Op-Ed: For other minority students

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 6:21pm

“Since my first visit in elementary school, I have been fairly certain that the University of Michigan is my favorite place on earth.” That is how I began one of my Common App essays some two years ago. At that point in time, the University of Michigan was flawless. To paraphrase my high school AP Lit teacher: The University was 3,211 acres of fantasy surrounded by reality.

Recent events have shattered that perception. While I still hold great pride in having the opportunity to study at such a great institution, I cannot stay silent about the serious grievances against minority students here on campus. There are people, my classmates, who are filled with hate and feel compelled to express it via social media and posters. This is truly as heartbreaking as it is infuriating. And it is not just because of Donald Trump and this chaotic election cycle. The demagogue is a catalyst, yes, but it goes far beyond that. The alt-right is trying to spread their hate like a virus. We as a student body must resist.

I grew up a Muslim and Arab-American in post-9/11 America, which exposed me to my fair share of hate from what is now called the alt-right. I was naïve to think I could escape it by coming to college.

I was too young to even remember 9/11, but my mother has told me how the staff at my private Islamic elementary school hurried all of us students into rooms, closed the blinds and placed security guards at all doors. They were afraid that people would come and hurt us, young children, in retribution for the horrible acts of terrorism carried out by al-Qaeda.

From then on, my family has lived in fear. The most intense times were in the airport when we went on vacation. However, I am lucky. I can pass as white until someone hears or reads my foreign-sounding name. My mother and sister, who both wear headscarves, are not as fortunate.

Kansas City, Mo.: As my sister boards a roller coaster, she hears, “I can’t believe they’re letting them on rides now.” Orlando, Fla.: A young boy tries to yank off my mother’s Islamic swimsuit in a wave pool. Platt, Neb.: My mother, sister and I enter a truck stop to buy some sodas and stretch after a few hours on the road. Will someone say something? Will we be physically confronted?

All of this happened before I turned 13.

Even Dearborn, a vibrant community where I, my siblings and thousands of other Muslim Americans have grown up, is not safe. I am not sure how much national fanfare this even received, but in 2012, Terry Jones, the Quran-burning pastor from Florida, and a group of supporters brought a pig's head to the Arab American International Festival. As if just the presence of porcine elements would cause us to flee like demons to holy water. Ugh.

Earlier this year, it was the anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic chalk. This fall it is the KKK graffiti at EMU, the transphobic #UMPronounChallenge and the racist posters on our campus, one of which showing a “statistic” that linked men of Islam with rape.

To those trying to make this campus and this country unwelcome to us: You will not win.

I have to commend the Dearborn community for teaching me how to react to hate, especially the local mosques who bore the brunt of the attacks. The clergy would always invite protesters with hate to take respite from the heat or enjoy a meal. The protesters always refused, but it’s the gesture that counts.

We knew that these people did not represent Christians, just like we tell people that ISIS and other groups do not represent Muslims.

Some would advocate that kind of “turn the other cheek” as opposed to the protests and other events that have sprung up on campus in response to these acts of hate. I reject these calls for civility because every personal response to this attack on minority students is valid. Part of my response is writing this op-ed. Others are dealing with this by protesting. Still, others are seeking out safe spaces to express their thoughts and emotions. There is no one right way to handle this.

I also commend University President Mark Schlissel for his efforts to address issues surrounding minority students on campus. I believe that he is sincere and is dead-on when he called these posters “acts of terrorism.” However, I agree with Students4Justice and other groups that the administration can and should do more to continue protecting student minorities.

I understand that it may seem like a “pick-your-poison” situation for President Schlissel and company: Say nothing and deal with more #schlisselwya or say something and be branded as anti-free speech. But in order for the minority student body to heal, we need to know that the University has our back. Administrators must bring peace to this campus by finding those responsible.

I am a minority student at the University of Michigan. This has been a snapshot of my experience. The experiences of other minorities will likely be different. I share this with readers in the hopes that it may resonate with someone, anyone, as we all move forward.

My sister wants to come here next fall. I sincerely hope she steps foot on a more tolerant campus.

Ali Safawi is an LSA sophomore.