My journey to becoming a full-time community activist was unfortunately motivated by pain. I was at Costco when I first learned about the tragedy. There were many people standing by the TV. I started crying as I was watching the destruction and pain caused by misguided individuals in the name of Islam.
One of the men from the group angrily asked me: "Why are you crying?"
I did not say anything and looked around for some support. There was none.
The man was uncomfortably close and yelled again: "I have asked you, 'Why are you crying?'"
I politely replied as I walked away: "Sir because I have not figured out yet how not to care about human beings."
At that moment, I knew my life would be changed forever, as I -- who so proudly adopted America as my home -- became "the other" because of that tragedy. After the Sept. 11 tragedy, I found myself suffering on two fronts. As an American, I shared in our national grief for such a senseless and shocking act of violence against our country, our people. Following that, the growing sentiment of Islamophobia underscored that my religion had been hijacked on that day as well, as Muslims in America became increasingly popular targets of harassment, discrimination, scrutiny and violence.
Imagine grieving over the loss of a loved one, and then facing accusations that you are somehow responsible for that loss. Like other Muslims in America, I carried this weight; this pain and burden forced many others to retract into utter silence and remain in the relative safety of their homes -- hoping to weather the storm until that day when the American Muslim was once again relegated to quiet anonymity.
As difficult as it was to accept, I knew that would never happen. As a proud American and devout Muslim, I could not stand in silence in good conscious while my religion was blamed for the horrific acts of hatred committed that day. I worried constantly for my children's safety. Would they be attacked? Harassed? Discriminated against? Would they be rounded up and arrested without as much as a phone call?
Panic sets in for parents very easily when these thoughts circulate your head, but I refused to believe that here in America, the land of the free, would terror and fear prevail over freedom, justice and understanding. I decided to get involved. I had to become the change I wanted to see.
My first efforts were to find an American Muslim community group that could guide me in my quest to help shake this nightmare, but most were either flying under the radar or focused on political issues at a larger national scale that seemed to have little effect on the growing problem of intolerance in America.
From my own experience, I found an immense amount of support from my neighbors and friends of our family here in Palo Alto, California and globally. As a childcare provider for over two decades, I have been lucky to know so many wonderful families. We have stayed in touch throughout the years and there is a very real sense of being a part of one extended family that persists today. We celebrate holidays and our children's accomplishments together, and so it was no surprise that in my bouts of fear, they were the first to empathize with and support me.
I realized then that the experience for my diverse group of friends was vastly different from the average American who had never encountered Islam before 9/11. My friends had a personal connection -- a positive history we shared together that the nightly news could not usurp. They were repulsed with the intolerant rhetoric making its way around the country because they had witnessed firsthand the people being distorted by the mainstream media. In its very essence, this is the effect of community.
It became my inspiration, my sole motivation to be an activist. I realized then that to prevent any kind of intolerance and prejudice in the future we needed to start at a grassroots level, building up the American community. I have dedicated my life toward this endeavor. I started American Muslim Voice Foundation in an effort to unite diverse American communities. We serve the nation, not just Muslims -- in fact, most of the work done by AMV is actually directed at interfaith coalition, beloved community and peace building.
I am passionate about the idea that if anonymity breeds intolerance, then familiarity must breed understanding. I want all Americans to know one another; to step outside the small, segregated lives we often lead; to understand that we are far more similar than we could ever be different; to bridge gaps in order to appreciate our unique contributions to our great country; and to hold true the ideals upon which this nation was founded with the understanding that anything less unravels the very thread of our common humanity.
The social change I seek is a dream that one day, in a not so distant future, the American community is so tightly woven together that the fabric of our nation does not fray when torn. It is what gets me out of bed and fired up to work, every morning. It is my source of pride and yet I feel it is my responsibility as both an American and a Muslim. Above all else, it is the example I want to set for my children. That in this country you can make a difference if you let your voice be heard.
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