CALIFORNIA – It started with a sign pinned to Sana Afzal’s backpack after the US presidential election in 2016 which read, “I like Trump, you’re fired.”
At the 16-year-old’s new high school in Gilroy, California, just outside San Jose, “there was an English class assignment involving a Fox News opinion piece that linked Islam to a horrific stoning in Afghanistan,” Sana recalled the incident to National Public Radio.
The article was accompanied by a picture of a young woman in hijab, like the one that Sana chooses to wear as a Muslim. It triggered a classmate to mock Sana by looking at her in humiliation and say “it’s the same thing.”
According to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in the US, more than 42% of Muslims in the US report bullying among their school-age kids.
Sana’s worried mother, Noshaba Afzal, decided to contact her daughter’s school and two advocacy organizations including the Islamic Networks Group (ING).
Ishaq Pathan, who runs the youth programs at ING admitted that “in some situations, the bullying actually comes from the administrators and teachers as well.”
Pathan cooperated with Sana’s school to give a presentation about inclusion and understanding people’s differences, including Muslims. Now it’s a model that ING pulls out when other schools ask for help — a half-dozen times so far.
In a good step, the school has pulled the offending article from the English class this year.
Sana’s eldest sister, Maimona Afzal Berta, is a 23-year-old special education teacher at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California.
“I’d hear someone shout from outside my classroom, you know, say, ‘You’re working with ISIS or you’re a terrorist,’” the veiled teacher recounted the bullying since 2016.
Others would bang on her windows and doors, and some would say “shoot her” and motion like they were firing a machine gun.
In a creative and Islamic response from Maimona to the bullying incidents, she asked the school’s administrators to organize a program that teaches kids about inclusion and diversity.
“So, at the end of that school year, it was like, wow, like, we made some progress,” she said happily.
Nevertheless, when Maimona was excited to restart teaching after the summer vacation and she showed up early to her classroom on September 11 she saw reemerging fanaticism.
“My room’s windows and doors were vandalized with words associating me with terrorism,” she informed in tears.
After this incident, a school administrator asked whether she would like to change schools. “Your solution is essentially to get rid of me?” she replied.
“I’m not the issue here. It’s not even these students. It’s the fact that we haven’t done a good enough job of educating our students.”
Imee Almazan, the principal where Maimona teaches, says Maimona turned her trauma into teachable moments for the kids.
“She has such great courage to speak up against the injustice that she had experienced specifically here at our school,” Almazan said.
In another practical step, Maimona chose to run for a seat vacated by a board member on the Franklin-McKinley School District board who had been accused of corruption.
The Muslim teacher faced five candidates and then there was a tie between Maimona and another female candidate. Yet at the end, Maimona was chosen. The board welcomed her, telling her they were excited to have a Muslim woman among them.
“I did this not only to change things for myself but also for my younger sister Sana, for other Muslim families and for any child who feels like an outsider,” Maimona proudly expressed.