Updated: Feb 19
By Sophie Poole
In April, Sophia Houdaigui, BC ‘21, implemented the online ordering system for her family’s bakery in Arlington, Virginia. Like many small businesses in the service industry, Brooklyn Bagel Bakery used the system to sustain itself through the pandemic, especially during the apocalyptic early months.
“We never closed, which was quite an ordeal, but I think it gave me a different outlook,” Houdaigui said. “I know that if I were to get it, it would mean my dad would have to close down the store for two weeks. It impacts our family business, but it also impacts the lives of 14 employees who always have work and income for that time.”
Opened twenty years ago by her father, Moe, the bakery has been a constant in Houdaigui’s life. On its website, which she made, a slideshow oscillates between two photographs of her and her father. In one image, we see a young Sophia, her curls tied back in pigtails, resting in her father’s arms. As her father smiles in her direction, she nibbles on a bagel, staring directly at the camera’s lens with confidence and curiosity. The other photo shows an older Sophia—one that I recognize from the theater world at Barnard and Columbia—standing behind the shop’s cash register with her father. Surrounded by pastries, coffee jugs, and freshly kettle-boiled bagels, they’re wearing their black Brooklyn Bagel Bakery baseball caps.
This semester, Houdaigui is living at her family’s home in McLean, Virginia. On our FaceTime call from her childhood bedroom, she tells me about her various projects: co-founding and running a nonprofit, working on her History thesis, finishing up her capstone project as an Athena Scholar, studying for this September’s LSAT, serving as the Managing Editor of the Columbia Political Review, working at the bagel shop, and directing the 126th Annual Varsity Show.
Asked about the Varsity Show, which will premier digitally at the beginning of January, Houdaigui anxiously laughs. With the performance moved from its usual Lerner locale, the pressure is on to ensure its long-standing tradition of satirizing Columbia life continues. She offers to show me a snippet of the introduction—a rare treat. Pointing her iPhone camera to her laptop’s screen, she says, “This is tea. I think this is tea.”
En route from preschool dance classes to Columbia’s foremost performing arts event, Houdaigui found her first public policy interest. “Arts education and funding is ridiculously low across the country,” she says as if she is introducing a bill on the House floor. “I feel deeply that the only way we are going to be able to alter the theatrical system and the lack of diversity we have is if we introduce better arts education into kindergarten and first grade.”
On this front, Houdaigui often invokes the idea of care—and caring deeply, at that. “I care a lot about what public service can do for people,” she tells me, connecting her work at the bakery to her time as an intern on Capitol Hill for two summers. Speaking on the phone with customers and ringing people up at the cash register on the weekends, it turns out, is not so different from speaking with constituents during the weekday.
Indeed, care is a common thread connecting Houdaigui’s disparate interests. Her projects, all distinct and ambitious, reflect her confidence in resisting clear-cut definitions.
When Houdaigui was young, her parents never prescribed a religion. Her mother is Jewish and from New Jersey, while her father is Muslim and from Casablanca. They told her she could decide when she was older—that for the time being, she was “half and half.” Half Jewish, half Muslim, half American, half Moroccan, half English-speaking, half Moroccan-Arabic-speaking. The onus was always on Houdaigui to decide who she would be.
Reflecting on the atypical agency given to her by her parents, she acknowledges her confusion with her identity in high school. Now, however, she sees herself more clearly.
“I identify as Moroccan-American,” she says to me, without hesitation. “Not Moroccan. Not American. Just Moroccan-American.” Thanks to her parents, she understands the power in defining her identity for herself, embracing life in the in-between and grounding herself in multiple histories.
This spirit of embracing dual identities shaped the ethos of Hyphenated America, an organization Houdaigui co-founded with Maria Castillo, SEAS ‘21, in July. She met Maria on the board of the Columbia Political Review.
In an effort to accurately and accessibly explain the complexities of the American immigration system, Hyphenated America compiles guidebooks, creates weekly break-downs of immigration news, and releases a podcast featuring interviews with various experts—immigration advocates, historians, attorneys, reporters, nonprofit leaders.
At the core of the organization is its mission of accessibility. “We cared a lot about creating materials and offering resources that a multitude of people could access and feel that they learned something from,” says Houdaigui.
Hyphenated America tries to counterbalance the surfeit of reductive infographics about the immigration system that are constantly shared and re-shared on Instagram.“I would see Instagram infographics that would break down ICE into one slide,” Houdaigui says, with an uncharacteristic edge in her voice. “I felt a little bit frustrated by that, because it diminishes the impact and the nuance of the system itself. And I think it also can diminish how difficult the system is to work through.”
From her perspective, posts that oversimplify America’s immigration system advance harmful rhetoric toward immigrants. “Sometimes we would hear, ‘Why can’t people who come here without papers become documented?’” Ignorance about the many systemic barriers in the naturalization process contributes to racist, classist, and xenophobic conceptions of undocumented people.
Even the name of the organization, Hyphenated America, is a history lesson and a reflection of the system’s intricacies. “The term ‘hyphenated American’ is something that we wanted to reclaim, in a sense, and empower young individuals that identify as hyphenated Americans,” Houdaigui explains. “It was about identifying that you can be proud of both of your cultures, both of your countries, and still be just as American.”
The term “hyphenated American” was once a discriminatory epithet directed at immigrants. As the organization’s website notes, in a speech given in 1915, President Franklin Roosevelt disparaged “hyphenated Americans.” Before the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal service union established to benefit working-class and immigrant Catholics in the United States, he stated, “there is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism.”
Now the term “refers to the use of a hyphen between the name of one’s origin in a foreign country, and the second term being ‘American.’” The name invokes the fraught history of immigration in our country and calls on us to interrogate its current state. In the 105 years since FDR’s speech, the institutional violence and xenophobic microaggressions towards immigrants, documented and undocumented, continue.
The current daily violence of the immigration system is covered in Hyphenated America’s weekly breakdowns. During a week in September, they informed readers Covid-19 cases surged in ICE detention centers and Cipriano Chavez-Alvarez became the twentieth person to die in ICE custody from the virus this year; Californians scheduled for release from prison were being directly sent to ICE detention centers, as in the case of Kao Saelee; and during an active sexual assault investigation at an El Paso detention center, ICE deported a key witness.
Following the week’s news, the breakdown highlights activists and organizations, El Refugio, which supports immigrants incarcerated at Stewart Detention Center, a private prison in Georgia. By offering a glimmer of hope at the end of bleak summaries of institutional violence, sickness, and severed families, Hyphenated America prods us toward what we can be.
In the nearly two decades that elapsed between those early photos at the bakery and today, Houdaigui still contains a deep self-assuredness and concern for the world around her, approaching everything she does with her philosophy of radical care.
“I feel that if you kind of half-ass anything, or you don’t care deeply about something, it’s gonna come across as inauthentic and fake,” she says. “That’s something I don’t believe in.”
Although others may be confused by the seemingly contradictory aspects of her identity, Houdaigui isn’t. She embraces all of the hyphenated parts of herself, joining them together in her petite 4’11” frame.