Growing up Muslim after Sept. 11 test of faith

August 20, 2011 - 1:10 PM
Sept 11 Growing Up Muslim

The Salama family breaks the Ramadan fast at their home in Fullerton, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011. Some were still in diapers and others in grade school when hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a decade ago, but all of their childhoods have been deeply touched by the pain and anger of a nation struggling to come to terms with a day that, for them, represents the worst perversion of their faith. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

FULLERTON, Calif. (AP) — In many ways, Yousuf Salama is a typical teenager: He lives for football, worries about acne and would rather dash off to see "Captain America" with friends than spend one more minute with his mother.

He's aware, however, that his actions in particular can have greater meaning.

Yousuf is a Muslim, one of only two in an all-boys Catholic prep school in Southern California. He has been asked if he's a terrorist and routinely shrugs off jokes about bombs and jihad.

"Sometimes I feel like I take it upon myself to be a better example," he said on a recent evening after returning for a weeklong football camp.

Yousuf is among thousands of children who navigate every day the subtle and complex challenges that come with growing up Muslim in a deeply traumatized post-Sept. 11 America. Some were still in diapers and others in grade school when hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a decade ago, but their childhoods have been deeply touched by the pain and anger of a nation struggling to come to terms with a day that, for them, represents the worst perversion of their faith.

For some, like Yousuf in California and others across the country, the bullying, the hard stares and endless defense of their identity has nurtured a deeper faith and a maturity and resilience that surprises even their parents.

"I tell them that when they're out in the world, they represent the best of our community, they are our faith ambassadors," said Kari Ansari, who was pregnant with her youngest child on Sept. 11 and lives outside Washington, D.C with her family. "They will have learned to have compassion for people who maybe don't even deserve that kind of compassion — dealing with bigots and dealing with prejudice — and that's a great life lesson."

For Ansari's oldest daughter, Aneesa, that lesson colors her earliest memories.

She started attending a private Muslim kindergarten in Denver just days before Sept. 11 and it shut down for two weeks after angry protesters gathered outside. It eventually reopened, but an armed security guard stayed on campus for almost a year.

Today, the 15-year-old is deeply invested in her religious identity and exudes a quiet pride at being Muslim. She began wearing a head scarf in public without prompting in the fifth grade and has never removed it despite being cursed at while waiting in line at Ikea, stared at and pressured at school, she said.

Aneesa goes to the library during the lunch hour so she can observe the holy month of Ramadan (a month of no food or water from sunrise to sundown) and said she prefers to spend time with other Muslim teens to avoid the pressure to drink and do drugs.

Her mother worried that her young daughter would be pitied or discriminated against for wearing the hijab. But for Aneesa, wearing the head covering was a rebuke to those who dwelled on her differences and minimized her faith. Even at 11, she said, she was adamant that it was her choice and her identity.

"I have enough strength, I guess, to not be afraid of who I am," Aneesa said. "It's this pressure to change, people kind of hint that you don't have to wear a scarf at school, they ask if your parents make you.

"Combatting that makes you a stronger person," she said.

When the family moved from Denver to a new school in the western suburbs of Chicago, her younger brother Sajid suddenly found himself the only Muslim boy in his grade in a tiny school district.

For three years, from the fourth to the sixth grade, he was relentlessly bullied by dozens of students who ganged up on him, called him a terrorist and ridiculed him for his faith.

In a sixth-grade art class, a group of boys passed him a note showing a drawing of the twin towers, with the words "Look familiar?" written below. On another occasion, he was walking his sister home in the snow when other students ambushed them with icy snowballs. One hit his face, leaving a bloody gash on his cheek.

Sajid's grades plummeted and attempts to get adults to help led to more abuse, so he stopped telling his parents about what was going on.

"I just kind of felt like, 'Why was I born at a time when people didn't understand?' I didn't have any problem with being Muslim or being born that way," said Sajid, now 13.

"Sometimes, I felt it was unfair that I was born at a time when all this was happening," he said. "It's hard to explain that you're not the stereotype that's put out."

The Ansaris eventually moved to northern Virginia and put their children in a bigger and more diverse school district where Sajid has thrived.

Today, Sajid is open with classmates about his faith, explaining that he can't eat pepperoni because Muslims don't eat pork and talking with friends about the terrorist characters that represent the enemy on war-themed video games.

"When you are a person of faith you look at your life circumstances and every situation that comes up is a trial or challenge to you in your faith," said Ansari, who works as a freelance marketing consultant. "We believe it's God's way of saying, 'What are you going to do about this? Are you going to succumb to it or rise above it and show what the true story is?"

In Southern California's Orange County, Yousuf Salama, his 18-year-old sister Sarah and his 21-year-old brother Omar have spent years navigating the same types of challenges at their private, Catholic prep schools. Their parents sent them there because of the top-notch education and same-sex environment.

One of Yousuf's friends asked if he was a terrorist after watching a TV program on Islamic extremism.

His older brother, unusually tall and lanky for his age, was called "Twin Tower" at a seventh-grade flag football camp and quietly endured an endless loop of jokes: Do you have a bomb in your backpack? When do you leave for jihad?

These days, those memories barely raise an eyebrow in the family's upscale suburban home, where their parents juggle a home business, their children's sports practices and part-time jobs as well the nightly prayers at the mosque during Ramadan.

On a recent night, the children, Omar's new wife and their grandmother gathered to break the Ramadan fast with heaping plates of lamb and chicken kebobs, sliced grilled eggplant, humus and a thick chocolate cake for dessert.

"How have we been living for the past 10 years?" asked Anita Bond-Salama, their mother.

"There's no answer, there's no magic formula," she continued. "My husband and I have just dealt with things very matter-of-factly: This is what happened. There's good and there's bad in the world. And unfortunately there's bad people who represent our religion but our religion doesn't say that."

Omar was 11 when the airplanes were hijacked and of the three siblings, he has the clearest memories of that day and its aftermath. He remembers thinking at the time that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan would change his life, too.

Over the years, he learned to restrain himself from physically confronting anyone who made fun of him, but he had his hardest test as a high school senior — six years after Sept. 11 — when a teacher asked him to read aloud in class. A fellow student leaned in, he recalled, and whispered: "Does your religion allow you to read?"

"I was this close to climbing over my seat and really messing him up," Omar said.

He remembered thinking on that occasion and on many others that he should not react violently.

"If I did that ... the whole school would be thinking in the back of their mind, 'Oh, there goes another Muslim. There goes Omar again, a typical Muslim — violent and angry,'" he said.

Omar started high school "football crazy" and every bit the jock. He played for his school's powerhouse football team, fasting during Ramadan while doing two-a-day workouts.

Over time, as the teasing got to him, he distanced himself from school friends and spent more time at the mosque. By his senior year, he had quit football and devoted himself to studying his faith so he could better explain Islam.

He attended more prayers, stopped swearing and improved his grades, which had slipped to Cs and Ds.

"If I'm being attacked by an individual or even just a curious individual, I have to be able to answer. I can't just say, 'I don't know.' It made me pick up a book," he said. "In that sense, it's changed my life."