Love letters fight Muslim stereotypes

Some 30 people gathered at the Islamic Center of Claremont on the evening of January 14, sitting on picnic tables—equipped with pencils, pens, crayons and markers—to write letters about why they’re proud to be citizens of the United States.

The event, part of the 99 LOVE LETTERS to America Campaign, was organized by 16-year-old Zaina Syed, a Diamond Bar High School junior who honed her considerable robotics chops at Claremont’s STEM Center USA.

She conceived of the campaign—which also features a social media component—in response to the climate US Muslims face, which Zaina says has worsened since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

“His rhetoric is very scary to every one of the Muslim religion,” she said. “The whole community in the United States is fearful, wondering if there will be some form of legislative discrimination.”

Zaina says she’s lucky she’s in a liberal state, but is troubled by news of Trump-enabled bullies at schools and of a spate of hate mail aimed at mosques, on of which hit very close to home.

On November 24, the Islamic Center of Claremont (ICC) was one of three southern California mosques that received a handwritten message signed “Americans for a Better Way. ”

Along with branding Muslim people as “vile and filthy,” the letter warned Trump was “going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the jews [sic].”

Zaina was mulling over the situation over winter break when she had an epiphany: “What’s the opposite of hate mail? A love letter.”

Determined to counter the misconception that Muslims are all terrorists and un-American, she launched the “99 LOVE LETTERS to America Campaign” Facebook page.

“It was almost a way to spread some holiday cheer, Muslim or non-Muslim,” she explained of the drive, aimed primarily at children and teens.

Zaina began gathering responses—often accompanied by crayon-bright illustrations—scanning them and posting them on the page, which now showcases 70 letters.

For the in-person portion of her campaign, Zaina received the support of Ahmed Soboh, religious director of the Chino Valley Islamic Center where the Syed family worships.

“He was the first person I went to. I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ and he said, ‘I love it. Tell me how to help,’” she said.

Mr. Soboh helped her network with members of the Claremont Islamic Center, where it was decided she would host an interfaith youth dinner, featuring time to craft a patriotic letter and a dinner of Mediterranean food.

One of the youths in attendance, Zara Ahmed, 16, said she wrote about the way she appreciates the rights afforded to women in the United States. She shared a story about a trip she took to Saudi Arabia a couple years ago. A man admonished her for taking a photograph, indicating it was an unseemly pursuit for a woman.

“I love photography. It’s one of my favorite things,” she said. “It made me feel upset. Thank God there are so many more opportunities here.”

Also in attendance was Zaina’s friend Julian Galarza, a junior at Diamond Bar High School. Even though he’s Catholic, he was eager to join in the letter-writing campaign. “I thought it was cool. It’s a very positive message right now,” he said. “I’m proud of her.”

Zaina’s message is one to celebrate, according to Mr. Soboh, who spoke at the event, starting off his remarks with a hearty asalamalakum (“peace be with you”).

“This is the message of our religion. This is exactly what our prophet Muhammad did. We always face hate with love. We always face evil with good,” he said. “As proud Muslims, our burden is to show that ours is a religion of peace and love. We’re not faking it. We’re not making it up. It’s the reality.”

Tahil Sharma, a 2010 Claremont High School graduate who’s active in organizations like the North American Interfaith Network and the Parliament of World Religions, also took a moment to speak.

Mr. Sharma, whose religion of Sikhism is often confused with Islam, didn’t just feel compelled to attend. He brought with him 200 pieces of mail to contribute to the campaign. He began collecting the letters—voicing support for the members of CIC and of the Islamic community in general—independently of Zaina’s campaign, in response to the hate mail.

“There is so much injustice in the world, but that does not define our identity,” he told the crowd. Mr. Sharma emphasized the level of support behind everyone in attendance, noting that the letters he was contributing to the 99 LOVE LETTERS effort came from around the world, from Morocco to South Korea and from Japan to Canada.

Zaina’s father, Rehan Syed, immigrated to the US from India but his daughter was born here.

He calls his daughter—who is captain of the varsity tennis team at her school and wears the hijab head-covering only while in a mosque—“an all-American kid.”

“My daughter doesn’t speak the language. She can’t relate to the country,” he said of Muslims in his homeland. “She loves those people. She’ll eat their food nonstop. If you dropped her in a room with 100 Arab teens or 100 Indian teens, though, she’d have trouble getting along. But if you put her in a room with 100 American teens, she rocks it with them.”

He believes Muslim-Americans of Zaina’s generation are ready to use their remarkable “fluidity across cultures” to be leaders and to speak up against stereotypes.


Programming excellence

It’s not the first time Zaina has stepped into a leadership role. At the beginning of November, she led a delegation of eight girls, all Muslim, as they competed at the Lego League Regional Qualifying Tournament.

The girls of the FemSTEM team, most wearing purple and pink hijabs, competed against 11 teams from throughout southern California. They had never studied robotics before Zaina’s mentorship. At the end of the event, however, FemSTEM won the biggest award, for Best Overall Performance, a feat that garnered Zaina a feature article in the Los Angeles Times.

Zaina began studying robotics at STEM Center USA in Claremont when she was 9 or 10 and has delved further into the pursuit ever since.

During the four months leading up to the competition, Zaina taught the basics of robotics to 10 girls at the Institute of Knowledge, a private Islamic K-8 school in Diamond Bar. She also helped them build a small robot to use in the competition.

Zaina’s mom Shazia has a background in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) herself. She says it’s important to make sure all girls, not just Muslim ones, gain mastery in a field that’s integral to the jobs of the future.

The teenage years are a time of great idealism, she noted. She was impressed by her daughter’s dedication to bringing her dream to fruition.

“She has no free time, but she was teaching young ladies for three hour classes, up to two times a week,” Ms. Syed said. “So when she had the idea for 99 Love Letters, I didn’t say, ‘What are you getting into?’ or ‘How are you going to go about organizing this?’ She had shown me her commitment.”

Mr. Syed is soft-spoken, but his pride in his daughter is evident. Some people have a conception that all Muslim girls are discouraged from pursuing an education, but that is certainly not the case in their household.

“It’s her choice who she wants to become,” he said. “As long as she is valuable to the society and the country she lives in—as long as she fully utilizes all her productive capacities—it’s all good.”

—Sarah Torribio


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