In a new survey, 61 percent of Muslim students in Massachusetts say they’ve been bullied in school. Re-Imagining Migration Executive Director Adam Strom and Re-Imagining Migration Program Lead Abeer Shinnawi discuss their responses to the news and spoke about the role of educators in responding to hate.
Adam Strom: Abeer, I am distressed. I read CAIR’s report on Anti-Muslim bullying in Massachusetts schools and I immediately flashed to my own experiences with Antisemitism at elementary school. As you read the piece, what came to mind for you?
Abeer Shinnawi: Adam, the article discusses a topic that, sadly, is not new. The problem with this report is the lack of seriousness taken when students are attacked due to their religious identities. When a student says they did not want to report an incident because they were afraid, or know the school does not take issues of bullying seriously, that shows that there is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed regarding school climate and tolerance for such behaviors.
Adam Strom: Each form of bigotry has elements that are both universal and cut across other forms of prejudice, and unique. In some ways, I think Antisemitism and Anti-Muslim prejudices overlap in some ways with religious, cultural, and political prejudices overlapping with the idea that members of both groups are part of some secret international conspiracy. And, yet, Muslims today are marginalized due to religion, and sometimes by skin color and the perception that they are immigrants. Does that ring true to you?
Abeer Shinnawi: To some degree yes. Muslims have always been perceived as “other” or “extremely foreign” due to religious practices that are highly misunderstood. We also know the influence media has on Muslim perception, but we cannot ignore another major negative influence which are school curriculums that are heavily based on misinformation, political influence and underlying prejudice about Muslims and their religion. The average American does not know any history with respect to Muslims in this country which goes back centuries to the first Muslims who arrived on the shores of this nation as enslaved Africans. The legacy of Islam will always begin with their story. The idea of international conspiracy is relatively new with the ridiculous notion that Muslims want to implement “sharia law” in this country but not to the same fervor that Antisemitism is fueled by the ideas of major conspiracies.
Adam Strom: When I found myself bullied, I didn’t trust that my teachers would have my back. Based on your experience, what can educators do to make sure that Muslim kids, and other targets of prejudice, know that someone has their back.
Abeer Shinnawi: Teachers are the advocates and voice for students in their classroom for the majority of the year. Students spend more time with teachers than they do with their families. What teachers can do is be vocal about their advocacy from the beginning. Students know very well which teacher cares about them, which teacher will be an advocate and which teacher will defend them to help do what is right. Relationships with students are always key!
Adam Strom: I know that you started an affinity group for Muslim girls when you worked in the Baltimore County Schools. What was the purpose of that group? What do you think you learned from it? What do you think the girls learned?
Abeer Shinnawi: That group was one of the rays of sunshine when I was working for BCPS. I began that group with the help of another amazing educator–Jill Henofer, as a support group for female Muslim/Arab students who are refugees or immigrants. I wanted them to see another Muslim female, who wears hijab, as a mentor but also in a leadership position. I wanted them to know that you are capable of doing anything now that you are here and hopefully free from harm. We would meet a few times a week to just chat, discuss issues that they had, talk about school or their personal lives and help them avoid isolation. I also believed I was there for a reason so my responsibility was to be a mentor to the girls so they had someone to help them navigate the new world around them.
What I learned from the group was how resilient children can be. How they are all the same regardless of where they come from. They all had the same aspirations, loves, hates, worries, dreams as anyone else. They were goofy, funny, loving, just fun to be around. I was happy to begin that group because now that some of the girls are in high school, they are creating paths for themselves that prove they want what’s best for themselves and the best this country has to offer them.
Adam Strom: Abeer, now that you are the Program Lead at Re-Imagining Migration, I wonder how you think about our role in countering the kind of hate talked about in the article.
Abeer Shinnawi: Hate is hate regardless of who is experiencing it. Our role is to keep the focus on the following:
- Keep educating people on the history of migration and how those stories influenced our lives today and how patterns of migration may have changed but the stories, narratives and struggles are all the same (think Wong Kim Ark).
- Provide opportunities for educators, schools and organizations to utilize our programs and materials to help address the needs of growing refugee/immigrant populations.
- Collaborate with community organizations to help promote the valued outcome that develops when the needs of ALL students are being met.
- Never stop providing safe spaces for everyone to speak, learn and build empathy from each other. Our Moving Stories guide provides all of those elements which, in return, create more inclusive societies for everyone.
Xenophobic Bullying: The Roots from Share My Lesson
Addressing Xenophobia with Culturally Responsive Schools from Share My Lesson