Saturday, January 12, 2013

Life is Like a Nascar Race

By: Linda Sarsour and excerpts from an essay by her son, Tamir Judeh

"My life is like a Nascar race. My life's engine shuts down. But I have to go in the pit to fix it. A tire goes flat, we go in to the pit to fix it. After all that I always go the right way" wrote my son in an essay for his eighth grade English Class. Today we attended his first high school interview for his school of choice. He was asked to bring a copy of his most recent report card, a graded English paper and to complete an essay on why he wants to attend this school and what strengths he would bring to the school community. The graded paper that was given to him by his teacher to use for the interview was one I had never seen before, it was part of a class assignment. I read it on the way to the interview and cried the whole way there. It pulled at every part of me because after all this time working to combat Islamophobia and raise awareness on the impact of hate and discrimination on the Arab and Muslim American community, never once did I think that it would or was directly and personally affecting my own children.

My son is like any other typical teenager. He loves sports and his future aspirations are to become a renowned sports broadcaster. His favorite teams are the New York Yankees, Knicks and Giants. He loves playing sports games on his Xbox 360 with his cousin and friends. His life flashed before my eyes remembering the day when he was born when I was just a teen and how blessed I felt to become a mom to such an incredible little human being. Reading my son's essay took me inside of his heart and mind and made me realize that the psyche of our youth is far more wounded than one can ever imagine. Our Arab and Muslim American youth don't have to be beat up or bullied consistently to feel alienated, marginalized and misunderstood. My son was too ashamed to share with me his thoughts so he wrote them down in hopes that this would be his "pit stop".

Excerpts from my son's essay:

"Sometimes my culture is portrayed as the evil culture. But we are probably the most down to earth people anybody would know. One way people have put me down is only knowing my people as "The Terrorist". A Second way is that they won't let us speak on our behalf. My last reason is because my experiences show people are ignorant. 

My first reason is many people portray Muslims as terrorists. None of us are like that. One time in the fourth grade I got an extremely challenging question right. Nobody else got it. So when the teacher said I was right a kid shouted "He is going to use an equation to build a bomb." At that age, I didn't know how to react so I just smiled. But now I knew I should have been angry.

My second reason is people won't let let my people share their ideas of what people think. In sixth grade we were talking about the terrorist attacks on nine eleven. Everybody got a chance to speak out but when it was my turn it was on to the next subject. 

My last reason is that a lot of people are ignorant and biased. One time I was in an argument about Muslims. There were people around us that I knew changed their minds but that one person I was arguing with stayed with the same state of mind. 

Sometimes my culture is portrayed as the evil culture. But we are not that at all. I hope you read this essay and have felt what I felt."

His teacher commented on the paper and wrote "I am sorry this happened to you. Tamir, you have tackled very significant issues in your writing - I can feel your passion and writing from the heart is the best way to go." My question to ourselves is what is it about our society that this young boy is made to feel this way. My son could be any one's child and he feels different and its evident by his usage of words like "my people". Almost 12 years since 9/11, the Arab and Muslim Americans are living in one of the most hostile civic environment that they have ever experienced. Our youth are confused about their identities and trying to find common ground between being Muslim and American and trying to come to terms with whether or not they are mutually exclusive. 

It is our responsibility as a society to embrace, encourage and celebrate our youth. They are the future of our country and world. We as adults need to put our differences aside as hard as it may be sometime to ensure that we are creating an environment where our children and grandchildren will thrive together. We need to have the courage to stand up to those in our communities and outside of our communities who incite hate. Just two weeks ago a Hindu man was pushed in to the train tracks by a woman who said she hates "Hindus" and "Muslims". A few weeks earlier, a Muslim elder in Queens was almost beaten to death after he responded to a question about whether he was Muslim. This my friends is not the New York I want my kids to grow up in.

Most recently extremely offensive advertisements went up in NYC train stations that had pictures of the burning twin towers with a quote from the Quran that read "Soon shall we cast terror in to the hearts of the unbelievers." Other than the fact that the quote is mistranslated and taken out of context, the intention behind it is to equate Islam, Muslims and our holy book with terrorism. The ad wouldn't bother me as much if I didn't know how traumatic they are for those who lost loved ones on 9.11 or experienced that devastating day firsthand. How they impact the Muslim community is explained best by Ayisha Irfan, Arab American Association of New York's Youth Organizing Fellow in a recent facebook status,

"I just glanced over Pammy's new ads. Even though it's been over 11 years since 9/11, I am now a woman in my mid 20's training youth leaders to never be afraid and I embrace their identity as American Muslim activists, I can't help but have my heart race as I look at a picture of the Twin Towers burning. I can't ignore the very obvious fact that when 9/11 is even MENTIONED I get a tight feeling in my chest. I can't explain my need to SAY something yet my want to entertain a conversation about 9/11. This is the narrative of my generation. We have an inherent sense of guilt for something we had nothing to do with. Every year as the 9/11 anniversary rolls around it hits us again and again that we might never be seen as American enough."

My son and Ayisha are but many experiences of youth across the country. Read their words, absorb them, feel them  and let's build the moral courage together to stand up against hate when it's against your child or mine. Let's live up to our name as New York City - the capital of the world, the best place to live on earth (maybe I made up the last part - but why not? We need to be the best). Let's do what's right for our children. And to use my son's profound analogy about life being a Nascar race - as a city, a country let's say enough to Islamophobia, Xenophobia, and Homophobia and get ourselves in to the pit stop. Educate ourselves, open our hearts and souls and extend our hands to our neighbors. Once we do that, we can get back in to the Nascar race. 

I would like to commend the many selfless people out there who dedicate their time to combatting hate and racism. I salute you. I love you.


  1. This is such a wonderful post. The extract from Ayisha Irfan, I know the feeling. It saddens me that people who had nothing to do with certain events etc have to deal with the consequences of it. I am now 17 years old, I've endured countless racist and hate fueled comments. I've even been physically assaulted. I see with my own eyes that there s this dichotomy in society where you have to choose the west or your religion. It's unfair. I am a Muslim and I am also westerner. The fact that I, and countless other Muslims, feel that they need to choose one or the other is outrageous. In the time of the Prophet (SAW) the wearing of Hijab and Islam as a whole was a symbol of liberty, positive values and a revolution in human rights. It's sad that few people in this generation will ever truly understand the history of Islam, what it means and the positive implications it's had on millions of people. This post was inspiring, and I'm glad people are still talking about these issues even when it sometimes seems hopeless.

    1. Thank you for sharing this comment. Thank you for opening your heart to me. We always have to remember who we are and what we represent - we encompass so many identities and they should all blend together evenly to make each of us. We are all beautiful and deserve to be treated with respect.

  2. Such a touching and moving post Tamir and Linda. Thank you so much for sharing it. This piece will remind me to challenge my assumptions of people and their experiences. It will remind me to create a space to allow others to be the best that they can be, and to use my eyes, ears, heart and soul to experience their humanity. The piece is strong as it comes on Dr. King's birthday, and as we celebrate the 50th year of his "I Have A Dream" speech. We have a lot of progressive, hard work to do where we can establish a climate where we all are Free at last!

    1. This is SOOOOO beautiful. I showed it to my son, you should have seen his smile. You may be just what he needed, an affirmation that what he says matters and someone is listening. Thank you for sharing with us.

  3. Aww, what a precious son you have Sr. Linda! That was so very touching and yes, some tears built in my eyes as I read what he had to go through. I surely feel the pall of 9/11 as what defines to an extent, my experience as being an American Muslim since that tragic day. Young ones like Tamir will be insha'allah, as they grow, will be the rock of our community, both as Muslims and Americans as we continue to face the various issues that you describe here. Many pit-stops to go I think Tamir, but with gentle and strong souls like yours, we will fix things insha'allah.

    Thanks Sr. Linda and Tamir.

    Br. Anees

  4. Lindaaaaaa, this is beautiful! I was really moved (almost to tears), and the cynic that I am, that says a lot. :)