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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.