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Islamophobia: Suffer the Little Muslims - SF Weekly, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    Suffer the Little Muslims A look at the appalling discrimination against Middle Eastern students countenanced by Bay Area public schools By Cristi Hegranes
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 20, 2005
      Suffer the Little Muslims
      A look at the appalling discrimination against Middle
      Eastern students countenanced by Bay Area public
      By Cristi Hegranes
      From sfweekly.com
      Originally published by SF Weekly 2005-08-17
      ©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.


      Laila and her friend Cathleen were hanging out in the
      courtyard at Galileo Academy of Science & Technology,
      talking about shopping to blow off steam after their
      sixth-period math test. It was a cool December day in
      San Francisco, and Laila remembers wanting to go
      inside early.

      A few minutes before the bell rang to end the lunch
      period, Laila, a Muslim student who wears a hijab, the
      head scarf worn by many Muslim women, says she noticed
      a boy, whom she recognized but did not know,
      approaching them. "He walked right over to us," Laila
      says. "There were a lot of people standing around. He
      got real close, and then he just started screaming at

      '"Her father is bin Laden! She's going to blow up the
      school, she's going to blow it up! She has a bomb
      under her sweater! Everybody run, this jihad girl is
      going to kill us!'"

      Laila says the boy and his two friends doubled over,
      laughing. Other students walked quickly as they
      passed. "I was so mad, just so embarrassed. I wanted
      to spit in his face," Laila says.

      Laila, who is 17 and recently graduated, says she
      faced this kind of harassment and discrimination at
      school many times over the last four years. But the
      bin Laden incident stuck with her because so many
      people witnessed it, both students and teachers, and
      no one did or said anything about it.

      "I had math after lunch, and I told my teacher what
      happened," Laila says. "My teacher said she had heard
      the whole thing. And then she said I shouldn't make a
      big deal out of it. 'He has the right to express his
      opinions,'" Laila remembers her saying.

      Laila told her teacher that she didn't think that was
      fair. "She told me that my people had caused a lot of
      problems in the world, and that I should understand if
      people were frustrated with me," Laila says.

      Laila went home and told her mother and father what
      had happened. When her mother, Sadaf, went to see the
      teacher, Sadaf says, she was sent away. "She asked me
      to come back after the Christmas break," Sadaf says.
      "And then she said, 'Or whatever you people

      Sadaf never went back. She never filed a complaint

      Racism has long been a consequence of war. As
      governments seek to mobilize their citizens, the
      "enemy" is dehumanized into Huns or Japs or Charlie.
      In today's War on Terror, however, more than a third
      of the world fits into the United States government's
      profile of a potential terrorist. People from North
      Africa, India, the Middle East, and South Asia have
      become suspects.

      "When you fight a war with a country, you know who
      your enemies are. This is a war about an idea, an idea
      that people here have no idea about," says Ali Hasani,
      an Iraqi immigrant who lives in Oakland. "We are
      assumed guilty because we look like what people are
      afraid of."

      There is room for legitimate debate about the proper
      responses to the potential for domestic terrorism, but
      one clearly indefensible reaction has been widely seen
      and little discussed. In the midst of the so-called
      War on Terror, U.S. schoolchildren of Middle Eastern
      descent and Muslim faith have suffered discrimination
      of a type and ferocity that would not be tolerated if
      it were aimed at other minority groups.

      Some overtly racist behavior has become almost common
      in Bay Area schools; it is student-on-student and
      often involves racial slurs. But there have also been
      death threats. And in a surprising number of
      incidents, teachers have joined in, calling Middle
      Eastern students derogatory names, promoting
      stereotypes about their cultures, and ignoring
      violence against them. Although the Bay Area is
      generally considered hypersensitive to even small
      racial slights, school districts in the region appear
      to have done little about anti-Arab and anti-Muslim
      behavior, seldom punishing students or teachers even
      for grotesquely racist behavior aimed at children
      whose sole offense is to have Middle Eastern ancestry
      or Islamic beliefs.

      In general, school districts here, across California,
      and throughout much of the country follow policies of
      resolving discrimination complaints "at the lowest
      possible level." This policy calls for bias complaints
      to be handled first by teachers and then by
      principals. Often, policy-makers -- superintendents
      and school board members -- hear of discrimination
      only when complaints are made in writing and addressed
      specifically to the central administration.

      Because of cultural factors and fear of retaliation,
      many Middle Easterners are uncomfortable pressing such
      complaints, so official government statistics seldom
      reflect the students' experiences. It is, therefore,
      all but impossible to quantify the extent of recent
      discrimination against schoolchildren of Middle
      Eastern origin.

      A study released in April by the Council on
      American-Islamic Relations shows that discrimination
      and hate crimes aimed at Arabs and Muslims in America
      increased by 49 percent last year over the previous
      year. CAIR began compiling statistics on
      discrimination against Muslims in America -- as
      reported to the group's local and regional offices --
      in 1996. In 1998, 284 cases of discrimination were
      reported in CAIR's annual survey. In 2004, 1,522 cases
      were reported, with 20 percent of that total occurring
      in California.

      The Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of
      Education does keep statistics about complaints of
      racial or religious discrimination, but for a
      complaint to reach that level, a family has to pursue
      it through as many as six local and state channels
      first. The process can take years.

      In the last four years there have been approximately
      400 cases of racial or religious discrimination in
      schools reported to the Office of Civil Rights; 50 of
      them originated in California. Just one of those cases
      came from the Bay Area.

      Clearly, however, such mistreatment is far more
      widespread in the Bay Area. During a month of research
      for this story, 27 Middle Eastern and/or Muslim
      families shared stories of discrimination at school
      with SF Weekly. Some spoke only with a promise of
      anonymity. Some enthusiastically came forward, but
      then retreated under pressure from family or community
      members. ("His father is too ashamed that this
      happened to him," says Arna, the mother of a
      14-year-old Iranian boy in the San Francisco Unified
      School District.) A few spoke plainly about the
      discrimination they had faced.

      In all the cases, the abuse was anything but subtle.
      It was open, raw, degrading -- and essentially ignored
      by the school districts in which it had been

      San Francisco school district spokesman Roqua Montez
      says he could find no information about what happened
      to Laila at Galileo Academy. But, Montez insists,
      incidents of racial and religious discrimination are
      rare on the "tolerant and inclusive" campuses of San

      Many Arabs and Muslims have a less rosy view.

      "It's hard to know what to do when you tell a teacher
      something bad happened, and then she does the exact
      same thing," Laila says. "I feel stupid having to tell
      people that my father isn't bin Laden. But sometimes
      it feels like I have to."

      Inas Elmashni of the Arab Cultural Center in San
      Francisco works with Arab students in four high
      schools around the city. She was not surprised to hear
      about what happened to Laila. "Most of the time, when
      students come forward, nothing is ever done," she
      says. "For every teacher who is really dedicated,
      there are a lot who are ignorant. A lot of times our
      students aren't treated fairly, and they aren't taken

      Other cases of discrimination from the San Francisco
      schools include that of a ninth-grade Muslim boy who
      found 10 notes in his locker on the one-year
      anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on
      New York and Washington, D.C. The notes all said,
      "Killer." The family says the boy brought the notes
      home, but they never made an issue of it with the

      A 10th-grade Muslim girl who wanted to try out for the
      drill team at Washington High was told the day before
      tryouts that she couldn't be on the team. "They told
      me not to even try out because they couldn't trust me
      because I was dangerous, and they said I was too ugly
      with 'that rag on my head,'" the 16-year-old girl, who
      asked not to be named because she still attends the
      school, says.

      In other local school districts with similar policies
      on discrimination complaints, the scenarios are
      unfortunately familiar.

      When the Elgharoui family decided that their daughter,
      Shana, should leave the Fremont public school system
      to attend a private Islamic school, they had a very
      specific reason. In March 2004, a substitute teacher
      told Shana that she would not teach someone who
      outwardly supported terrorism. When Shana became upset
      and insisted that neither she nor her family supported
      any such thing, Shana's mother, Samina, alleges, the
      substitute responded, "Well then what is that on your

      Like hundreds of other Muslims in the Fremont Unified
      School District, Shana wears a hijab to school.
      Wearing a hijab in no way connotes support for
      terrorism. "Not all Muslim women wear it, so a lot of
      people think that when you do it's because you are a
      radical or something," Samina says. But that isn't the
      case. The teachings of the Quran ask that women wear
      the hijab so they can be recognized as Muslim, and as
      a sign of modesty, Samina says.

      Samina says she reported the incident to Shana's
      teacher. "But then we never heard anything else," she
      says. An immigrant from Somalia, Samina admits that
      she didn't know what her family's rights were, and,
      besides, Shana's father wanted to keep the incident
      quiet. "He said, 'The last thing we need is any
      trouble and people looking at us,'" she recalls. But
      in light of a 2004 case in Oklahoma, in which the U.S.
      Department of Justice supported a student's right to
      wear a hijab at school, Samina says she expected some
      response from the school district.

      Dr. John Rieckewald, the superintendent of the Fremont
      school district, says he is unaware of the incident.
      But, he says, complaints against substitute teachers
      are handled in personnel, so he likely wouldn't have
      heard about it.

      Cheryl Bushmire, the director of personnel for the
      Fremont district, isn't aware of Shana's case either.
      "Sometimes things happen that are resolved at the
      site," she says. Indeed, they are; Bushmire confirms
      that the Fremont school district also has a policy
      that aims to resolve complaints "at the lowest level,
      if possible."

      "A lot of school administrators went to the school of
      'let sleeping dogs lie,'" says Charles Haynes, a
      senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, an
      Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit educational
      organization. "They just want to ignore it and hope it
      goes away. But discrimination rises to a much more
      important level when teachers or principals do it,
      because they are supposed to be responsible. It
      poisons the climate of the school."

      To its credit, the Fremont district is one of the few
      in the Bay Area that has disciplined a teacher for
      discrimination against a Middle Eastern student. "We
      have had a few situations that were well documented
      and were dealt with right away," Superintendent
      Rieckewald says. "We had one situation where a teacher
      was transferred and another was suspended for several
      days for making inappropriate comments." One case
      involved an African-American student, the other a
      Middle Eastern student.

      Rieckewald says that he and the school board take the
      issue of discrimination seriously and have been
      proactive in attempting to increase education efforts
      in regard to Islam, in part because Fremont has a
      large Afghan and Muslim population.

      But at lower levels, teachers and principals may not
      be taking discrimination as seriously as the district
      might hope.

      Among the other incidents in the Fremont school
      district reported to SF Weekly was that of a
      third-grade Muslim girl who received a card at a
      classroom Valentine's Day party in 2002. The card
      read, "Why does your family always blow themselves
      up?" The card was given to the teacher by the girl's
      mother, but, the mother says, the school took no

      William, who graduated from Mission San Jose High
      School in Fremont in 2004, describes his family as
      Muslim "but practically secular." He says he was
      called a "sand nigger and a camel jockey hundreds of
      times over the last few years."

      William says he wrote a letter to Mission San Jose
      Principal Stuart Kew during the spring semester of his
      senior year describing the extent of the problems he
      had faced and offering some suggestions about how it
      might be stopped in the future. He never received a
      response. "I can't remember that letter," Kew says.
      "But normally I do respond."

      Kew says that he is aware that discrimination happens
      in his school. "It happens everywhere," he says.

      In several other Bay Area school systems,
      discrimination against Arab and Muslim students also
      seems to have been ignored, at least in some cases.

      In Hercules, an Iranian-American sophomore, Hassan
      Rahgozar, was beaten in a school bathroom in May.
      Apparently at the request of the students who planned
      the attack, the beating was videotaped and later
      posted on the Internet. The family pressed charges
      against the two attackers and is suing the West Contra
      Costa Unified School District for failing to protect
      Hassan. Bill Berg, the family's lawyer, says Hassan
      was also attacked earlier, in April, and repeatedly
      endured racial slurs. (The West Contra Costa school
      district refused to comment on the pending lawsuit.)

      And in Sacramento, a seventh-grade girl found a
      written death threat in her locker after she tried to
      start a Middle Eastern club in which Muslim students
      could pray together on Friday afternoons.

      Other states have policies that encourage informal
      complaint resolution, and many districts nationwide
      have also been hesitant to punish teachers who act
      inappropriately toward Muslim and Arab students. In
      some seemingly egregious cases, lawsuits have

      In a suburb of New Orleans, a Muslim girl filed a
      lawsuit in January, alleging that her teacher, Wes
      Mix, used religious slurs against her and physically
      yanked off her religiously mandated head scarf last
      year. Jefferson Parish School District Superintendent
      Diana Roussel recommended the teacher's termination
      last July, but the school board overruled the decision
      in a closed-door hearing, suspending Mix for several
      weeks and requiring him to complete sensitivity
      training before returning to school in the fall
      instead. He was also required to apologize to the
      student. The lawsuit is pending.

      Similarly, in Nevada, 17-year-old Jana Elhifny and the
      American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against
      the Washoe County School District last October. The
      suit alleges that nothing was done after Jana received
      a death threat and was routinely verbally assaulted by
      classmates based on her religion.

      Without reliable statistics, it is impossible to gauge
      the full extent of the problem of discrimination
      against Arab and Muslim students in the Bay Area. But
      it is clear that the policy of handling school
      discrimination "at the lowest possible level" could
      have serious legal consequences. In 1998, the 9th
      Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that a
      school district could be held liable for a "hostile
      racial educational environment" under Title VI of the
      Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits
      discrimination of any kind in programs that receive
      federal funds.

      "Under the current law, if there is harassment and
      school officials know about it, they could be held
      liable," says Haynes of the First Amendment Center.
      "They are setting themselves up for a lawsuit. What's
      worse, it can't be left to the people creating the
      problem to take it up the line. They aren't going to."

      Many of the families interviewed for this article
      claimed that the discrimination they complained of
      would have been handled differently by the schools "if
      it had happened to a black child or a Jewish child."
      While in theory complaints about school racism are
      handled without regard to the ethnicity of the victim,
      in practice there seems to be a difference.
      Anti-discrimination advocates and cultural experts
      agree: Black, Jewish, and other minority communities
      respond differently to discrimination than Arab and
      Muslim families do, and so get a different and more
      positive response from the authorities.

      "Over the long years, we have learned to give
      ourselves an unquietable voice," says Mimi White, the
      mother of three African-American children, now adults,
      who faced discrimination in the San Francisco school
      district in the 1970s. White says that
      African-Americans have learned to join forces and
      loudly decry individual instances of discrimination.

      But war abroad and the continued emphasis on terrorism
      at home have caused Middle Eastern communities to be
      fearful of coming forward. Many Muslim-American and
      immigrant families who spoke with SF Weekly say they
      were unwilling to come forward to address incidents of
      racism with school officials for fear of backlash
      against their children. Because of these fears, many
      Arab and immigrant families never pursue punitive or
      legal action against teachers or students who actively
      and openly discriminate.

      "A lot of these families just go along because they
      don't want to draw attention to themselves and so they
      just turn the other cheek," says Banafsheh Akhlaghi, a
      lawyer and founder of the National Legal Sanctuary for
      Community Advancement, an organization that
      specializes in civil rights and discrimination cases
      affecting Middle Easterners. "They don't know what
      their rights are, and they don't really talk about
      things like this among themselves. There is a lot of
      shame around it."

      And sometimes, coming forward doesn't seem to help.

      Elmira Dianati is an Iranian mother who says her son
      endured intense discrimination at La Entrada middle
      school in Menlo Park during the 2001-2002 school year.

      Dianati's son, who asked that his name not be used,
      says he became a target for his eighth-grade English
      teacher, Brian Kelly, just after Sept. 11, 2001.
      Throughout the year, Kelly made fun of the student's
      ethnic name, calling him "Trash Can," which rhymes
      with his Persian name. Dianati and several of her
      son's classmates say the name-calling went on all
      year. The discrimination culminated, they say, in an
      event near the end of the school year when, Dianati
      alleges, Kelly told his class that he was having a
      special breakfast party before the students took their
      exams. And then, while Dianati's son was in the
      library, some classmates say that Kelly told them "no
      Persians" were allowed at the breakfast.

      Dianati's yearlong, well-documented struggle with the
      school, the school district, the county, and the state
      to bring her son's situation to the attention of
      administrators serves as a primary example of why more
      Middle Eastern parents don't pursue complaints

      When she first found out about the name-calling,
      Dianati says, she went to see her son's teacher. She
      says he was very friendly and told her that her son
      was a delight to have in class. When her son became
      increasingly withdrawn and depressed, she pursued the
      matter with La Entrada Principal Dee Brummet. "All I
      wanted was for Mr. Kelly to apologize to my son in
      front of the class," Dianati says. "That is all we
      asked for, but it never happened."

      In a meeting with Brummet, another school
      administrator, Dianati, and Dianati's husband, Kelly
      admitted that he had used the names "Trash Can" and
      "Ashtray," but he claimed he had the boy's permission
      to do so. Kelly denied having said Persians were not
      welcome at the class breakfast.

      Brummet agreed to investigate Dianati's claim further
      and interviewed 17 students. All of the students were
      interviewed with Kelly present; some hadn't even been
      in class during the incident. Even so, three students
      did say that Kelly had made the statement that no
      Persians were going to be allowed at the event.

      Perhaps what is strangest about Kelly's alleged
      comment is how Dianati's son and other classmates say
      it came up in class. A letter from the federal Office
      of Civil Rights says that when Kelly announced the
      breakfast party, he "participated in a conversation in
      which students were joking about whether students of
      different racial and ethnic backgrounds could attend."

      Several of the students in Kelly's class confirmed
      that some students raised their hands to ask if Asian
      and African-American kids could come to the breakfast
      party. Out of this conversation, Dianati and three of
      her son's classmates allege, Kelly made the "no
      Persians" remark.

      "The fact that this teacher created an environment
      where the kids had to think about what category they
      belonged to says a lot about the teacher," Dianati

      After the interviews, the principal told Dianati there
      was not enough evidence to determine that Kelly had
      ever said Persians were not welcome at the breakfast.
      Dianati continued to ask for a public apology.

      In letters made available to SF Weekly, Brummet
      promised Dianati an apology on May 29. When that
      didn't happen, Dianati was assured the apology would
      take place on June 3.

      "The day before graduation I met with the principal
      again, and she assured me that the apology in front of
      the class was planned for that day," Dianati says. But
      Kelly never apologized to her son.

      "This is a school. This is where kids are supposed to
      learn how to deal in a society. Teachers are not just
      responsible for math and science," Dianati says. "We
      are supposed to teach kids that when you make a
      mistake, you apologize."

      Dianati says that when she brought her concerns to the
      superintendent, MaryAnn Somerville, she received a
      fast response that included a request that Dianati not
      contact any local media about the issue. "I told them
      I didn't want to do that or to sue. I was not after
      money. All I wanted was for my son's request to be
      filled -- he wanted an apology."

      When the superintendent's office told Dianati that
      based on the principal's investigation there was no
      evidence to proceed, she took her complaint to the
      school board.

      The board told her that it would not investigate
      further or punish Kelly because witnesses had heard
      Dianati's son call Kelly names first.

      "'You've got to be kidding me,'" Dianati says she told
      them. "They said that my son had called Mr. Kelly
      'Mrs. Kelly.' To me, that just showed their mentality.
      They didn't care that anything had happened, and they
      weren't interested to do the right thing."

      So she went to the next level, the San Mateo County
      Board of Supervisors, which ruled against her,
      contending she did not file a complaint within six
      months, as required by law.

      Then Dianati went to the state Department of
      Education, where, in addition to the "no Persians"
      comment, she complained about the teacher's
      name-calling and the school's refusal to apologize.

      The state asked Brummet for the list of the 17
      students she had interviewed. When the principal said
      she had destroyed the list, the state dropped the

      So Dianati took her complaint to the national level
      and the Office of Civil Rights. On April 11, 2003,
      Dianati and her son received the response: There was
      insufficient evidence to prove that Kelly or the
      school district had violated federal discrimination

      But, Dianati says, she never wanted to make a federal
      case out of her son's problems. She just wanted him to
      receive an apology for the year of abuse he'd

      Now, four years later, Superintendent Somerville says
      she hardly remembers the incident. "As I recall, it
      was about a remark made about an ethnic group,"
      Somerville says. She says she does remember that
      Dianati's son did not appear to harbor any bad
      feelings for the teacher, and that she feels the case
      was resolved properly. Kelly left the school in 2004
      to teach in South America; attempts to reach him for
      comment were unsuccessful.

      It's unclear what set of policy steps would
      significantly reduce mistreatment of Arab and Muslim
      schoolchildren in America. At the least, a change in
      the method of handling discrimination complaints seems
      in order. As it now stands, because almost none of
      these complaints makes it into official statistics,
      there is little way of determining the overall scope
      of the problem.

      Some experts say that education and training are the
      answer. Specifically, they say, there should be
      increased focus on Islam and the Middle East in social
      studies and history courses in middle and high
      schools. They also advocate diversity training on Arab
      and Muslim culture for teachers and administrators.

      But does it really take diversity training for
      teachers to know that Arab and Muslim schoolchildren
      should be treated as students, rather than suspects?

      It does in Daly City.

      In 2003, Amir, a fifth-grader at Daly City's Skyline
      Elementary School, says he was nervous about
      presenting a family history report in class. He hates
      public speaking; he is small for his age and thinks
      his voice is squeaky. But there was another reason for
      his apprehension. Amir's family is from Iraq, and some
      of his family members have the last name Hussein. "He
      told me while we were pasting up some photographs [for
      the report] he was worried about what his classmates
      would say because of the war," his mother, Ariana,
      says. "I told him not to be silly."

      When it was Amir's turn to present his report, he got
      up before the class, leaned his poster board of
      photographs on the rim of the chalkboard, and gave his
      five-minute report. As he finished, he asked if there
      were any questions. After their reports, other
      students had been asked about family resemblances and
      holiday celebrations.

      "His teacher asked him when his family came to
      America. Then she asked him if his family in Iraq
      supported America in the war," Ariana says. Amir
      answered that his family had been in America for about
      15 years, and he didn't know all of his family members
      in Iraq, so he didn't know how they felt about the
      war. "Then she said, 'So you don't know if they are
      terrorists?'" Ariana says. Amir just shook his head.

      Amir received a 75 on his report. On the scoring sheet
      used to tally points, he received zero out of 10
      points for "ability to answer questions about family

      "When he told me what happened, I was furious. And he
      was so upset," Ariana says. She wrote a letter to
      Amir's teacher, but never spoke to her or the
      principal about it. "Now I wish I would have," she

      Tim Sullivan, the principal of Skyline Elementary
      School, says that had the problem come to his
      attention he would have investigated it "and made sure
      it didn't happen again."

      "It's not that I doubt what this family is saying," he
      says. "It's just that the problem never came to me."

      Amir is now in middle school in Daly City. Ariana says
      he has become more comfortable with both himself and
      his culture, especially after a family reunion in
      Detroit last year. But Ariana is still angry about her
      son's fifth-grade teacher. "I understand if you have
      your own opinions and your own politics," she says.
      "But I don't understand how you can be a teacher and
      take your stuff out on little children."

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