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Turning Rampant Anti-Muslim Bullying Into Teachable Moments


And now a story about the struggle of American Muslims against discrimination. NPR's Leila Fadel concludes her series on a new generation of American Muslims with this report on a family in Northern California.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Sana Afzal is 16. She's talking to her mom. She wears a pink scarf to cover her hair, leggings and a sweater. In the fall of 2016, she started high school in the town of Gilroy outside San Jose.

SANA AFZAL: You could tell that there was just kind of like this feeling of like don't really go near her.

FADEL: A new school is always hard, but doing it as a Muslim kid of color, wearing a religious head covering, is even harder.

SANA: And like, it's kind of just weird because they just kind of see you as an outsider and they leave it like that.

FADEL: After the presidential election, the bullying started. First a note pinned to a backpack - I like Trump, you're fired. Then a Fox News editorial assigned in her English honors class that linked a horrific stoning of a young couple in Afghanistan to Islam as a religion. The article was accompanied by a picture of a young woman in a headscarf.

SANA: One guy was like, do you know what this word means? Because I guess he like saw the picture and saw me and was like it's the same thing.

FADEL: Sana's classmate was linking her to this awful thing that happened in a country she'd never been to and knew little about. It made her feel...

SANA: Bad, I mean, horrible.

FADEL: In telling the story months later, she starts to cry. Her mom, Noshaba, jumps in.

NOSHABA: It was tough. You know, in our days, it was - you get slapped with kick-me signs. But it wasn't a safety issue. And I see her crying. I get worked up. So you're going to have to - you know, my kids are my weakness. So we do what we can to protect them.

FADEL: So Noshaba helped her daughter figure out how to respond to the bullies. They chose education. The Afzal family contacted the school and two advocacy organizations including the Islamic Network Group or ING. Ishaq Pathan, the youth coordinator, says bullying like this is almost the norm for Muslim kids.

ISHAQ PATHAN: They deal with situations where they are being targeted or called terrorists. In some situations, this actually comes from the administrators and teachers.

FADEL: One study says more than 2 of 5 Muslim kids report bullying at school. And another says, in California, it's more than half. So ING worked with the school and created a program to teach inclusion and understanding people's differences, including Muslims. Now it's a model ING pulls out for other schools who ask for help.

PATHAN: The main thing that we're focusing on is religious-based bullying. And a lot of what we believe is that religious-based bullying is based on ignorance and miseducation.

FADEL: This year, the school's pulled the offending article from the English class. And Sana says things are better. Her battle is mostly over, but her family's and her community's is not.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: The family of six prays in a remodeled barn in nearby San Martin with the South Valley Islamic Community. They've been trying to build a mosque for years, but the project's been a lightning rod. Noshaba remembers the first land use meeting at the Santa Clara Planning Commission.

NOSHABA: Person after person after that got up and just blasted, you know, we don't want them here. They're bringing Sharia law. You guys are terrorists.

FADEL: This kind of rhetoric interspersed with concerns about the building's environmental impact. Since then, it's been six years of legal back and forth. Noshaba says you have to make a choice at moments like these - accept it...

NOSHABA: Or we say, no, this is not the America we want it to be. And we know America can be what we want, where it's inclusion and it's our rights. And we just want to practice.

FADEL: And if all that isn't enough for one family, Noshaba's eldest daughter, Maimona Afzal Berta, is getting bullied by her students. She also wears the scarf. The 23-year-old special education teacher in San Jose says the problems also started in the fall of 2016.

MAIMONA AFZAL BERTA: I'd hear someone shout from outside my classroom, you know, you're working with ISIS or you're a terrorist.

FADEL: Others would say shoot her and motioned like they were firing a machine gun. She talked to the administrators, and Maimona helped them put together a program to teach kids about inclusion and celebrating diversity.

AFZAL BERTA: So at the end of that school year, it was like, wow, like, we made some progress.

FADEL: And so this past fall, she was excited to start teaching again. She showed up early on September 11 to get everything ready for a new unit on suspense. She turned the corner to her classroom.

AFZAL BERTA: And I find the windows and doors vandalized with words associating you with terrorism, you know, ISIS, just like very hateful words - profanities. And I was just like shocked.

FADEL: Maimona went to the school again. She says one person asked if she wanted to change schools.

AFZAL BERTA: Your solution is essentially to get rid of me? I'm not the issue here. It's not even these students. It's the fact that we haven't done a good enough job of educating our students.

FADEL: Imee Almazan, the principal of the middle school where Maimona teaches, says Maimona turned her trauma into teachable moments for the kids.

IMEE ALMAZAN: She has such great courage to speak up against the injustice that she had experienced specifically here at our school. And school is, you know, school is supposed to be a safe place for everybody, right?

FADEL: Maimona says if this was happening in her school, a place with a majority student body of color, then it was happening other places, too. So when a seat on her neighborhood school board opened up, she applied.


AFZAL BERTA: I am the granddaughter of a refugee and an orphan who fulfilled his dreams in this country through an educational experience.

FADEL: She was up against five other candidates, and Maimona was chosen.


AFZAL BERTA: I, Maimona Afzal Berta, do solemnly swear...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That I will support and defend the Constitution.

AFZAL BERTA: ...That I will support and defend the Constitution...

I'm just honestly in shock? I mean. I've never seen a board member who looks like me. So I'm - it seems like a dream right now.

FADEL: Maimona Afzal Berta did this, she says, not only to change things for herself but for her younger sister, for other Muslim families and for any child who feels like an outsider. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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