Unfortunately, as an Arab-American woman who is pro-Palestinian and has been heavily active with #UMDivest, I do not have the privilege to call out names, positions or communities when specifying an audience. So, look for yourself in my words — you’ll know who you are. This is an open letter to you:
Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me, right?
Wrong. Words have been hurting me my whole life, and I’m physically and emotionally tired of trying to pretend I am numb to the venomous verbal violence inflicted on me and my community.
I am human, too.
My father, an immigrant from Southern Lebanon, was the administrator of Fordson High School during my four years there. He was an extremely effective principal who enacted policies that held teachers accountable for the (lack of) results they were producing in the classroom. Instead of doing their jobs, many of these staff members lashed out with Islamophobic and racist slander directed at my father with the goal of intimidating him to silence.
Words hurt me when my own teachers suspiciously asked me questions about him like: “What does your father do to take his stress out at home? This job is hard, he must release it somehow…” or “What does your dad really do when he goes to Lebanon?” Words hurt me when my teachers basically told me that they could not believe he (read: a violent, extremist Arab-Muslim) could raise such a sweet, innocent kid. Words still hurt me when I type “Imad Fadlallah” into Google and read all about terrorism and Islamic extremism from people who seriously do not deserve to utter my father’s name.
They do not deserve to know the gentle giant who used to sing Fairuz’s Yallah Tnam Rima every night when I was a baby, cradling me until I fell asleep. They don’t deserve to know the calm and collected man who seldom ever raises his voice. Their racism, xenophobia and Islamaphobia drove him out of that million-dollar building, but even a castle housing such ignorance will never deserve to have him seated in its throne.
Please stop telling me that words do not hurt, because I am still dealing with the wounds those words have left me with today.
Four years later, on a University campus tour, I learn that Fordson’s architecture was inspired by the English Gothic style used on our very own law school. This makes so much sense to me now because, much like Fordson – the first million dollar high-school – this campus, with all its beautiful architecture and breathtaking scenery, is nothing but a romanticized image of a place that houses and perpetuates oppressive systems like racism, classism and bigotry. The days following March 18, 2014, when the Central Student Government deliberately silenced our voices at their meeting, have been my most difficult and terrifying days spent at this university. I have never felt so unwelcome and unwanted. I have never felt so dehumanized. And why? Because we dared to make our voices heard.
When I was a freshman, I was anxious and excited to attend my first Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) meeting. I took the Mason Hall elevator to the 3rd floor with a gorgeous young Algerian-American woman. At the time, Bayan and I did not know one another, but we were both clearly lost, trying to figure out which classroom our meeting was in. Today, I call Bayan Founas a close friend. Like I did during our first encounter, I still admire Bayan’s beauty, her confidence, her conviction and her passion, and I couldn’t ignore her incredible fashion sense if I tried. Bayan Founas was the perfect introduction to all of the incredible people I would meet through SAFE, the thoughtful and generous human beings who would teach me about my own humanity.
My sophomore year, I attended a vigil for Syria along with a hundred other self-proclaimed activists on campus. I was privileged enough to listen to Yazan Kherallah, a Syrian international student who is currently SAFE’s divestment chair, talk about his family and friends in Syria who have been stripped of their basic human rights by their oppressive regime. Yazan taught me about my privilege as a college-educated Arab-American who has the rights and resources to speak out about these injustices. Yazan taught me about the power of empathy, how an injustice does not have to touch me directly for me to care about it. Today, I am horrified to read a disgusting Washington Free Beacon article about Yazan painting a picture of a man so defaced that I do not recognize him; it is clear the author knows nothing of the calm, soft spoken and level-headed Yazan whose presence alone can make a gloomy room feel immediately more hopeful.
The summer of our junior year, Farah Erzouki, co-chair of SAFE and one of my closest friends at Michigan, visited my home in Lebanon. My father gave both of us a tour of his village, walking us through the same streets and alleys that he trekked as a child growing up in Southern Lebanon. Farah was right there with me as I tried to process and understand the hardship my father experienced as a young, Shiite Muslim villager. She watched me try to envision my father and his six younger siblings sleeping on a single mattress in one tiny room. What’s more is that Farah was crying, laughing, reflecting and processing with me as we sat vulnerably in my room that night. Because of this intimate exchange, Farah will always be a sister to me. Over the past week, I have watched Farah deal with immense exhaustion, fear, hopelessness, disgust, shock, trauma and a plethora of other emotions that nobody should have to undergo in a week’s time — especially not a full-time college student.
Here I am now, a senior who will be graduating this spring. Through SAFE’s activism this year, I have had the pleasure of working with Suha Najjar, a Palestinian refugee who is also the co-chair of SAFE. Suha is, hands down, the most beautiful person I have ever met. Using words like “strong” or “resilient” to describe Suha would be an insulting and pathetic attempt to convey the nuances of this humble young woman’s character. Words are not enough, and my perspective as an American is too limited to understand the complex and extraordinary young Palestinian woman whose resilience has infected our community during our most hopeless hours, whose example is enough to encourage me to keep fighting courageously for what I believe in. My community appropriately dubbed her “Queen Suha,” because she has truly been everything to us during the #UMDivest campaign and sit-in. I will continue to defend Suha and this movement until I am blue in the face.
Words hurt me when I had to sit in my Michigan Union and listen to the CSG representatives talk about how they are scared to walk home at night because of my community. Words hurt me when I had to listen to an alleged “representative” falsely accuse one of my personal role models of slanderous language, perpetuating the stereotypes that already exist about Arab-Muslims — let alone a young woman who wears a hijab. Words hurt me when I sat through a ridiculously racist article written about a young Syrian international student defaming him and attempting to destroy his humanity. They hurt me when I sat through a six-hour CSG meeting losing count of the times when students and representatives talked about the “threats and concerns for safety” on behalf of the Jewish community and CSG representatives, clearly directed at people who look like me.
Listen closely so you do not put words in my mouth or quote me out of context like you have with my peers: Threats are no joke. Issues of personal safety should not be taken lightly. I am not attempting to delegitimize anyone’s feelings, experiences or emotions; I am simply trying to challenge the painfully one-sided narrative that is at the forefront of our campus’ conversation.
Here’s something many of you intentionally or unintentionally left out: we are hurting too. We have been threatened and slandered too. What makes us different than you is that we are terrified to even defend ourselves from the violence being inflicted upon us so we do not perpetuate the multitude of stereotypes associated with people of color, so that our [rightful] reactions to your violence are not misinterpreted, so they do not become a “bias incident” that fails to adequately address the context of our behavior. Because the sad truth is, at the end of the day, it’ll be our word against yours — and this institution has shown us whose safety it values more.
So let me ask you this: Do you ever have to defend your humanity? Have warnings like “civil” and “peaceful” been slung at your throat like sharp knives before you can even take a breath to speak? Do you feel the need to quickly and repeatedly use descriptors like “calm,” “collected,” and “professional” when describing yourself or your movement so people aren’t terrified by your very essence? Please do not lie to me and say that you have, because we both know that your humanity is assumed when you walk into a room, while my community is still trying to prove we are worthy of entry. I ask that you check your privilege at the door please.
Words hurt when students like Suha are forced to convince you of their worth at an institution that has lied to them over and over again when calling itself theirs. Words like “peace” and “dialogue” hurt when those uttering them do not understand the racist implications of their language, the silencing power of their voices alone. Words hurt when Palestinian voices that are already marginalized on a global scale are silenced and overshadowed by other students on this campus, when Palestinians finally given a platform to speak is somehow interpreted as “silencing” to other narratives, narratives that have been mainstream all along.
I am not here to talk about how you should feel embarrassed that our university invests its money immorally, how SAFE’s resolution asks for nothing unreasonable or unprecedented, how — contrary to popular belief — our 7-day sit-in was the most peaceful and loving space I’ve occupied at this University. I’m not even here to argue that you should value a Palestinian body as you do an American body. If I can’t convince you of those obvious points, you need to examine your own values and perspectives.
I’m here, as a student at this university, telling you that your words have hurt me and my community, that we have lost sleep because of the things you have said. Your words (and lack of words) have caused us to feel unsafe, have caused us to miss class, have caused many of us to leave campus for a weekend. I’m here urging you to think about what it is that you’re saying or failing to say; I am urging you to consider the context and power of your voice and who you are directly silencing and oppressing every time you open your mouth.
I’m here hoping that those younger than me who have to walk on this campus for years after I leave will not feel as unsafe as I have felt lately, that they never have to deal with the same pain and anger that I bring with me to class along with my pen and paper. In a Facebook status earlier this week, I described campus as a “shooting range” where “all of us with keffiyehs, pins and opinions feel like targets.” This campus does not want us, so we had to create our own safe space in the CSG chambers. I’m here urging you to create a space for my community to seek refuge so that last week never happens again.
I’m here to remind you that the anger and discomfort that you may feel in reaction to #UMDivest is not more important than the hurt and anguish that marginalized people thousands of miles away continue to endure. At the very least, I’m here to let you know that the discomfort and anger that many of you feel in reaction to our movement — while not illegitimate — is not more important than the discomfort and anger that communities of color have had to deal with since their first day of classes. We are here. Stop neglecting us. Stop silencing us. Stop glaring at us. Stop slandering us. Stop blindly accusing us. Stop generalizing us.
When you walk on campus today, leave your deadly words at home along with your sticks and stones.
We are human, too.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.