Working in refugee resettlement, you always hear about the refugees that arrive to the United States with nothing but the clothes on their back. Despite having worked in the field for several years, I hadn’t yet come across this. There was nothing to shake my assumption that everyone came with at least one worn-out suitcase with old t-shirts and jeans, neatly folded, and maybe a memento tethering them to someone they loved (perhaps either a token from their childhood home before fleeing or the last remnants of a tearful goodbye. If they were really lucky, I thought, maybe they had both.)
I assumed that the notion of a young refugee arriving alone with no possessions whatsoever persisted in our lexicon because it was symbolic of how much young refugees leave behind- their family, friends, homes, neighborhoods, countries, their childhood- things that could never fit in a suitcase anyways. That was until I met Ali. After days of travel across several continents, at only 15 years old, he arrived alone at a Washington, DC airport with nothing but the clothes on his back. His only carry-on was a white plastic bag with the now unmistakable blue IOM  logo plastered across it that held his legal documents — the only hard proof he had of his existence.
There were two moments in particular from our initial meetings that I will never forget. The first was when he confided that he had been so scared on his journey but was hopeful that things would get better and that he would be happier here. I learned that both his parents and his siblings had been killed; with some right in front of him and others he only heard about later. He fled across multiple countries, and like all the other refugees who lack proper immigration documents; he largely stayed under the radar, praying for invisibility — secretly grateful that at least his fear could provide him a distraction from his grief.
The second moment was when he turned to me and whispered, “How are things here for Muslims? Is it safe?” That’s the question that motivates much of the work we do at the International Cultural Center’s (ICC) Crossroads Program, where I serve as the Program Director. Our program works with Middle Eastern, South Asian, North/West/East African youth and their families in Montgomery County, Maryland. Most of our clients are refugees, asylum seekers and recent immigrants impacted by trauma, chronic stress, acculturation challenges, social isolation, discrimination and financial hardship. ICC Crossroads provides free clinical mental health counseling, case management and positive youth development programming, including mentoring and skill-building groups and workshops.
Discrimination / Bullying of Muslim Youth
Muslim refugee youth, a growing demographic, face a trifecta of concerns- mental health challenges, acculturation stress, and discrimination/bullying. None of these can be examined in a vacuum. They all co-mingle not only with each other, but also with the “normal” developmental struggles of navigating adolescence.
In partnership with the Islamic Center of Maryland and the Haneefiya Learning Center, we surveyed 110 Muslim students and discovered the following about bullying and discrimination :
- 1 in 5 students felt intimidated, harassed, humiliated, bullied, or emotionally/physically abused by classmates because they are Muslim. Note: This increases to 1 in 4 when considering only male students.
- 10% of students felt like a teacher or school administrator has treated them unfairly because they are Muslim.
- 8% of students felt that their classmates or teachers treated them differently because they wear traditional Islamic symbols (e.g. hijab, prayer hat, or other religious symbols). Note: Muslim girls felt three times more likely than young men to be treated differently.
- 15% of students felt isolated or excluded from social situations because they are Muslim.
These numbers are startling but by no means surprising. If anything, they are under-reported and fail to capture the pervasive subtlety yet ubiquity of bullying today.
One of the ways in which we address these challenges, is through the Global Citizen Forum, a youth leadership development program we developed in a number of local high schools and community centers. As part of the program, Muslim students share their experiences, build solidarity with their peers and acquire the skills they need to address bullying on individual and community levels. Many have stories of offensive comments made by other students in class, unaddressed by teachers, who are unprepared for a longer conversation about Muslims or Islam. Many students have stories of offensive comments coming from teachers themselves, even from the ones they’d least expect. One student recounted how she felt isolated and stigmatized when a magazine with the cover story, “When Jihadists Pose as Suburban Parents” was handed out in class shortly after the tragic shootings in San Bernardino, California.
The effects of bullying and discrimination often extend beyond the school community. One student shared a story of walking home from school when a motorist in a passing truck screamed at her yelling racial slurs. Terrified, she ran the rest of the way home, not stopping until the door closed behind her. Another described her fears that something could happen to her mom, who wore hijab and thus was less able to “pass” as a non-Muslim in public. Her mom told her not to worry though because she’s prepared; when she gets out of the car to fill her gas, she keeps a hat on hand to cover up her hijab to avoid opening herself up to harassment. Unfortunately, her constant refrain of “everything will be ok” offers little comfort to her daughter. After watching news reports of calls to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States and of armed protests in front of mosques, one student shared how at the dinner table, her family discussed an evacuation plan. She noted that if discrimination turned violent, they would gather their belongings, and drive to the Canadian border to seek asylum because they no longer felt safe in their own country.
Thinking back to Ali and other Muslim refugee youth, these incidents can be re-traumatizing and trigger feelings of deep fear on a daily basis. One young refugee who was proud of his dual American and Middle Eastern identity shared a story of being called a terrorist and being told to, “go back to where you came from.” For him, going “back to where he came from” wasn’t an option. Ironically, he saw the worst of terrorism in his home country and just barely got out alive.
Service providers need to support students like Ali in meeting these challenges by providing targeted programs including:
- Safe reporting mechanisms for redressing student complaints of bullying or harassment
- Cultural competency trainings for teachers, counselors, and school staff
- Trainings to recognize warning signs of students who may be affected by bullying and provide supportive environments
- Extracurricular activities and youth groups that foster positive youth connections, and train peer advocates to become upstanders
- Skill-building youth workshops and groups that raise awareness of bullying and promote positive coping skills and resiliency
To provide you with an example, ICC Crossroads in partnership with the Gaithersburg Beloved Community Initiative, recently hosted a skill-building workshop for youth in April 2016. The program brought together Muslim youth and a diverse group of elderly adults to address anti-Muslim rhetoric today. Adult participants included those who lived in Japanese internment camps, fled Nazi Europe and had been active in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. One Muslim-American student shared a story of being called a terrorist and having her hijab torn off her head, while one Japanese-American adult shared her story of being called racial slurs and having to be forcibly removed from her home and placed in an internment camp. The youth and adults traded stories and strategies for individual and community empowerment. More inter-generational, cross-cultural events like this, which address our sorrows and our immense strengths, are needed.
These recommendations and strategies will be explored further in an upcoming webinar this summer and an online learning module this fall, which ICC Crossroads is hosting in partnership with BRYCS.
This month’s guest blogger: Nouf Bazaz, Crossroads Director, International Cultural Center
Names and other identifying details have been altered to protect privacy. The story of “Ali” contains elements of various individuals that we have worked with over the years.
 International Organization for Migration
Please see our website for more survey results: http://www.theicc.net/ourcauses/washington-post-reports-on-iccs-survey-of-the-impact-of-bullying-on-muslim-students