Recently, Muslim children across the world asked, “Why did this happen to us?”

Today, I implore Minnesotans to express love and empathy for their young Muslim neighbors to ensure that this vulnerable group understands they are not alone.

I was 13 when the terrorist attacks on 9/11 occurred. In the weeks that followed, I recall dying my hair blond in an attempt to fit in. I would tell my mom to pick me up 15 minutes after baseball games were finished because I didn’t want anyone to see my mother’s hijab (head scarf). I didn’t want anyone to know that I was a Muslim.

This generation of Muslim children is coming of age at a time when their religion has been portrayed to be antithetical to being American. These children have listened to news of a Muslim Ban, they have lived through the murders of Deah, Yusor and Razan in Chapel Hill, N.C., and they have seen full-throated bigotry on the campaign trail.

And the recent events in Christchurch represent an inconceivable escalation of anti-Muslim attitudes. If these children don’t feel accepted in their community, what will they do?

Over the last year, our team at Noor Kids has had one-on-one conversations with more than 400 Muslim children across North America as part of the soon-to-be-published “Muslim Identity Study.” The most significant finding: that many Muslim children feel they are not accepted in their American community due to their religion.

Sofia, a 6-year-old in California, articulates this attitude by saying, “Sometimes I pretend I’m not Muslim in school because I don’t want anybody to know.”

Research indicates that a lack of belonging can lead to long-term consequences, including antisocial attitudes and behavior. Examples include lack of self-esteem, agency and future opportunity. This is especially true among adolescents, 13- to 19-year-olds.

As it is, middle school is an awkward time — not only because of the hormonal changes that teenagers experience, but also because adolescent brains are not fully matured to allow for critical thinking. As a result, adolescents often act on impulse, not thinking about the long-term consequences. Emotion-triggering events such as the Christchurch attacks only add fuel to this fire.

Today, Muslim children must not feel that they, alone, have experienced tragedy. Rather, in the wake of the events in Christchurch, Muslim children must see that we, as Americans, are mourning together through allyship.

Allies are a powerful force because they can help affirm an individual’s unique identity, making them feel accepted for who they are. I experienced this through my 10th grade world history teacher, Mrs. Serrano.

Mrs. Serrano made a special effort to get to know me. When she discovered that I enjoyed poetry, she presented me a copy of “Our Deepest Fear” by Marianne Williamson.

She stood up for me. For example, before her lesson on Islam, Mrs. Serrano wanted to learn about my experience as a Muslim post-9/11 such that she could build empathy among my classmates.

She made resources available to me. When it was time for me to fast during the month of Ramadan, Mrs. Serrano allowed me to stay in her empty class while the others proceeded to the lunchroom.

Perhaps most importantly, she expressed care. Whether it be through smiles in the hallway or words of affirmation after class, Mrs. Serrano made me feel loved.

It worked. Some 17 years later, I credit Mrs. Serrano for helping me build confidence in my identity as an American and a Muslim. She made me feel like the country that I was born in is where I belong.

Today, when a Muslim child asks, “Why did they do this to us?” allies can make it abundantly clear that as Americans, we are stronger when we are united. That is, the perpetrators of this violence did not simply hurt Muslims; rather, the perpetrators hurt us all.

 

Amin Aaser, of Maple Grove, is the executive director of Noor Kids, an educational services organization based in Minneapolis that supports Muslim children.