My experience with “them”

As a public school teacher, I’ve had the great privilege to teach so many people of vastly different backgrounds, nationalities, religions and experience and I kind of feel like the reason so many people hate/fear (fill in your own term here) those who are different from themselves is that they have never been around or rarely been around people different from themselves.  Therefore, with what is going on this past weekend, I thought I would share my experiences teaching and knowing Muslims who have come through my classrooms and life over the past 14 years to give a better understanding of why I find this immigration ban from certain places so reprehensible.  Throughout my life life, I have encountered many people of the Islamic faith, but I will focus this writing on my time as a teacher.  So when I hear about bans of people based in at least part on their association with Islam, here are the young people I think of when others talk about their safety and terrorism.

I think of my first year as a teacher, one of the brightest, most thoughtful students in my class that year was a young lady who was so excited to teach me about her faith and helped me present the unit on world religions from her perspective.  She proudly talked about her choice to not wear the hijab and how that did not make her any less faithful than those that chose to and how she respected the others’ choice and described how her choice was never criticized by those who shared her faith.  She showed me how to pronounce certain words correctly (something I still struggle with today) and gave me  my first real understanding of what it meant to be a member of her community and I will always be grateful for her help in creating my understanding of her cultural heritage.

I think of the many young ladies who chose to put their faith on display by wearing their hijabs as a show of their faith knowing full well the possibility of discrimination and ridicule from those who did not make an attempt to understand their choice.  I want to make it clear that it was their choice to do so, not out fear or oppression but as public expression of their faith and pride of their culture and out respect for the tradition and family that they belonged.  None of them saw it as oppression, but instead the free practice of their religion.

I think of the young  man who came  from Iraq escaping the sectarian violence or the young men and ladies from Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan and other chaotic and unstable places to lead a safer better life in this country free from daily violence who fully appreciated their opportunity to attend school away from violence and oppression often present in their homelands.  These young people were some of the most appreciative and respectful people to ever come through my class and life and they have enriched my life experience in ways I cannot quantify.

I think of the young man from last year who is a state champion quality wrestler whose father is an immigrant who wants his son to have an opportunity to succeed through hard work and opportunity that this country can provide.  A young man who I talk to on a regular basis who struggles managing his sport and academics, in other words, just like almost all my other students.

I think of a young man who came to my school from Jordan who is the definition of positivity and one of the  friendliest humans you will ever meet who has the unique ability to make everyone is his presence feel valued and cared about.  A few years after graduating high school, he invited me to his wedding and I attended it with a colleague.  We obviously were different from most everyone else attending the event, but we were made to full completely welcome by everyone there.  Most of the people there went out of their way to make me feel welcome and explain what was happening so that we would be comfortable and not disrespect any of their traditions.  Not once did I feel judged as being out of place.  Not once did I see a side look of disapproval, but instead inclusiveness and appreciation that we wanted to be a part of their culture.  It was a unique wonderful experience I will never forget.  I consider that young man to be my friend and feel honored that he considers me a friend too.

I think of the Salutatorian of the senior class one year who gave a speech in front of a crowd of mostly white, mostly Christian (probably mostly conservative Southern Christians) and spoke openly about his faith and American values and was given a standing ovation by the crowd and was probably one of the best, most inspiring speeches I’ve ever heard in my life.

But ultimately, I think of a family of which I had the privilege of teaching two brothers who came through my classes.  The older brother is a hard working passionate young man who fought hard for his beliefs and whose viewpoint I highly valued in my class and his younger brother who I would just say was a nice, thoughtful young man very concerned about the welfare of others.  A few years later, he attended Dental School at UNC with the desire to return to Syria during the summers to provide free dental care for the refugees who lost everything in the civil war there.  But before he had the chance, he was murdered by an individual who robbed this world of the wonderful giving young man and his wife and sister in law.  This is a tragedy that would have embittered me, but his family handled it with grace and dignity beyond what I could imagine.  His sister went on TV (CNN and other major networks) to decry the increasing violence against Muslims and extol the virtues of forgiveness and leading a life of value to honor her younger brother with a grace and dignity that I marvel at.  His older brother started an organization in his brothers honor to carry on the good that he intended to do in his life.  This family is truly amazing and I admire them greatly and our country is better off having them here and oh by the way, they are from Syria one of the countries we are trying to stop people from coming to the US.

There are a dozen or so other stories I could tell here, but these are the ones that stand out most in my mind of my experiences around Muslims over the past 14 years and I think exemplify why they contribute as much if not more to our society than anyone who was simply born here.  They are part of the fabric of our country and it would be a lesser place without their presence.  I write this in sincere hope that someone who does not interact with Muslims on a regular basis and simply believes the stereotypes perpetuated by media and demagogues will think about these young people the next time you think they all should be kicked out of this country and decide that maybe our melting pot has room for them and their families moving forward as we all try to create a more forgiving, safe world for us all to share.




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