Young, Muslim & Misunderstood

Since 9/11, many Arab-American students have faced ignorance and harassment. At Westlake High School, they're doing something about it.

Watch the security video once and you'll miss it. You'll see two boys wrestling on the checkerboard floor of the Westlake High School cafeteria. You'll see the boys' friends pull them apart. You'll see the spectators scatter.

You'll see what looks like a typical high-school fight. But if you watch the incident again, as Westlake police officer Scott Fortkamp has on replay after replay, you'll see something more troubling about this scuffle.

One boy is Arab-American. One is not.

Fortkamp, 34, crosses his muscled arms and stares at the screen. Even though he's bodybuilder big, his compassionate eyes and flyaway bangs say he is a kinder, looser, more suburban version of the school security officer. His job is to patrol the hallways in a dark blue uniform, badge stuck on his shirt and gun tucked in his belt. But teen-agers talk to him anyway.

After the fight, both boys told him it started because the white boy selected Toby Keith's "The Taliban Song" on the cafeteria jukebox. The security camera captured the rest: That boy, a big kid sporting the rowdy, unkempt look of a college fraternity pledge, then returned to the table and stared at the Arab-American student. As the song played, the white boy placed his elbows on the table and smiled.

I'm just a middle-aged, Middle-Eastern camel-herdin' man
I got a little, two-bedroom cave here in North Afghanistan
Things used to be real nice and they got out of hand when they moved in. They call themselves the Taliban

Despite a gratuitous use of stereotypes, "The Taliban Song" is not meant to incite hatred. An ode to patriotism, it affirms the search for Osama bin Laden and the ouster of Afghanistan's Taliban regime. Keith assumes the persona of a fed-up Afghan man who wants to "flip a couple fingers to the Taliban."

But as Keith's CD spun in the jukebox, the Arab-American boy fumed. With hands dug into his pockets and his back hunched, he sulked over to the white boy. The security camera doesn't have audio, so Fortkamp only knows what the boys told him he said: a flurry of F-words.

The white boy stood up and pushed the Arab-American boy. Soon, they were on the floor, arms and legs flailing, slaves to their teen-age tempers.

If the fight were just an isolated incident between two hotheads, Fortkamp wouldn't be so concerned. But it followed several other confrontations between the same two groups of Arab Americans and whites during the 2003-2004 school year. What started as insults and verbal threats escalated to a fight off school grounds where an Arab-American student hit a white student in the head with an aluminum bat. The Arab-American student was booked on assault charges. The victim ended up in the emergency room.

Arab-American students say the tension between them and other students is nothing new. After 9/11, people of Arab descent faced hostility everywhere. Nationwide, Arab-American kids suffered beatings, girls had their head scarves pulled off and many youngsters were called terrorists.

In Westlake, homes of Arab Americans were vandalized, and students heard derogatory remarks both in school and in the community. But there's little evidence that 9/11 turned Westlake High into a hotbed of hate. In the past three years, the Westlake Police have collected only a handful of incident reports at the high school that name Arab-American students. In a few, they are suspects, not victims.

Billal Doleh, 15, the boy who swung the baseball bat at the fight last spring, says he was the target of racism last year, his first at the school. It started when some white boys confronted him in the hallway.

"They pushed me," says Billal, as he reclines on his living-room sofa, wearing jeans so baggy the seat hangs nearly halfway to his knees. "I fell on the floor. They called me a sand nigger out loud and then I got up and I pushed them back. I said, •If you're going to start like that we can take this somewhere else.' They said, •You sand niggers don't even belong in this school. Go back to where you came from.' "

From there, things worsened for Billal, a bear of a boy still too young for a beard, though scattered patches of hair on his face say he's trying desperately. He has a vulnerability about him, despite the street talk. ("I'll call you back, dawg," he says before snapping shut his ever-ringing cell phone.)

Billal claims the boys shoved him in the hallway, out of sight of the security cameras, and left a death threat on his cell phone. Once last summer, a boy pulled a knife on him. He says he ran away and hid in the bushes at St. Bernadette Church, where he called his mother to pick him up. Afterward, they went to the police, who didn't pursue the complaint because they had no evidence or witnesses, as has been the case for most of the racial incidents Billal alleges.

Without her hijab, Billal's mother, Ferial, whose accent retains the flavor of Brooklyn, her birthplace, looks very much the part of the Westlake housewife in mules and tasteful makeup. She says that her son, as well as two of his three older siblings, was branded as a troublemaker in the school, which may have made both administrators and the police less inclined to believe Billal when he reported the abuse. But her daughter, Amal, a senior this year and a good student, witnessed some of the incidents, too. What's more, Amal claims some students have directed racial insults at her.

"You could be in the smallest argument and someone will say, •Shut up, sand nigger,' " says Amal. "It doesn't even hurt anymore."

Amal, whose toughness transcends her dainty anklet and capri jeans, says knowing this is her last year before heading to Baldwin-Wallace College makes it bearable. Billal, on the other hand, has suffered a personality change, Ferial says. His grades have plummeted and he's quick to anger.

"Right now, I'm on the edge," he admits. "Every time, if I start remembering last year, I get really mad."

The only way to stabilize his life, both he and his mother feel, is to remove him from the environment. That's why she is sending him to live with family in Palestine. Ferial says it's a difficult decision for her.

"I'm taking him from a place where I'm afraid he might get shot or stabbed to a place where I'm afraid he might get blown up," she says, resisting tears.

Compared to some other local communities, racial tension between Arabs and non-Arabs has taken a subtler form in Westlake. It's not Parma, where a freshman boy was beaten so badly last year to the chant of "Dirty Arab, go home!" that he was hospitalized. It's not Lakewood, where the Camel Bloods, an Arab-American gang, wreaked havoc several years ago.

By contrast, Westlake is blissfully uneventful, home to pro-football players, Crocker Park and a median home-sale price of $231,000. It's a place where tolerance and affluence have coexisted beautifully, and Westlake High parents would like it to stay that way. That's why it bothers them that a white kid baited an Arab kid in the cafeteria and an Arab kid assaulted a white kid with a bat. They are desperate to know what's going on.

Is the War on Terror perpetuating the anti-Arab sentiment jump-started by 9/11? Are Arab-American students stoking racial tensions by isolating themselves or picking fights? Could both be happening simultaneously?

"They [kids on both sides] run their mouths," Fortkamp says of the repeat offenders. "They call each other names. It's childish stuff. -- I'm sure there are racial slurs going back and forth."

But when he's talked with the troublemakers, including in mediation sessions and one-on-ones, both sides — with the exception of Billal Doleh — deny that ethnicity, culture or religion had anything to do with it.

If ethnic intolerance or hatred is going on, the perpetrators are smart enough not to tell him about it. And the victims would look like tattlers, which is so junior high. If being "different" has caused the problem, reporting it would alienate them even more.

"Sometimes, kids don't want to tell," explains Arab-American parent Annie Salem. "They don't want to be singled out."

Principal George Scheckelhoff says he hasn't observed a great deal of tension between Arab-American students and others at the school. He suspects the violent incidents that have occurred have not been the result of a racial, cultural or religious clash. Kids are kids, and some kids get into fights for personal reasons.

"If it's happening, it's not happening overtly that we can see," he says. "Our kids did very well throughout 9/11 and after."

Although Westlake is no budding Balkans, no 1960s Birmingham, something is still going on there. Even Scheckelhoff doesn't dispute that. Talk to average Arab-American students at the school and they will tell you about the undercurrent of ignorance that makes them feel as if non-Arabs — both staff and other students — regard them with suspicion. Like so many children of immigrants who have come before them, Arab-American students try to battle misconceptions and preserve their heritage while assimilating into the dominant culture. Only these days, the U.S. news is filled with people who look like them, killing in the name of Allah.

"[Non-Arabs] look at us like we're different, but we're not," says Mo Ali, a senior. "People are afraid of different. They think different is bad and that's not how it should be."

Not long after the cafeteria fight, 17-year-old Maher Assad doesn't want to talk about it. After catching up with him in the hallway at school, he's eager to avoid a conversation. He had nothing to do with it. That's all he wants to say.

His reluctance to dish is surprising. A few weeks earlier, in his father's Middle Eastern bakery on Lorain Avenue, Maher — whose friends call him Chuck — spoke for more than two hours about what it's like to be young and Arab-American. He talked about the harassment he suffered after 9/11, when he was a freshman and one of the seniors took a strong interest in tormenting him.

"He said, •Go back to your country, camel jockey,' " Maher recalls. Other students treated him differently, though not harshly. They asked him questions about Arabic culture. They wanted to know why some Arabs covered their heads with "towels," why some women covered their entire bodies.

Maher didn't let the questions rattle him. He reported his troubles to the main office and patiently answered the questions of his classmates.

After being so open at the bakery, he was closing up in the halls of Westlake High.

It is not an easy thing to speak out against the dominant culture, especially in high school. From "The Breakfast Club" of the 1980s to last spring's "Mean Girls," our popular culture exploits storylines of pretty girls tormenting late bloomers, jocks making fun of band members and rich kids heckling those who have to work for their lunch money — all highly believable to anyone who has pursued a diploma.

In high school, personas are being tried on and discarded faster than acne medications. During this confusing time, teen-agers find comfort in others like themselves. So it should be no surprise that, at Westlake High, Arab Americans stick with other Arab Americans. In a way, they have a greater reason to self-segregate than other groups: The United States is currently at war with terrorists, some of whom come from their parents' beleaguered homelands and share their religion and culture.

Being American teen-agers, yet Arab and Muslim, too, they are forbidden to go to parties, drink alcohol and date — all hallmarks of the American high-school experience. Scheckelhoff has observed that few participate in athletics and clubs, a noticeable thing when 94 percent of students are involved in school activities. Arab-American teens further distance themselves from their non-Arab counterparts by fasting during Ramadan and staying close to their families. Often, their view of world events differs from that of their counterparts, especially if they get their news from international media beamed into their living room on satellite TV, as 17-year-old Hasan Hasan does, instead of from local network affiliates.

If someone were voted Most Likely to Be Ambassador for the Arab-American Community, it would be Hasan. A smiling, long-limbed senior with deep-set eyes and a Lance Armstrong bracelet, Hasan has friends of all races and backgrounds here, and he participates in many school activities. Yet, having strict Muslim parents has kept him from doing some things other kids take for granted.

For example, he's allowed to play football and basketball, but he can't go to the parties after the games. He can't date. When he was younger, he wanted to pierce his ear, but he wasn't allowed to do that either.

"Just hanging out with other kids makes me realize we don't have it as easy as others," he says.

Since 9/11, some non-Muslim kids have made jokes at his expense. "Look out, there's a terrorist," they've said. (He's told them it's not funny.) During the Ramadan fast, they've stuffed burgers in their mouths in front of him.

"They know we have to fast, but they don't know why," he says. "Most young Arabs don't know why either."

A trip to Palestine in 1995 awakened Hasan to the struggles of those who share his heritage. When he saw tanks rolling down the street near where he was playing soccer, the traditions and teachings of Islam became dearer to him.

"I'm more American than Arab," he says, "but I can't forget my roots."

The images from Sept. 11, 2001, changed the way many Americans see Arab-American teen-agers and the way they see themselves. About 200 young adults explained those changes at an Arab-American youth conference in February. Maher Assad was among them, the only high-school student to address all the participants.

"After 9/11, we were treated as noncitizens," he said. "We were treated as terrorists. That made our hearts drop."

At the function, which took place at the headquarters of AACCESS-OHIO, the Arab-American Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Ohio, boys sat with boys at round tables, girls with girls, and girls in headscarves with other girls in headscarves. It was a social scene, and the participants' attention was fixed as much on late arrivals as on the procession of speakers, including Mayor Jane Campbell.

Each speaker had individual reasons for addressing the sons and daughters of the politically active Arab-American community, but the theme was the same: Things are tough for Arab-American youth, and you have to be proud of who you are.

The message is striking because in many conversations with Arab-American teen-agers, pride doesn't appear to be something they lack. Most say they like being Arab-American and Muslim. Maybe it's their closeness to their families. Maybe it's the Arabic schooling many had on weekends when they were younger. Whatever the reason, increased hostility resulting from 9/11 has not made them less proud of their heritage. The Arab American Institute found the same to be true of Arab Americans generally when a 2002 survey revealed that 89 percent of respondents were extremely or very proud of their ethnicity, just under the 90 percent who were in 2000.

This point is underscored by 16-year-old Hamda Salem, a thoughtful, ultrafeminine girl who wears her hair long, bangs tucked behind her ear. "When I grow up, I want my family to be into being Arab-American," she says, "even more so than my mom."

There are obstacles to that goal for Hamda, however. Despite her obvious pride, the stereotypes of Muslim women bother her. Even though she doesn't wear a hijab to cover her hair, she's aware of what the traditional head covering signifies to others: that you're stupid, that you're oppressed.

But Hamda sees women who wear the hijab as independent and devout. She aspires to wear it herself someday.

"I have to be a better person in my religion," she says. "I still worry about what other people think."

That was even more the case when she was younger. Until she went to high school, Hamda felt her difference was a burden. It made her shy. "Then, in high school, you see others like you," she says. That's when she realized she was different but not alone — and that her differences made her special.

At the conference, however, when the participants broke into small discussion groups, it became clear that their differences also have made them marginalized.

"We're perceived as terrorists in our school," stated a junior from Westlake. "No one likes us. Everyone makes fun of us."

Samira Salem, also a Westlake junior and Hamda's cousin, then brought up an article in the school newspaper quoting Officer Fortkamp (incorrectly, according to him) saying that there are fights every day between Arab Americans and others at the school.

"If an Arab is pushed, a fight breaks out," she said.

"If they mess with us, they mess with everyone," agreed her sister, Emam, a sophomore, touching on a common complaint about the Arab-American students at Westlake: that they're so tight with one another they appear to be a gang. (Even at the conference, they sit close together at the table, the girls behind a pile of purses. They are tight-knit, even cliquish, but far too giggly to be described as "ganglike.")

The other six young people at the table, including students from Brecksville, Canton and Akron, said they felt isolated at their schools, too. A half-Palestinian girl was one of only two who had chosen to wear the hijab, in keeping with the Muslim tenet of modesty. The rest of her outfit was pure street: tight pants and a trendy, white fur-lined coat.

"I'll tell people I'm from Palestine," she said. "I'm proud of myself and I defend myself whenever someone attacks my religion."

She said she has a teacher who "hates Arabs" and always seems to be picking on her. She doesn't think she's changed the teacher's attitude by confronting her, she added, but at least the teacher no longer singles her out.

She hadn't figured out how to address the problems she has with other students, though. Wearing the hijab attracts all kinds of comments. "The kids at school call it a •hoodie,' " she said, irritated. "I said it's not a hoodie. It's a scarf."

The Westlake students mentioned problems with teachers, too, one in particular who refers to Middle Easterners derogatorily as "these people."

When the group disbanded, Samira, a soft-spoken girl wearing jeans, bracelets and long, dark uncovered locks, explained that Arab-American students and their parents have started taking action.

Her mother, for instance, had confronted a teacher for failing to distinguish between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in a lesson. She and her sister had joined VOICE, a student group that supports diversity at the school. Among other things, it hosted a multicultural food day, where dishes were brought in that reflected the school's ethnic makeup.

She said the problem with VOICE is that "it's mostly made up of Arabic girls."

Many Arab-American students at Westlake High know one another. They are brothers and sisters and cousins and friends of cousins. Whatever small degree of separation exists in this 32,000-person suburb generally can be halved or quartered in Westlake's Arab-American community. Like many of their non-Arab neighbors, their parents moved here for the schools, the safe streets, the quality of life.

Only about 7 percent of the school's 1,300 students are Arab-American, but there is a cohesiveness to the group that makes some people uncomfortable. Between classes, they hang out near a display case on the first floor, backpacks slung on arms, squeezing in as much social time as they can in the four minutes between bells.

During lunch, Arab-American students sit together. Last year, they were behaving so badly — pounding on desks and raising their voices — that a teacher told one of the more involved Arab-American parents, Annie Salem, Hamda's mother.

Two of Salem's four children attend the high school, and the students' behavior worried her on several fronts. For years, she had been concerned about the self-segregation of Arab-American youth. Salem, who looks like a Westlake High Everymom and works as a substitute teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools, noticed that the older her children became the fewer non-Arab-American friends they seemed to have. She also didn't want the irritating behavior of a few to give way to generalizations about Arab Americans as a whole.

It doesn't take much for the rumor mill to start churning. And Westlake High was already full of stories, she says, of fights breaking out in the halls between Arab and white boys, of Arab-American girls "belly dancing" to lure white boys, of every kind of stereotype.

"When I get a group of Arab-American kids over for dinner, I tell them they can't act stupid in public," says Salem. "It's taken as if it's [the fault of] their culture."

When Salem heard about the scenes some of the Arab-American kids were making, she called the school. An assistant principal suggested she alert the Westlake Parent Connection, a parent-led community group that confronts issues facing Westlake's children and teens.

When she first met with the group in November 2003, Salem got the impression that some WPC members were aware of the negative perception of Arab-American students. In April, nine other Arab-American parents, including Ferial Doleh, joined Salem to discuss the problems their children were having. They told WPC members that staffers and students have made insensitive remarks. Teachers, who may not have a full understanding of the conflict in the Middle East, portray what's happening there in a biased light. And discipline, in some instances, has been harsher on Arab-American students than on others.

The parents also explained away some common misperceptions about their children. For one, Kathy McGinty, Westlake High's prevention coordinator, had been frustrated by Arab-American students' reluctance to join in school activities, especially Leadership Challenge, a student group she advises. She learned at the meeting that Arab parents, for the most part, do not let their children attend co-ed overnight events, such as the Leadership retreat that kicks off the year. (Hasan Hasan was the only Arab American who went during the 2003-2004 school year.) What's more, when the students get to be high-school age, boys are expected to work and girls are expected to get more serious about school.

"If Annie [Salem] didn't tell me that, I wouldn't have known," says WPC president Dani Marinucci. As for the hostility some students have encountered, she doubts cultural strife is to blame. But there are signs that sort of problem could be brewing, and the group felt some action was needed to keep things from getting worse.

"Although you may think it's not happening, as long as the perception is there, it's a problem," Marinucci says.

So the group consulted the National Conference for Community and Justice, an organization dedicated to resolving conflicts related to cultural, religious and other forms of discrimination. WPC then adopted expanding cultural-diversity programs as one of its goals for the 2004-2005 school year. In August, members met with the superintendent and administrators from nearly every public school in Westlake to find out what they're doing to promote diversity and to ask them to ramp it up.

And, in early September, over scrambled eggs and cafeteria-sized containers of juice, Scheckelhoff invited students and concerned staffers to discuss the diversity issue. Scheckelhoff, who has a high-school administrator's signature mix of energy and gray hair, told the seven students and six adults in attendance that they should say whatever they want on that topic, "no holds barred." The ultimate goal, he added, should be increasing understanding and improving the comfort level in the school.

"Our biggest problem with diversity is we're not diverse," he said. "We're 98 to 99 percent middle-class white."

The Arab-American students were far more reserved than they'd been in one-on-one interviews, saying little compared to the white students in attendance, who complained about the segregated lunchroom and cliquish behaviors. Samira, Emam and Hamda sat in a row, often looking as if they were on the brink of speaking.

Finally, when prompted, Hamda said that white students tend to think the bad behavior of any one Arab-American student reflects on them all. Her words were punctuated with pauses and "I don't knows," but she conveyed that being Arab-American dooms her to a certain amount of stereotyping.

That public admission is more than many teen-agers manage. Mahmoud Awadallah, executive director of AACCESS-OHIO, which sometimes fields complaints from students and their families, suspects that many racial incidents in high schools are going unreported.

"The main thing is that if [students] bring it out, they will get focused on even more," he says. "There's the fear that they will bring on more attention and that no one's going to care."

But Hamda, Amal Doleh and some other Westlake students seem to know, as the black poet Audre Lorde did, that silence will not protect you. So they have voiced their feelings, and now they wait. Not for sweeping changes, but for those of the quiet, incremental variety that will move old-school attitudes toward 21st-century sensitivity. Changes that would result in cross-cultural friendships and more balanced discussions of Middle Eastern politics.

There are signs that school administrators are getting it. Scheckelhoff asked the students at the September roundtable to recommend others who would be willing to work on improving the school's atmosphere. Together, they would arrange for a diversity day at the school, where the whole student body would be exposed to other cultures in the form of speakers, arts and food.

Other positive developments include the "Arab-American girl group," VOICE, being absorbed into Leadership Challenge, which plans to tackle the diversity issue with a much more diverse membership. Also, many of the white and Arab-American troublemakers from last year have graduated.

Shortly after the cafeteria scuffle last spring, the school removed "The Taliban Song" from the jukebox. It's only a matter of time, parents, staffers and students hope, until the stereotypes — that all Arabs are terrorists or cave-dwelling camel herders — likewise disappear. Although Arab-American students have a different culture and religion than others at the school, they're American teen-agers, too.

"[White] American students don't realize that though Arab Americans are Arab, they were born here," says parent Freddie Ahmad. "They've never seen a camel in their lives."

Share this story: