At the young age of 16, during my youth exchange and study abroad year in the United States, I realized the value of seeking integrity before taking impulsive actions.
Right before my trip, I decided to confront my parents about my decision to remove the hijab that I wore for about 5 years at the time, beginning in 5th grade. As surprised as they were, they appreciated my courage for even considering breaking such a taboo. My father requested that I remove my hijab gradually, layer-by-layer, once I arrived abroad.
One week after my arrival in Portland, Oregon, my host family took me on a vacation. I seized the opportunity and replaced the hijab with a bandana, leaving the back of my head exposed. Meaning no harm, my host father snapped photos of me with the family, which he uploaded to Facebook without my knowledge, tagging me in each photo. Naturally, a blast of messages started pouring in.
It seemed as everyone had something to say. Some were so shocked that they only asked to confirm if what they had seen was in fact true, that I had exposed part of my hair in public. Contrary to everyone’s fears, the unexpected momentum induced by the photos gave me a sense of relief. Nonetheless, I was grateful for my father’s insistent advice on my initial appearance without the hijab taking place far from home, the distance shielded me from directly facing the criticism of my community.
This rambunctious beginning of my year-long trip gave me sufficient confidence that helped me grapple with some of the challenging intercultural situations I would face – like the one on thanksgiving night with my host family.
My host mother hadn’t spoken to John, her brother, for 11 months and the other members of the family had given up on any type of reconciliation between the two, after many failing attempts. On Thanksgiving night, as the family gathered at an aunt’s house in California, I asked her if it were okay to try and talk to him, hoping I could improve the situation.
Despite engaging in a few spats, my host mom never hesitated to show me that she trusts me to the fullest. She told me about the issue from the beginning of my arrival, and that is where my appreciation, and later on, enthusiastic willingness to help her came from.
Although reluctant and anxious, she agreed as she didn’t believe he would listen. She also warned me that John hated Arabs, more specifically he hated Muslims (and almost every other race, except for Hispanics, which still to this day fascinates me as to why them specifically?), and that he might insult me.
Without ever meeting me, he had already stated that he didn’t feel safe knowing a Muslim was living in their house. Despite his views towards Arabs and Muslims, I succeeded in having a productive conversation with him, after which he immediately approached his sister and made peace with her.
He first began telling me how I was an exception and I was showing only a “soft” side of Islam, but immediately I asked why he didn’t consider extremists an exception, and that was the outset of our dialogue. My only strategy was not to state facts about Muslims nor disdain or mock any of his statements, but rather to use intellectually engaging questions he contemplated, such as: “how are you superior when you could have been born anywhere?”, “why trust certain news resources and disbelieve in others?…”
It has been close to three years since, and my host mother and her brother are still at peace and talk to one another. Beyond that, I like to believe that perhaps I broke a stereotype. I was the first Muslim John met in person and engaged him into a real conversation. We are Facebook friends, and he still shares anti-muslim statements and claims that “nothing good comes from a Muslim”, but, ironically, he is the reason why I still believe in coexistence; he shook my hand when we first met, hugged me when the holiday ended to say goodbye, and defended me once on Facebook when a friend playfully commented “Evil” on my profile picture by saying “I know that she is everything but evil”.**John is not the real name of her brother.