Reflections as a Muslim Student Growing Up in OUSD
I moved to the U.S. from Iraq when I was 11 years old. I only knew the basics in English, so the first few months of 6th grade at Roosevelt Middle School were hard enough on their own. Almost 8 years ago, people weren’t as open to the idea of Arabs being “normal.” A lot of my classmates questioned everything I did. As soon as I learned a bit of English, I was finally able to communicate with some of the people around me. I also slowly started to realize that when my classmates were laughing at something they’ve said to me and I didn’t understand, they were mostly just making fun of me, instead of laughing with me. After only a few months of living here, I found out what a terrorist meant, what 9/11 was, and what a turban or towel head were. It almost seemed like it was normal to target those who had no idea what you said or what your words meant. I came to realize that I didn’t have any friends, that I no longer was respected by my classmates, nor did any of them actually realize how much their words had hurt me and impacted my mental development in just a little under a year.
I missed a lot of school days during 6th grade. I was more at the doctor’s office than I was at school, and when I actually went to school, I spent half of my days at the nurse’s office. No one really took into consideration that I was developing anxiety and clinical depression, all of my test results showed no signs of any sickness, but the thought of it being more of a mental issue than a physical one was never brought up. My mornings consisted of me begging myself to not feel nauseous and get up to go to school. I became more worried about whether someone would say something mean to me in class or stick another piece of gum in my hair more than passing my classes, and my attendance was slowly catching up to having me do plenty of detentions. I didn’t have anyone that I could talk to, or actually understand what I meant the majority of the time, so I ignored it. I decided that terms like “terrorist” and ‘twin towers” that people called me around school didn’t define who I am, that I know who I am. I’m a Muslim Arab living in America and no one’s opinion of me will or should change my view of myself in any shape or form. To this day, I still struggle with the same things sometimes. I still have anxiety and depression and they got worse over the years, but I learned to move on.
Fortunately for me, only one of my bullies from middle school actually went to my high school, but of course, there were plenty more. My senior year was possibly the worst year, when I felt picked on by my own teacher, someone who actually had the type of authority to change other students’ perspectives. When the Paris attack happened, and then the one in San Bernardino, I was singled out by this teacher every time these topics came up in class. I felt very unsafe, as if the blame was up on me. When I reported this to the principal, the teacher turned the other students against me, blaming me for getting him in trouble. That’s when I was singled out even more, my own friends didn’t want to talk to me anymore, or even help me with homework or work on school projects together. A district representative asked me not to speak about it with other students, so I couldn’t talk to anyone about how I felt nor was I able to explain myself to them. I stopped coming to school. Only at the very end of my senior year did I manage to feel comfortable again to go to school regularly and finish off the school year somewhat strong. The week after school ended, when I got my transcripts and diploma, did I finally feel safe and free from that suffocating environment.
As cliche as this might sound, these experiences helped shape who I am today. Now I am more comfortable than ever with my background and the country that I came from. I learned to be more accepting of others and to help out those in need as much as I can. I ended up joining a few social justice organizations around Oakland, and through them I learned how to resist against the ignorance. I’m very thankful for my mentors and teachers that helped me pick myself up because, without them, I don’t think I would’ve been able to graduate or even be where I am today: in college pursuing my dream of becoming an architect. Although there will always be people that choose to disrespect me and my background, every day is a new lesson, and every person I have the chance to meet has a different story to the moment I met them, and mine is nothing like the one they had, so I plan to share it with those that are willing to listen, even if it changes their perspective on who I am just a bit.
Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement
West Oakland Middle School
991 14th Street
Oakland, CA 94607
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Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement is a targeted initiative of the Oakland Unified School District's Office of Equity.To learn more about the Office of Equity and other targeted initiatives, visit www.ousd.org/equity.