Amid Gaza war, South Bay Palestinian, Muslim students reach out to each other – The Mercury News

Editor’s Note: This article was written for Mosaic Vision, an independent journalism training program for high school students who report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.

They want to show their pride in their Palestinian identity. They want to educate their peers about the Palestinian people and culture. And they want to reach out to their fellow Palestinians and Muslims in America.

As the war in Gaza intensifies and the death toll and suffering mount, Palestinian and Muslim high school students in the South Bay are expressing their fears and hopes through social media and school clubs. Amid sharp war-related divisions, students hope to create safe spaces and strengthen empathy and dialogue between campuses.

Even those who have not experienced hatred in recent months are worried. Jenna Ershied was distraught when her 11-year-old cousin in Mountain View was confronted after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. A classmate said accusingly, “Are you proud of what you did?” For Ershied, the confrontation recalled similar incidents about her Palestinian identity that left her, like her cousin, perplexed, hurt and afraid.

“I always worry about the people around me and whether they might take what I say out of context, rather than having a meaningful conversation with someone one-on-one,” Ersheid said .

Nationally, the American Council on Islamic Relations documented more than 2,000 reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian bias in the two months following October 7.

At Mountain View High School, young Iman Zia organized a vigil in December for Palestinian and Israeli victims. She invited speakers and recited a poem she had written. Zia was grateful to see students, parents and teachers from diverse backgrounds attend.

“I said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re Palestinian or Jewish, this is a human rights issue, so we need to hold hands and unite,’” Zia said. Some people cried. “I have the impression that many people took the message of the vigil with them. »

At other schools, however, some students faced opposition when they tried to plan crisis-related events. Hana Bahnas, a junior at Cupertino High School, planned a meeting for students to color paper Palestinian flags to educate students about Palestinian culture. A deputy principal ordered him to delete social media posts announcing the event, and some online commenters accused them of trying to teach lies. Only two teachers came to their defense.

The Middle East and North Africa Student Club canceled the event.

“It was really frustrating because we didn’t even say anything about Israel or Hamas,” said Bahnas, the club’s president.

Even students who have not experienced discrimination say they fear for their safety and worry about hate crimes and speech.

Yet others prioritize speaking out in hopes of inspiring their peers to do the same.

“You want to speak, you want to advocate, but you also live in fear of what’s going to happen,” said Noor Al Dimassi, a student at Westmont High School in Campbell. “I will continue to talk about it non-stop in the hope that at least one person will benefit from my publications and can publish on their platform to cause a domino effect.”

For students and employees experiencing discrimination in their workplaces and schools, CAIR offers Know Your Rights toolkits and sample letters to help them have conversations about the crisis. It also offers legal services. Senior civil rights attorney Jeffery Wang urges students to use their voices to ensure safe learning environments.

“It’s important that we also ensure that schools are held accountable, so that they create equitable learning environments where students feel safe and welcome,” Wang said.

Zahra Billoo, CAIR’s San Francisco Bay Area executive director, believes that by having conversations, students can develop empathy between different perspectives.

“It’s also important for high school students to know that they have a gift for accessing people who disagree with them – people who are curious to learn and people who can be convinced,” said Billoo. “High school students should speak out because many of them want to learn. »

Some students chose to present themselves as visibly Muslim by wearing the hijab. While Zia, of Mountain View High, was initially nervous about donning the headscarf in public after Oct. 7, she said she became more confident as she became more involved in advocacy.

At first, she was worried about acts of hatred targeting Muslims. In January, she stopped being afraid, Zia said. Today, she says other women tell her she inspired them to wear the hijab. “Wearing the hijab has opened new doors for people,” she said.

Bahnas also started wearing the hijab recently, inspired by the courage of Palestinian women who wore it during the crisis.

“There are probably only three people in my school who wear hijabs,” Bahnas said.

As an Egyptian student, Bahnas’ heart goes out to those affected by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. She feels responsible to express her concerns and defend the Palestinian cause.

“I can’t stand by and see everything that’s happening with my eyes closed,” Bahnas said. “It’s just about being a basic human being. It’s not about being Arab or Muslim. It’s not that I have an attachment to Gaza since I’m not Palestinian. But it could have been any of us.

Khadeejah Khan is a senior at Santa Clara High School. Joshua Cedro is a junior at Santa Clara High School.

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