After many years, Rasha Zeyadeh Thompson has found a place in her country
Published in 2022 Texas Rising Stars magazine on March 22, 2022
Growing up, Rasha Zeyadeh Thompson didn’t always have a strong sense of home.
She is of Palestinian descent, but was born in Kuwait, where her grandparents immigrated in 1948. She arrived during the Gulf War, in a hospital that had been annexed by Iraq, giving her an Iraqi birth certificate. Her parents fled the conflict immediately thereafter, packing up everything they could in their car and heading to Jordan.
“I just remember stories my dad would tell about passing these dead bodies on the side of the road, and not really being able to stop, just out of pure fear of what could happen,” she says.
In Jordan, they lived in a simple house with a large front yard, and Zeyadeh Thompson attended an all-girls school. “I don’t think I ever went without anything,” she says. “But I knew, from my dad, there were certain privileges that I was not allotted.”
As refugees granted Jordanian citizenship, she and her family were considered second-class. They could not hold certain political offices and would not receive priority in government jobs. As a woman during that time, her opportunities were further restricted: It was taboo for women to attend college or have careers.
When Zeyadeh Thompson was 6 years old, her father immigrated to the U.S., where he had attended college. She and the rest of her family remained in Jordan until 1998; her mother had to apply three times over two years before the family was approved and allowed to join him.
“On the third time—which my mom says was the last time she was willing to put herself through that process—we were approved. And once you’re approved, you don’t have a ton of time to waste,” Zeyadeh Thompson says. Her mother immediately began packing, giving things away and selling what she could. They were allowed two bags per person, so they couldn’t bring much. With three kids under 8, her mother boarded a plane to Texas.
“It was a huge culture shock,” she says. “The transition for us, it was tough. It was very difficult to be able to acclimate and get used to the way of life here versus how it was in Jordan.”
In elementary school, Zeyadeh Thompson was one of only a few Middle Eastern kids, and though she learned English quickly, she was picked on frequently. “Then, in middle school, when I started to feel like maybe I was kind of getting my bearings around me, 9/11 happened and that experience set me back tenfold,” she says.
The other kids knew she and her family were Muslim, and singled her out. It was during this time that her desire to become an attorney solidified, in part thanks to a mock trial assignment in eighth grade. After she won, her teacher pulled her aside and told her to consider a law career.
“By that point, I think I had seen enough in my life to want to fight for something better,” she says. “I just thought to myself, ‘How is this fair? We didn’t do anything—it wasn’t us. There are bad people in every culture and every religion, but that doesn’t make the entire culture or religion bad.’”
In high school, Zeyadeh Thompson started to finally find her place in her new country, and during her junior year of college, in 2012, she got her green card. The status gave her a greater sense of security, and opened up her ability to get student loan grants and scholarships as she started law school at Texas Tech.
“It also afforded me a sense of home,” she says. “I didn’t really ever feel like I belonged anywhere. I’m Palestinian, but could never go to Palestine. I was born in Kuwait, but not a Kuwaiti citizen. I lived in Jordan and I had Jordanian citizenship, but I don’t have various rights. So I was really longing for somewhere that I can just call home that I knew I could always go to.”
During her first year of practice, at age 27, Zeyadeh Thompson became a naturalized citizen—nearly 19 years after her father first applied. She now serves as a keynote speaker at naturalization ceremonies, sharing her story and the impact her immigration experience has had on her.
“I have the opportunity to give a voice to people who don’t necessarily have one,” she says. “I’m doing things that make a difference. I’m helping people in ways that maybe I needed help when I was growing up and couldn’t get.”