By Shazia Yousuf
Are you a Muslim?” a classmate asked Halla Abdelrahman.
Halla had recently begun her 7th grade at John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Roxbury. The class had met for the first time after the 9/11 attacks. Halla had very few friends and she feared losing them too.
“No I am not a Muslim.”
Her classmate heaved a sigh of relief and began warning her how crazy Muslims were. Halla kept nodding to avoid any suspicion.
Halla had a lonely childhood in Boston. She was born in Egypt but came to Boston with her parents when her father finished medical school in Egypt and came to Boston to study public health. Halla hated being Muslim. She blamed her religion for being friendless and lonely.
Halla saw no connection with Islam; she was ashamed of it. She never paid attention to the Quranic lessons that her mother gave her in their Roxbury home. Whatever little she knew about her religion, it scared her.
“I was already self-conscious about my religion and then 9/11 made things worse concerning my self-identity,” said Halla, now a graduate from Suffolk University.
“After 9/11 I got conscious about people finding out about my background. It was to the point of self-hatred I think. I honestly hated Islam and Muslims.”
What followed took her further away from her religion and who she was.
On a Halloween night, someone she thought was her best friend refused to walk next to her because her gypsy costume made her “look” Muslim.
She wore a bandana, which her friend thought looked like a Muslim headscarf.
In her high school, a schoolmate harassed her in bus everyday by calling her racist names. One day when he tried to fight, her parents reported him to school authorities. He was suspended.
In 9th grade, when Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein was captured, another boy teased her: we captured your uncle.
When the Iraq war began in 2003, things became almost unmanageable. Name-calling and racist slurs became everyday affair.
“People kept shouting I should go back to my country Iraq, even though I was from North Africa,” she said.
According to the data kept by Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an education and advocacy group in Washington D.C, the incidents of hatred, discrimination and abuses had skyrocketed in the first six months after 9/11 but had fallen in 2002. However, after the Iraq war began in 2003, the number climbed again.
Halla became angrier day by day. And, she was not alone.
A 2009 Gallup survey found out that 26 percent of Muslim youth in the United States reported feeling angry compared to only 14 percent of Protestant and 18 percent youth in general. The 10-question survey s on mental health revealed that Muslim youth were angrier and less happy than their parents.
As compared to the 61 percent of Protestants and 53 percent of the general U.S. population, only 40 percent of Muslim youth considered themselves to be “thriving.” While 70 percent of the youth in general population, only 59 percent of young Muslims responded with yes to the questions: do you feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area in which you like.
“I was scared myself. I was very confused. I didn’t understand what was going on.”
Halla tried hard to pacify the anger people where showering on her. Everything seemed too complicated to understand.
“I was confused when I learned that the perpetrators were Muslims and I didn’t understand what the attack had to do with Islam.”
Halla did not wear her traditional headscarf. She kept calling herself a non-Muslim and reassuring people who got suspicious of her hidden identity from her Arab name.
She kept her Identity “a secret for” many years until she entered into Suffolk University where she made many Muslims friends who made her feel “comfortable.”
When she entered in Suffolk and found herself among many Muslim students, she slowly began identifying herself as Muslim. She wore Hijab and began practicing her religion, mostly in her senior year at college.
The fear and anxiety has disturbed the mental health of American-Muslim youngsters who were raised in post 9/11 era. According to USA today, fifty percent of Arab-Americans surveyed in a Yale University study were found to have clinical symptoms of depression. The recent CAIR report says that Muslims Americans have the lowest level of confidence in the FBI among all religious groups.
Although Halla said she has learned to accept who she is, she still stays away from religious arguments.
“It’s pointless to argue with irrational people. I defend Islam to the fullest whenever possible, but only with people who seem to have intellect.”
There has been a steep increase in the number of Muslims seeking refuge in various counseling and meditation programs in local mosques. The local mosque imams have reported increase in the number of people seeking spiritual guidance for insecurity and fear, the CAIR report says.
“Most of these cases are catered by mosque Imams because seeking medical help for anxiety and depression has lot of stigma attached in Arab societies,” said Hayfaa Ali, Interim executive assistant to Mosque Imam, at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
Hayfaa said that the huge influx of people seeking spiritual counseling for insecurity and mental depression at the Mosque led authorities to set up a referral system for it.
“Beyond one point, it is hard for an Imam to do counseling. Many cases need medical intervention,” she said.
Six months ago, the mosque Imam, Suhaib Webb, came up with a program called ISBCC Health Initiative. A need assessment that he carried out showed that there were lots of unmet needs especially in the areas of mental health. A team of physicians from various fields, nurses, nutritionists, licensed counselors and community mentors was set up to help Muslim community cope up with mental health illnesses and depression.
“There was a great need of this initiative,” said Sara King, An internal medicine doctor and health coordinator of the program.
After the Boston marathon bombings, King coordinated a panel discussion at ISBCC. More than 75 young Muslim adults participated and spoke about their fear.
“Our goal is to minimize long term impact of such incidents on the mental health of Muslims,” Sara added.