Black and Muslim in the Snoqualmie Valley: Striving to belong in a historically white small town (part two)

School-age kids can be cruel. Some seem to have a knack for finding that thing that makes you different, exposing it and using it to shame or bully you. My cross to bear was my giant-sized height at a very young age and my last name, Grant, which conveniently became Grunt to those out to hurt me. Fortunately, my size became less of an issue, and my name wasn’t that funny to people beyond seven years old.

But imagine being 13 years old, growing up in a diverse neighborhood with black, white, indigenous and people of color, and one day you move to a new community. In this new place, instead of acceptance, you are called, Terrorist, N***er and Ugly, and told, “you don’t belong here!”

If you are high school senior Ahlam Khaleefa, a hijab-wearing black Muslim young woman and the founder of the Black Student Union at Mt. Si High School, you can imagine that scenario because you’ve lived it, right here in the Snoqualmie Valley.

During her childhood in Seattle, Ahlam can’t recall a situation in which she faced verbal or physical racism. She remembers being around a mix of people from different backgrounds. However, rather than discriminate, neighbors had grown to love and admire one another’s cultures way beyond language and food. They attended various cultural events and respected one another’s cultural identities; the area had different people from different racial backgrounds. Says Khaleefa, “In Snoqualmie, I’ve come to realize that we are secluded from what the world has to offer in terms of race and ethnicity.”

She learned that early on, when she, her mom and brother went to a Middle School in the SVSD before she officially started classes. It was lunchtime, so many of the students were assembled in one place, and among all those students, there were no students of color. “I just stood there like, Woah,” said Ahlam knowing this would be a problem for her.

“In middle school, there were little slots in the lockers where you could slide in notes. Every day, I’d open my locker, and there’d be notes calling me a terrorist, the n-word, ugly and stating that I don’t belong here. I’ll never forget those same words for the rest of my life and how it made me feel, mainly because it was repetitive. Until just now, I had never told any teachers or staff members about this. The reason being I strongly believed it wouldn’t make a difference.”

Ahlam has reported several racial incidences over her time in the district but says she’s never seen any discipline follow through. She believes that lack of follow-through caused and continues to cause racism to occur at a higher rate because students know that the administration won’t do much about it.

Like Aileen Cha from part one of this series, she started the Black Student Union (along with students Sena Birka and Nyegai Wadar)in response to the Black Lives Matters movement in July. They felt it was imperative to form a Black Student Union as they thought they weren’t doing enough to dismantle racism and discrimination within their community. These students wanted to provide a platform where BIPOC voices are heard and taken seriously.

“It shouldn’t be my responsibility to create a safe space for students who are like me. However, since this issue directly affects me and the small number of other Black students at MSHS. And not anyone else, it was time to speak up and not wait for anyone else. I realized for some people throughout SVSD this wasn’t a priority, so I’m dedicated to making it mine.”

The main goal of the Black Student Union is to provide students with an opportunity to engage in activities and discussions designed to help foster a better understanding of experiences and issues that impact African-American students. Due to Covid, all meetings happen on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month via zoom. Their first meeting was in September. They presented information about their purpose, what the future will look like depending on whether or not school is in session, and introduced the club’s founders and leadership team. 

I asked Ahlam if she thought she had a more difficult time than other Black students at MSHS. I wondered if her name and headscarf were intensifying the issues other black students faced. She said they had a unique discussion about being black at Mount Si.  

“Because we were able to provide different perspectives from me (a Black Muslim Woman), Sena (a light skin Black woman), and Nyegai (a dark skin Black woman). All of our experiences were crucial, but Sena and Nyegai don’t know how it feels to be both Black and Muslim, just as I don’t know what it’s like to be darker-skinned. We are all of the same race, but our skin color and religion still differentiated us. In my experience, I don’t believe my name was an issue, but I do believe that people saw my Hijab before they saw my skin color. I am labeled a terrorist before the n-word. So yes, to answer your question, people did react to my Hijab. People then assumed that I was Arab and not Black until I corrected them, and shortly after, people reacted to my race.”

So, what can the Snoqualmie Valley School District community and the Valley community do to help change the experience of students like Ahlam?

Currently, Superintendent Manahan is holding a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Stakeholder Group to ask, “What are the most important actions we need to take to ensure our school system effectively addresses and dismantles racism and existing systemic biases, and supports a learning environment that is inclusive and equitable for all?”

[If you would like to join this DEI Stakeholder group, you can email svsdinfo@svsd410.org with “DEI Interest” (in the subject line) and include your contact information so they can follow up.]

The Black Student Union would like the District to reach out to BIPOC students within the Snoqualmie Valley School District in all grade levels, hear them out, and take their wants and needs seriously. They want the District to prioritize and uphold their mission statement of being a genuinely anti-bias, anti-racist school district. Students can find more information about the club on the MSHS App, School and District Website, and Instagram @mshsblackstudentunion.

Those of us in the Valley can help by doing our part by educating ourselves and leaving our homes every day to push towards an anti-racist community. If any community members have ideas on ways to help, they can reach the club at mshsbsu@gmail.com.

Shortly after part one came out, I got an email from MSHS Principal John Belcher, wanting to make sure I spoke to Ahlam and the other students running the BSU, saying they are “impressive students.” After talking to Ahlam, I have to agree. She and Aileen Cha are both impressive young women who deserve strong support in the community.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. I’m glad to see that the Snoqualmie Valley is opening up to become an affirming and welcoming community.

  2. Hijabs should be banned in Schools and in Public places….it is a symbol of women oppression. No democratic, free society should allow hijabs. Its time free countries should fight against these barbaric practices of putting women in hijabs. Hijab is a symbol of men subjugating women though barbaric religious practices.

    • My recommendations for you are: (1) Change your TV channel, (2) Use your passport to travel outside the border of WA or the US, (3) get off Facebook 😉
      Have a lovely day!

      • Hijab is a instrument of oppression by Islamic mail over weak Muslim females…I can understand you support women oppression, that’s your choice not mine. Good Luck

    • I am a hijibi – I live in Snoqualmie – I don’t appreciate you telling me what I can and can not wear. A “symbol of women oppression”? You saying I can or can’t wear something is women oppression, “barbaric religious practices” – you think you are some “liberator” and calling my beliefs barbaric… so anything that you don’t agree with is barbaric… I really don’t care what you believe or think, however before you educate yourself on my religion and my beliefs by watching or reading it on your chosen sources TV or social media) I would recommend you educate yourself by having a conversation with a person that is wearing a hijab – if you care to find out of they are or are not oppressed… also if you are so concerned with women being oppressed, maybe go donate to domestic violence victims https://www.womenshelters.org/cit/wa-seattle I am sure they can use your help 🙂

    • Hello Alex! Please make sure you are not jumping to your own conclusions or looking into biased research about the Hijab and what it symbolizes. If a woman is forced into wearing a headscarf, it will solely be based on who is enforcing it or the culture the individual’s family/friends may follow. That ideology and belief is not held by Muslims or said in the Qur’an (the holy book Muslims follow). In the Islamic religion, woman cannot be forced into wearing the hijab. It is ultimately the woman’s decision and no one else can have a say in her decision, not even her parents. No husband has that right in Islam. In the Qur’an, it states that woman should wear it for her benefit. It does not tell husbands to have their wives put it on. The hijab is not simply about religion, women wear it for a variety of reasons that can change, depending on the time and social context. Most of the time, Muslim woman wear a hijab to maintain modesty and privacy from unrelated males. Nevertheless, a country can’t be free if it is actively oppressing an individuals choice to wear a Hijab. Just as our first amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” You don’t have to like the hijab, but it should be respected! Have a great rest of your day. 🙂

      • I personally think Quran was written by some mad man. Quran also teaches killing and violence against non believers. Quran treats women as second class citizens and even worse than animals. Most Muslim women are groomed into wearing hizab as kids, they then are oppressed and made to believe they are infirior to men, this oppression must end and therefore should be banned.

    • Hi Alex,

      I don’t know if this has happened to you. I’m a white christian woman. When I hit puberty, people started giving me opinions about what I could and couldn’t wear.

      I was told I shouldn’t wear miniskirts, tank tops, or high heels. I wore them anyway because I get to choose for myself. The government has no place in telling me how to dress, and it has no place telling Ms. Khaleefa how to dress.

      I love Ms. Khaleefa’s choice of colors. Simply lovely.

      • I am sure your family didn’t forced you to wear tank tops, miniskirts, that was your choice and right. But in Islamic world and homes, young girls are forced and groomed into wearing Hizab and they grew up thinking it is all normal. This is wrong, I have seen innocent muslim girls brutally assaulted and battered by their families for trying western clothes and/or for thinking to live a free life. You are lucky that you are free but these innocent young girls are forced to wear hizab and when they grow up, they develop inferiority complex, low self confidence and they are under impression that they are infirior to men. I am sure you dont wish this for your fellow females? I am against forced grooming of wearing hizab not aginst right to wear or not wear anything 🙂

    • So you’re promoting bullying based on ones religion( including what one wears ), race, and other things that you don’t agree with ? That is exactly what your statement says!

    • Alex-
      I would recommend seeking education on this topic.

      Best,

  3. Lori P Cleary says

    Thanks to the journalists at Living Snoqualmie for this series covering the struggles that people of color have in the Snoqualmie Valley. I hope Manahan’s DEI initiative actually finds some momentum.

  4. Joe Baginski says

    Thanks again, Ahlam! Proud of you and happy to see you and Aileen and others leading! Lord knows comments on this and other stories show we need you to do just that! -Bags

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