She was in third grade the first time a boy in her class called her a terrorist. People won’t sit next to her on the bus when she wears her hijab. Without it, people sit in the open seat without a second thought. Even living in a city as diverse and progressive as Cambridge, Sumaiya Mahee, 13, encounters some form of prejudice on a daily basis for her faith and heritage.
But her self-awareness and cultural knowledge is far beyond her middle school years. She is the author of an essay, “You’re Not Who You Say You Are: Beyond the Single Story,” an assignment for her combined social studies and English classes at Kennedy-Longfellow School that went viral and was published in Public Radio International’s Global Nation Education section.
“I face these stereotypes everyday because I am a Muslim girl. It's what I experience,” Mahee said. “Writing about this boosted my self-esteem because it gave me a way to tackle the stereotypes that I face. When I started talking about it, I realized I wasn’t alone and that other kids go through the same thing.”
However shortsighted it may be, people are reacting to a growing tension and suspicion towards Muslims on a local, national and international level. Here in the Boston area, residents have seen numerous terrorism-related trials and two brutal displays of jihadi-fueled violence.
Between the violent saga of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Usaama Rahim’s fatal standoff with authorities in Roslindale, Tarek Mehanna translating Al Qaeda propaganda, Rezwan Ferdaus’s plan to fly explosives into the Pentagon and US Capitol building and Ahmad Abousarma joining ISIS, local Muslims are under a microscope even in places as forward-thinking as the Bay State.
“It’s hard to take in because I am viewed as a terrorist by people” Mahee said. “It’s hard to take in because I am not the kind of person who would hurt someone.” She writes in her essay, “according to society and everything else going on in the world, I am not who I say I am,” an external identity that has been forced upon a child because of extremists.
“My goal is to keep working to correct the stereotypes,” Mahee said. “I don’t want other Muslim kids to grow up and have to face those and not be able to do anything.”
She wrote about reaching a boiling point after facing mistreatment day after day. She, her sister and her best friend were walking home from the masjid around midnight one evening with their hijabs on when two men laughed and said, “Danger! It’s the Muslims!” Mahee had had enough and shouted back, “Wait till we come after you! You’re not going to survive any longer!”
The interaction with the two men was the dawning of a profound personal realization: Hate cannot be combated with hate.
“I was shocked when I first read this,” English teacher Woodly Pierre-Louis said. “Here she is, this tiny little girl and it amazed me that anyone could see her as a threat or a target of ridicule. I couldn’t believe anyone would comment like that at all.”
“If someone calls me a terrorist, I won’t choose the actions that I chose. I would tell other Muslim kids to tell people what a real Muslim is like,” Mahee said. “Muslims are shown on TV as terrorists and it makes people think that that’s what a normal Muslim is.”
Mahee said that she continues to push against the "Us vs. Them" mentality, and she believes schools need to start teaching diversity and encourage students to have open dialogues to foster a real cultural melting pot.
“It takes a long time to change people’s mindset,” Mahee said. “Schools need to give students a way to see that we go through the same things even though we have a different background. That’s the first step in making a change.”