A classmate leaned over and whispered the news: airplanes had hit the Twin Towers. It was my first week at Alhambra High School. I was a freshman with no friends, but I couldn’t imagine anyone would think I had anything in common with terrorists.
I’m not Muslim. My parents emigrated from Lebanon, but were educated in America, worked in America, and raised children in America. I grew up putting my right hand over my heart and pledging allegiance to America. But after the 9/11 attacks, I soon learned that having a Middle Eastern last name and speaking Arabic meant that I was no longer simply an American girl. In many of my fellow Americans’ eyes, I was very Arab.
I only experienced discrimination once in Alhambra — versus many times outside the city — but I never forgot those comments. Not long after the attacks, a boy in my Health and Safety class asked why my father hijacked a plane and flew it into the Twin Towers. Actually, my father loves this country. He would even go on to work in Iraq during the war, translating for the U.S. Army and risking his life for the American cause.
I now realize I may have been lucky to only have faced discrimination here that one time. My sister Lena was a new 7th grader at Ramona Elementary School at the time of the attacks. Being an Arab student after 9/11 suddenly made it that much harder to make friends. “All these kids had been going to school together since kindergarten,” she told me earlier this month in our Alhambra home. “And then something like that happens, and I’m probably the only Middle Eastern in the 7th grade class.”
Only now, as my sister finishes college with a degree in child development, have I learned about what she suffered in elementary school. Students bullied Lena, calling her a terrorist after the attacks. In 8th grade, she posed for a picture with two girls she considered her friends. I knew the friendship had abruptly ended after that, but I didn’t know why until recently. “They wrote ‘Osama Bin Laden’ on my picture,” she told me, adding that the girls also scribbled in a long beard and turban. “They gave it to the guy I used to like…I cried and I was sad about it, but there was nothing I could do.”
It hurt me that Alhambra students were so hateful to my little sister, and she was not the only one. In my high school class of about 700, I only knew of two Muslim students. One of them was Anum Sheikh, who moved to Alhambra from Pakistan when she was 9 years old. After the attacks, she said she noticed an anti-Muslim attitude at our high school. “I could feel the tension,” Anum, who now works at a law firm in Irvine, told me. “When I would go to school, obviously my close friends didn’t say anything, but there were some people that were just uneasy, where I would feel very self-conscious and know they were judging me. Maybe not me directly, but Muslims in general.”
I realized the situation might be even worse today when I spoke with Amal Al Alami. A Palestinian-American Muslim and a junior at Mark Keppel, she was six years old when 9/11 happened. She told me that racism from her peers last year made her want to be home schooled. “In our school, racist jokes are really popular,” she told me. “I remember this one guy in my Spanish class started saying all Muslims are terrorists.”
Even when the school tried to teach students about Amal’s culture, a lack of understanding upset her. Her World History AP class studied Islam, and students drew Prophet Mohammed as part of an assignment. “It got me so angry,” Amal said. “I had to wait two or three days until I was a little calmer to tell my teacher that’s not right. In my religion you’re not allowed to draw the Prophet. The only thing he did was say sorry and told the teacher’s assistant not to hang up those pictures.”
Ten years after 9/11, Alhambra remains a relatively tolerant and safe community for minorities. But there is a problem when a 16-year-old girl is called a terrorist. The fear surrounding Muslims and Arab-Americans after 9/11 hasn’t gone away. If anything, it has become more entrenched in our society at large, and in Alhambra. Do we need more positive Arab and Muslim examples in the U.S. media, politics, entertainment, or education? Definitely. But there is a change that could be made right here in Alhambra: adults and parents who aren't afraid to question the roots of negative perceptions right at the beginning, in school.