Strangers in their own land, as they came of age
It was hard to be a Muslim child after 9/11, and it stayed hard for a while. But edges softened and the children have grown up, defining for themselves an American way.
Fifth in an eight-part series.
In social studies class, a boy passed Halla Abdelrahman a pocket dictionary.
She turned to a bookmarked page. The entry for “terrorist’’ was marked with a yellow highlighter.
Laila Alawa was bicycling to the town library. Two boys on bikes zoomed past.
Go back to where you came from!
For show-and-tell, Marwa Salem brought in kahk, the Egyptian cookies she loved to make with her mother at the end of Ramadan. Some of the other third-graders scoffed.
We don’t eat Muslim food.
You probably poisoned them.
They were just children when animosity toward their religion, once muted, roared into the daily fray. It was on the cable news, on the tips of tongues: People like them were foreign, suspect, dangerous, culpable.
It was their country too, but in the weeks and months after Sept. 11, it didn’t always feel that way.
A generation of young Muslims has come of age in the decade since the terrorist attacks. Sometimes it was hard, but they didn’t have a choice. They are now nearly adults, defining for themselves what it means to be Muslim in America.
“I was like, ‘Why are they hugging her? . . . We’re fine. Nobody died in our family.’ ’’
The Salem family moved to Revere from East Boston in the summer of 2000. Marwa was going into second grade, her sister, Mona, into fourth.
They settled with their parents and older brother in a densely populated Italian-American neighborhood. Their father, a manager at DeLuca’s Market, and their mother, a school cafeteria worker, had come from Egypt a dozen years earlier. In Revere, they felt at home among the Italians, who seemed as devoted to food and family as Egyptians were.
They bought a clapboard house a couple of blocks from the beach, near a small park. The children played day and night with the other youngsters - freeze tag, basketball, ding-dong-ditch. There were neighborhood parties with three-legged races and hula hoop contests.
Within a couple of years, some families left for the suburbs. The man who took care of the park died; the feeling of togetherness was no longer quite the same.
But on the afternoon of Sept. 11, Marwa heard banging on the front door. A group of neighbors came in and embraced her mother.
It’s OK. We’re going to help you through this.
“I had no connection with my religion whatsoever. I was pretty much ashamed of it.’’
Halla Abdelrahman’s parents, who grew up in Sudan and Egypt, didn’t go to the mosque. A bookish girl with long pigtails, she was born in Egypt, where her father attended medical school before coming to Boston to study public health. Her mother occasionally tried to teach her Koranic verses, but Halla never saw the point.
She had no concept of divinity. What little she knew scared her.
A playmate in her neighborhood in Jamaica Plain once mentioned God.
Who is that?
He knows everything you’re doing.
She heard an aunt saying something about Judgment Day, that people would be running in the streets. Halla cried.
When she was in fifth grade, her parents took her with them to Mecca. She wore a black burqa, walked for hours alongside her family. She noticed that when she accidentally bumped into someone, the person seemed not to see her, as if in another world.
The Sept. 11 attacks came the first week of seventh grade. Halla had just started at the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Roxbury. The action seemed far away, like all the big tragedies on the news.
That Halloween, she wore a bandana. A friend thought it looked vaguely like a head scarf and refused to walk next to her. A small thing, but it seared. Muslims, she began to understand, were seen differently now.
Many of her classmates didn’t know what her religion was, though, and Halla hardly volunteered the information. One day, a girl at school asked her directly.
Are you Muslim?
The incline of the girl’s chin, her judgmental air, guided Halla’s answer.
“When I used to hang out with my friends from school, I used to go to their house, play video games. I did that with my Muslim friends, too.’’
Ebad Rahman was always the only Muslim child in his class. But it didn’t bother him, not really.
A soft-spoken, empathetic boy who tended to assume the best about other people, Ebad had plenty of friends in the upscale neighborhood in Nashua where he lived with his parents, two younger brothers, and younger sister. His father, who had come from Pakistan with Ebad’s mother before the children were born, was a neurologist at St. Joseph Hospital.
The elementary school Ebad and his siblings attended was the kind of place where parents are always dropping in for a book report party or a class performance. In the mornings, Ebad and his brothers got to the bus stop 45 minutes early to play cops and robbers with the other children.
He had a circle of close friends at the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell, too, children he had known since preschool. The Rahmans were one of the community’s founding families, first meeting in someone’s house in Salem, N.H., then in an office building, and eventually in a former church they converted into a mosque.
As the community grew and prospered, soft rugs replaced the rough industrial carpet. On Eid, the celebration of the end of Ramadan, the Rahmans would host a huge lunch, then spend the rest of the day visiting other families.
The only time Ebad felt any tension between his two lives was when the subject of the Middle East arose. He sympathized with the Palestinians. But the government, and most Americans, seemed to support Israel. It made Ebad uneasy, as if there were some fundamental conflict between his country and his religion.
By the time Ebad was in high school, the Rahmans had moved to a large house with arched windows and tall pillars in the nearby town of Hollis. He got good grades, and ran on the track team. When his friends from school came over on weekends, they would order a stack of pizzas, hook up a string of Xboxes, and play endless series of Halo.
On Sundays, he went to the mosque for a three-hour youth class, which by high school had become less about religious education than football and basketball. When his Muslim friends came over, they played video games, too, or sometimes grabbed dinner at a halal restaurant.
The terrorist attacks occurred his freshman year. A few months later, one of his cousins was rollerblading through a park in Texas with his fiancee, and a woman called the police to report that she had seen Osama bin Laden.
He and his brothers had a good laugh over that one. But his parents warned them: Watch what you say in public.
As college approached, Ebad began to wonder what it would be like to merge his Muslim life and his school life. How would it feel to no longer be the only Muslim in class, to see his Muslim friends on an everyday basis?
And if he didn’t go to a campus with a large enough Muslim community, where would he go for Friday prayers? Who would break the fast with him during Ramadan?
He chose the University of Massachusetts Amherst over the University of New Hampshire. UMass had a larger, more active Muslim community, and Ebad wanted to be part of it.
“I felt helpless, because you can’t really change people. . . . All I did was cry. I was a child. So there was not much you could do.’’
Mona Salem was a sensitive, extroverted little girl who basked in the adoration of those around her. Her parents doted on her. Her playmates followed her lead.
In the sixth grade, she got her period. It was time for her to begin wearing a head scarf.
She had always loved the hijab. When she was 6 or so, she had begged to cover her head; her mother said she would have to wait, she was too young. But now that she was finally old enough, she balked.
In the months following the attacks, the Salems’ house had been egged and toilet-papered.
A Muslim friend of her older brother’s was beaten up at school. After that, Mona noticed, he traded his usual loose-fitting robe for American clothes.
Her mother pressed her gently.
You have to wear your scarf. It’s part of your religion.
If they make fun of you, they aren’t your friends.
Several months passed, and at last her mother brought her to see a trusted family friend, the imam’s wife. She opened the Koran and began to read aloud to Mona.
Mona feared losing her friends. But she was terrified of displeasing God. When her mother came to pick her up, Mona was wearing a head scarf.
The next school day, Mona wrapped a light pink scarf over her hair. It felt good; she felt settled. Her father brought her to school, hoping to ease the transition with a little parental diplomacy. He accompanied Mona to the main office and explained to the principal what the hijab was, and why his daughter was wearing it.
The bell had already rung when Mona got to her classroom. She opened the door, her classmates looked up.
A girl shouted: She’s a towel head!
The other students burst out laughing. The teacher said nothing. Mona waited until she got home to cry.
After that, her friends evaporated. She spent the rest of sixth grade isolated. Her brother told her not to be a baby, but Mona disappeared into herself.
“The reason we talk about multiculturalism so much is because people are afraid to allow it into their own lives. They are afraid to make friends and relationships with people who are from what they see as a completely foreign background, completely alien.’’
As children growing up in Berkley, Mass., Laila Alawa and her younger brothers and sisters would invent whole neighborhoods, populating them with loved ones from faraway.
They would walk down their street, pointing to each house: A friend from their old mosque would live here, an aunt from Denmark there, a cousin from Syria there. It was as impossible as it was delightful to imagine. Laila, an outgoing, precocious child, had no playmates then besides her five siblings.
Her parents had decided to raise their children in small towns when they moved to the United States from Japan, where Laila’s Syrian father had studied engineering. They didn’t want their children to grow up in a Muslim enclave, as Muslim children so often did in Laila’s mother’s native Denmark. In a regular small town, they reasoned, their children would mix in, and come to feel that America was their country as much as anyone else’s.
Laila’s mother, whose keen intelligence and boundless energy matched her eldest child’s, also chose to homeschool the children. With a degree in pedagogy, she thought she could give them an excellent education as well as instill in them a solid religious identity. To make sure they had friends and felt part of the community, she went out of her way to involve them in activities outside of school - volunteering, sports, homeschooling groups.
But in Berkley, where the family moved from upstate New York shortly after Sept. 11, the other families who came to the library for story hour never invited the Alawa children to play. A homeschooling group stopped meeting after Laila’s mother heard about one of their get-togethers and decided to join in.
When her mother attended a curriculum sale for homeschoolers at a nearby church - spending, as usual, extravagantly on books - a woman followed her, yelling, as she left with her arms full.
Did you pay for that?
So Laila and her siblings inhabited a small world of their own.
Together, they learned about ancient Rome, Native Americans, the Vikings. They sampled the riches of museums in Boston and hiked in the woods near home.
After lessons, they played outside, naming the rocks in their front yard. Sometimes, they wrote and acted in their own plays, or played an elaborate adventure game they called Wilderness Woods. Laila - always the leader - even turned chores into a game. She and her next-eldest sister knitted and made jewelry and read books by the dozen.
The next-door neighbors, whom the children called Mr. Art and Ms. Marge, were kind to the Alawa children and invited them over to chat. The librarian at the tiny town library let Laila and her sister volunteer as her helpers.
Behind the circulation desk, Laila tried to be on her very best behavior. She might be the only Muslim someone from Berkley had ever met. She had to show them how smart and helpful and good Muslims were.
At the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, where her family attended the Friday evening dinner and lecture, Laila found other children to play with. But as homeschoolers, the Alawa siblings stuck out there, too.
Laila’s mother slipped her packets of gum and candy, hoping to help her make friends. But Laila’s enormous vocabulary irritated the other children. She hadn’t learned that essential playground skill: how to hold back, how to play it cool.
It was here, though, that Laila finally made her first real friend. They had sleepovers, talked about books and movies. Laila was 12 years old, and it was bliss.
“You come over here and live in the projects, it’s like - whoa. I wasn’t used to the projects then, or going to public school and stuff.’’
The phone rang at a comfortable house behind a locked gate in Nairobi. Nur Hersi, then 9, watched as his mother spoke to the government official on the line. Their flight to Boston had been canceled indefinitely. Nur’s mother flipped on the news, and Nur saw the burning buildings in New York.
It would be almost two years before Nur’s family got another chance to move to America.
Home had always been an elusive concept for Nur, a wiry, warm-eyed boy with an easygoing nature.
He was born to a prosperous family in Somalia, but when war broke out, they moved to Ethiopia; two years later, they moved again, to Kenya. As soon as they arrived, his father left for a two-week trip to visit a sick brother back home in Somalia. Nur answered the phone when his older half-sister called with the news: Their father had been shot to death by a burglar in a home invasion.
Nur adored his father. He laid down the rules, but he would adjust them, too. He’s a boy, he would tell Nur’s mother with a grin. He’s a boy.
At the neighborhood Koran school Nur attended in Kenya, he sat in a circle with the other students, cross-legged on rugs in a large hall. His teachers there helped him cope with his father’s death.
Let it go. Let God judge them.
In other respects, Nur was happy enough in Nairobi. The family had a security guard and a maid, and they lived near an expansive park, where he played soccer every free moment.
But his mother wanted to leave. There were tensions between native Kenyans and Somali immigrants, and she felt it was too dangerous for her children to attend regular school. They had lots of family in America. So when an opportunity to move to the United States finally arose again, she seized it.
They landed in Boston on a cold afternoon in April 2003. Nur shivered as he walked down the jetway with his mother, little brother, and three younger sisters. His uncle picked them up and brought them to his apartment in Cambridge and ordered some pizza.
Nur’s brother stared at the flat bread dripping with a strange yellow-and-red goo.
What are you trying to feed me, plastic?
When Nur had imagined what the United States would be like, he pictured his life in Kenya, but somehow better, shinier. Reality hit hard: In Boston, the family settled into a cramped apartment in the Old Colony housing project in Southie. Nur’s mother worked as an attendant at the Boston Common parking garage. Nur spent his free time baby-sitting his younger siblings.
But he wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining to his mother about their circumstances. She spoke with him honestly about her worries; Nur was the man of the house now.
“I learned to h ave tougher skin. That didn’t come overnight.’’
Things began to get better for Mona in seventh grade. When her school absorbed children from other elementary schools, it became more diverse. Suddenly there were African-American and Hispanic students, immigrants from all over. She began making new friends.
Eventually, there were even other girls who wore a head scarf. She felt unexpectedly indignant, as if they were encroaching on her identity.
By the end of high school, she had recovered the confidence of her childhood. She had a job she liked at
On Friday evenings, she runs a religious study group for teenage girls at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury. The girls adore her. When they ask for advice she does her best, though some of their problems are so complex, she isn’t always sure what to say.
She can be relentless when she finds a way to help. Last year, she met a young Muslim girl facing violence at home and found there were no Muslim homeless shelters or foster homes to take her in. So Mona began raising money to open a Muslim-friendly shelter in Boston.
“As the Muslim community,’’ she told an audience at a fund-raising dinner last month, “it is our obligation to address these issues, and not look away.’’
Yet even now, Mona has few close friends. And when she thinks about her future, she sometimes imagines settling in Egypt, where she visits her cousins every few years. She finds the culture there less materialistic, more centered on family and religious life.
She is certain about one thing: If she has children, she will not raise them here, not after what she endured.
“You can stay over here, make money over here, live a better lifestyle, or go to a place you ran from. . . . Any of the teenagers from here would never ever in their life go back to Somalia.’’
As a teenager in Boston, Nur encountered a world that in some ways was more perilous than the one he had left behind in Africa. But he managed to escape the undertow that claims so many young men in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Friendly but savvy, he steered clear of gangs, neither provoking nor affiliating himself with them. At Madison Park, the vocational high school in Roxbury, he made friends from all over the city from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. After recovering from a period of distraction he blames on girlfriends and socializing, he graduated this year with a 3.5 grade point average.
The boy who once spent five hours a day studying the Koran no longer considers himself terribly religious. He stopped going to Koran school in his junior year of high school; the other teens his age had already drifted away, and he felt sheepish about being the oldest one.
When he drops by the mosque’s cafe in Roxbury after work to hang out with friends, he first pauses to pray. It is more a gesture of respect for his elders than one of religious devotion; the Somali community in Boston is like a small town, and children feel their elders’ eyes on them.
He cannot remember Somalia, but he still feels a strong connection to it. This summer, he worked at a Somali community center raising money for drought victims. During Ramadan this year, he faithfully kept the fast as a sign of respect for the hungry.
Nur is confounded by the occasional news stories about Somali teenagers in the United States who become attracted to groups like Al Shabab, the Somali Islamic militant organization that controls parts of Mogadishu. Al Shabab is a joke, Nur says. They act like top dogs, but the people are starving.
This fall, he’s headed to Bunker Hill Community College. He wants to study civil engineering. His life in 10 years, as he imagines it, keeps getting better: A wife, two children, a big house, lots of money.
“For a long time I struggled with learning how to forgive others, but life is just way too short. If anything, the people who did try to make me feel bad back then, if I could say anything to them, it would be thank you, because I’m so happy right now.’’
Last fall, Halla’s father became ill, and her parents began attending Friday midday prayers at the Roxbury mosque. They invited Halla to join them.
She resisted at first. In January, as she began her last semester at Suffolk University, she relented. Family friends from years ago seemed surprised to see her, but they greeted her warmly.
The community connection brought her back the next week; a spiritual awakening developed more gradually. The words of the Koran - the sacred text of Islam that Muslims believe God revealed to the Prophet Mohammed - moved her.
She felt humbled by the melancholy beauty of the language. The verses offered a kind of peace she hadn’t known before. Her childhood conception of an angry, vengeful God fell away, and she came to know a God of mercy and forgiveness.
Within months, she found herself helping to host a Koran recitation competition at the mosque, in which young people chant chapters from memory in Arabic. It moved Halla to hear the youngest children, some just 3 or 4 years old. She began to consider what she had missed, without even realizing it.
Halla started reading the Koran in English, then in Arabic. She memorized long passages in Arabic, guided by recordings online. The five daily prayers found their way into her schedule.
Last month, she spent a Sunday afternoon hosting a second Koran competition. This time, she joined in with the other beginners, some half her 22 years, reciting one of the shorter chapters. She won.
“A lot of Muslims, especially in Eastern Massachusetts, are separated by one degree. Last week I met someone and we started talking - ‘Which mosque community are you from? Sharon? Do you know this guy, do you know this guy?’ . . . I still hang out with mostly Muslims, that’s like 95 percent of the people I hang out with.’’
Ebad chose a dorm in a section of the UMass campus where a lot of other Muslim students lived. His randomly assigned freshman roommate turned out to be someone he already knew through the Lowell mosque.
The first week of school, he went to an open house hosted by the Muslim Student Association. There were students he knew already, and others he had never met. But the feeling of solidarity was unmistakable, and it was exhilarating. The friends he made that day turned out to be, for the most part, his core group at UMass.
As time went on, Ebad noticed an odd silence on campus. Muslim students didn’t seem to get involved in politics. He also sensed that many of the other Muslim students felt they ought to watch what they say in public, as his own parents had warned him. After Sept. 11, the consequences of being misunderstood were too great.
But, Ebad thought, if Muslims didn’t participate in civic life, how could they hope for the fear to dissipate? If they didn’t speak up, how could they expect people to value their points of view?
He was studying astronomy because the big conceptual questions of the universe fascinated him. Journalism became his second major, and he began to write a column for the Daily Collegian.
Sometimes he focused on politics, like the casualties Pakistani civilians were suffering from US drone attacks. Other columns were cultural explainers, like what it meant to eat halal food.
With two friends, he formed a new Muslim student political group on campus. They started small, inviting a professor to give a talk about the war in Afghanistan, and screening documentaries. Some efforts went over well; several hundred people showed up to hear a surgeon who had worked in the Gaza Strip talk about the plight of the Palestinians. Others didn’t, like a not-very-well organized effort to persuade UMass to divest from Israel.
Ebad, now 25, is a bit more practical these days. He remains involved at the Lowell mosque, where he helps the youth put out a newsletter. In the 2010 midterm elections, he ran a voter registration drive there, hoping to encourage political participation in the Muslim community. He is finishing his master’s degree in public health at Tufts University.
Though he sometimes still hangs out with his old classmates from high school, he spends far more time with the family friends he has known since he can remember and with his wide circle of Muslim friends from college.
Maybe, he thinks, when he begins his career, his social circle will widen to include more non-Muslims. But he recognizes it’s somehow easier to bond with other Muslims; there is less explaining to do, more in common.
He sometimes puzzles over the practical difficulties of multiculturalism, how Muslims can maintain their religious and cultural identity without isolating themselves. He doesn’t have answers yet.
“It’s really easy to be caught up in your own little world and not think about things going on around you. But I think that as a Muslim American, I have that responsibility to take a step back and try to make a difference.’’
When Laila was almost 14, her family moved to East Hampstead, N.H., a town not much bigger than Berkley. But her world began to expand.
She took classes in ecology and neuroscience at Harvard Extension School. She volunteered at the Boston Museum of Science and the Harvard Museum of Natural History. She had always loved bugs; she got an internship with an entomology postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. The social behavior of insects was what fascinated her, the intricately organized worlds of ants and bees.
She was just 16 when she entered Wellesley College, a place as cosmopolitan and convivial as the towns she grew up in had seemed, so often, provincial and cold. Overnight, she had friends. And they lived just down the hall.
By the end of her sophomore year, she began venturing to the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury. It’s a large, urban community with people from all over the world, a place that can be easy to get lost in. But buoyed by the self-assurance she had gained in college, she managed to carve out a place for herself there. Soon, her mother began loading the younger children into the sport utility vehicle and driving the whole family to Roxbury, too.
A younger sister is off to Mount Holyoke College in January, and one of her brothers is halfway through high school. But her five youngest siblings, 1 to 13 years old, will likely have a very different coming-of-age experience than their eldest sister did.
Their parents have concluded they were overly optimistic about small-town America, naïve to expect neighbors there to readily welcome people so different. They have come to regret that they never gave their older children the chance to live in a neighborhood where they could comfortably walk out and play with the other children. Perhaps they changed a few people’s minds about Muslims, but in retrospect, it wasn’t worth their children’s loneliness.
They are looking for a new home, within 15 miles of Boston.
Laila, a 20-year-old senior at Wellesley, plans to go on to graduate school in psychology. Her research interests are religious stereotyping and female leadership.
She might go abroad to study, or volunteer for the Peace Corps, but she doesn’t plan on leaving the country permanently. America is where her family lives, where her friends live, where she belongs.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.