Barbara Sahli is a Master’s candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education in the Human Development and Psychology program. Her interests in youth perspectives, storytelling, and the impact of cross-cultural interactions on bias reduction and positive intergroup relations led to her participation in Out of Eden Learn (OOEL) group meetings during the past year.
When I was a middle school language arts teacher, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my students, who often cringed at the mention of writing assignments, actually had a lot to say if given the opportunity to write about their own experiences. I realized this the first time my 6th graders participated in the Max Warburg Courage Curriculum. Students read novels with young protagonists who exhibit courage in the face of adversity and then write a personal narrative about how they have shown courage in their own lives. The stories my students wrote that first year and in subsequent years provided insights into their struggles, concerns, and challenges that I might not otherwise have known about. I began to appreciate the power of such stories as tools for understanding experiences beyond our own and for reflecting on our society through the eyes of youth.
It dawned on me that youth narratives could have an impact beyond the classroom. In the post-9/11 atmosphere of anti-Muslim sentiment, I’ve often wondered about the effect of negative stereotyping on young Muslims and the potential of their authentic voices to change perceptions. To find out, I recently launched the Muslim Youth Voices project for students in middle school, high school, and college to write about their experiences as Muslims in America. In the stories I have collected so far, students recount being called “rag head” or “terrorist,” or told to “go back where you came from.” They describe incidents of discrimination and exclusion in schools, like the elementary student who found a note in her backpack saying that she “didn’t belong at the school and that no one likes you,” or the high school student who was accosted on the school bus by some boys pointing at her headscarf and asking, “Why do you wear those things on your heads? …What do you have? A bomb?” Such sentiments are not limited to school settings. About to exit a city bus, a college student thanks the bus driver, only to be told, “I don’t want a ‘thank you’ from your kind of people!” Some students try to distance themselves from their Muslim identity to avoid being stereotyped, like the student who just wants “to be normal, bury my fear and blend in….When a classmate said Muslims were terrorists, I shut my mouth. When a man wanted to burn the Qur’an, I looked the other way.”
One 6th grade girl tells a different kind of story, a snapshot of a random yet remarkable interaction. She writes:
“I was in third grade in an Islamic school located in the mosque and we were going to a public park for outdoor recess. My friend and I were wearing our small white scarves when we came out and once we arrived at the park, we took our scarves off, handed them to our teacher and began playing (we were 8-9 years old and were still learning to keep our scarves on). As we went further into the park, we saw this lady who we passed by when we arrived and she was looking at my friend and me until we both couldn’t stand it, and went to go play somewhere else. Right as we were about to pass her she stopped us and asked those curious questions. At first we were hesitant to reply but we gained enough pride in ourselves and just hoped for the best. She first asked us how old we both were and we told her. She also happened to ask what happened to the scarves we were wearing and we told her we gave them to our teacher. She studied our hair for a minute or two and said sweetly that we had such beautiful hair and then asked why we covered it. That’s how it started. We told her all about Islam and wearing the hijab. We told her what Islam was, what we believed in, and best of all, we told her all about the hijab’s importance and why we wore it. She was stunned, amazed about how much we knew. We offered to show her our scarves and wear them for her. She stood there as we went to go get them and put them on and when we came back to her, she smiled a sweet smile like she knew us and loved us. Her questions became compliments, but thoughtfully she asked if we were hot and if she could touch it. We giggled our yeses and when she touched them, she felt the soft, light, bright white cotton scarves and said, “Before I touched this, I thought you girls were suffocating yourselves, but now this is like a feather in weight and I’m just amazed by your knowledge, two bright young girls just blending in with the world with pride and beauty.” We were both amazed at how open she was, how she accepted us compared to some of the other times when we receive negative comments and nasty looks. I guess you could say that we spent our whole recess time talking to her with love and compassion. It was a time when I felt so happy, so blessed to be a Muslima. This was an experience that made me open up to people, pop the bubble of fear and anxiety.”
This young girl’s story offers hope that if we are willing to approach the ‘other’ with genuine curiosity and openness, assumptions can be changed and fears can be dissipated—and it’s not a one-way street: it’s safe to say that the woman in the story popped some bubbles of her own. Just as Paul Salopek encounters strangers from different cultures along his journey and forges human connections across seemingly uncrossable borders, so too can our students learn, with guidance, to make these connections without traveling across continents. The opportunities are all around us, in our own neighborhoods, in cross-generational conversations, and in online interactions following Out of Eden Learn footsteps. The key to opening up to others is a willingness to ask curious questions without malice and to consider another’s perspective. Even within a classroom, with students from diverse backgrounds and experiences, the possibilities of crossing invisible borders abound. Teachers and students together can begin to consciously interrogate our own assumptions, adjust our preconceptions, and expand our world views. The best hope for mending our fractured world, I believe, is for more of us to start popping those bubbles of fear and anxiety and deflating our erroneous assumptions, one interaction at a time. Imagine the collective impact of all those popping bubbles! I’m not sure what sound a popped assumption makes, but it must be a joyful one.
*All student excerpts are ©Muslim Youth Voices. Submissions are still being accepted. For more information about the project, please contact MuslimYouthVoices@gmail.com.