Ziad Ahmed, a 17-year old from New Jersey, considers himself religious. But he chooses not to pray, at least not in public.
It’s safer that way.
He’s an American Muslim and understands that when he’s out in the real world, away from his family and friends, the comfort of being who he wants to be, he needs to downplay his identity. So when he rides public transportation, he’ll turn his backpack with a #MyMuslimVote button around. At the airport with his grandmother who wears a Hijab, he’ll hold his breath, anxiety-filled, dodging glances from disapproving passersby who stop and stare, hoping they don’t act upon their prejudices. When he hears of a terrorist attack, his heart stops and he can’t help but mutter: “I hope they aren’t Muslim, please let them not be Muslim …” As an American Muslim young person, anxiety never seems to end.
As an American Muslim young person, anxiety never seems to end.
“It’s exhausting,” he admits. “It’s exhausting to always be on the ready. It hurts more than anything else. Hurts that people hate people like me.”
It’s hard to feel like he is progressing into a better future, one where he could be seen as equal, human. Especially when he’s always playing defense. “When people are attacking us 24/7 how can you score when you’re always defending?”
Such is the realities for him and countless other American Muslim teenagers, among a population of 3.3. million across the country. Now, with anti-Muslim and hate-fueled rhetoric by President-elect Donald Trump occurring across the country, there’s been a spike of hate crimes towards disenfranchised groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which looks into white supremacy among racist actions, reported 400 incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation since the election. This, of course, isn’t indicative of the total number of men and women who are attacked. Most incidences, after all, go unreported. There have been countless news stories that are too close for comfort from Trump supporters who’ve physically assaulted women in Hijabs, verbally harassed Muslim men by calling them “sandn*****s.”
“This represents a big increase in what we’ve seen since the campaign, and these incidents are far and wide: we’re seeing them in schools, we’re seeing them in places of business, we’re seeing them in museums and gas stations,” Richard Cohen, the SPLC’s president said in a statement. “White supremacists are celebrating, and it’s their time, the way they see it.”
It doesn’t stop there. A new study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that Anti-Muslim assaults in the past year, reached 9/11 levels. While there were 93 aggravated assaults in 2001, there were 91 in the past year, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. In 2015, the FBI found 257 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes, a spike of 67% more than the previous year.
So it’s to no surprise that Ziad and countless teens across the world feel as if there isn’t respite in sight. But for Ziad and many American Muslim youth, cowering away is no longer a choice. To survive in this country, he and others, are fighting back in a positive way. For one, Ziad has become a human rights activist for his community. Though only a teenager, he is mighty; he regularly goes to White House for talks, has taken photos with Hillary Clinton, and is outspoken about being who he is on campus at his high school to social media. For him, the more he educates others, the brighter the future is.
“My entire life is to ensure that I don’t feel helpless,” he says. “I don’t look at anything as a limitation. I work much harder so that I can be seen as human. I’m not just Muslim, Bangladeshi, an activist, a non-conformist. I’m so many things. To reduce me to one thing is to erase my identity.”
On a rainy Saturday morning not too long ago, Ziad, along with three other American Muslim young men came together to talk about their own unique experiences. It was an original photo and video shoot for Very Good Light, aimed at presenting a positive message and light onto American Muslim youth. Like Ziad, these young men are activists fighting for positive change. More so, the story aims to change the dialogue when it comes to Muslims living in America starting with this question: “Why do you fear me, what’s there to fear?”
Inspiring and empowering, these teens are speaking out for the first time and proving that their voices matter. Here, they talk about the realities of their lives …
RJ Khalaf, 20
One of the emotions that I am dealing with right now is fear. Not necessarily for myself, but for my Muslim brothers and sisters. There have literally been hundreds of incidents since Wednesday against minority groups. Muslim women’s hijabs are being torn off and they are being told they should tie those scarfs around their necks to hang themselves. Many hateful and dangerous individuals are empowered by Trump’s rhetoric and now his upcoming Presidency. I worry that my community will continue to face threats.
I worry that my community will continue to face threats.
Akhil Mohammed, 16
With Trump now as President-elect, I feel more worried about the Muslims in America and whether they will be safe or not. Many hate crimes towards Muslims have sparked up after Trump’s victory, which has given many of his supporters the impression that America now belongs to them. I, for one, have received deportation jokes from many people in school. They aren’t part of an oppressed community. But I’ve had many people of all backgrounds reaching out to me, promising that they have my back. Trump’s win is allowing me to become closer with people of different cultures, backgrounds and faiths. I’m thankful for all this support.
Thinking about the future is definitely a frightening thought.
Mohammed Attiyeh, 19
As a Muslim American, I fear for all Americans. Personally, I am a disappointed American. Disappointed we let our country allow a completely inexperienced and prejudiced man become the leader I fear for my friends and family all over this country because this President-elect might essentially put this country in a downward spiral because of his economic, foreign, and political policies.
I go to Rutgers University in New Jersey. It’s one of the most diverse campuses in the entire world but even we have received backlash. Trump supporters are writing very disrespectful and prejudiced comments everywhere slandering us with their hate. They’re telling minorities to leave and completely blowing up the idea of “building a wall.” It’s scary.
The University called these notions “a freedom of speech,” but we all know that it’s bulls***. It’s unfortunate because these kinds of hateful Americans should be exposed and taught a lesson. By lesson, I mean someone needs to seriously talk to them and debunk all of their misguided and misdirected hate.
That being said, I do see a light in all of this. Many of us, including myself have received more support from fellow friend, the same way people were coming to my support when I was being called a terrorist growing up.
Trump supporters are writing very disrespectful and prejudiced comments everywhere slandering us with their hate.
Now despite Donald Trump and Mike Pence being elected into office, I have hope for this country. Because hope is currently our strongest ally against whatever may come our way. Hope as a nation has gotten us this far, and it will get us further.
Ziad Ahmed, 17
Since Trump has won, I’ve been truly devastated. I didn’t go to school Wednesday, and I bawled my eyes out. The reality of his presidency is only now starting to set in, and I keep on going over all the things that are at stake in my head, and it breaks my heart, but I know this is not the end of the world.
I bawled my eyes out
It still hurts to know that so many people either are racist, sexist and hateful or decided that racism, sexism and hate were not deal-breakers. But I recognize that the only way forward is continuing to advocate even louder for the progressive values that I believe in and to dialogue with those that I do not yet understand.
In Trump’s America as an American Muslim, I feel devastated the country elected for a leader that fueled his campaign on hateful rhetoric against the American Muslim community and nearly every minority community. But I also feel determined to use my voice even further to advocate for justice in a time that needs it more than ever.
Even as the election was occurring, I got so many messages of support/understanding from people in my life. At school though, I have definitely received backlash by those asserting that I must “move on” and that it is “no big deal.” To those people I say this: There is too much at stake to be silent. To those people I say: There is no bright side when you are in the dark and Trump’s presidency was created for the purpose of leaving so many of us in a starkly dark state.
I feel scared for a future under a Trump administration. The increase in hate crimes, the cabinet short list and the policy outlines terrify me. But I am not defeated. I will continue to campaign for progressive candidates at all levels of government and I will never just “let it go” because not critiquing Trump is hate unchallenged.
If you’re a victim of a hate crime or harassment, call 9-1-1 or report this to your local chapter of the ACLU.
How to protect yourself:
- Get to safety. “The first thing is to get to safety,” he suggests. “At risk of being attacked, get to safety, whatever that means.” For many, this means going into a business or an establishment with a crowd of people.
- Speak out. Hussain says that silence is deadly. “Speaking out on social media and letting it be known that this is our reality is very impactful,” he says. “We can’t bury our heads any more.” This means shedding light onto others on what it means to be an American Muslim and how others can be allies.
- Talk to the ACLU. The American Civil Liberties Union is a national organization that defends individuals and their rights. Call your local branch by finding them here.
- Be an advocate. “Reach out to different communities, not just the Muslim community and build a momentum that way,” Hussain says. “Muslim are are privileged in a lot of ways in the way that there’s a lot of diversity in our community. You need to use that to help others and expand the education of others.”
- Walk in groups. Find friends and allies who will walk with you in groups to and from public locations. “Everyone should create safety plans,” Hussain says. “We’ve been talking about reaching out to our community and everyone should have a plan of action. This means finding who will be around to walk along with you wherever you go.”
- Inform others of your location. This means telling loved ones or close friends approximately where you will be and at what time. “It helps to keep accountable at all times,” Hussain says.
- Take around your ID. “Unfortunately, carrying ID with you at all times has become our reality as a community,” he says. “You need to do this to protect yourself especially as we don’t know what will happen in Donald Trump’s future with his terrifying rhetoric. I’ve even heard that some have their passports ready and on hand. Sounds extreme but that’s now life.”
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Photographer: Justin Bridges; Assistant: David Zheng; Stylist: Justin Min; Groomer: Sierra Min; Producer: Sarah Springer; Editor: Maya Tanaka; Graphics: Sam Stringer-Hye