The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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View Me as a Human Being, Not a Terrorist
Yousef El Emary

“Osama bin Laden came from Afghanistan,” my teacher said. I was in 5th grade and we were learning about the 9/11 attacks.

“That’s a Muslim country, Yousef,” one of my peers whispered in my ear. These words were like knives piercing my soul, threatening me. As the teacher continued, he used the words Islam and Muslims to describe the extremist groups that had coordinated such evil.

I thought to myself: “This is not what I believe and not what my parents taught me.” This lesson was the first time I began to feel uncomfortable being a Muslim.

For the rest of the day I felt confused. My teacher, who I trusted to give us correct information, was connecting Islam with terrorism. (My teacher didn’t even know that bin Laden was Saudi, not Afghani.) In a world where I usually felt like I belonged, I suddenly felt isolated.

There weren’t many Muslims in my Forest Hills, Queens, school, which is mostly white and Jewish. I felt like there weren’t other kids I could talk to about this.

My parents are Egyptian. My father came here when he was 23 from Cairo; my mom was born in Queens to Egyptian parents. To the average American, my family might not appear religious. For example, although I try to pray five times a day, I don’t wear the traditional galabeya (a long white robe that covers you from neck to ankles). I choose to dress in jeans and T-shirts. So does my dad. My sister and mother are not veiled, and they too wear American clothes.

Uncomfortable in My Own Skin

My parents taught me that as long as you commit good deeds and refrain from forbidden behavior like taking drugs, lying, and stealing, then you are a decent Muslim.

I didn’t know what Islamic extremism was and how that differed from the Islam I practiced at home with my family. My parents hadn’t talked about it. The teacher didn’t make a distinction in class. I wanted to ask my teacher, but I was too intimidated. At the time, I thought that if I asked questions it might look like I was defending the terrorists.

We studied the attacks for a few days. I felt uncomfortable. It made me doubt the validity of my religion, and whether or not what I was practicing was the “true” Islam. The teacher talked about “jihad.” My understanding of the term “jihad” is to spread the truth of the religion, but my teacher defined it more as a call to murder people and spread fear.

Not My Islam

To make matters worse, my friends started treating me differently. I felt like they were no longer seeing Yousef El Emary, but rather, bin Laden.

One day, I was in the school library when the topic of the 9/11 attacks came up. One of my close friends brought over a new book.

“Hey Yousef! Come and check this out!”

The cover showed a tower, intricately paneled with steel and glass, with what seemed like a mushroom cloud of flame and destruction hovering at the top. “Whoa, this is some deep stuff we got here. Put that back. It upsets me,” I said.

“Why does this upset you? Your kind did this; you should be proud,” he sneered as he flipped through the pages.

“What did you just say?”

“Bro, are you deaf? Osama bin Laden is a Muslim. You are a Muslim. So… your kind did this.”

I wish I had retaliated with something profound, but at that moment, I was too shocked. This was the first time anyone had ever compared me to a terrorist.

My Religion Is Soiled

That night I spoke to my parents in the kitchen.

“Mom, Dad, is it true that Osama bin Laden is a Muslim?”

Neither of them said anything right away. My dad was the first one to answer. “It’s not that easy, Yousef.”

“The news says he is, but I don’t consider him to be one,” my mother said. “Being a Muslim forbids you to kill or do any evil, so, to answer your question…no.”

I nodded, but I did not feel satisfied with her answer. “That’s not what my friends told me,” I whispered sheepishly.

My father shrugged as my mother shook her head. “Well, your friends don’t know about Islam like we do. You can’t blame them for not understanding the difference between a terrorist and a Muslim because of how the news blurs the lines between the two,” my mom said in a consoling voice.

My father interjected, annoyed. “This is how the news portrays us. That is just the way it is.”

image by YC-Art Dept

I realized then that I was likely going to have to justify my religious beliefs over and over again in my life, since my religion was soiled by the wrongdoings of a tiny fraction of Muslims.

Counteracting Islamophobia

A day or two later, I spoke to my friend who’d given me the book in the library.

“Hey, can I talk to you for a second?”

“Yes, what’s up Yousef?”

“When we were in the library you compared me and other Muslims to terrorists, and it offended me. It isn’t OK to assume that because these radical groups are calling themselves Muslims to then suggest I’m just like them.”

“Um… I’m sorry you feel that way,” my friend said.

Dry-mouthed, I was ready to fire back some facts about my religion. “Wait, what?”

“I’m sorry I misjudged you. You’re right that what I said was not OK.”

After that, I thought maybe I could make a small difference in changing people’s minds about Muslims and counteract Islamophobia. Since my conversation with my parents, I noticed those stereotypes continually reinforced on the news.

Over the years, I continued to hear ignorant remarks about Islam, and I’d do my best to educate those unaware that Islam does not advocate for heinous crimes against humanity. Ironically, I was raised in a household of acceptance; my parents preached to me to be “understanding of all religions” and “respect what others believe.” It frustrates me that I was taught to respect others and so many are not reciprocating.

TWA: Traveling While Arab

This summer, my family took a flight to Los Angeles. We don’t travel often, and I was afraid I’d get harassed by a security agent for looking Middle Eastern and having a Middle Eastern name.

The whole taxi ride to the airport was filled with silence as we were absorbed in our own anxieties about the trip. For luck, I took my bead necklace with a pendant saying “Allah” (the Arabic word for God). It partially stuck out of my pants pocket so I could hold it.

When we arrived, I dragged my luggage behind me, weaving in and out of the crowd to join my father, who was calling for me ahead.

“Yousef! How about you stick close to us for once?” he said.

“Sorry Baba, I’m trying to keep up.”

When we got to the right line, there must have been a hundred people slithering along ahead of my family. We slowly got closer to the front of the line; I felt the sweat from my armpits soak my shirt. As I looked down to reach for my passport in my pocket, I noticed that the bead necklace still remained untucked, visible for the rest of the terminal to see.

I thought, “Do I tuck the necklace that represents my faith into my pocket or do I exercise my Constitutional right to practice my religion?” I went back and forth in my mind, and then I noticed that the security person had a cross hanging freely from her neck. I thought, “If she can wear jewelry that represents her faith with confidence that people will not judge her, why can’t I do the same?”

I strode up to the podium with my head held high and handed her my boarding pass. She looked at me, then at the boarding pass, then at me again. She scanned me from head to toe. She stopped as she saw the necklace. She stared at it for what felt like an eternity. I noticed a shift in her facial expression as she continued to look at the pendant. I felt like she was thinking that by wearing a necklace that represents Islam I was making the airport a more dangerous place.

She motioned me to enter the metal detectors and I raised my hands as instructed. As I passed through without any mishap, I felt a sense of relief thinking, “I finally proved to the rest of the people here I am not a threat to their safety. Thank goodness!”

This feeling was short-lived.

“Uh, sir, please step to the side,” someone from behind me muttered as I was going to collect my items I’d placed in the tray.

“Of course, sure!” I said, speaking with enthusiasm to mask the fear and embarrassment I felt as a stranger proceeded to feel my upper thighs, lower legs, and torso. I thought to myself, “I passed through the metal detector without any complications! Why did they ‘randomly’ select me to undergo further searches while they let the white people ahead of me go?” I thought to myself.

I knew the answer; it was because I’m a tall, brown-skinned, Middle Eastern man and I aroused suspicion just based on how I look. I felt violated. My parents, who were waiting for me, were annoyed. While we were waiting for our flight, we talked about it, wondering: Is this something we should expect whenever we travel?

Bracing for the Worst

Since then, I haven’t been targeted by anyone. However, now that Donald Trump has been elected president, I am unsure how long this will last. Based on his speeches during the campaign, I have a deep feeling in my heart that I have to brace for the worst. I am not worried about him in the Oval Office, for I do have faith that the checks and balances system will limit his power. I am more nervous about the insurgence of hatred among average people.

I fear that since he’s about to become the most powerful man in the world over the next four years, minority groups will be targets for hate crimes and even more bigotry. I can only hope that the people who don’t share those views help this country stay true to its promise of religious freedom, and remain a place in which anyone, regardless of their race or religion, is treated fairly and with respect.

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