. Isn’t that interesting? We’re not getting protected on either end.
Narrative Initiative: Okay. Carry on with the story.
Roula AbiSamra: We had the religion teacher at our school say, “I’ve been reading y’all’s magazines. And Seventeen magazine says that abstinence is in.” Okay, great [but] just because they might try to persuade you to not take birth control doesn’t mean they’re gonna try to persuade you to not have sex.
It was just deeply objectifying. And I took a lot of offense at that. And then experiencing an abusive relationship, emotionally and sexually abusive, and experiencing rape. It took me several years to actually put together that I supposedly did everything right.
My school taught me that getting raped would be a life-ending circumstance. Worse than death. But somehow I didn’t put these pieces together that, Oh, I can do the things [to protect myself and keep myself safe] and it still happens to me.
These experiences kind of fed my advocacy. I became a feminist out loud at that time, and wanted to figure out how to do peer-to-peer sex ed. That is how I ended up interning at the Feminist Women’s Health Center. I was part of their community education and outreach volunteer program. In addition to being an abortion provider, they do sexual wellness and regular health screenings and fertility services.
That was where I really first understood the reality of folks who are trans and need healthcare, what they go through and the risks and stigma they must navigate, even at the doctor’s office. So, as I was trying to do that work, I was learning a lot about what the work was.
I always had this dual culture experience, and I thought I could best put that to use in a humanitarian or international development setting. I wanted to work for the rights of women and girls and health access in other countries. I spoke multiple languages. I thought, I can find a place where I fit in.
And it just so happens that my senior year of college started with Hurricane Katrina. And on the tail end of my senior year of college, I took one last summer trip to see my extended family in Lebanon. While I was there we got stuck in the midst of some aerial bombing by the Israeli air force – which was not the first time I was there when bombing had begun.
The reason that my parents came to the States in the first place was because of a really long war, 15 years of war. It’s often called a civil war, but it involved many factions that also represented outside countries and different interests. My parents never expected it to be 15 years.
They came because they thought, “Well, we’re gonna go to school.” We’ll go to school in the states. We’ll come back to our families. They didn’t expect to have their first kid in the U.S. They didn’t expect for her to be school age, for her to start growing up. I mean, they almost stayed by circumstance and they were separated from their family for so many years.
[So the bombing began] but in the past it had always happened for a short duration. In 2006, I think it went on for the better part of a month. About a week or two in, we started looking, “This isn’t stopping and we should probably look into evacuating,” because the U.S., Canada, U.K., France, they were all evacuating their citizens. My mother has a green card, not a passport. There was this Catch-22 where she was like, “I’m calling to make sure that my green card is gonna get me back in the country.” And they were like, “We can’t deal with you right now. We’re evacuating our people.” And she said, “Yeah, I’m trying to get on that trip I’m evacuating.” And they said, “We are only evacuating citizens.” And she said, “Well, my children are citizens. I’m not gonna not go with them.” And they were like, “Well, we don’t know what to tell you.”
I just felt for my mom because she’s having to make the decision of leaving her family again. And she’s got the added dilemma: Well, if I stay with my mother my children are gonna go without me. It was just hard on all of us. But it was kind of [a situation where] when you get that call there’s a boat that you can get on. And you just go.
Narrative Initiative: (makes incredulous face)
Roula AbiSamra: It had to be a boat because the airport had been bombed first thing, first day. We didn’t know where the boat was going. We didn’t know what we would do after the boat. You just get your stuff together and you go. And so we went. I’m the oldest of four, and I was told that I was just gonna go with my next younger sibling. And I was like, “Well, what about you and the little ones?” And my mom was like, “I’ll figure it out. I still have to figure it out. I can’t come with you, but we know someone who’s going on this boat. So you’ll be okay.”
When we finally landed a couple days later, it was a boat and a plane and another plane. Spending the night in a stranger’s house who knew somebody who knew somebody. Got to take a shower. Felt amazing about that. And then you land back on solid ground. And I thought, I’m never going anywhere again. I was back home in New Orleans and I had the time to process what had happened. What was reported and what we knew was happening locally were different.
Knowing that I had been brought home to safety, basically because of where I happened to be born, and that I didn’t matter as a person to the U.S. government, this [evacuation process] was meant for other people and I just got to come along…it was just way too much for me. I could not contemplate trying to follow a career in international development where that kind of sh** happens all of the time. I was really grappling with the ethics of it because you would see rockets that were dropping the bombs on Beirut that had come from the U.S. military. There was just too much.
It was really a tough time, and I wanted to come back to Atlanta where my community had been during college, but I still had no idea what to do. So I was like, let me apply for jobs that are here, where I am. And so I often tell people that joining the staff of the abortion clinic was life-saving and life changing for me because it grounded at that time.
People come in, they know what they need, and I know what my job is, and we can do the thing together. And by the time they leave, they’ve gotten something that they need from somebody who can be there for them. And it felt like a way that I could be present, contributing, keeping myself busy and not causing harm.
Narrative Initiative: How do you see your work now in this post-Roe climate? I know you’re not at the clinic any longer, but just all the work that you’ve done now. And then, in a state like Georgia, will the clinic where you worked – the one that first opened in the state – survive?
Roula AbiSamra: The clinic that I worked at is doing everything it can to keep its doors open. In addition to everything else, they do policy advocacy, health provision, community education.
They also are the plaintiffs on a lawsuit against the state of Georgia because, in 2019, Georgia passed a six week abortion ban known as HB 481. And it has been tied up in the courts ever since, because it was unconstitutional. Of course, now that the constitutional right to an abortion has been overturned, that case is gonna proceed differently. And we don’t know exactly what is going to happen. For now, the clinic’s doors are still open and they are providing abortions up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, which is the law in Georgia. After the ruling on HB 481, that may change. We don’t know if there will be new legal grounds to challenge it in another way.
So the clinic is also asking that folks remember that they also provide other kinds of wellness care. You can still go and pay for your healthcare there in other ways, and that could help keep their doors open until the right to abortion is won back in our state. Basically, they’re looking to make sure that they are known as a comprehensive wellness provider. And that they’ll do their best to provide abortions until they literally cannot. If a patient says, I need an abortion, if abortion’s not legal here, or if it’s only legal up till six weeks and the patient is more than six weeks pregnant, then we have an organization here in Georgia called ARC Southeast, it’s Access to Reproductive Care Southeast, they’re an abortion fund and a “practical support organization,” which means they figure out how to support people.
It’s really a whole range of things, and it’s not just travel. It’s also childcare. A lot of childcare. It’s also finding somebody you can trust to go with you. So all those pieces. There are really experts in helping people do it. But there’s going to be a lot more work on their plates if we get abortion banned here. And then, for my work specifically, I work at Amplify – a collaborative of organizations centered in reproductive justice and the leadership of Black, Indigenous and People of Color. The work that they’ve been doing through this collaborative involves getting our strategy together to push for good things, so we’re not only fighting the bad stuff and never getting a chance to take a breath.
In the Metro Atlanta area, there are a lot of problems in our criminal injustice system. One thing that we really do not need, on top of it all, is for police and prosecutors to get involved in abortion enforcement. And this moment is actually making people realize that folks could go to jail.
And so we’ve seen movement in the Atlanta City Council. We can’t tell a Police Department not to enforce a law if it becomes the law. But we can tell them to make it the lowest enforcement priority.
We have seen pledges from district attorneys across Georgia that they’re not going to prosecute pregnant people. Now it’s on them to also not prosecute providers. So there are all these pieces of the puzzle. And anytime you run into a wall somewhere, there’s somewhere else you can go. Lots of these levels of government have not been active because they didn’t realize or think that their role was important. But it’s all the more obvious now that the federal government does not have our back, and that it’s got to be the states and the cities and counties. So we’ve been doing this work that we knew would be long term.
The goal is for states to pass reproductive freedom laws that protect the right to an abortion [and even] go farther to say that every person has the right to continue a pregnancy or not. And that they’re not going to be criminalized for doing what they need to do, or for the outcomes of their pregnancy. So at the same time, we are working on making sure that people who are pregnant and parenting have what they need to parent safely, parent their own children, and not have the state separate them — which resonates with me. Family separation is practically a tradition.
Narrative Initiative: With that said, you talked earlier about how you were radicalized in high school and college. You talked about how your experiences informed your ethics and how you found solace in reproductive justice work. And that you’re also still trying to surface, for yourself, how your work plays into your identity as a queer person, an immigrant, a southerner, someone who speaks multiple languages. And all of this is part of your writing project with the Changemaker Author’s Cohort. So, in crafting your graphic memoir and trying to bring together all these different pieces of yourself, what narrative – or perception – are you trying to shift?
Roula AbiSamra: Hmm. I always thought the way I’d survive and belong would be the same as everyone else. But no matter how hard I tried, that was not possible. The idea that the dominant order is the right way is what’s been turned on its head for me. And for those of us who are different in any way – or part of a “minority” – I mean, we’re actually pretty major. There are a lot of us. Our power comes from all that we know that the dominant narrative does not know and does not make space for.
And I think in my own family and in our national culture, there’s kind of like a certain individualism of, “Well, we’re not white, but we’re not black. We’re just Lebanese people.” A lot of ’em will be like, “We’re not Arab either. We’re Lebanese.” Maybe that has truth to it because Arab ethnicity is a whole thing that was also shaped by history and power and…
Narrative Initiative: Imperialism.
Roula AbiSamra: Imperialism. Conquest, even within the region itself. But, at the same time I’m in the United States. I find community in meeting other Lebanese people. I also find community in meeting other Arab people, other people of color, other southerners. And for me, the challenge has been, How do I find myself and know myself and also not feel as though I’m the only person like me? How do I find strength in the community, even if we’re not the same? It’s different from trying to belong to a dominant social order that does not care for the things that I am. To find my community in solidarity with other people who also have been like, Maybe that system is not for me. I think that’s how we win.
Narrative Initiative: When did you stop trying to be the same? Can you pinpoint the moment?
Roula AbiSamra: No, I can’t, but I will say that explicitly coming to feminism, I had this sense that people wanted me to think that girls aren’t as good. But really coming into the idea that there are words for this lived experience that are not reflected in the systems, structures, and literature that are valued. It was then that I was able to say, “Oh, F*** it. The system itself is trying to steal power from me.”
Then, to be able to put into words why I could never figure out how to belong. The second turning point was when a chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAP) took shape here in Georgia. Having worked at a place that was very feminist, I’d always felt that I was their ‘safe person of color.’ But when I came back to Georgia, I was like, I’m ready to move back to the south and work for and with people of color explicitly.
I was looking for community spaces…and as I got plugged into reproductive justice work here, especially in Atlanta, there are so many reproductive justice leaders who are Black women and Black queer folks. And although that is an amazing community for me, it also became a clear feeling for me, both for my personal good and for the good of my usefulness in the work, to get my head around being a non-black person of color. Where did I sit? How am I understood? When is it right for me to try and make myself more understood – and when am I going to take a back seat?
So, joining the NAP chapter and going through an Asian American Pacific Islander Reproductive Justice training with them broke down all those feelings I had about those things, why am I somebody’s ‘safe person of color,’ or why I’m just not seen as a person of color. Their organizer did an excellent job. The training really gave me an understanding of Asian Americans’ place in the racial hierarchy, and how we’ve both been oppressed and utilized to oppress others.
There’s Arab folks in my community, or my parents’ community, really, who don’t see themselves as people of color, and have aligned themselves with whiteness. If I didn’t have space to talk and think about it, I think I would still be swimming in confusion.
Narrative Initiative: With that said, you are also excavating all the loss that you suffered first in Katrina and again in Lebanon. The analogy many people made after Katrina was that New Orleans, the 9th Ward, specifically, looked like a war zone. What does it mean to you to be a young brown child of the Middle East and the American South, and to tell these stories?
Roula AbiSamra: So my family, my parents, still live in New Orleans. They have a house that was on high enough ground that we were able to come back after they evacuated for about a school year. They found their way back, threw out their fridges, and life was able to continue, but nothing was the same, right.
Nothing was the same around us. Part of that was that so many other people’s lives had changed. The character of the city has changed because so many people have not been able to go back. It’s very evident and obvious that the places where people of color, in particular Black people, could afford to live (and were allowed to live), was land that people who could afford to live on high ground avoided. It’s just a historic inequality and it is reverberating and reverberating today. And now the city’s getting gentrified as f***.
After Katrina, my dad asked me, “I got a job offer in Colorado, you think I should take it?”
And I was like, “No! Where will I come back home to?” You know, even though we’ve only lived there for, you know, these two generations of our family….
Narrative Initiative: It’s home.
Roula AbiSamra: Yeah. And my dad and I, in particular, we really have this strong pride in New Orleans and love for it. I struggle with that. Does it make sense for a people that are so accustomed to diaspora to feel so rooted to a place we haven’t even been there that long? But I do.
The day before everyone else was evacuating from New Orleans I had just gotten to college for my last year. So, I got out of there and then my family is evacuating to somewhere else. And then I’m seeing all of my people having to move, losing their homes. I’ve still got this dorm room. And I think this is why it was double hard when it happened again with Lebanon. I’m seeing my people lose so much.
And I’m still at this remove of utter privilege. And I did not know what to do with it to make it better or okay. And my initial life in activism for many years was kind of trying to bandage up that trauma. I felt such a separation from my own people on top of what we all went through.
Narrative Initiative: My final question for you this evening. What do you want people to take from your story?
Roula AbiSamra: I would like to be seen. It doesn’t have a movement purpose in and of itself, you know, just to be seen. It may not be a story of very many people and it may not be like the most important story, but it’s a set of stories that I wish I saw more of. I don’t expect everyone I know to read this book, but I do hope that, if somebody who knows me reads this book, they would know me more.