Please, God, please don’t let it be Muslims that are responsible for this.
The prayer came immediately to Debbie Almontaser’s lips when she learned of the attacks that Tuesday morning. A Brooklyn resident, Debbie had immigrated to the United States from Yemen with her parents at the age of three. Being raised Muslim in upstate New York had not been easy, and Debbie was no stranger to bullying and intolerance. If the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center had been piloted by Muslim extremists, she knew that life was about to become extremely difficult, even dangerous, for her and the members of the Arab and Muslim American community. Her fears were confirmed as she tried to comfort a hysterical Arab American mother outside of the school where she taught. “A tall man came out from a group of parents standing there and said to me, ‘It’s you and your people who’ve done this to us! You bastards!’”
Debbie rushed home, like so many other Americans, to see her family and reassure herself that they were safe. But when she arrived, her eldest son, Yousif, was gone. A National Guardsman who had signed up at the age of 17 despite his mother’s concerns, he had already been deployed to ground zero. Debbie wouldn’t see him for 26 days, and when he did come home, he visibly bore the weight of someone 20 years his senior. “I couldn’t believe it was him…It didn’t look like him,” Debbie says. “He had seen things you would never imagine an 18 year old would be seeing.” The resulting trauma was both emotional and physical. In addition to the nightmares and depression, Yousif’s hair began to fall out and he lost pigmentation in his skin. Although the symptoms have since abated, he continues to struggle to this day.
Like her son, who threw himself into the work at ground zero, Debbie threw herself into promoting understanding and religious tolerance at a time when it was fashionable to do the opposite. In particular she embraced the plight of Muslim children, most of who struggled to find a place in the volatile post-9/11 culture. “[The attacks] made them feel unconnected as Americans,” Debbie says. Unlike the adults, the children didn’t have the ability to disassociate their Arab or Muslim heritage with that of the attackers, and while they felt as American as anybody else, they were often made to feel like outsiders by their peers. “There was some isolation and marginalization by their peers and by educators who really did not make the effort to connect with students…When there isn’t that mechanism of support and sensitivity within a school culture and community, it’s very hard for Arab and Muslim children to develop a positive self concept of themselves as being an American.”
While the efforts of activists like Debbie have done much to stem the tide of Islamophobia (as the term has since been coined), anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment still seethes in pockets of American society. Indeed, traveling outside of one’s home community, a mundane activity for most, is often like walking through a minefield for Debbie and her fellow Arab and Muslim Americans. They never know when someone might go off. “I was going to Scarsdale, New York, to do an Islam 101 workshop, and throughout the whole train ride going there, there was a couple that just kept looking at me and looking at me and looking at me.” When the man approached her and questioned her about her head garb, Debbie used the opportunity to start a discussion about Islam and why she chose to dress as she did, that the hajib was simply a way to signify modesty in Muslim women. “To an extent it sort of helped, [but] he and his wife were still looking over.” For the rest of the ride, Debbie sat in fear that she would be pulled off of the train for no other reason than that she looked different.
It would be easy for someone like Debbie, trapped between two worlds and misunderstood by many of her fellow Americans, to become bitter, especially in light of the sacrifices she and her family have made after September 11th. “Yes, I will say that I’ve gotten bitter,” she says, “[but] about those who did this to us, those who on September 11th hijacked those planes and conducted this tragedy. I’m very bitter and I’m very angry at them and what they’ve done to the entire world.” About her fellow Americans, however, Debbie overflows with powerful stories of people coming together and supporting one another. “On September 14th [a local rabbi] invited me and other members of the community to come and share with their congregation the concerns of the community.” The synagogue had heard horrifying stories of what was happening to members of the New York Muslim community – threats, intimidation, physical attacks - and they wanted to know how they could help. “One of the things I expressed was that many [Muslim women] were really terrified to walk out publicly and many of them were not taking their children to school and were just terrified for their own safety…And this woman said, ‘I’m willing to escort a family to school, to the grocery store, to do whatever that family needs for a long as I can possibly do it for them.’” After the woman spoke, 25 hands shot up in the air, others who were willing to help escort Arab and Muslim American families afraid for their safety. “People were volunteering to take children to school, to take women to the grocery store, to the doctor’s office – it was really, really powerful and I will never forget that.”
Stories like that give Debbie hope for the future of Islam in America. “My community has really risen to fend for itself, social rights organizations have developed, community based organizations have developed to support the community…We have two congressmen who are Muslim, so it’s heartwarming to see that, to see that progress has been made on a much more deliverable level.” And going forward in her work, she draws strength and comfort from the same thing she relied on when she learned that terrorists had flown two planes into the World Trade Center: her faith. “There is a verse in the Koran that says, ‘Oh mankind I have created you from a a male, a single male and a single female, and made you into tribes and nations so that you may know one another, not despise one another. And the most righteous in God’s eyes is the one that will be rewarded.’ And it doesn’t say that the person is only Muslim, but it shows a diversity and those that are going to be welcomed and embraced by God are those that do good regardless of where they come from.”
Debbie Almontaser is a 20-year veteran of the NYC school system. She currently travels and speaks on multi-cultural issues and actively works to educate schools and communities on issues specific to Arab American children. You can read more about her story in Project Rebirth: Survival and Strength of the Human Spirit from 9-11 Survivors.
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