Growing up, I was different. The girl with the weird ethnic food at lunchtime — grape leaves, zaatar with bread. Unkempt frizzy hair, with a sense of style like no one else. I once wore a sweater from my grandmother that had a doll’s head sewn into it. Even my family was different. I am the daughter of two immigrants from very different countries: my father, who is Muslim, from Syria, and my mother, who is Catholic, from Mexico. It’s no wonder that I was considered the odd one out and was often bullied for being “the other.”
I remember sitting in my Texas history class in the seventh grade. It was the day before the Iraq War was about to begin, and our teacher took it upon himself to explain why this war was “right.” Our country was in pain from the 9/11 attacks, but I, and many others, knew that this war was not the answer to that pain. But what was I, a 12-year-old girl, supposed to do? Iraq was on the border of Syria where my father’s side of the family resided. I feared the war would spread, that my family would end up casualties, and I feared for the civilians of Iraq. What was I supposed to say?
Just the year before I was ridiculed by a classmate who told me “your uncle is Saddam Hussein.” Was I supposed to speak out and allow myself to become the subject of ridicule again? I was a child, and yet I worried so much about what people would think of me because I was Muslim, because I was different. I wanted to melt in my chair, and fade from existence.
Back then, I felt melting was the only thing I could do. I experienced other instances of racially and religiously charged bullying throughout middle school and high school. If I could become invisible, I would never have to feel hateful glares upon me. So for a time, I wanted to disappear.
A year after the war started, we had to prepare a persuasive PowerPoint project for our computer literacy class. One of the topics we could present on was the Iraq War. Despite my fears, I decided to present on why I believed it was wrong. My presentation showed pictures of innocent people hurt, one of them an infant. In the background of my presentation played the song “Where Is the Love?” by The Black Eyed Peas. Someone else before me also used that song in their presentation. My classmates began shouting, “Boring! same song!” I knew it wasn’t really the song that they were protesting. They just didn’t like me. I felt proud that I stood up for what I believed in. But again, I felt like disappearing, because even with my new-found courage, I was still ridiculed. After this experience I tried my best to lay low and even hide my identity.
As I made my way to college, something changed. Despite my fears, I decided to begin wearing the hijab. There was always this voice in the back of my head telling me that if I truly wanted to follow Islam, I should follow it to the fullest, and to me that included wearing the hijab and praying five times a day.
I wouldn’t allow myself to be afraid anymore, and with the hijab I became far from invisible. I saw that wearing the hijab would allow me to open up conversations in order to dispel ignorance that people may have about my religion. And it did. Usually people would come up to me and ask me questions — the why, what and how of the hijab and Islam. I realized being invisible would never have allowed me to have these conversations, which is why I will never be quiet again, even if it makes me uncomfortable.
Donald Trump’s candidacy and now impending presidency is stirring up racial and religious tensions. With a diverse background like mine, it’s hard not to feel doubly targeted. However, these issues did not begin with him. This is a deeper problem that we have had for a long time. The problem: everyone has prejudices. The question is, how can we move past these prejudices and begin to look at each other as humans?
We must create an environment where everyone, especially young people, feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and fears. It is only by listening to each other that we will ever be able to understand one another. We, as Americans, pride ourselves in saying that we live in a free country, but do we truly understand why freedom of expression is so important? If we are not able to practice our faiths or non-faiths, speak our minds, and dress freely, it is as if we lose a part of ourselves.
When I was in college, I worked as the Interfaith Ministry Intern for our Campus Ministry. One day, I was asked by a religious studies professor to give a presentation on Islam. I attended a Catholic University, where all students are required to take at least one religious studies class. As a Muslim, I took pride in attending a Catholic University. Not only because my mother is Catholic, but because I find Catholicism to be a very beautiful and interesting faith.
About 10 minutes before I was to begin the presentation, my supervisor received a phone call from the professor. During the call, the professor explained that there were a few students who might not be very cooperative during the presentation. My supervisor decided to attend the presentation with me to make sure I was safe.
It was a world religions class, and they had just covered the topic of Islam. The professor asked for me to come in because she believed it was important to include a student’s voice on the topic. I was nervous, as always, but I blocked the feeling. If I allowed myself to feel so, I’d do horribly. The stuffiness of the room didn’t make it easier. We were on the third floor of a very old building, so the air was a bit dry. I internally pushed myself, readied myself and began.
My presentation outlined the basic principles of Islam, while also dispelling a few misconceptions. These were topics that often came up in the news, such as what jihad really means, Islam and women’s rights, the religion’s compatibility with other faiths, and the position of Mary and Jesus in Islam. These topics came up in almost every presentation I gave, because they are so widely misunderstood.
The classroom had about 25 students present. I received a few interruptions from the class throughout my presentation, but assured the students that I would answer all questions and receive any concerns at the conclusion of my presentation. The interruptions made it clear that indeed I was speaking to an audience who didn’t have a clear understanding of what Islam really is.
The professor asked me what it’s like to be a Muslim in America. I responded that America is diverse, we have people from so many different countries who have various cultures and lifestyles. Likewise, it is the same with Islam. My definition of being a Muslim in America may be different than another person’s definition. I ended my presentation with a quote from the Quran on being kind to those of other faiths.
Once I finished my presentation, I received many questions and comments from the students. There was tension with two of the students in particular. These two students had feelings of pain, anger, and fear twisted within each question, but I knew it was ignorance that fueled their feelings. I stayed calm, answering the questions thoroughly, although the tension was causing me to sweat.
Incredibly, one of those two students had a change of heart that day. She told me that I helped her realized that she hated my religion, she hated me, and she didn’t know why. My presentation highlighted all the subjects that she was concerned about, and informed her of how much she didn’t understand. She realized she had no real reason to hate. We hugged, there were some tears, and even an exchange of phone numbers. Words cannot express how amazing it was to feel that just by creating a dialogue, someone was able to see past the barriers of hate and open themselves to cooperation.
The now extremely divided segments of our country have very strong beliefs, whether they be religious, ethical, moral, or just human. Listening to the other side and understanding why the “other” chooses to believe as they do is important in reaching each other. It may not be easy or even comfortable to begin these dialogues, but they are important.
I sometimes still want to be invisible, to hide, to melt, like I did in my seventh-grade Texas history class. Because speaking out, even writing this article, makes me feel uncomfortable. And yet it also makes me feel whole because I am able to express myself.
So even if we feel uncomfortable for a few moments, by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to judgement or otherwise, we are essentially paving the way to reach true comfort. We are paving the way to living together, talking with one another, and sharing our truths free of hate and bigotry.
Let us be a listening ear, and suspend our judgements of others. Let us stand up against oppression and racism whether in our own hearts or elsewhere. Let us come together.