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Muslim college students find solace on campus

Posted by Your Town  April 25, 2013 12:12 PM

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Shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Wafae Belatreche, then a 5th grader, didn’t feel safe. Belatreche was clearly Muslim -- she wore a hijab, or headscarf. When she walked on the street, she says, drivers would slow down and yell out the window. “Go home!” “Towelhead!” “Terrorist!”

But in the days following the Boston Marathon bombings, which were allegedly set off by two young men motivated by extremist Islamist beliefs, Belatreche and other Muslim students in the Boston area say they have felt much more comfortable than the climate they faced after 9-11.

“Everyone at school has been supportive of us, chancellors, professors, chaplains, the entire community,” said Belatreche, now a junior at UMass Boston.

After the attacks last week, Muslim college students say they have found solace on their campuses. University administrators are making the students a priority -- holding forums, prayer services, dinners, and offering messages of support.

Victor Kazanjian, dean of intercultural education and religious and spiritual life at Wellesley College, said that following the marathon bombings, the school has held several gatherings specifically for Muslim students.

On Saturday, a day after reports surfaced that the suspects were motivated by extreme Islamic beliefs, the college organized a dinner for Muslim students as well as local members of the Islamic community. Approximately 150 students, or 7 percent of the Wellesley College student body, identify as Muslim.

“Over the past four days there really has been an outpouring of support [for Muslim students] from student groups as well as faculty and staff,” Kazanjian said.

He also said that Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, African-American, Latina, LGBTQ, and other student groups have voiced their support for Muslim students, in person and by issuing formal statements.

Chowdhury Shamsh, a Muslim student at Tufts University, said the Muslim Student Association has held additional gatherings this past week to pray for the victims in the Marathon attacks.

“Tufts is a very welcome space and we haven’t been treated differently than any other group,” he said.

Melinda Holmes, 29, who is studying international affairs at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, echoed a similar sentiment. Holmes recently converted to Islam, and said that when she heard the suspects were Muslim extremists, she became afraid for her safety.

“On almost all levels my expectations have been generally exceeded in terms of the positive, warm outpouring of support to make sure the Muslim community has been okay,” she said.

Kim Thurler, a spokeswoman for the university, said in a statement that in reaching out to all students, Tufts has also focused on its Muslim students.

“Our Muslim chaplain made herself available to Muslim students on the phone and in person following the Monday events and the university chaplain and her colleagues also expressed their support and availability for our Muslim students,” Thurler wrote in the statement.

Patrick Day, the vice chancellor for student affairs at UMass Boston, said that he has checked in with the school’s Muslim and Sikh students, with whom he already has a close relationship.

“Being such a diverse campus in the city of Boston, we feel confident that our students do feel supported, and we really spend a lot of time deliberately creating that community and culture of respect.”

Omar Ismail, a senior at UMass Boston, said after the news came out that the suspects allegedly bombed the marathon in the name of Islam. But he was confident that his classmates and other members of the Boston community would not discriminate against the religion as a whole.

“I think more people are aware that 99 percent of Muslims are like any other Americans, and the 0.1 percent are the extreme,” he said.

Belatreche said that during the 2:50 p.m. moment of silence on Monday, members of the UMass Boston community from all faiths and backgrounds held hands to show unity.

“No matter what religion we come from we are all Bostonians, we are all one,” she said.

Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@globe.com. For campus news updates, follow her on Twitter @klandergan.

Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

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