By Armughan Syed MPA 2024

Armughan Syed MPA 2024 took to the stage at the Affinity Celebration Honoring Asian, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Desi-American Graduates on Monday, May 20, 2024 during Commencement Week where he spoke about having a half-Muslim, half-Jewish daughter and what he hopes the world will be like with identities like hers. 

Read his full speech. 

On November 17, 2021 at 10:13 p.m. I was holding a newborn baby girl in both my hands. With these two hands. Cradling this new human, eyes tightly shut with these beautiful flowery full cheeks. Her breathing squeaky and serene. She was blissfully unaware that she had arrived in a pandemic-ravaged, highly polarized world.

As I cradled her, I wondered what world she would see when she would finally open her eyes. I also knew that her father would be bringing her to Cambridge in 8 months, to start on a graduate degree program that would be equal parts immersive, engaging and challenging. This kiddo was headed to the Northeast, to become a hard core New England sports fan like her baba.

I was holding my firstborn daughter. We named her Delilah Eman Fox-Syed. Yes, her last name is hyphenated because she draws from two identities that have oftentimes been in open conflict with each other. You see, Delilah is half Jewish and half Muslim, a child of possibilities, of the world we may yet build.

Her father comes from the Sufi Muslim tradition, with a family tree that traces itself directly to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Muslim as Muslim can be, right? Her mother is 99 percent Ashkenazi Jew. Jewish as Jewish can be. And yet, Delilah exists!

The Kennedy School motto: “Ask what you can do” carried even more weight as I held my own child, part of the very next generation, in these hands. I thought: what sort of world was Delilah going to walk in as a child of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father?

Like a lot of my peers, I came to Harvard inspired to look at some of the most complex problems facing our world and like my peers, I felt the tremendous responsibility of doing our part… asking ourselves what we can do, how we can do it, whom can we do it with and for… these are the questions, steeped in moral courage and purpose, we have wrestled with these last two years.

I learned that our work will require moral courage, a call to action that Professor Cornell Brooks resoundingly sounded to our class during orientation week. He implored us to imagine a world of greater justice, equity, representation and inclusion beyond the frontiers of the current reality. I challenge my peers to infuse their wildest, most courageous moral imagination into the change we want to see in this world.

We have also learned our work will require tethering ourselves to our purpose, our why, a call to action by Governor Deval Patrick, to fully explore who we want to be in this lifetime before we think about what we are going to do. If we are to be the community leaders who will help this world solve some of the most complex intergenerational problems, I urge my peers to imbue their leadership in integrity, humility and the sort of bridge-building that will allow us to talk to each other despite not agreeing on everything. Complex problems like climate change (and they’ll hit non-white communities harder!) will require inhabiting lived realities very different from ours.

“My call to action to my peers is to stay true to your own desire to serve your communities, to be stubborn in your resolve to throw yourself deeper into giving of yourself to something greater than yourself.”

Armughan Syed MPA 2024

My call to action to my peers is to stay true to your own desire to serve your communities, to be stubborn in your resolve to throw yourself deeper into giving of yourself to something greater than yourself. We came to this institution anchored in the communities and the dreams they represent. Let today be the day we refortify that anchor of connectedness to our community and our peoples.

Delilah’s middle name, Eman, means belief… belief that a half-Jewish, half-Muslim child can symbolize peaceful coexistence, a shared future for Muslims and Jews alike, with equal value for life. It is my belief, my Eman, that our work is only beginning, that everything in this institution has readied us to become who we are well on our way to becoming out there in the real world. And our ways, each of them, will be different… with their own rich challenges, triumphs, learnings and lessons. And we’re ready for it!

As for me, the question of what I am going to do next keeps coming up. Being an amazing father to Delilah is the first and most natural answer. But, like my peers, asking myself what I can do will be a lifelong question. Asked repeatedly, answered consistently. That is what it means to be a graduate of this institution.

With the same hands that I held Delilah with on that November night… these hands… for as long as I live, I’ll serve my purpose: to bring people together, to hold hands, to hold hearts, to hold complexity, to hold space, to hold the preciousness of human life (of all faiths and backgrounds, equally) as tenderly and steadily as I hold my daughter in my heart at this moment. And I believe you all, my peers, will do the same.

That is my belief. That is my Eman.

Thank you and God bless you all.

Image provided by Armughan Syed MPA 2024.

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