As a Muslim American who had ties to the city, the December 2nd mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which left fourteen people dead, struck a particular nerve with Mona Shadia.
San Bernardino has a special place in my heart. I was 22 years old and fresh out of college when I called the managing editor of the city's paper of record, the San Bernardino Sun, to ask him for a job. I confessed I had no experience, but assured him that I was an intelligent self-starter. I insisted we meet. Frank Pine kindly agreed. On the day of my interview, I left the newsroom and drove miles deep into the scorching-hot desert to cover a wildfire that wiped out dozens of homes and left families homeless - without a promise of employment. Frank later said he was impressed by my tenacity and gave me a job.
That was the beginning of my relationship with San Bernardino. Getting that job meant everything. I had dreamed of becoming a journalist since I was about nine. I had a conviction that journalism shines a light in the dark and that journalists walk among the humanitarians. And in San Bernardino, I - a Muslim American - began realising a piece of my American and childhood dream.
It was in San Bernardino where I learned the ways of pulling myself up by my bootstraps. I worked long days and nights in an attempt to prove myself among a group of reporters who far surpassed anything I brought to the table. I still remember the exact moment I realised my potential as a writer. I had pulled off what I thought was an exceptional lead to a story. I also remember the morning I ran to pick up the day's paper to read an editorial written about a series of in-depth stories I had been persistently reporting. I remember laughing uncontrollably with copy editors toward the end of the day. As to what I was laughing about has slipped my mind.
I used to look forward to Malcolm Schwartz' tough questions about my stories. He is known as the best stylemaster and retired only recently after almost 50 years of work in journalism. I looked forward to his questions because I always learned something I felt made me a better journalist. He began his job at The Sun in 1983. That's the year I was born.
I was challenged and I challenged myself to get better everyday. Frank once gave me an hour to write a six-paragraph weather advisory on the Santa Ana winds without referencing the National Weather Service more than once, and it had to include something he had never read before. I met the challenge by comparing the Santa Ana gusts to the Khamaseen winds of Egypt. I remember listening attentively to reporters Andrew Edwards' and Robert Rogers' political conversations and chiming in with my two cents. My perspective was almost always international.
To this day, I have never had better Thai food than at Thai Place, a hole in the wall off Kendall Drive. There are still times when I consider driving to San Bernardino just so that I can eat there once again.
I received what I believe was the most incomparable compliment from late photojournalist Gabe Acosta. We were eating lunch and talking about how every person resembles an animal. He said I resemble black panthers because of my graceful demeanor, elegance, long dark hair and bright eyes.
I am a black panther.
I met people in San Bernardino - reporters, photographers and editors - who made me a better person, and who remain my friends. Friends who grew up in and around San Bernardino. Friends who represent what it is like to be an American. My first editors, Christina Brock and Emily Lowell, are among my closest friends today. I used to look forward to my drive to the newsroom - no matter how difficult my day was going to be or how hopeless or helpless I felt at times. I looked to the mountains and the skies on my drive to inspire me and keep me moving forward. It was also in San Bernardino when I became aware of the cult of Star Wars. I remember the shock and sense of horror I received when I said I knew nothing about the phenomenon. The Force still hasn't awakened in me.
It was in San Bernardino where I worked in hopes of reaching success in America - success in my field and in life. As a Muslim American, I worked to make a positive difference in my community, and I was driven by my faith's teachings and principles. My job gave me an appreciation for the diversity of America, an understanding of this nation's affluent and underprivileged, immigrants and natives, business owners and average workers.
The Dec. 2 shooting rampage hit too close to home. And that these perpetrators claimed to practice the same faith as mine makes it even more difficult. It is difficult because these are not the teachings with which I grew up. These are not the characteristics of a true Muslim. Their behavior was not that of someone with the heart and soul of a Muslim. Not my heart and soul.
It is difficult because the shooters had no loyalty, not even to their own child. But I do. Muslims do.
It is difficult because I can't escape the feeling that these killers led my fellow Americans, and the people of San Bernardino, to look at me, at my culture and at my religion, with suspicion. It is as if what they did overrides everything I and every Muslim have ever done to be part of San Bernardino and this country.
The Sun and San Bernardino were my home. They are still my home. How dare these killers end the lives of my people and shake up a foundation I worked so hard to build for even one second?
It has never been hard for me to be both American and Muslim. It was never hard for me to be part of San Bernardino because being an American and being Muslim are not different.
Working hard is an American value and an Islamic value. Being a good friend is an American value and an Islamic value. Being kind is an American value and an Islamic value. Being tenacious and ambitious are American values and Islamic values. Being persistent is an American value and an Islamic value.
Falling and failing, and then lifting yourself back up, are the characteristics of an American and the characteristics of a Muslim.
Being an immigrant dreamer in a land of immigrants is an American experience and an Islamic experience. And being strong - #SBStrong - is an American value and an Islamic value.
And I, a Muslim American, stand with you, as strong as San Bernardino.
Main image courtesy of ibtimes.com