The following article was contributed by Terri, an LC from New York reflecting on her experience hosting Muslim students in rural America.
Five years ago, we welcomed our first student who wore a head covering. She was from Pakistan, so she wore more of a scarf than a full hijab. We live in a very small (extremely small) rural town in western New York, where family farms still drape the landscape like a beautiful quilt. And if you think I didn’t get my fair share of warnings about opening my home to Muslim students, you’d be wrong. People thought I was nuts. The teachers stated that the students would not be accepting – but we had made a commitment and nothing was going to stop us.
When Amara arrived, some of my friends felt she needed protection. But let me tell you, she was prepared for this exchange. She was prepared for the questions. She was prepared for the challenges. She proved this by being open to questions about her faith and culture.
Once, Amara was confronted by a boy in high school who felt he had been treated unfairly, because he was not permitted to wear a cap (per dress code), and she was allowed to wear a scarf. Rather than becoming defensive, Amara took the time to talk to the boy and explain why her faith encourages such modesty. My daughter witnessed it all. Initially, she was hyped up to jump in and say something — but she let Amara handle it, and that young man was not the only person who benefitted from Amara’s cool and honest approach.
In the subsequent years, we have hosted several young women who wear hijabs. When Dina arrived from Egypt, she was (and still is) a fashionista. She had matching hijabs for every outfit. Still, Dina’s beautiful personality shined brighter than her stylish hijabs, and that is what the kids and people in the community remember.
When I think back, in one small school of about 250 7-12th graders, in the past six years, our students have been exposed to other teens from the following countries: China, Norway, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain, Russia, Israel, Ukraine, Indonesia, Oman, Morocco, Tunisia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan and the Philippines.
Recently as part of my daughter Bianca’s graduate school project, she reached out to people in different communities to ask them a sort of “word association” for what they think of when they hear the words Muslim and Islam. Once student who graduated from our school said, “Peace, because of Seema (a student from Pakistan). She showed me it meant peace.”
So what do you tell families interested or hesitant to host a student who wears a hijab? I would tell them that the student’s personality doesn’t change because she wears a hijab. Teenagers are teenagers. Historically, for me, students wearing hijabs have been more modest dressers (not a bad thing), but fashion is still important to teenage girls. In my case, my girls have not been shy. They were articulate, prepared, engaged and confident.
Will you have to intervene to dispel myths and breakdown false stereotypes? Maybe, but isn’t that what this program is about? Just this year, a photo with my girl from the Philippines showing other young girls how to wear a hijab stirred up some negative comments on social media from a guy in a neighboring town. However, the conversation also included many more people who supported our girl. In the end, local mothers really defended her, and ultimately, this was a positive lesson for our community.
February 1st is World Hijab Day. As part of encouraging acceptance, we created a bulletin board titled: “CHOOSE YOUR COVER.” This was a way to show that head coverings are not just required by the Muslim faith.
Finally, I would encourage any LC to take a student who wears a hijab. You know those teachers I mentioned earlier, who thought the exchange students wouldn’t be accepted? Well, year after year, they inquire about who we are going to get next year. Their fears have changed to excitement, and a sense of pride in the student body for supporting the exchange students and accepting their diversity. I am hopeful that, because of AYA and these types of exchange programs, our teenagers will grow to be more accepting of diversity and the impact of this program will be far reaching — today and into the future.