Tiny beads ran down my face and formed a pool of sweat on my chin. I was soaked; my shirt clung to me. This was, I reasoned, a negligible price to pay for my triumph against the opposing kickball team. As the bell rang I, along with the other fourth-graders, filed back into class, but the elation we felt from the playground victory was soon to be shattered. Well, for my classmates, anyway.
As we walked in, our teacher, Mr. Stansu, asked if we knew anything about the World Trade Center in New York. In a roomful of 9-year-old Canadians, the aggregate of our understanding of an iconic American structure would barely form a couple of sentences, but when Mr. Stansu told us that hijacked airplanes had crashed into the towers, our naïveté ended.
To be honest, a lot of what I heard that morning didn’t quite register. I had emigrated from Saudi Arabia just two years before, and I was still struggling with English. Even though I had attended English as a Second Language classes for a couple years, everything from English letters to the direction in which you read a text was distinct from the Urdu and Arabic languages I spoke.
Two weeks after 9/11, my dad got a new job and our family moved to a small suburb in Upstate New York where the terror attacks had a profound impact on the students in my tiny elementary school. Unlike me, they knew what the World Trade Center was and understood the enormity of the devastation. Muslim radicals had instigated the attacks.
Blending in, sticking out
Most of the kids in my class associated Islam with evil. They didn't know any better; most of what they were being fed by their friends and family polarized them, and so it was natural to share those feelings.
In Toronto, my little section of town was littered with Jamaicans, Indians, Croatians, Nigerians and others. The multitude of diversity made it easy to mesh in because everyone was struggling and everyone was equally an outsider. Plus, there was a large Desi population (people from South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). No one I ever interacted with gave me the impression that they had aligned Islam with malice.
My new town was the polar opposite. Nine out of every 10 people were white. During my first few months living there, I felt an anti-Islam sentiment, but I didn’t initially recognize it. For instance, the kids in class ostracized a Muslim classmate, but I attributed their rejection of him to his reclusive nature. Even I avoided him at times.
When people inquired about my faith, I’d tell them that I had never been in a church, only a mosque. The average 9-year-old responded with absurd facial expressions and discomfort, but I didn’t recognize it as anti-Islam, either.
Other classmates sometimes mocked Islam, but I believed their motives weren’t entirely malicious; these were the same kids who rattled off names like “fatty” or “loser,” and so I figured it was typical kid behavior.
To avoid their animosity, I'd tell them I was Christian, not Muslim, but I couldn't hide the truth for long; my mom is Muslim and is rarely seen in public without a hijab on. My classmates made the connection and the mockery resumed.
‘I need you to get pissed off’
By the middle of fourth grade, I pieced together the tragedy, my peers’ reactions to my faith, and understood why those around me criticized Islam.
More than four years later, the razzing continued. Before my high school freshman year, football double sessions started in mid-August, as did Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting during daylight hours. Because I couldn't eat or drink when the sun was up, I'd be lacking that "edge," that hunger to crush the other player.
After one bad play, my coach pulled me aside and barked at me: "I need you to get pissed off; if you want to start, you need to be pissed off."
I couldn't be pissed off; I had to maintain my cool; Ramadan is a month of modesty and self-control, I explained.
"I don't care — you know what the problem with you is? You're just happy, like every other immigrant. You blew shit up and now you’re sitting in this country all content because you ruined it for the rest of us. Do that to the other team. That's what I need you to do."
That sent me into uncontrollable laughter. Other players started laughing too, and this only amplified my frenzy like a feedback loop gone terribly wrong. Death and destruction covered the coach’s face, and he soon had me running laps as punishment.
While I was running, I realized how absurd his mini pump-up speech was. He literally thought that Muslims, as a holistic group of people, condoned the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It didn't anger me that he felt that way because I realized a lot of his misconceptions were due to ignorance as opposed to flat-out disdain. Even my close friends subconsciously associated Islam with terrorism when in fact Islam condemns violence.
People always talk about change and making progress, but no one ever steps up to the plate. Everyone wants to fix human relations, but no one truly wants to do anything about it. You'd have to go out of your way and comfort zone, two things people aren't willing to do, to accomplish anything. Just like a New Year's resolution, you might adhere to a new mindset for a couple of days before you relapse into your old habits and preconceived notions. It's just too much of a chore, which is why I'm so skeptical of all those interracial or interfaith dialogues. They seem so phony, and it's too much effort to participate.
It's been a decade since 9/11. I don't hear the mimicries or the yells. No one is telling me to blow up anyone else anymore, and I haven't felt excluded. But this isn't all about my experience; plenty of other Muslims still face issues. Whether it's always "qualifying" for random security checks at airports or just plain-old hateful speech, it's still there.
And no amount of humor can mask that.
> Salman Syed, 19, is a staff writer at Millennial Youth, a magazine that is produced in print and online for and by youth. Visit their website at www.millennialyouth.com
What’s under that hijab?
Letting go of prejudice and fear can help us grow and heal
By Allegra Cullen
One of my friends once said he thought it would be easy to commit an act of terror.
“Why do you have to blow up a plane,” he asked. “You could walk right into Grand Central Station, and there are hundreds and hundreds of people there.”
That one thought planted a seed of fear in my mind, a seed that wouldn’t blossom for many years.
I was 6 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. I didn’t lose anyone or know anyone who lived in New York City. I knew that many people had died, but I didn’t understand why it was such a huge deal. People die all the time.
Besides the twinge of fear I initially experienced whenever planes flew by — a feeling that eventually faded away — I didn’t think that I was in immediate danger in my town, three hours north of the two buildings I would watch for weeks crumbling in a cloud of black smoke and fire. I had no idea how serious the situation was.
Now that I am older, I can see that the events of 9/11 have created a national feeling of fear. Sometimes it’s invisible. Other times it is wrapped around you like a thin sweater you can forget you have on.
For example, a bus station environment used to be simply crowds of people hurrying to their destination, waiting in huge lines or passing time by reading books and listening to music.
Now, loudspeakers warn travelers to report any suspicious activity or unattended packages, which brings to my mind news reports of buses getting blown up in other countries.
Sometimes, if I see a woman in traditional Arab Muslim dress, I can’t help but look at her from the corner of my eye. Occasionally, I imagine a bomb going off, smoke and fire, and people panicking and trying to get out of the building. It’s hard not to think, “what if.”
I know that I am not the only one who automatically judges people on first glance. I have heard other kids talk about it and make jokes. When people see a woman wearing long, flowing clothing, they automatically assume she is Muslim. When a Muslim woman is seen praying on a plane, she must be doing it because she is about to set off a bomb.
I often catch myself looking at a Muslim in this way, and I immediately feel guilty. I know being a Muslim doesn’t make you a terrorist. I also know that it’s not Muslims as a whole whom we are fighting a war against, but extremist radicals. But no matter how informed I am, these thoughts still cross my mind.
I sometimes hate myself for equating innocent people with a man like Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for thousands of deaths, a man whose death this year caused people to parade in the streets.
Even though 9/11 was an attack on the U.S., Americans were not the only people killed or affected. There were Muslims in the towers, too, and there must have been Muslims other than the terrorists on the planes.
When I see a Muslim, I may be nervous, but I can’t imagine how it must feel to be that woman in the hijab. Walking down the street in New York City, she might be more afraid of the lingering stares from people that pass by than I am of her.
Why shouldn’t a Muslim woman sit on a bus, a train or a plane with her children without a feeling she is being watched?
The boarding school that I go to has students from all over the world. This has allowed me to meet and become friends with people I used to think would be different from me.
Being able to become close to people from different backgrounds has made me realize that teenagers are just teenagers. Despite whatever cultural differences we may have, we can easily relate to each other and find common interests.
When I hang out with friends, I don’t care what religion they are. If I found out that all of my best friends were Arab Muslims I wouldn’t care because I would know them as people. I would never equate them with danger.
Had I known more Muslims growing up, or learned about Islam, I probably wouldn’t be nervous when I see a Muslim on a bus. Maybe if I had had a chance to learn about their culture and traditions, my hesitation would turn into interest.
It’s easy to say there is nothing we can do immediately to end American prejudice toward Muslims because so many people think it is natural and that the tragedy makes it excusable. It’s easy to think the only cure for this is time, and hope that as 9/11 fades into history, we won’t judge Muslims so harshly.
But changing the ways of a country starts with changing the ways of an individual. The next time you walk past an Arab Muslim and prejudice pops into your head, don’t just dismiss it. Allow yourself to feel guilty. Try to imagine how you would feel if someone imagined you blowing up a building. Recognize that the fear is not rational. It may eventually fade away.
What’s under the hijab of a Muslim? If I strike up a conversation, I might discover that she’s a snowboarder, a Harry Potter fan or a person who loves nature photography, country music and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, just like me. Underneath that hijab is a mother, a sister, a daughter, or if I step outside of my own comfort zone, a friend.
> Allegra Cullen, 16, is the co-editor-in-chief of Millennial Youth, a magazine that is produced in print and online for and by youth. Read her blog at www.millennialyouth.com and follow her on Twitter @allegracullenMY.
Desensitized by Terror
Learning more about 9/11 — and myself
By Emily O’Brien
My younger brother has never known an America at peace, and I have only a vague memory of the first wave of U.S. military deployment after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Images of reporters standing outside foreign cities, backlit with fire; reports of death tolls and terrible attacks — these are normal to us, mixing in with other daily news like the weather.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to most of my generation are far-distant things, conflicts that started a long time ago for unknown causes and perpetuated for unseen reasons. This is not ignorance. A group of citizens in post-9/11 America is coming of age inadvertently more aware of the potential destruction humans can inflict on one another, and who seem to be becoming more involved in the direction the nation is moving.
With the aid of the Internet, kids are reaching out, exploring more and teaching themselves more about the world around them.
At the time the 9/11 attacks happened, I didn’t understand what was going on, but then again I’m not sure many did. Watching as two buildings crumbled into nothing but stone and dust quickly opened my eyes to a world far outside my own, but also extended the world I thought I already conquered. I never lived a sheltered life, but never had tragedy been so blaringly obvious to me, played on a loop on every news network.
I wouldn’t say that it made me more mature, as I did what most children do and tucked it away deep in my memory and went on with my life, but now that I’m older, I have discovered a new tragedy in that I have grown accustomed to hearing about life-shattering sorrow.
The aftermath of the attacks brought drastic changes in the way the country, and the world, viewed safety, including the introduction of a new division of the federal government: the Department of Homeland Security. Safety is now on everybody’s radar screen.
Knowledge the key
As an American, I hold no grudge against anyone of Middle Eastern descent. In fact, due to increased diversity and broader education programs in my school, I am intrigued by the Islamic world and want to know more, understand more. Whether this is related directly to 9/11 I cannot say, but I do know there is and always will be a part of me that wants to make sense of the jumble of facts as I understand them.
I am a member of the so-called “9/11 Generation,” a title bestowed upon the upcoming group of youths by various news anchors and political analysts that is largely inaccurate. Surely we are growing up in a world much different from previous generations, but isn’t that always how the cycle of human development works?
> Emily O’Brien, 17, is a staff writer and photographer at Millennial Youth, a magazine that is produced in print and online for and by youth. Visit their website at www.millennialyouth.com